My Last Duchess by Robert Browning

My Last Duchess by Robert Browning
Table of Contents
1. My Last Duchess: Introduction
2. My Last Duchess: Text of the Poem
3. My Last Duchess: Robert Browning Biography
4. My Last Duchess: Summary

5. My Last Duchess: Themes
6. My Last Duchess: Historical Context
7. My Last Duchess: Critical Overview
My Last Duchess: Essays and Criticism
¨ Dramatic Monologue
¨ Browning's My Last Duchess
¨ Art and Reality in My Last Duchess
9. My Last Duchess: Compare and Contrast
10. My Last Duchess: Topics for Further Study
11. My Last Duchess: What Do I Read Next?
12. My Last Duchess: Bibliography and Further Reading
13. My Last Duchess: Pictures
14. Copyright
My Last Duchess: Introduction
First published in the collection Dramatic Lyrics in 1842, "My Last Duchess" is an excellent example of
Browning's use of dramatic monologue. Browning's psychological portrait of a powerful Renaissance
aristocrat is presented to the reader as if he or she were simply "eavesdropping" on a slice of casual
conversation. As the poem unfolds, the reader learns the speaker of the poem, Duke Ferrara, is talking to a
representative of his fiancee's family. Standing in front of a portrait of the Duke's last wife, now dead, the
Duke talks about the woman's failings and imperfections. The irony of the poem surfaces as the reader
discovers that the young woman's "faults" were qualities like compassion, modesty, humility, delight in
simple pleasures, and courtesy to those who served her.
Using abundant detail, Browning leads the reader to conclude that the Duke found fault with his former wife
because she did not reserve her attentions for him, his rank, and his power. More importantly, the Duke's long
list of complaints presents a thinly veiled threat about the behavior he will and will not tolerate in his new
My Last Duchess 1
wife. The lines "I gave commands; / smiles stopped together" suggest that the Duke somehow, directly or
indirectly, brought about the death of the last Duchess. In this dramatic monologue, Browning has not only
depicted the inner workings of his speaker, but has in fact allowed the speaker to reveal his own failings and
imperfections to the reader.
My Last Duchess: Text of the Poem
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
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
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 pretence
My Last Duchess: Introduction 2
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!
My Last Duchess: Robert Browning Biography
Browning was born in 1812 in Camberwell, a suburb of London, to middle-class parents. His father Robert
Browning Sr., a clerk for the Bank of England, possessed cultivated artistic and literary tastes; his mother,
Sarah Anne Wiedemann, was a devout Christian who pursued interests in music and nature. Browning was an
intellectually precocious child who read at the age of five and composed his first poetry at six. He read widely
from his father's extensive rare book collection, acquiring an abundant, if unsystematic, knowledge of a broad
range of different literatures. At ten Browning began Peckam School, where he remained for four years. In
1828 he entered London University but quit school after less than a year, determined to pursue a career as a
poet. Browning lived with his parents until 1846 and so was able to devote his entire energies to his art.
Robert Browning
His literary career began in 1833 with the anonymous publication of the long poem Pauline: A Fragment of a
Confession. This was followed by Paracelsus (1835) and Sordello (1840). All three of these early works met
with mostly negative reviews. Beginning in 1841 Browning published a series of eight pamphlets collectively
titled Bells and Pomegranates (1841-45). The series contains narrative poems, including Pippa Passes (1841);
verse dramas; and two collections of shorter pieces, Dramatic Lyrics (1842) and Dramatic Romances and
Lyrics (1845). Although Browning had to this point failed to win either popular or critical esteem, his work
did gain the admiration of Elizabeth Barrett, who was a respected and popular poet in her own right. In 1844
she praised Browning in one of her works and received a grateful letter from him in response. They met the
following year, fell in love, and in 1846, ignoring the disapproval of her father, eloped to Italy, where they
spent the remainder of their life together. Their son Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning was born in 1849.
In Italy Browning continued to write, and though public success still eluded him, his works attracted
increasing respect from critics. Following Elizabeth's death in 1861, he and his son returned to England. The
appearance in 1864 of the collection Dramatis Personae finally brought Browning his first significant critical
and popular acclaim. In 1868-69 he published The Ring and the Book, a series of dramatic monologues in
My Last Duchess: Text of the Poem 3
which various speakers relate different perspectives on an actual seventeenth-century Italian murder case.
Tremendously popular, The Ring and the Book firmly established Browning's reputation. From 1868 on,
Browning was generally regarded as one of England's greatest living poets. He remained highly productive,
and the publication of his Dramatic Idyls (1879-80) and other works brought him worldwide fame. In 1881
the Browning Society was established in London for the purpose of studying his poems. Near the end of his
life he was the recipient of various honors, including a degree from Oxford University and an audience with
Queen Victoria. Following his death in 1889 during a stay in Venice, he was buried in Poet's Corner of
Westminster Abbey.
