My Last Duchess – Robert Browning + Analysis

‘My Last Duchess’

Robert Browning

FERRARA

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? I said
“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. 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. She had
A heart—how shall 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 favour 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. 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. 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. 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. 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 pretense
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. 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!

Analysis 

Have you ever told a story to someone about something else someone has done? If so, then you have done something similar to the person in this poem. Have a second look and see. It begins with the Duke talking to a man who is with him in his home and he is saying that the picture on the wall is the depiction of the last Duchess, or woman he was married to. He expresses an opinion, as well as his love for her, in the words “looking as if she were alive.”

It is as if he can remember her because of that painting and recall to his memory her features, as if she was alive. Clearly, this is a man in love with this woman. His love for her knows no end. He even calls the piece of art “a Wonder” because of the unerring accuracy of the painting. He is, in a word, besotted but grieving.

He remarks how the painter was at work on this for some time and his completion is wonderful to behold. When he adds “there she stands” he is using the same words he would if she was actually standing in front of him in person. He asks the visitor if he would mind sitting and looking at her, at the “depth and passion” contained within the painting.

So far, this is a poem that shows extreme love and passion from one man to his wife, now dead. But is there something else? Those who have read enough of this blog will know how much I mention that there is conflict usually in any piece of Literature, so what are we expecting here I wonder? When will it turn nasty? As we read on, we will see this happen in front of our very eyes. This special visitor has been given special consideration for he has a “curtain ….. drawn for [him]” so he can view the artwork in privacy. And as he does so he is asked a question: “how [did] such a glance” appear in the face of the woman on the canvas? She has a look on her face that is making the two people viewing wonder just what was in her mind as she was being painted by the artist. This should make the reader sit up and think!

We then see that there is a “spot of joy” on the cheek of the Duchess but it was not there because of the Duke. The visitor says that consideration has been given to the Duchess when modelling for the piece because “paint must never hope to reproduce the faint half-flush that dies along her throat.” There is an admiration for the Duchess in the heart of both men and a passion shared by them for this deceased woman in the painting. It is in one way, such a wonderful poem up until this point. It depicts a picture in the mind that one can almost see as if it was a scene from a film.

But then, we see that the Duchess “had a heart” when she was alive that was “too soon made glad,” which should make the reader stop and think. What does that mean, “a heart too soon made glad?” In one sense it could mean that she was too happy all of the time, which could become annoying to people. Yet again, it could mean something else. It could suggest to the reader that the Duke was not too keen on this aspect of her lifestyle. She was “too easily impressed” and favoured whatever she looked at. Was this a person who saw the good in others more than most of us do? Was her husband able to cope with this?

This is developed further into the poem as we see a woman who would ride a “white mule” and everyone would be grateful of her presence in their lives. She was the epitome of the perfect wife from the sounds of it, but this possibly annoyed the Duke, who could not see why she would be like that. Here comes the conflict I hear you thinking.

The Duke says that his late wife “ranked [his] gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name with anybody’s gift.” In other words, she put him on a level with everyone else, which for a Duke, would be a difficult thing to stomach. It is like the Duke is saying that because of the way his wife was, her end came as a shock, which then makes the reader, the 21st Century reader, think in terms of conspiracy, whereby the Duchess was killed by persons unknown and for whatever reason.

With this being the case we then have to ask who would kill her and for what reason. If we read on, we see words that point towards a person of interest. The Duke says to the visitor “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.” From these words we can deduce that the Duke is not too good with words abd that the Duchess, when alive, “let herself be lessoned,” or tutored so as to be able to “plainly set her wits” to anything she wanted or any person. The Duke on the other hand, is more reserved, more noble and royal, a typical symbol of everything controlled. Therefore, we as readers ask is their marriage a good match?

The chances are that it was an arranged marriage. Indeed, some readers have taken this Duke to be advancing in years whilst his dead wife remains in the painting as a young or younger woman. If this is the case and what Browning imagined then we see something else in there in the middle of this poem; the mind of an elderly Duke remembering someone who may have died some time beforehand and as he reminisces, he lets us know more about this wife he was married to. He is the sort of person who chooses “never to stoop” or bow to any kind of pressure. His lifestyle is strict and disciplined. Hers was not when she was alive. But at some point in their relationship, things changed. We read that “all smiles stopped together. “ This is saying that sadness entered where joy and fondness ended. Does this mean that their relationship turned sour? The answer to that is up to you.

And so, the Duke, maybe advancing in years, now looks at the painting and says “there she stands as if alive” before asking his visitor “will’t please you rise? We’ll meet the company below, then.” He is asking the visitor to join him in another room where the rest of a gathering are meeting, so this is not a single pairing seeing this painting but two men looking at the portrait of the Duchess before gathering together for a party, perhaps even, to remember her. As the two men descend towards their meal and drink, there is a mention of a “dowry,” which is something that used to happen in previous times [and indeed, still happens in some cultures around the world]. A man would marry, have a daughter and then as she met someone [or if it was an organized marriage] he would be required to pay the family of the groom a sum of money for the right to marry the young lady. That is a dowry!

Why is a dowry being mentioned here? It seems rather odd to me. It seems as if there has been something happening before this, that he expected to see the dowry but now, because of her death, there is a question about keeping the money. It is all conjecture from the Duke and we are left to wonder at the truth about the death of the last Duchess. As the two men descend towards the party the Duke tells the visitor to “notice Neptune, who is set in a stone carving and is “taming a sea-horse” which could also be symbolic of him having to tame his wife in the past, a fact he wants to keep quiet.

The reader at the end of this poem is left asking certain questions; what happened to the Duchess? Was she killed? If so then who by? Why is the Duke saying what he is? Is this a scene showing guilt? Is he responsible for her demise? Where in all of this, is the truth? And more importantly, is this meant as a poem to criticize a certain royal at the time it was written by Browning? If so, then we need to Google the man and find who he may have been writing about. It is like me now writing a poem about Diana, Princess of Wales and writing it in a similar fashion. I would then publish and be making a comment for people to discuss. This is why this is such a good, deep poem.

NB. When I taught this poem to Year 10 students last, we were required to let them act out the death scene, showing how they thought she had died. If you get the chance, ask your teacher if you can do the same thing. It will be most illuminating indeed on your reading of the poem.

RJ

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