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In this lesson, we'll read through Robert Browning's terrific poem 'My Last Duchess.' Browning slowly reveals the character of the speaker as he discusses his now-deceased wife in front of a painting of her hanging on the wall.
'My Last Duchess' is an amazingly, terrifyingly, creepy poem by Robert Browning, who was a Victorian poet born in 1812 and died in 1889. He was born into a comfortably middle-class family and married fellow poet Elizabeth Barrett. He's best known for his dramatic monologues, of which 'My Last Duchess' is one. You can kind of tell because it's got 'my' in the title. That tips you off that it might be in the first person and therefore might be a monologue.
It's basically just a speech in a particular character's voice, and part of the point is the character of the speaker. In some poems, there is an 'I' who delivers the poem, but the focus is much more on the subject matter than it is on the speaker. But in a monologue, part of the fun is figuring out who is this guy? What is he talking about? Is he being honest with us? All of those are questions that come up in stuff like this.
This particular dramatic monologue is thought to be spoken by the 16th-century Italian Duke of Ferrara, who was a real dude. He married a daughter of the Medici family named Lucrezia when she was only 13 years old - OMG, that's so young. And by the time she was 17, she was dead, and he'd abandoned her a year before that, so he is not such a great dude it seems. The poem is structured around him talking about a painting of his 'last duchess' - or Lucrezia - who's now dead. The Duke of Ferrara was a real dude, and this painting is thought to be a real painting of Lucrezia that exists; you can look at it.
Since the poem's pretty short, we're going to go through it line-by-line. We're going to talk it through and talk about how the character of this guy emerges and how we get a very creepy feeling as it goes along. So here we go:
That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will't please you sit and look at her?
So the duke is talking to a yet-unknown person, showing off the painting of his 'last duchess,' which hangs on the wall. Fra Pandolf, we can assume, is the painter, whom he describes working for a day to paint the portrait. And it's interesting how he begins to describe the painting as his wife - 'there she stands,' and 'Will't please you sit and look at her?' We know she's dead ('looking as if she were alive' he mentions) and yet he talks about her as if she were here, as if the painting were just her. It goes on:
'Fra Pandolf' by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus.
This is a roundabout way of saying this, but he's basically saying that he's specifying the artist, Fra Pandolf, because strangers always ask him how someone could have captured 'the depth and passion of its earnest glance.' And Fra Pandolf is really good at it. He also points out that since he's always there when people see the painting, people always ask him this, and he reveals that he keeps it covered behind a curtain. Which is kind of worrisome right there. If you have a portrait of your dead wife, why would you cover it up behind a curtain? If it's because it's upsetting, why do you show it to strangers? I don't know; the mystery deepens.
Sir, 'twas not
Her husband's presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps
Fra Pandolf chanced to say, 'Her mantle laps
Over my lady's wrist too much,' or 'Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat:' such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy.
Here we start to get a hint of the answer to what the duke's relationship to his wife might be. He's commenting on the fact that she's lit up with joy, not only at his presence but at any compliment. So the painting captures her true joy and beauty because she reveals it to just about anyone, including the painter. That 'spot of joy' on her cheek isn't just dependent on her husband being there.
A heart- how will I say? - too soon made glad.
Too easily impressed: she liked whate'er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, 'twas all one! My favor at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace - all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least.
Here he starts to elaborate on the problem: she's just too happy, and he is not the only one that makes her happy. His favors - some stupid cherries, the mule she rode around on - all of these things make her happy and make her smile and make her heart 'glad.' This guy's sounding like a terrible, terrible person - a jealous, awful guy. Having such an unlikeable speaker is really interesting, and it's not something we get in your normal speaker-describing-stuff kind of poem. The dramatic monologue, again, is making it a game to figure out what's really going on with this guy.
She thanked men, - good! but thanked
Somehow - I know not how - as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody's gift.
This revision and stuttering - the break for 'I know not how' - tells us we're getting to something important; he's having a hard time articulating this. And we are getting to something important. We see that he thinks she should be grateful to him for getting a 'nine-hundred-years-old name.' We can surmise maybe that her name isn't as old as his or not really as grand. So her offense, of thanking everybody the same, is even more egregious because she owes him her station in life; that's what he's implying. And the 'she thanked men' part tells us it's not just about her being happy. It's about him thinking she's being flirtatious with lots of other men.