My Last Duchess: Summary
Lines 1-2:
The beginning note is meant to explain that the speaker of the poem is the Duke of Ferrara; this provides the
reader with location (Italy) and class environment (aristocratic). In the opening lines Browning sets the scene
for the poem, focusing the reader's imagination on the painting on the wall. The central premise of the poem is
put in place: the dead wife will appear to come back to life only through the artistry of the picture. Through
this, Browning allows the reader to begin to think of the woman as a real person, once very much alive, and
initiates a "relationship" between the dead woman and the reader. Once the reader begins to feel sympathy for
the woman, then the subsequent "reasons" given by the Duke concerning her "imperfections" will seem all the
more outrageous.
Lines 3-4:
Here, Browning accomplishes two things: a) an emphasis on the mastery of the artist, "Fra Pandolf," who
created a work of art that makes the dead woman seem so animated; and b) an introduction to the Duke's
subtle, mocking tone with the phrases "piece of wonder" and "busily a day". These words seem to be heavy
with ridicule and scorn for both woman and artist. At this point the reader might begin to think the Duke was
jealous of the man who "fussed" over his wife but who, ultimately created—not a masterpiece—but just a
portion of one. It should be noted that, unlike some other figures in Browning's work, Fra Pandolf—and later,
Claus of Innsbruck—is an imaginary, not historical, figure.
Line 5:
The use of the word "you" informs the reader that there is an immediate addressee within the fiction of the
poem; the speaker is not addressing the reader, but another character. More specifically, it indicates that the
speaker of the poem, the Duke, is now addressing the emissary directly, asking him to sit and gaze upon
picture of the dead woman. The reader may imagine the emissary sitting in a chair while the Duke stands and
delivers his speech. In effect, the emissary is now in a subordinate position.
Lines 6-9:
The words "by design" imply that the artist is well-known and has some prestige attached to his name. The
Duke may want to advertise that it was his own talent for hiring the right artist that was responsible for the
"life-like quality" of the picture. The Duke also stresses that all of the painting's viewers— "strangers like
you"—remark upon the painting's lifelike look. In addition, the Duke appears more taken with the painting
than with the real woman the picture represents. The image of emotion—the "passion" in the "glance"—seems
more valuable to him than genuine emotion. The use of the word "its" instead of "her" suggests that the Duke
has more of a relationship with the painting than he did with his dead wife. With these details, Browning
begins to interject the notion of the Duke's jealousy. That "passionate glance" might have been placed there by
the painter, whom the Duke probably sees as a rival for his dead wife's affection.
Lines 10-13:
These lines suggest just how striking the depth and passion of the image are, since apparently all previous
My Last Duchess: Robert Browning Biography 4
viewers have wanted to know what excited the Duchess enough to inspire that look in her eyes. The Duke also
betrays his possessiveness and desire for control when he comments that "none puts by / The curtain ... but I."
Lines 14-15:
At this point, Browning suggests more of the Duke's possessiveness, as he tells the emissary that it wasn't his
presence alone that made his wife happy or caused the "spot of joy," which may literally have been a blush.
The Duke insinuates that this blush must have come to her face from either being in the company of a lover or
from her far too impressionable and undiscriminating nature.
Lines 16-21:
The Duke begins to offer his guesses at what, aside from some illicit pleasure, might have caused the Duchess
to blush. Two readings are possible, turning on the reader's sense of how seriously the Duke believes in the
monk's vows of celibacy. If the painter was not the Duchess' lover, then her nature was simply too susceptible
to flattery for the Duke's liking.
Lines 22-34:
This section of the poem begins the Duke's long list of complaints against the Duchess. First and foremost,
she was innocent, too easily pleased and impressed. He blames her for not seeing any difference between
being the wife of a "great man" and: being able to see the sunset; receiving a bouquet from someone of status
below the Duke's; or riding a white mule. While he thinks it's fine to be courteous ("She thanked
men,—good!"), she gave all men the kind of respect that only a man with his family's rank and distinction
Lines 35-43:
Having recounted the Duchess's imperfections, the Duke announces that, even though her faults were many,
he would not lower himself— "stoop"—by telling her what bothered him. Note how the Duke tries to paint
himself as a "plain-spoken" man, one who has no "skill" in "speech." At this point in the poem, the reader may
realize the Duke is well-skilled in the uses of language. The Duke explains that, even if he had the skill to tell
the Duchess just how much she disgusted him, he would not have explained to her how and why her actions
bothered him. On one hand, he betrays a fear that she would have argued with him: "plainly set / Her wits to
yours." On the other hand, he explains that the very process of having to explain his feelings to her would
have constituted a compromise (or "stoop") to his authority.
Lines 44-48:
These lines contain the speaker's final judgement on the Duchess. The Duke recalls his dead wife's smile, and
how she never reserved her smile for him. The lines "gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together" tell
us that the Duke used his power to curb his wife's friendliness, but the words also leave the details ambiguous.
At best, he may have restricted her behavior in a way that dampened her ardor for life; at worst, he may have
ordered her assassination. The next lines, with the emphasis on "as if alive," underscore her death.
Lines 49-53:
As the poem draws to a close, the Duke redirects his attention to his upcoming marriage. He tells the emissary
that he is certain his future bride's father will give him a generous dowry. The Duke, however, wants to be
seen as a man who is more interested in his fiancee than in any money she might bring to their union. At this
point, the reader is unlikely to trust these declarations and is likely to fear for this young woman's welfare.
