My Last Duchess

Robert Browning

Browning on “My Last Duchess”
 Louis S. Friedland, a critic who published an article on “My Last  

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Duchess” in 1936 writes about how young Browning found this story. Browning was fascinated with the Renaissance period and visited Italy in 1838. He had done a lot of reading about Italy’s history. He came across the biography of Alfonso II (1533 – 1598), fifth duke of Ferrara, who married Lucrezia, the 14 year-old daughter of the upstart merchant princes, the Medici, in 1558. Three days after the wedding, Alfonso left her for two years. She died when she was barely 17 years old. People talked. Four years later in Innsbruck, Alfonso began negotiating for a new wife with the then servant of the then count of Tyrol, Nikolaus Mardruz. These people are all historical, but Browning’s interpretation of them is his own. The painter Fra Pandolf and the sculptor Claus of Innsbruck are fictitious, as far as is known.

Terms you need to know:
Dramatic Monologue: A poem in which a single speaker reveals his own nature as well as the details (time, place, other characteristics) of the dramatic situation. Only the main character of the poem discusses a topic and in so doing reveals his personal feelings to a listener. (Mono – means single who presents spoken or written discourse (logue) Made famous by Robert Browning,  This poem is written in 28 rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter  Title: The emphasis on the word Last is important, because as the ending of poem makes clear; the Duke is now negotiating for his next Duchess.  The poem is preceded by the word Ferrara:, indicating that the speaker is most likely Alfonso II, fifth Duke of Ferrara (1533–1598) who, at the age of 25, married the 14-year-old Lucrezia di Cosimo de' Medici, the daughter of Cosimo I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and Eleonora di Toledo.  The portrait of the Duchess is a fresco, a type of work painted in watercolours directly on a plaster wall. This portrait symbolizes the duke’s possessive and controlling nature because the duchess has become an art object that he owns. He has complete control of her now because ‘none puts by the curtain . . . but I”

The dramatic monologue:

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In a dramatic monologue the reader drops unprepared into a conversation about which he or she knows nothing. In “My Last Duchess” the reader only has the title and the speech prefix “Ferrara” to orient him or her to the time and character in the poem. It is almost as if the reader has turned a corner in a long hall and has come upon a private conversation in progress, and, as we come to appreciate, about a murder and the perhaps killer’s search for his next victim. Readers who are familiar with Browning’s writing and who are sensitive to nuance percieve the speaker’s pride and cold-bloodedness. However many miss the point and are astonished and may not believe that the Duke has killed the Duchess. A century or more ago, when Browning was still alive, readers presented him with questions about the poem. He answered cautiously, almost as if he had not written the poem but was seeing it himself for the first time. Initially Browning stated that “I gave commands” meant, quite possibly, that the Duchess had been murdered. In his old age, however, Browning thought that perhaps she had been put in a convent to live her life in seclusion.

Lines 1 - 5
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 Notations: That’s: reduces the duchess to an object:
my suggests ownership; last suggests that duchesses, to him, come in sequence, like collectables. painted on the wall – fresco, a painting executed in wet plaster. as if she were alive: is Ferrara talking about the Duchess or the realistic qualities of the painting? I . . . now – He refers not only to the painting but also to his wife as she was in life, a mere object ( that piece). Now indicates that he regards his wife as a wonder in the painting but as something less than when she lived you – emissary from the Count of Tyrol

Lines 6 – 10
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"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)

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Fra Pandolf: the painter- a brother in the religious orders and a celibate man ; by design: on purpose Strangers: like the emissary who knows nothing of this place and its people read: the speaker asks us to read the face – the Duchess is as silent as the emissary. pictured countenance: face. depth and . . .earnest glance: who is the duchess looking at – the listener does not ask – Ferrara implies that her look does not always rise from sexual passion but from general emotion (she is very young 14 – 17 years old) none puts by . . . but I: only he opens the curtain – he possesses her completely now I: error – use to complete rhyme scheme – pronoun should be me

Lines 11- 15
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 durst: archaic form of dare  such a glance: if they dare ask the Duke how such a glance came to be there he suggests that it ‘twas not her husband’s presence only implying that she did not value his presence more than anyone else’s presence.  spot Of joy: blush; enjambment – in which the sense of one line of verse carries into the next line without a pause.

Lines 16 - 20

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

reproduce that/ Half-flush. . .dies along her throat: this colour was reproduced as Fra Pandolf was painting her – perhaps she was just a young girl who feels joy when she is being looked at approvingly. such stuff/ Was courtesy, she thought: this statement shows the duke’s contempt for her – unable to recognize ‘courtesy’ as insincere, she was made happy by it.

Lines 21 -25

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,

She had . . .went everywhere : she was too easily impressed – she was happy and enjoyed many things. In these lines the more the duke talks, the more his contempt and self-justifying anger show, the more he endears the Duchess to the reader.

Lines 26 – 30

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,

Sir, ‘twas all one . . speech: The duchess was just as pleased with a sunset, a ride on a mule, a gift of flowers from a courtier as she was with the Duke. bough of cherries . . . for her: a double entendre or double meaning – a suggestion by the duke that the duchess may have been unfaithful

Lines 31 - 35

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

as if she ranked . . . With anybody’s gift: Her humility and general good nature disgusted Ferrara because they seemed to underestimate the value of his own gift: a place in a noble family 900 years old. Lucruzia’s family, the Medici, had their recent origins as merchants, (and were considered new money) , but the Este family was very old. She lacked the cunning to discriminate publicly, to flatter Ferrara. She also could not detect his outrage. For the standing Duke to express any outward concern would have meant stooping, that is lowering himself to her level.

Lines 36 - 40

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

The duke attributes his silence to lack of skill/ In speech which the poem itself disproves. He is, in fact, very adept at making his thoughts known. Here you miss, Or there exceed the mark: archery metaphor – literally overshoot the mark. Ferrara speaks of the Duchess as if she were one of his soldiers, competing in a competition for a prize (his name), rather than the Duchess who was herself the prize. lessoned: put to school, instructed; possibly a pun on the word ‘lessened,’ which means diminished.

Lines 41 - 46
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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

forsooth: in truth (archaic) E’n then . . . Never to stoop: He is too arrogant and too proud to instruct the duchess as to how she is to conduct herself as a Duchess. He goes on to say that she did smile at him but then she smiled at everyone in the same way. This grew . . . As if alive: This elliptical chain of four curt, bleak sentences brings Ferrara back to where it started. If the Duchess smiled everywhere, could her smiles be stopped by anything short of death or execution:

Lines 47 - 50

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 pretence Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;

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As if alive: Ferrara doesn’t say exactly what his commands were but the phrase “As if alive” stated for the second time in this poem sound more ominous. At the beginning, Ferrara could have been speaking just of the portrait, but as is anger grows it shifts to the Duchess herself. We’ll meet . . . below, then.: When negotiating the dowry, Ferrara chooses to ‘stoop’. munificence: great generosity. No just pretence . . . Be disallowed: the Duke will demand a considerable dowry from the count

Lines 52 - 56
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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

daughter’s: In real life she was his niece avowed /At starting: to repeat – the duke claims that what he really wants is a wife Daughter’s self . . .object: the subjective complement of the verb is is object. – Will, she too, an objective achieved become a thing, found on a wall? we’ll go/Together down: The Duke, feeling magnanimous, offers to walk with the lowly count revealing that for all his obsession with his noble lineage, Ferrara bargains with it openly. Notice Neptune . . .a sea horse: Neptune (god of the sea) taming a sea horse – Does this mean that Ferrara is hinting at his intentions, that he has tamed one Duchess and will do so again if need be?

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