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Literary Critique: Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess"
Robert Browning wrote many literary monologues, of which My Last Duchess is probably the most well known and arguably the best. Literary monologues are spoken by one person, often describing someone or something, but usually telling more about the speaker than the subject. My Last Duchess is loosely based on the true story of Alfonso II of Ferrara, a 16th-century Italian duke: He is talking to a delegate from a count whose niece (daughter in the poem) Ferrara hopes to wed and is making small talk about his last duchess, whose portrait happens to be on the wall in the drawing room.
Browning’s monologues must be read at least twice; once to see what is being said on the surface—in this case, what is the last duchess like?—and second to see what this reveals about the speaker—what is the duke like? The first is relatively easy. The duchess was cheerful and happy, joyful and gay (in the true sense of the word), easily pleased, and very pleasing—except to her husband the duke. Even in the first cursory reading, it is obvious that he was not altogether satisfied with her flippancy and exuberance. In the second reading, one must look deeper into the text, delving between the lines and behind the words to discover the character of the speaker. The duke is proud of his title, his name, and his wealth. He would be proud of his lovely young wife, if she would behave according to his wishes. Although the poem does not specifically tell us Ferrara’s age, it seems probable, due to both his demeanor and the norms of the period, that he was much older than his teenage wife. Certainly some of her actions and reactions may be put down to youthful exuberance which may have been difficult for the aging duke to accept and understand. He seems the archetypal British nobleman; staid, proud, unwavering, unsmiling and rather gloomy and dubious (Ferrara was Italian, not British, but Browning was British, and probably used characteristics of his own countrymen). Not to say that British nobleman were necessarily like this, but that is the unfortunate stereotype. He takes little pleasure in insignificant things and is upset when his wife does. He disdains the compliments of his servants and underlings and wants his wife to do the same. This is the basic character of the duke, and that of his last duchess. Now I would like to take a minute to go through the poem describing these characters with textual references.
Ferrara begins by pointing out the portrait of his last duchess and bragging that the painting was so lifelike that the duchess looked “as if she were alive” (2). However, his monologue soon turns bitter as he remembers his wife. She was a joyous young thing, with a heart “too soon made glad” (22), and not only by her husband: even a passing compliment from the portrait painter was “cause enough/For calling up that spot of joy.” (20-21) In fact, it seemed that there was no difference between the charms of her husband, “The dropping of daylight in the West,” (26) a bough of cherries given her by “some officious fool,” (27) and “the white mule/She role with around the terrace” (27-28) as far as how much pleasure she received from them. Even Ferrara’s nine-hundred-year-old name meant nothing to her (33). The thought of his title and wealth brought no more of a smile to her lips than did the thought of anyone else. That is what we learn from the duke about his previous wife. To the casual observer, this might seem to recommend her rather than otherwise. However, her cheery disposition and friendliness anger the duke.
Pride is the most visible characteristic of the duke. He begins his monologue by touting the wonders of this portrait of his wife by Frà Pandolf. The painting is very good, although apparently not an exact reproduction of his wife’s expressions: “never read/Strangers like you that pictured countenance.” (7). The idea is that Frà Pandolf gave the duchess an earnest, passionate expression (probably at the duke’s request) rather than her usual joyous one. The duke is even proud that Pandolf had done the portrait, saying that he mentioned the painter’s name on purpose, possibly as one of the few who could have painted the duchess both so lifelike and also with the countenance desired by her husband. He closes his speech by pointing out a bronze statue of Neptune, again dropping names of the famous artists who have worked for him. Most tellingly, in the center of the poem, Ferrara mentions that his name is over nine hundred years old (that is, his family has held a title for that long), and cannot understand why his duchess did not care about it. She “ranked/My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name/With anybody’s gift.” (33) It is this in particular that rankles the duke. He thinks of himself as well-titled, well-moneyed, and well-landed, and takes pride in all of these. His station in life is higher than that of most men, and he believes that his wife should recognize and acknowledge that. She on the other hand, makes no distinction between classes and titles, accepting a compliment from a lowly man with just as much joy as a compliment from her high-born husband.
Obviously, communication is not strong in this family, either. The duchess would just as soon talk to the painter or the youth in the garden or ride her mule than spend an evening in conversation with her husband. The duke prefers not to condescend to confront her with his displeasure. He speaks in lines 35-43 of the possibility of simply telling his wife “Just this/Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,/Or there exceed the mark” (37-39), but refuses because he wants her to know that she displeases him without him having to tell her. Finally, he cryptically says that “I gave commands;/Then all smiles stopped together.” (45-46) This could be read in two different ways: First, that he commanded his wife to adore him and ignore everything else and she cowered in submission, no longer smiling; or second, that he commanded some third party to do away with his wife and she is no longer smiling because she is now dead. The first view is easier to accept because it is nicer and does not make the duke out to be a villain. However, it totally contradicts his statement in lines 42-43 right after he talks about telling his wife how he feels: “—E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose/Never to stoop.” Also, we know from documenting evidence that the poem is based on a true story in which the duke’s wife died under suspicious circumstances at the age of 16, two years after they were married. All this points to the second theory: that the duke had his wife killed because she did not give him the kind of recognition he felt that he deserved.
After he makes this veiled revelation, he immediately changes the subject and lets us know that his audience is a delegate from a Count whose daughter the duke hopes to marry. Shall we hope the Count had the wit to refuse his daughter’s hand to the shallow, proud duke Alfonso of Ferrara, and make My Last Duchess really mean last.
The poem is written in iambic pentameter, with an AA BB
CC, etc. rhyme scheme. This is one of the simplest poetic forms, but Browning
does amazing things with it. Iambic pentameter can sound very choppy if
done clumsily, but Browning manages to make it sound like poetry, but
not stilted at all. My Last Duchess does need to be read correctly,
however. If the reader pauses at the line breaks rather than using the
punctuation, it does sound choppy and does not make a lot of sense. Poetry
reading is a skill all of its own, and one needs to practice it aloud
in order to become proficient at it. My Last Duchess is all one
stanza, fifty-six lines, making it more akin to a passage from a Shakespearean
play than a regular stanza poem. I have read very few examples of the
literary monologue genre, but reading and thinking about My Last Duchess
has made me want to explore the area more fully. It is an excellent way
to describe not only one person or thing, but also give deep insight into
the speaker of the poem. The strength of My Last Duchess lies
in its ability to do this well and in many layers.
This paper originated as an assignment for World Literary Types, Missouri Baptist University, Fall, 2000.
©2000 by Jandy Stone