Lines 54-56:
The poem concludes with the final image of a god, "Neptune ," taming a sea-horse. The image of the powerful
god taking control over a creature like a sea-horse demonstrates the relationship between the Duke (Neptune)
and the last Duchess (seahorse). It is as if, by pointing out this sculpture to the emissary, the Duke is restating
his power over his future bride, as well as his more general power in the world. The final lines emphasize
My Last Duchess: Summary 5
another aspect of that power, showing not just the Duke's desire to possess rare objects of beauty, but also his
ability to do so.
My Last Duchess: Themes
The speaker's overbearing pride—or in moral terms, his hubris—is incorporated into the very situation of
Browning's monologue. In it, the Duke addresses an inferior, the emissary of a nobleman ("the Count, your
master") whose daughter he intends to make his second wife. There are financial negotiations at stake—the
matter of a dowry that the Duke intends to collect from the Count. In fact, the Duke seems in the process of
acquiring in the next Duchess an "object," to use his own word. But the actual amount of money is not the real
issue. The Duke suggests that among noblemen, whose behaviors are governed by "just pretense," no
reasonable monetary request would be denied; the negotiations, then, are in one sense a mere formality. In a
second sense, however, money functions symbolically, both in the Duke's mind and for the reader trying to
understand the Duke's motives. In his world, after all, people can be bought and sold, and the terms of their
existence can determined by those like the Duke who possess all the power in a hierarchical society. Thus, the
negotiations are really about the conditions under which the Count's daughter will become the Duke's
wife—conditions that amount to, the Duke suggests, absolute submission to his pride.
To stress this point, the Duke describes the fate of his former wife, his "last duchess." It is here that we see the
juxtaposition of the Duke's corrupt pride and the Duchess' pureness. Though he describes her affronts to his
arrogant nature, she comes across as a warm and lively woman, one loved by everybody for her ability to
enjoy life. Yet her pleasant demeanor evoked jealousy in the Duke: she was "too soon made glad, / too easily
impressed: she liked whate'er / she looked on, and her looks went everywhere." He found it insulting that she
equated his "gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name" with "anybody's gift." Clinging to his pride, however, he
considered it a form of "trifling" to display his resentment or to discuss his feelings with the Duchess—it
would have amounted to "stooping," and the Duke "chose never to stoop." Instead, he "gave commands," and
the Duchess' "looks stopped altogether." Thus, the Duke felt it was better to dispense with the Duchess
altogether than to live with a woman whose devotion was not—he believed—focused entirely upon him.
Art and Experience
The Duke's monologue both begins and concludes with the Duke drawing his listener's attention to works of
art: first, the painting of the "last Duchess," his former wife; in the final lines, a sculpture of the sea-god
Neptune taming a "seahorse." Because of this, the entire monologue—ostensibly about the failings of the late
Duchess—is actually couched in the aesthetic terms the Duke applies to human relationships. But precisely
what are those terms? On one level, they seem wrapped in the same corrupt arrogance that led to the demise
of his first wife. As he exhibits the painting and sculpture, it is clear he wants the listener to admire not so
much the works themselves as him. If they are beautiful, such beauty exists as proof of the Duke's excellent
taste and his connections with the best artists of his day. His aesthetic sense, then, is equal to his ambition: he
is obsessed with the ownership and control of beauty itself. This is evident in the way he describes the
shortcomings of the former Duchess, who was beautiful but refused to be "owned" in such a way, and in his
commentary on the Neptune sculpture, which he admires less for its intrinsic value than for the fact it is
"thought a rarity" and has been cast by a famous artist "for me."
On a second level, it becomes clear the Duke's refined taste as a collector bears no relation to the humanistic
qualities of the art itself. In the sculpture, he misses the irony we perceive: that Neptune, "taming" a creature
of natural beauty and freedom, is in fact symbolic of the Duke himself. He also fails to understand that his
appreciation for the skill with which the Duchess has been rendered on canvas is incongruous with his lack of
appreciation for the painting's real-life subject. In this way, he has not only assigned art a higher place than
life—he has also credited to art the qualities it draws from life. Thus, he is able to replace a living wife with a
My Last Duchess: Themes 6
portrait of one: "That's my last Duchess painted on the wall," he says, "looking as if she were alive." While he
reproaches the woman herself, he deems the painting "a wonder"—a form of perfection that, in his opinion at
least, life itself cannot approach. "My Last Duchess" is written in rhymed iambic pentameter, which maintains
an even beat throughout the poem.
Iambic pentameter has been said to be the most natural cadence of the English language. It consists of an
iamb, which is two syllables: an unstressed followed by a stressed. An example of an iamb might be the words
"a heart," drawn from the lines: "A heart—how shall I say? too soon made glad." The rhythm of the first two
words can be scanned with emphasis indicating a stressed syllable, and an unstressed syllable:
a heart.
Pentameter means that there are five groups of iambs in a line of poetry; each group is called a foot.
