My Last Duchess

Robert Browning‟s poem “My Last Duchess” is a splendid example of the irony that a poet can achieve within the format of the dramatic monologue, a poetic form in which there is only one speaker. When there is only one speaker, we necessarily have to weigh carefully what he or she is telling us, and we often have to “read between the lines” in keeping an objective perspective on the story or incidents that the speaker describes to us. We can gather from this poem‟s setting, “Ferrara,” a town in Italy, as well as from the speaker‟s reference to his “last Duchess,” that the speaker in this poem is the Duke of Ferrara. Twentieth-century scholars have found a viable prototype upon whom Browning may have based this characterization in the figure of Alfonso II, fifth Duke of Ferrara, who lived in the sixteenth century, and whose first wife died under mysterious circumstances. But what kind of person is this Duke, and what exactly is the story of his last duchess? To find out, let‟s take a closer look at what he tells us. First of all, it is evident that the Duke is speaking to someone, and that he is showing his auditor a painting. “That‟s my last Duchess painted on the wall,” he says, and then explains that the painter, Fra Pandolf, “worked busily a day, and there she stands.” The Duke then describes the usual reaction that people have to viewing this painting — a reaction specifically to the Duchess‟ “earnest glance.” He says that strangers often turn to him as if to ask “How such a glance came there,” and then tells his auditor, “so, not the first / Are you to turn and ask thus.” But has his auditor actually asked the Duke a question, or is the Duke simply making an assumption, based upon a look on his guest‟s face, that he is reacting to the painting as every other viewer has reacted to it? If he is jumping to a conclusion in the case of this latest viewer, then how do we know that he is right about other people‟s reactions to the painting? Perhaps he sees in other people‟s looks what he wants to see. We will need to remember this possible aspect of the Duke‟s character as we continue to listen to his story. Next the Duke elaborates on his last Duchess‟ glance in the portrait, and calls it a “spot of joy.” But it was not his presence only that caused her to smile in such a way, he says. The painter, Fr Pandolf, may have said anything from the simple “„Her mantle laps / Over my lady‟s wrist too much,‟” to the much more flattering “„Paint / Must never hope to reproduce the faint / Half-flush that dies along her throat,‟” and the lady‟s reaction would be this same, blushing “spot of joy.” The Duke then tells us more about his lady‟s likes. She had a heart “too soon made glad,” he says, and she was too easily pleased by everything she looked on. “Sir, „twas all one!” he says to his listener, listing the things that pleased her: the Duke‟s own favor, a beautiful sunset in the west, a bough of ripe cherries from the orchard, a white mule she loved to ride — each of these things she enjoyed to the same degree, and each brought the same blush of pleasure to her cheek. Finally we get to the heart of the Duke‟s problem with his former wife. She thanked people who pleased her, which was all well and good in theory, but she thanked them all with equal affection, “as if she ranked / My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name / With anybody‟s gift.” The Duke seems to have been offended that she did not single him out among the others who pleased her, and underrated his gift of a well-established name and proud family heritage. She smiled, he says, whenever he passed her, “but who passed without / Much the same smile?” And how did the Duke react to this? “Who‟d stoop to blame / This sort of trifling?” he asks his auditor. The whole business is beneath him. Even if he had “skill / In speech,” it would be stooping to address such a situation, and he tells his listener that he indeed does not have skill in speech. This statement is ironic, for the Duke actually seems to be quite a polished speaker, although he may be telling us a great deal about his personality and history that he may not have intended to reveal. So what became of this seemingly

