Robert Browning (1812 – 1889) was an English poet and playwright. Browning began his career as a playwright but soon realised that his expertise lay in writing long, dramatic poems.
He developed the form of poetry known as the dramatic monologue for a Victorian audience and became one of the most loved Victorian poets.
Robert Browning married the older poet Elizabeth Barrett in 1846. They had met in 1845 and conducted their courtship in secret, knowing that Barrett’s father would disapprove. During this period, Barrett wrote the famous Sonnets from the Portuguese, a series of love poems to Browning.
When they married in 1846, Elizabeth Barrett’s father disinherited her. He had done this to all of his children who chose to marry. The couple moved to Italy and lived there until Barrett died in 1861. They had one son.
The Duchess named in the poem was probably Lucrezia di Cosimo de’ Medici. At 14 she married Alfonso II d’Este, who was the fifth Duke of Ferrara, which probably makes him the Ferrara of the poem.
They married in 1558 but by 1561 she had died. There were strong suspicions that the Duke had poisoned her.
‘My Last Duchess’ is a poem written in the first person. It is a dramatic monologue in which one character tells a lengthy story. The narrator speaks to an envoy of a Count who is there to contract a new marriage for the Duke.
The Duke (Ferrara) shows the envoy a painting of his last wife and the rest of the poem is a subtle warning about what happens to those women who disappoint him.
The Narrator – The Duke
The Duke thinks he is very smart – yet he probably doesn’t realise how much of his own personality he gives away in the telling of his story.
The poem is a dramatic monologue whose narrator shows extreme control of the conversation (the entire thing is in iambic pentameter). The rhyming couplets also express this essential control over his subjects and his story but the use of enjambment by Browning hints at deeper passions and hidden anger. He calmly explains to the envoy for his next bride that he had his previous wife killed – the calmness of his nature mirrored in the regular rhythm of the poem.
The confession of murder in the middle of the poem is framed by the Count discussing his painting collection. We are not at first aware of who he is speaking to. It is only at the end, after learning of the fate of the Duke’s first wife, that we find out he is telling the story to the envoy sent to create a new marriage contract for the Duke.
This colours all the previous information we have been given. Was the story a confession, as we might have assumed previously, or a warning about the type of behaviour expected of the Duke’s new wife? The poem ends with the Duke calmly moving on and discussing the rest of his art collection as if nothing untoward has been said.
Ideas and Language
The poem deals with feelings of pride and ownership, which fit well into the power and conflict collection. The Duke is clear about the amount of power he wanted to assert over the Duchess. Even after her death, her portrait is hidden since ‘none puts by the curtain I have drawn for you, but I’. The Duke may control the painting as he could not control the living Duchess. The use of the word ‘my’ again implies ownership of the Duchess. He exerts his power not simply over her but over all his subjects. When discussing what people might ask him about the look upon the Duchess’s face, he implies that people are scared of him: ‘as they would ask me, if they durst’.
The Duke believes that he paid for the Duchess with the mighty gift of his ‘nine-hundred- years-old name’ and that she should be extremely grateful. There is a clear indication that she is from a lower social standing than him. Indeed, if the Duke in question is Alfonso II D’Este, his first wife was considered to be ‘new money’ and so not of the same social standing as him. He says that he could condescend to teach her how to behave but ‘then would be some stooping; and I choose never to stoop.’ The repetition of the word ‘stoop’ in various places references the Duchess’s lower status and the Duke’s unwillingness to join her on a level on which she feels comfortable.
The Duke’s final action, of having his wife killed, is foretold by the references to death in the earlier parts of the poem. He talks of the ‘faint half-flush that dies along her throat’ which reminds us of the change of colour on dead flesh. The Duchess’s only failing seems to be that she was too friendly: ‘too soon made glad, too easily impressed’. She liked everything she looked upon and was not sophisticated enough to see the greater worth of the Duke’s present to her, his ancient name. The actual confession of the killing is left rather ambiguous: ‘I gave commands, then all smiles stopped together’ but still implies the Duke’s absolute power over all he surveys.
At the end of the poem we become aware that the Duke is discussing his last wife with the man who will make a contract for his next wife. The dramatic implications of this revelation are impressive so late in the poem. We may have already formed a view of why the Duke chose to tell his story but now the knowledge that his listener is sent from the father of his future bride changes our understanding of the story. Is the Duke not simply confessing his actions or bragging about his power but rather menacingly explaining the actions he will take if his new wife does not live up to his expectations?
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