"My Last Duchess" also uses rhymed couplets, meaning that every two lines end with a rhyme. For example,
the first two lines of the poem end with the words "wall" and "call." The poetic device of the rhymed couplet,
however, is balanced by the use of enjambment, which creates the more natural cadence of a conversation.
This technique also helps to keep the even rhythm of iambic pentameter from sounding too monotonous. The
poem interrupts itself—much as the speaker of the poem interrupts himself—by inserting a question here ("how
shall I say?") or a parenthetical comment there "(since none puts by / The curtain I have drawn for you, but
I)". This device also helps to illustrate how the Duke's true motivations are breaking through the surface of his
everyday language.
My Last Duchess: Historical Context
Browning's poem, which is set in Renaissance Italy, may tell us less about the Renaissance itself than about
Victorian views toward the period. The incident the poem dramatizes comes from the life of Alfonso II, a
nobleman of Spanish origin who was Duke of Ferrara in Italy during the sixteenth century. Alfonso's first wife
was Lucrezia, a member of the Italian Borgia family and the daughter of a man who later became pope.
Although she died only three years into the marriage—to be replaced, as the poem suggests, by the daughter of
the Count of Tyrol—Lucrezia transformed the court of Ferrara into a gathering place for Renaissance artists,
including the famous Venetian painter Titian. As a result, Ferrara became exemplary of the aesthetic
awakening that was taking place throughout Italy. The term Renaissance, from the French word, actually
means "rebirth," and the time to which it refers is characterized by cultural and intellectual developments as
much as by political events. During the Renaissance, which is generally defined as the period 1350 to 1700,
Europeans experienced the resurrection of classical Greek and Roman ideals that had remained dormant since
the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century. Artists and thinkers of the Renaissance believed that
classical art, science, philosophy, and literature had been lost during the "dark ages" that followed the fall of
Rome. They held that these ideals waited to be rediscovered, and Italians in particular believed themselves to
be the true heirs to Roman achievement. For this reason, it was natural that the Renaissance should begin in
Italy, where the ruins of ancient civilization provided a continual reminder of the classical past and where
other artistic movements—the Gothic, for instance—had never taken firm hold.
Especially in Italy, the artistic achievement of the Renaissance was facilitated by a system of patronage:
wealthy individuals commissioned paintings, sculptures, and buildings to glorify their own achievements. The
works of such artists as Michelangelo Leonardo da Vinci Raphael, and Donatello come to us as a direct result
of such patronage, and their visions reflect the ideals of the period. Foremost among Renaissance ideals was
that of humanism. Like the ancient Greeks and Romans, Renaissance artists and thinkers valued the condition
of earthly life, glorified man's nature, and celebrated individual achievement. These attitudes combined to
form a new spirit of optimism—the belief that man was capable of accomplishing great things.
My Last Duchess: Historical Context 7
But there was a dark side to the Renaissance, and people of Browning's era often took a dim view toward the
era as a whole. In some ways, this view was a subtle acknowledgment of the Victorians' own shortcomings
and fears. For instance, just as Renaissance humanism seemed to elevate man at the expense of God, the
Victorians found themselves puzzling over God's existence in light of Darwinism. Similarly, the Victorians'
own experience demonstrated that the high points of civilization and progress do not necessarily coincide with
moral virtues. As England was fighting colonial wars and grappling with mass poverty in its factory towns,
Victorians looked at the Renaissance for a sense of moral superiority. And they had certain justification to do
so. For all its cultural achievement, the Renaissance was rife with corruption, perversity, and violence. The
same power that allowed wealthy families to commission great art also enabled them to crush rival individuals
or even cities, and nearly all the noble art patrons— including the Borgia family, of whom the historical "last
Duchess" was a member—had murders to answer for.
My Last Duchess: Critical Overview
In general, critics have agreed on many basic interpretive issues about "My Last Duchess." William DeVane
appears to voice common opinion when he characterizes the last Duchess as an obvious victim—as "outraged
innocence" trapped in an age when "no god came to the rescue." Readers also easily agree that the dramatic
monologue works ironically, presenting a meaning at odds with the speaker's intention: that is, the more the
Duke says, the more he loses the reader's sympathy. Critics also concur that "My Last Duchess" exemplifies
two important elements of Browning's talent for dramatic monologue: his ability to evoke the unconstrained
reaction of a person in a particular situation or crisis and his use of history to provide the appropriate historical
In support of the first element, William 0. Raymond, writing for Studies in Philology suggests that "My Last
Duchess" is a "masterpiece" because it "fuses character and incident, thought and emotion." Raymond, as
other critics have also argued, suggests that the poet uses dramatic monologue to create or isolate a single
moment in which the character reveals himself most starkly. In 1982 Clyde de L. Ryals extended this
assertion a little further, arguing that the Duke not only "tells all" in this unguarded moment, but further that
he "attempts to justify it," revealing even more of himself in the process.