and that his mission is to arrange a marriage between the Duke and the Count‟s daughter. transforming her uncontrollable spirit into an object of art and preserving her loveliness — ”as if she were alive” — into a medium over which he can exert complete control. a sum of money given by a bride‟s father to her new husband. the Duke is cleverly indicating what kind of behavior he will expect in his new wife. And as Claus of Innsbruck has caught this image for him in bronze. It is hard not to be drawn into his skillful speech. The Duke has given all of this information about his personality and the history of his former marriage to an envoy who has been sent to arrange a new marriage. Browning‟s self-satisfied Duke ironically manages instead to paint her as a gentle and lovely person and himself as somewhat of a monster. who evidently enjoyed whatever she experienced? “I gave commands. he takes the time to point out one final art object to his guest: “Notice Neptune. he manages to tell us a great deal more about his own personality. We can judge that he is a vain man who is quite proud of his heritage and his “nine-hundred-years-old name. though / Taming a sea-horse. lies in the identity of the auditor.kind and happy lady.” The Duke then provides us with a hint as to the identity of his auditor. And yet. and his enthusiasm for his collection — stopping to comment on one last . strangely. “Will‟t please you rise?” he asks. dismissing the difference in his and his guest‟s ranks by stating generously.” He says for a second time. the whole occasion of his speech has been an explanation of the origin of a portrait of his former wife. but the Count‟s “fair daughter‟s self” that is his “object?” Or perhaps it is both. his willingness to dwell on the loveliness and virtues of his earlier wife despite his feelings about her. thought a rarity.” the Duke says. and suggests that they go below to meet other guests. He is truly a paradoxical. The final two words seem to say it all in summing up what the Duke values: after all.” suggesting that the lady is no more. As Neptune tames the sea-horse. character despite one‟s reaction to his morality by the end of the poem. who would lead another unsuspecting young girl into such a situation? Despite his wish to impress us with himself and to detract from his last Duchess‟ qualities. As we make this discovery about the fate of his last wife. his generosity toward his guest. and he seems to enjoy showing off his rich collection. he has had Fra Pandolf catch his wife‟s “spot of joy” in a painting which can handily be hidden behind a curtain. These details indicate. we‟ll go / Together down. He is no longer subject to the “trifling” situation of her constant smiling. The subject of the sculpture adds to our reaction to the Duke‟s story. here a powerful god subdues a wild seahorse. that the Duke‟s guest is a messenger from a Count. His pride in his painting. “Nay. but I”). hoping to impress his guest. however. much as the Duke has subdued his former Duchess. he has tamed a former wife. ironically. Much of the dramatic irony in the poem. the Duke changes the direction of his speech to his auditor. He speaks to the man of “the Count your master. He is a collector of art objects. sir. “There she stands / As if alive. on the way out of his art gallery. do we believe the Duke when he assures us that it is not the money. At this point. Nevertheless. at last giving the Duke complete control over whom his wife smiles at (”since none puts by / The curtain I have drawn for you.” and that he is quite proud of his art collection. which is carefully designed to impress his guest with his name and possessions and flatter the envoy into representing him favorably with his potential father-in-law. for the word “object” seems to be an important one in making a final assessment of the Duke‟s character. after all.” and hints that this Count‟s reputed wealth will surely provide the Duke with an ample dowry. / Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!” Once again the Duke takes the opportunity to show off a piece of art that he is proud of and to drop the name of the artist. After all. yet not entirely unappealing. knowing what we now know about this Duke. Some critics have even suggested that in this speech made to the man sent to negotiate his second marriage. Moreover. despite the fact that the Duke simply tells us the story of his first wife and how her portrait came to be painted. he shows no compunction for his actions. “Then all smiles stopped together. the sculpture of Neptune was cast “for me!” Ironically. and he can now control whom she smiles at and who is exposed to her beauty.

the rhymes do not create a sense of closure when they come. Instead of discussing price. Telephone Conversation The speaker of the poem. location / Indifferent" The first sentence of the poem includes a pun that introduces the theme of the following poem and also informs us that things are not going to be as straightforward as they appear. and uses the force of his personality to make horrifying information seem merely colorful. Consequently. and the revelation of the Duke's character is the poem's primary aim. But. an audience is suggested but never appears in the poem. the poem provides a classic example of a dramatic monologue: the speaker is clearly distinct from the poet. The lines do not employ end-stops. we can see that the speaker is an intelligent person by his use of high diction and quick wit. but rather remain a subtle driving force behind the Duke's compulsive revelations. In this short poem. even though he has no reason to be sorry for something which he was born with and has no control over. tells the story of a telephone call he made to a potential landlady. The landlady is described as a polite. location. a dark West African man searching for a new apartment. All of these discrepancies between what appears to be and what really is create a sense of verbal irony that helps the poem display the ridiculousness of racism. location / Indifferent" If we read over these lines quickly. even though she is shown to be shallowly racist. "The price seemed reasonable. not the savage that the landlady assumes he is because of his skin color. we read that the apartment's location is unbiased and impartial. rather. and other information significant to the apartment. they discussed the speaker's skin color. they use enjambment--that is. sentences and other grammatical units do not necessarily conclude at the end of lines. amenities." This other definition gives the sentence an entirely different meaning. creates hypothetical situations. Form "My Last Duchess" comprises rhyming pentameter lines. The Duke is quite a performer: he mimics others' voices. unbiased. indifferent is also defined as "Characterized by a lack of partiality. Instead of the apartment's location being neither good or bad.object before going down to “collect” one more wife — keep the reader guessing throughout the poem and constantly caught off guard by the revelation of one surprising personality trait after another. . well-bred woman. Indeed. we would assume that the speaker meant "Being neither good nor bad" by the use of the word indifferent . The speaker is described as being genuinely apologetic for his skin color. "The price seemed reasonable.

