My Last Duchess is a dramatic monologue – that’s a poem which is narrated from one point of view, like a monologue in the theatre, and offers insight into a character’s thoughts and psychology.
It was written by Robert Browning, a Victorian poet and playwright who was an influential liberal; he believed in the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women, and animal rights. All of these may seem like perfectly normal views to hold in this day and age, but at the time they were far more contentious.
My Last Duchess is spoken by the Duke of Ferrara, and although the words are fictional, the duke himself was real: he lived in the 16th century, and is suspected to have poisoned his first wife, whom he married when she was 14.
In the poem he’s talking to a visitor, who’s there to help broker a second marriage between his master and the duke. They’re viewing the duke’s artworks, and stop beside a painting of his last wife on the wall, covered by a curtain which the duke draws.
As the duke describes her appearance in the portrait, and the circumstances of its painting, we become uncomfortably aware that the duke probably killed his wife because he thought she was too friendly with other people. Once they’ve finished looking at the painting, they move on, with the duke commenting on other artworks as they go.
1:16-2:43 – What’s it all about?
So, although on the surface this is just a man talking about a painting, it’s the subtext of this poem which really reveals to us what’s going on. Look at the first phrase “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, looking as if she were alive”.
There’s so much to unpick in this sentence alone! My “last” Duchess implies that the duke views his wives as disposable – that was his last one, now he’s moving on to his next one. The pronoun “my” is interesting, too; although it’s accurate – she was the duchess to his dukedom – there’s a proprietary sense to it. He owned her. And then listen to the menace in “as if she were alive” – there’s a thinly-veiled threat in there.
From that very first phrase we understand that the purpose of showing his guest this painting isn’t to show off his artwork, but to offer a warning to his visitor: my next wife had better behave, or else.
The duke then goes on to comment on the “spot of joy” – a faint blush – on his late wife’s cheek, brought there, he suggests, by words from the painter Fra Pandolf. Apparently his wife had “a heart… too soon made glad”. We begin to see jealousy rear its head.
The duke describes how “she liked what’er she looked on”. But then there’s that damning addition to his thought: “and her looks went everywhere”. Here we get to the crux of the matter: the duke is jealous.
The poem gathers pace now; we sense the duke’s mounting anger as he describes various incidents where he perceived her to be flirting. Then we get to that ominous line: “I gave commands: Then all smiles stopped together”. The halting rhythm and short phrasing draw attention to this menacing statement.
2:44-4:19 – Dig deep
Although it’s an extract from a conversation, Browning’s poem is written in iambic pentameter – remember, that’s five units of unstressed and stressed beats per line. It’s a meter that’s often ascribed to more socially elevated (or posh!) characters.
The poem also uses rhyming couplets, and there’s plenty of enjambment, which gives the poem its conversational tone. This is further enhanced by the duke’s questions to his listener, and the frequent parentheses – that’s asides to you and me.
At first, the duke’s language is that of a lover. He speaks of the “depth and passion” of his dead wife’s gaze, her “spot of joy”, her “half-flush”. But there’s menace there, because as he goes on to describe “the dropping of daylight” (a lovely alliterative way of describing sunset), a bough of cherries or a white mule, we come to understand that these romantic images are actually fuel to the duke’s rage.
So, when he finally says “Just this or that in you disgusts me”, the “disgust” is shocking, because it’s juxtaposed with such gentle images.
So, is his anger just because he thinks his wife enjoys life too much? It goes a bit deeper than that. He tells his listener that she was as pleased by trivial things as she was by “my gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name”. She wasn’t sufficiently in awe of joining his great family. And he’s actually too arrogant to even tell her that he dislikes her behaviour: “I choose never to stoop” he says.
It’s also telling that the duke ends his description of his duchess at line 46 by saying “There she stands as if alive”. It’s almost a repetition of the opening lines, and Browning points up that word, “alive”, by using assonance with the word “rise” in the same line. Although the conversation moves on, there is no doubt that he’s giving a stark warning to his guest.
4:20-5:03 – That’s a wrap
Remember, this is just a five-minute rundown of the poem – there’s plenty more to find! But let’s summarise into five points:
- My Last Duchess is a dramatic monologue, written in iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets, with frequent enjambment and parentheses.
- It’s by Robert Browning, a Victorian poet who held liberal views.
- The poem is spoken by the Duke of Ferrara, who is showing a portrait of his last duchess to a visitor come to help arrange his next marriage.
- Browning creates a tone of menace in the poem, as it slowly becomes apparent that the duke has killed his former wife.
- He juxtaposes soft, romantic language with harder words to convey the duke’s anger.