Many readers have also noted that the poet creates an important historical context for the Duke, and the values
he reveals, by setting the poem in Renaissance Italy. Values that might strike us today and may even have
struck Browning's nineteenth-century readers as unacceptable—posses-siveness, haughtiness, love of
power—could have been expected in a Renaissance aristocrat, thus accounting for at least some of the Duke's
self-importance. Along these lines, several critics have praised the poem for its historical accuracy. Robert
Langbaum, in his 1957 book The Poetry of Experience; The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary
Tradition, contends that "we accept the combination of villainy with taste and manners as a phenomenon of
the Renaissance and of the old aristocratic order generally."
Langbaum introduces a less evident point when he asserts that Browning's poem takes the reader beyond
acceptance to actual sympathy with or admiration for the Duke. Langbaum acknowledges that the Duchess is
the first object of reader sympathy—"no summary or paraphrase would indicate that condemnation is not our
principle response"— but also proposes that the form of dramatic monologue disposes the reader to suspend
moral judgement and possibly to identify with the Duke. Not only do we admire the Duke's power and taste,
according to Langbaum, but we also have no choice but to be "overwhelmed" by his speech, just as the envoy
is. Ryals echoes this reading in 1982 when he contends that, because the Duke "is a fascinating character,
bigger than life," the reader must hold "two conflicting views of the same individual."
My Last Duchess: Critical Overview 8
My Last Duchess: Essays and Criticism
Dramatic Monologue
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
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, Fra Pan-dolf, 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 kind
and happy lady, who evidently enjoyed whatever she experienced? "I gave commands," the Duke says, "Then
all smiles stopped together." He says for a second time, "There she stands / As if alive," suggesting that the
lady is no more. And yet, strangely, he shows no compunction for his actions.
My Last Duchess: Essays and Criticism 9
As we make this discovery about the fate of his last wife, the Duke changes the direction of his speech to his
auditor. "Will't please you rise?" he asks, and suggests that they go below to meet other guests, dismissing the
difference in his and his guest's ranks by stating generously, "Nay, we'll go / Together down, sir." The Duke
then provides us with a hint as to the identity of his auditor. He speaks to the man of "the Count your master,"
and hints that this Count's reputed wealth will surely provide the Duke with an ample dowry, a sum of money
given by a bride's father to her new husband. These details indicate, ironically, that the Duke's guest is a
messenger from a Count, and that his mission is to arrange a marriage between the Duke and the Count's
daughter. At this point, do we believe the Duke when he assures us that it is not the money, but the Count's
"fair daughter's self that is his "object?" Or perhaps it is both, for the word "object" seems to be an important
one in making a final assessment of the Duke's character. He is a collector of art objects, after all, and he
seems to enjoy showing off his rich collection. After all, the whole occasion of his speech has been an
explanation of the origin of a portrait of his former wife. Moreover, on the way out of his art gallery, he takes
the time to point out one final art object to his guest: "Notice Neptune, though / Taming a sea-horse, thought a
rarity, / 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, hoping to impress his guest. The subject
of the sculpture adds to our reaction to the Duke's story; here a powerful god subdues a wild seahorse, much
as the Duke has subdued his former Duchess. And as Claus of Innsbruck has caught this image for him in
bronze, he has had Fra Pandolf catch his wife's "spot of joy" in a painting which can handily be hidden behind
a curtain, at last giving the Duke complete control over whom his wife smiles at ("since none puts by / The
curtain I have drawn for you, but I"). The final two words seem to say it all in summing up what the Duke
values: after all, the sculpture of Neptune was cast "for me!"
Ironically, despite the fact that the Duke simply tells us the story of his first wife and how her portrait came to
be painted, 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," and that he is quite proud of
his art collection. As Neptune tames the sea-horse, he has tamed a former wife, 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. He is no longer subject to the "trifling" situation of her constant
smiling, and he can now control whom she smiles at and who is exposed to her beauty. Much of the dramatic
irony in the poem, however, lies in the identity of the auditor. 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. Some critics have even suggested that in this speech made to the man sent to negotiate his second
marriage, the Duke is cleverly indicating what kind of behavior he will expect in his new wife. Nevertheless,
knowing what we now know about this Duke, who would lead another unsuspecting young girl into such a
Despite his wish to impress us with himself and to detract from his last Duchess' qualities, Browning's
self-satisfied Duke ironically manages instead to paint her as a gentle and lovely person and himself as
somewhat of a monster. He is truly a paradoxical, yet not entirely unappealing, character despite one's
reaction to his morality by the end of the poem. It is hard not to be drawn into his skillful speech, 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. His pride in his painting, his willingness to dwell on the
loveliness and virtues of his earlier wife despite his feelings about her, his generosity toward his guest, and his
enthusiasm for his collection—stopping to comment on one last 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.
Source: Arnold Markley, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.
Arnold Markley is a freelance writer who has contributed essays and reviews to Approaches to Teaching D.
H. Lawrence's Fiction and The Journal of the History of Sexuality. He is currently an Assistant Professor in
English at Penn State University, Media, PA.