The speaker is rudely denied the ability to rent the property because of bias towards his skin color. He warns the landlady that he is African. It is ironic that this is called a self-confession since the speaker has nothing that he should have to confess since he has done nothing wrong. We know that she is being very shallowly judgmental even while she is seeming to be so pleasant." all possessions that should make her a respectable lady (lines 7-9). This opening pun quickly grabs our attention and suggests that we as readers be on the lookout for more subtle uses of language that will alter the meaning of the poem. is described with nothing but positive terms. Soyinka shows how ridiculous it really is for someone to apologize for his race. the word caught connotes that some wrong had been done. it seems almost comical that anyone should be so submissive when he has committed no wrongdoing. His description gives us an image of where the speaker is located: a public phone booth.However. The speaker describes the buttons in the phone booth. the speaker begins his "self-confession" about his skin color (line 4). I hate a wasted journey—I am African Again. that the speaker was a criminal caught committing his crime. instead of just informing her. To modern Western thinkers. foully" After this introduction. These words describing her wealth are neutral in regard to her personal character. ARE YOU DARK? OR VERY LIGHT? Her goodness is seemingly confirmed later on when the speaker says that she was "considerate" in rephrasing her question (line 17). The speaker seems almost grateful for her demeanor. "Caught I was. the foul smell that seems to always coexist with public spaces. Of course. she was seemingly considerate and only slightly impersonal. The speaker mentions her "good-breeding. Although she was described as being a wealthy woman. "How dark?. ." "lipstick coated" voice. By making the speaker actually seem sorry for his skin color. Her response to the caller's question included only "light / Impersonality" (lines 20-21). "How dark?. foully" he says after listening to the silence the landlady had responded with. these kind descriptions of the woman are teeming with verbal irony." After recording the all-important question. The landlady. "long gold-rolled/Cigarette holder. we quickly learn in the following lines of the poem that the location of the apartment is the exact opposite of unbiased and impartial. but allow that she could be a good person. on the other hand." the poem pauses for a moment and describes the surroundings to give a sense of reality that shows that the ridiculous question had really been asked (line 10). and a bus driving by outside. "Caught I was.

In addition to the literal images that this description creates." "Red pillar-box. Although he pretends politeness the entire time. In closing. feigning simplicity is that his face is "brunette. Instead he details the different colors of different parts of his body. lies in the fact that we know the speaker is actually referring to his black bottom when he asks the woman if she wants to see it for herself. the speaker offers to show his backside to the racist landlady. This technique is the closest that that the speaker ever comes to openly showing anger in the poem. "wouldn't you rather / See for yourself?" The speaker. but he refuses to give it to her.probably somewhere in the United Kingdom. Although it is hidden with seemingly polite language. She wants a quantifiable expression of his darkness." and "Red double-tiered / Omnibus" are all things that one might find in Leeds. "West African sepia. She claims not to know what that means. The fact that a black man could outwit and make a white woman seem foolish shows the irony in judging people based on their skin color. though. "wouldn't you rather / See for yourself?" As it was meant to. which shows his education. 12. 23). The "Red booth. His response. a glimpse of the speaker's anger appears in this quick pause in the conversation. sounds as though he is asking whether the landlady would like to meet him in person to judge his skin color for herself. Throughout the poem. irony. He knows that she just wants a measure of his overall skin-color so that she can categorize him. this greatly annoys the landlady and she hangs up on him. Still feigning politeness. In the end. The speaker's intelligence is further shown through his use of sarcasm and wit in response to the landlady's questions. he includes subtle meanings in his speech. he asks the then empty telephone line. Words like "pipped. the British city in which Soyinka had been studying prior to writing this poem). as is the entire notion that a man can be judged based on the color of his skin. Although the landlady refuses to rent an apartment to him because of his African heritage and the supposed savagery that accompanies it. Wole Soyinka's "Telephone Conversation" is packed with subtleties. citing his passport . The conversation we observe is comical." and "spectroscopic" are not words that a savage brute would have in his vocabulary (lines 9. The irony in this question. and sarcasm employed help him to show the ridiculousness of racism." "rancid." he says. The puns. the speaker is clearly a well educated individual." his hands and feet "peroxide blonde" and his bottom "raven black". a sense of the anger running through the speaker's mind is portrayed by the repeated use of the word red. the landlady repeats her question and the speaker is forced to reveal how dark he is. still playing his ignorance of what the lady was truly asking. yet another form of irony is created by the speaker's use of high diction. .