Who'd stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech - (which I have not) - to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, 'Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark' - and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
--E'en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop.
This is a little difficult to parse. What's the stooping? It seems like what he's saying is that he thinks it's beneath him to criticize her, to tell her what she's doing wrong. So even if he were just to frankly say 'I like this, and I don't like this,' he still thinks that would be 'stooping.' He won't do it; he's above that. So she has no idea that he's displeased, and he thinks that's her fault too probably.
Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive.
Whoa, this is getting sinister. We get the final re-articulation of the problem: She smiles the same smile to everyone. But what are these 'commands' that stop the smile? We don't really know, but it seems important, and it's quickly followed by 'There she stands / As if alive.' Can we assume that these 'commands' in some way led to the stopping of the smiles and the ultimate demise of the young wife? It's a little ambiguous. Robert Browning later clarified that he did mean it in a sinister way - those commands are not good commands. It goes on; the poem's not done yet.
Will't please you rise? We'll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master's known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed
At starting is my object.
And now we understand who the listener is. He's a servant of this count, whose daughter the Duke of Ferrara is planning on marrying next. And he clarifies that he's going to be getting a large dowry but then insists that 'his fair daughter's self' is his true 'object,' the true thing that he wants. The shift - from 'I probably killed my first wife' to 'so let's talk about preparations for marrying my second' - is really chilling. Now we get to the end:
Nay, we'll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!
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That's the end! And it pretty much seals the deal that the Duke of Ferrara is a sociopath. Because after showing this painting of his dead wife who he may or may not have ordered killed, then he shows off another piece of art as if they're of just the same significance. She's just another object to be appreciated. And do you remember how he described the next potential wife? He said 'Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed / At starting is my object.' He means 'object' as my 'intention' or my 'goal;' he doesn't mean it literally. But it hardly seems a coincidence that this conversation is clearly taking place in a gallery of objects - he's got the painting, he's got the bronze of Neptune taming a seahorse or whatever.
And it's interesting then to look back on his description of what made him so jealous in this light of looking at objects and material things. His 'favor at her breast' makes her smile as much as the sunset, a 'bough of cherries,' her 'white mule.' It's striking how those latter things are things that you can touch and see, whereas 'favor at her breast' is totally abstract. Like what is that? He's being super vague. And would you expect a 13-year-old (remember, she's 13 years old) to understand the significance of this abstract idea of nobility and this name? No, but she does understand these material objects. (We also don't really know how the 'favor at her breast' manifested itself. We already know he's not a nice guy.) But it seems like he's basically punished her for appreciating material things more than non-material things by turning her into a material thing. The artists - Fra Pandolf and Claus of Innsbruck - are named with equal importance as their work, which even further reduces the significance of the actual subject of the work (his wife or Neptune) in favor of the resulting object, which is crafted by the artist. It's the artist and the object, not so much the subject that's important, at least to him it seems.
It's a cool poem, right? It's awesome. And I bet you didn't even notice that the whole thing is in rhyming couplets (you can scoot back up and take a look). It totally is, and it's because Browning is a master of speech. He knows how people talk, and he's able to make this poem sound so natural that you don't notice the unnatural artifice, the rhyming. You don't notice that it's a poem essentially. And that dovetails really nicely with the subject matter. We're blurring the lines between reality and art, between speech and poetry - we don't notice it's in couplets. The woman and the painting and the artist are all the same thing. So the guy's just a genius. I love Robert Browning.
So that's basically what you should take away. What happens in the poem is it's a dramatic monologue spoken by the Duke of Ferrara, a 16th-century Italian dude. He's talking to an emissary from the count whose daughter he wants to marry next. He shows him a painting of his first wife, now deceased, hidden behind a curtain. He describes how she was just too easily pleased and too flirtatious, and this offended him, but he wouldn't stoop to actually telling her anything was wrong. So he 'gave commands,' and then the smiles stopped altogether. Though we're not positive the commands led to her death, we might be able to assume it from context.
Then he goes creepily back to business, discussing the dowry and showing another work of art, as if that's all his 'last duchess' was to him. The differences between the material and the abstract and the real and the artistic really play heavily in this poem. And Browning's expert ear for speech makes us forget the whole thing's in rhyming couplets.
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