Dramatic Monologue 10
Browning's My Last Duchess
Few teachers of Browning's "My Last Duchess" fail to encounter a common undergraduate assessment of the
Duchess as at best a flirt, at worst a faithless wife. Usually unaccompanied by evidence, this assessment is
easily dismissed by a practiced reader, especially inasmuch as received opinion enshrines the Duchess as a
model of spontaneity and innocent joy and a victim of her ego-maniacal husband. While I believe the
Duchess's character to be almost precisely what received opinion holds it to be, I would like to assert that the
vague appraisal of the Duchess as flirtatious or unfaithful is a misappraisal only because incomplete. In fact,
because the Duke is the source of this misrepresentation, ignoring it robs us of another example of his
cunningly disavowed skill in speech and obscures Browning's art.
The misrepresentation of the Duchess begins when the Duke, anticipating the emissary's question of how the
"spot of joy" in Fra Pandolf's portrait of the Duchess came to be on her cheek, readily explains its presence.
Quickly he admits '"t was not / Her husband's presence only" that caused the blush, a statement superficially
correct but whose negative phrasing forces a misconception. When he later reveals that a white mule or a calm
sunset are presences that could stir his lady, one can see that "not her husband's presence only" has as its
positive statement "The presence of many delightful things." But the positive rendering can also be
understood as "The presence of men other than her husband," an implication accentuated when the Duke in
the next line attributes the blush to Fra Pandolf's remarks. And it is these remarks—the way now prepared for
them—that do most to taint the Duchess. While the first of these comments appears innocent enough—merely
posing instructions to the lady—its syntax, as will be seen shortly, provides a telling complication. But the next
remark from Fra Pandolf, that " 'Paint must never hope to reproduce the faint / Half-flush that dies along her
throat,'" is an utterance no man could make directly to a woman without clear intention; if made directly, it
can hardly be characterized as "courtesy," as the Duke quickly does. In fact, given the poem's social milieu,
such verbal liberties with a Duke's wife would be unthinkable unless some encouragement prompted them.
Thus artfully informed—and misguided—the emissary (and the naive reader) can respond in only one way to
later remarks by the Duke that "she liked what'er / She looked on, and her looks went everywhere" or that she
ranked the gift of a cherry bough from some officious fool with her lord's "favour at her breast."
The truth of the situation is apparent when the portrait-painting scene is properly visualized. It contains not
Fra Pandolf and his subject alone, but is presided over by the Duke, keeping a close watch over his Duchess as
well as a sharp eye on the manufacture by a hireling artist of yet another object for his collection.
The Duke's presence there, fully in keeping with his character as revealed throughout the poem, accounts for
the ambiguous syntax of his direct quotation of Fra Pandolf. In the first comment the Duke attributes to him,
Fra Pandolf apparently speaks to the Duchess in the third person ("Her mantle laps / Over my lady's wrist too
much"), a familiar convention of formality by which nobility is often addressed. This convention prepares the
emissary to assume the recipient of the second comment also to be the Duchess, and to do so because of the
continued employment of the third person. Moreover, because the Duke is relating Fra Pandolf s comment to
the emissary, his words may be taken not as direct quotation, which they are, but as paraphrase, whereby the
"her" is understood to be reportorial substitution for an original "your." Through such verbal legerdemain the
emissary is doubly misled and, carried onward by the Duke's eloquence, is left with the uneasy,
half-apprehended sense that Fra Pandolf s second remark was, as previously argued, a seductive compliment,
likely welcomed and perhaps even encouraged.
But with the Duke present at the portrait painting, the compliment on the Duchess's appearance is addressed
by Fra Pandolf to him and becomes a sycophant's flattery of his patron's choice in women. As such, it is
flattery emptied of the sexual implications that the Duke supplies in his reporting. In fact, returning to the
utterance, "Sir, 't was not / Her husband's presence only," one sees that the artistry of the Duke's admission
stems from its being larded with innuendo and at the same time accurate: his presence at the painting of the
Browning's My Last Duchess 11
portrait was not the sole cause of the Duchess's spot of joy, but even Fra Pandolf s fawning remarks
There is no need to think that the Duke is conscious of his implications: given his excessive pride, his refusal
ever to stoop, he could hardly tolerate allowing another to believe his Duchess unfaithful to him, especially
through his own revelation, however subtle. Yet the implications are not entirely accidental on his part and
can be seen as one of the poem's great strengths. What are the snares of language in the service of the
thwarted human will? As he believes is only his right, the Duke attempts to acquire another Duchess who will
respond solely to him, and to that end he tells his last Duchess's story. In so doing he reveals a colossal ego.
But through his very skill in speech he betrays that ego, for his subtle and unconscious slander of his last
victim exposes at bottom an instinctive self-justifier, or at least a man predictably insecure behind a tyrant's
swagger. All in all, the Duke's account of the presence of the spot of joy in the portrait does not condemn his
Duchess to a moral position tending to excuse his actions toward her, but instead reinforces the poem's
greatest achievement: the delineation of an ego sustained by use of language both subtle and audacious.
Paradoxically, it is an ego exposed and undercut by the medium with which it seeks to dominate its world.
Source: Michael G. Miller "Browning's My Last Duchess'" in The Explicator, Vol. 47, No. 4, Summer, 1989
pp. 32-34.