follows. the poem moves to more recent times. introduces a theme which would recur in several other works throughout his career. The poem describes. lulls the speaker. the powerful and complex Nile with its great pyramids. the poem also discusses a spiritual level where the soul of the speaker has been and continues to be enriched by the spirit of the river. and endurance of the African soul. an eternal spirit. building. The different sections of the poem emphasize this: the speaker actually functions on two levels. and an “I” who speaks for the race. the second and third lines of the poem develop an eternal. The speaker clearly represents more than Langston Hughes. Even though the Mississippi and Congo both hold bitter connotations of the slave trade. however. underlying that identity. the individual. African civilizations. looking. of the African-American experience throughout history. Wisdom and Strength . with the mention of the Euphrates and the dawn of time. Last. Amazingly. Hughes argues for the depth. that unlike Whitman. In fact. almost a timeline in miniature. it is both polished and powerful. Hughes claimed that 90 percent of his work attempted “to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America. In fact. in 1926. Hughes invokes the poetry of Walt Whitman. the “I” of the poem becomes even more than the embodiment of a racial identity. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” treats themes Hughes explored all his life: the experiences of African Americans in history and black identity and pride. hearing. Hughes “celebrates not the America that is but the America that is to come. even before the creation of humanity. with the introduction of the Mississippi. The Weary Blues. The opening lines of the poem introduce the ancient and powerful cultural history of Africa and West Asia. another bard who “sang” America. Next the Congo. Thus. although it was composed very quickly when he was only seventeen. The form of the poem reinforces these themes. However. Many critics have classified this group as the “heritage” poems. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was the first poem published in Langston Hughes‟s long writing career. The poem first appeared in the magazine Crisis in June of 1921 and was subsequently published in Hughes‟s first volume of poetry.” Hughes‟ first published poem. to sleep. dimension in the poem. mother to Central Africa. mythic “I.” long lines. Written when he was only 19. and repeated phrases. The poem utilizes four of the world‟s largest and most historically prominent rivers as a metaphor to present a view.” Themes Heritage “The Negro Speaks of Rivers. Onwuchekwa Jemie notes in his book Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry. Onwuchekwa Jemie labels it the most profound of this group. existing before the dawn of time and present still in the twentieth century. The world‟s longest river. The poem stresses triumph over adversity as the “muddy bosom” of the Mississippi turns golden. or cosmic. The first words of lines five through eight create a picture of the speaker‟s ancestors: bathing.” Through images of rivers. each of the four has contributed to the depth of the speaker‟s soul.The Negro Speaks of the Rivers. One is the human level. in Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry. wisdom. Using a collective.

It honors the wisdom and strength which allowed African-Americans to survive and flourish in the face of all adversity. which originated when John the Baptist anointed Jesus Christ in the River Jordan. the speaker — or in other words. world history textbooks refer to the area using the symbolic phrase.The poem‟s cosmic dimension adds an additional theme making the poem more than a tribute to the heritage of the past. the African-American spirit has emerged triumphant. predating human existence. It ensured Egyptian prosperity. like that found in Biblical passages. Khnum. because of the number of ancient kingdoms which flourished there: Ur. helps to form Mesopotamia. the cradle of civilization. He describes the inspiration for the poem in his autobiography. played a central role in early civilization. Thus the river was worshipped as the god. he became endowed with the strength. Christian baptism. the collective soul — has survived indomitable. The repetition of “rivers” and “human” lends these lines a wise. Thus Hughes stresses the ancient cultural heritage of the African-American. Rivers Rivers have been a powerful force throughout human history. It is easy to understand the reason for this since most of the great early civilizations grew up in river valleys.” the speaker asserts that he. and purification. In the first two lines. Even. have an understanding of elemental forces in nature that precede civilization. He notes that being sold down the river literally meant being torn violently from one‟s own family. Poem Summary Lines 1 – 4 Speaking for the African race (“negro” was the preferred term in 1921). the soul which existed even before the “dawns were young. The Big Sea. By asserting that he has “known rivers ancient as the world. life-giving force: rivers. The poem exalts the force of character. This poem became Hughes‟ tribute to the strength and the wisdom of his people. most particularly the last few centuries of slavery. the “I” of this poem links people of African descent to an ancient.” The Mississippi suddenly seemed to be a graphic symbol of that bravery.” Hughes contrasts this attitude with his own admiration for the “bravest people possible — the Negroes from the Southern ghettoes — facing tremendous odds. represents both a symbol of purification and the entrance to new life. who made the earth fruitful.” Line 4 personalizes that comparison as the speaker compares the depth of his soul to the depth of rivers. the wisdom and strength. This tribute developed out of Hughes‟ personal life. today. Central African tribes also believed in the powerful river spirits who were sources of life. a man who baffled and frustrated Hughes because of his prejudice. The Nile. too. Sumer. the speaker refers to rivers as a natural force outside himself. wisdom. Line 3 likens the human body to earth by comparing rivers to “human blood in human veins. the power and the wisdom of the river spirit. he began “thinking about my father and his strange dislike of his own people. The Euphrates. and people of African descent. Even today. which is the first of the rivers mentioned in the poem. resonant tone. natural. Hughes associates this strength with the spirit of these rivers which Jemie describes in Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry as “transcendent essences so ancient as to appear timeless. In the space of four lines the speaker moves from historically and symbolically associating himself and his people with rivers to . Babylon. While he was crossing the Mississippi on a visit to his father. which created this survival. Yet even after centuries of brutal inhumanity in bondage. like the rivers.” Jemie continues by noting that as the black man drank of these essences.” The poem then makes clear that through all of the centuries. longer than human memory. Many early mythologies made the river — or the river god — a symbol of both life and death.