Art and Reality in My Last Duchess
As Browning explained to a literary group, the Duke's "design" in mentioning Fra Pandolf at the beginning of
"My Last Duchess" is "To have some occasion for telling the story, and illustrating part of it." Although
accurate when fully understood, his explanation is subtly misleading in that it permits commentators to
dismiss the Duke's reference to the painter as an unimportant conversational gambit. A typical example is B.
R. Jerman's recent suggestion that the "first mention of the artist is, as it were, bait. The envoy may have
exclaimed, 'What a beautiful portrait! Who on earth did it?"Picasso, of course!' the Duke replies. The bait is
out, and the Duke knows, from having stalked other prey, what questions such a man as the envoy would ask."
I contend that the Duke's reference to the painter is part of his answer to a definite aesthetic question with
which he is directly concerned in all but the last few lines of his monologue, and that if one simply dismisses
it, he fails to appreciate (1) the Duke's ironic misunderstanding of the proper relationship between reality and
art, (2) the rationale of his attack on the Duchess, and (3) the degree to which, as W. C. DeVane says, he
"reduces his Duchess to an object of art."
In the first place, whether he actually states it or simply implies it by his reaction, the envoy apparently poses
his question after the Duke's first mention of Fra Pandolf, not before. The Duke and his visitor, on a tour of
the palace, pause in one of the upper galleries while the Duke draws a curtain to reveal the fresco portrait of a
woman. Identifying it as his "last Duchess," he remarks that he considers it "a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf s
hands / Worked busily a day, and there she stands." Either at this point or immediately after he has been
invited to "sit and look at her," the envoy asks "How such a glance came there." If he questions the glance
before the Duke begins to speak, the first four lines of the poem would be almost garrulously beside the point,
but if he does so after the brief introductory remarks, the Duke's next sentence is perfectly apposite. "I
mentioned Fra Pandolf on purpose," he says, "because every stranger who has been permitted to see this
portrait has asked me (at least by the implications of his attitude) precisely the same question which you have
just asked." What Mr. Jerman calls "the bait," then, would seem to be the portrait itself, and the identification
of the painter a part of the Duke's answer to a question which he has fully anticipated and is perhaps eager to
Art and Reality in My Last Duchess 12
But the question is not "Who painted it?" It is "What accounts for this expression?" We must recognize that no
matter what our conception of the living Duchess may be, the Duchess of the portrait is not laughing or even
smiling. Her expression is specifically described as an "earnest" (i.e., serious) look revealing "depth and
passion" set off by only a "spot / Of joy" in the "cheek." And it is as the Duke describes it. Phelps' argument
that his description is "intense irony, in ridicule of the conventional remarks made by previous visitors" is
clearly contradicted by the evidence. Every stranger who had seen the portrait was moved not merely to
comment on it, but to question it, and always in the same way. If they were all merely uttering conventional
praise or inquiring about the painter, why should they be afraid to speak, as the Duke says they were? There
must be something in the Duchess' glance which infallibly calls forth a question about its sources, and it
seems doubtful that a simple smile, or indeed anything less than the complex expression which the Duke
describes, would be sufficient to do so in every instance. Even if one were to argue that the question is a
strategic one manufactured by the Duke and imputed by him to the strangers and the envoy, the fact remains
that he, at least, considers the glance remarkable enough to justify explanation.
As the Duke fully understands, the question stimulated by this intriguing glance involves not only the
relationship between the portrait and the living woman, but certain conscious or unconscious assumptions
about that relationship. In asking "How such a glance came there," the strangers and the envoy show that they
take the portrait to be a reflection of the Duchess' total personality, of her reaction to some specific
circumstance, or of both at once. They further reveal that they do not consider the portrait an end in itself: they
assume (since they are, significantly, strangers who did not know her) that the living Duchess was more
interesting and perhaps even more complex than her portrait suggests. Having anticipated this question, the
Duke had begun in his first remarks to the envoy to expound what he apparently considers a remarkable irony:
there was nothing in the situation nor in the living Duchess' personality to correspond to the complexity of her
painted expression. He mentioned Fra Pandolf because the painter was solely responsible for whatever is of
interest in the Duchess' expression. That is why he considers the portrait "a wonder."
What has heretofore escaped notice is that his entire indictment of the Duchess is not a gratuitous attack, but
the logical, fully developed continuation of this answer. Sexual jealousy and fierce, even psychotic
possessiveness may well be his fundamental motivation, but his primary, conscious motive is to explain the
contrast between the portrait and the living model. To argue that he denounces the Duchess because of "the
depth and passion of her earnest glance" is to obscure the richest irony of his lecture. He is able to maintain
his tone of chillingly casual objectivity because he is convinced that the living Duchess was quite unlike the
portrait. The situation to which she was reacting was no more than a few trivial compliments ("stuff) uttered
by the painter. She was not "deep" but excessively shallow and undiscriminating: "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!" This is proved to his satisfaction by her ranking of art, "My favour at
her breast," with what he considers trivial natural delights—sunset, a "bough of cherries," a ride on a white
mule. And he is perhaps more contemptuous of her taste than jealous of her person when he remarks that "she
ranked / My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name / With anybody's gift." As for her "earnest glance" in the
portrait, that too was Fra Pandolf s work: the living Duchess, he insists, was a fatuously good natured woman
who smiled at everyone who passed. She missed and exceeded "the mark" in so many ways that the Duke
found her, as he says, disgusting.