notes that “the magical transformation of the Mississippi from mud to gold by the sun‟s radiance is mirrored in the transformation of slaves into free men by Lincoln‟s Proclamation. In his later writing. he no longer viewed Africa as a mythic.” The Mississippi river is known for its muddiness. The change may represent the improved status of African Americans after the Civil War. ideas and images of primitive. Lines 5 – 7 Line 5 lets the reader know that the “I” is no mortal human speaker. the phrase again likens rivers to peoples of African descent. The speaker‟s language completes a cycle that mirrors the river‟s eternal cycling of waters around the earth and the African race‟s continuing role in human history. which runs from Lake Victoria in Uganda in Africa through Egypt to the Mediterranean. and the Mississippi. Figuratively. which turns mud into gold.” In The Life of Langston Hughes. It flows from Turkey through Syria and modern Iraq. life-affirming endurance of Africans and African Americans. Line 9 also personifies the river by endowing it with a “muddy bosom. Hughes associates the ceaselessness of the mighty river with the eternal. he builds the great pyramids. Rather than one human relationship to rivers emerging as true or primary. writing in Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry. To have “bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. the speaker must be millions of years old. but instead as a land ravaged by Western imperialism. The Euphrates River was the cradle of ancient Babylonia. for he saw such depictions of African and African-American culture as impeding rather than advancing the cause of racial equality. tribal cultures were very chic in American art and literature. the river on which several American cities were built. The Congo originates in central Africa and flows into the Atlantic. as a slave in Egypt. timeless voice of a race.” The sun‟s transformation of muddy water to gold provides an image of change. The final line reaffirms the speaker‟s sense of racial pride. whose skin is often called “dusky” or dark. but the mythic. exotic land where black identity was rooted. the speaker again associates himself with those elemental forces.metaphorically imagining rivers as part of his blood and soul. The phrase “dusky rivers” refers literally to rivers that appear brown due to mud and cloudy skies. Louis (Hughes‟s birthplace) and New Orleans. listens to its music as he falls asleep. or the power of the poet to transform reality through imaginative language. The term “bosom” is associated with women and so connotes fertility and nurturing. hope for future changes. was the site of ancient Egyptian civilization. When Hughes wrote this poem in 1921. After Hughes visited Africa in 1923. Line 8 personifies the river by giving it the human capacity to sing. Lines 11 – 13 The poem closes with the phrases that opened it. of . The Nile. By enacting the circling of time and rivers. and is consoled or inspired by the river when. culturally rich civilizations along famous rivers in the Middle East and Africa. each of these associations intertwine. Onwuchekwa Jemie. including St. the speaker establishes the race‟s ties to great. The river‟s singing invokes both the slave spirituals and songs of celebration after the slaves were freed. a symbol of lost roots. Lines 8 – 10 Here Hughes draws an analogy between the ancient rivers alongside which Africans founded civilizations. Arnold Rampersad views this transformation as “the angle of a poet‟s vision. builds his hut next to it. The speaker‟s actions show that he reveres the river and depends on it for multiple purposes. In lines 5 through 7.” in prehistory. He bathes in the water. Through this personification. Hughes steered away from images of African primitivism. These actions reinforce the notion (from lines 1-3) that peoples of African descent have ancient spiritual and physical ties to nature.

continuity with ancient. enduring forces in nature. and of connection to life-giving. . advanced civilizations.

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