It is needless to comment on the more obvious irony of this indictment. For most readers, the Duchess
emerges as an innocent, admirable woman while the Duke unconsciously reveals his own shocking arrogance,
cruelty, and emptiness. Not so obvious is the bearing of his answer on the problem of possessiveness
itself—the degree to which he is successful in reducing the Duchess (or as he seems to think, elevating her) to
the level of a work of art. The key to this question, kept by Fra Pandolf opens up two alternative answers.
While we cannot know the portrait except in the Duke's description of it, we can legitimately ask whether it is
a "good" or a "bad" likeness on the same grounds that we ask about the true nature of the Duchess. That is,
has Fra Pandolf given the admirably ingenuous Duchess a conventional "depth and passion"? Or has he
Art and Reality in My Last Duchess 13
perceived in her a depth which was really there but which the Duke was unaware of?
If we accept the first hypothesis, arguing that the work is a typical court painting cynically calculated to please
the Duke and perhaps flatter the Duchess, then the Duke's possession of her is more complete than anyone has
realized. Since he has given "commands" which apparently led to her death, she continues to exist only as an
artifact which he controls with a curtain. But most important, he (or at least his agent Fra Pandolf) has altered
her nature to make her conform to the characteristics which the Duke values. In this, his taste is less than
admirable: he places a higher valuation on an essentially unrealistic court painting than he does on living
reality, and he regards a painting as "a wonder" simply because it flatters his prejudices. The other alternative,
that Fra Pandolf perceived and caught the Duchess' true "depth and passion," may have equal support in the
poem. In the course of the Duke's remarks, we become convinced that the Duchess was not really shallow and
fatuous, and it is not difficult to believe her capable of the depth which the portrait reveals. At least one
"officious fool" admired her, and it may be that Fra Pandolf also admired and meant it when he said that art
could never hope to do justice to her beauty. Above all, the painting is apparently good enough to call forth an
intense reaction from everyone who sees it. If it is indeed a true likeness in this sense, the Duchess escapes the
Duke in the painting as she escapes the charges of his indictment. Her real depth of soul, caught in the
portrait, is revealed to everyone but the Duke, and he, admiring the painting for its expression but failing to
see that art in this instance truly reflects reality, is again convicted of tastelessness and lack of discrimination.
In "My Last Duchess," then, the Duke's reference to Fra Pandolf is "an occasion for telling the story" in that it
introduces a topic which the Duke wants to expound, and it is a means of "illustrating" his thesis that reality,
the living Duchess, was infinitely less admirable and less complicated than the Duchess "painted on the wall."
Others, particularly Hiram Corson, have noticed that "the Duke values his wife's picture wholly as a picture,
not as the ... reminder of a sweet and lovely woman," but they have failed to perceive either the full
implications and rationale of this choice or the extent of its contribution to the characterization and structure
of the poem. Whatever else the monologue may reveal about character, motive, and action, it is presented as
the Duke's fluent answer to an aesthetic question involving the relationship between art and reality.
Source: Stanton Millet "Art and Reality in 'My Last Duchess'" in The Victorian Newsletter, No. 17, Spring,
I960, pp. 25-27.
My Last Duchess: Compare and Contrast
1842: English social reformer Edwin Chadwick publishes "Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population
of Great Britain." The report, which exposes the poor conditions and high disease rate among England's
factory workers, shocks the public and raises the need for reform.
Today: While the living conditions of workers in advanced nations remain acceptable, annual United Nations
reports on conditions in Third World countries show workers experience ongoing poverty, disease, and
occupational danger.
1843: A British force of 2,800 men under Sir Charles Napier defeats a 30,000-man Baluch Army, forcing
India's Muslim emirs of Sind to surrender their independence to the East India Company.
Today: Great Britain relinquishes Hong Kong, the jewel of its remaining Asian colonial possessions, to the
Republic of China. To many, the event symbolizes the increasing transfer of European power to other parts of
the world.
1846: After a series of crop failures, Parliament repeals the Corn Laws, reducing tariff duties on imported
goods and opening the door to free trade.
My Last Duchess: Compare and Contrast 14
Today: Britain's political debate centers on whether the country should relinquish the pound in favor of the
Euro. The single multinational currency is favored by the European Union, which proposes to make Europe a
single economic entity.
My Last Duchess: Topics for Further Study
Much has been said about the Duke's account of his former wife's fate: "I gave commands; / Then all smiles
stopped together." What precisely does the Duke mean by these lines'? How can we tell? Why do you think
Browning lets the Duke express the most dramatic part of his story in such brief and cryptic terms?
The Duke reproaches the late Duchess' character, but the reader might come away from the poem with an
entirely different view of her. What can we tell about the Duchess from the Duke's own account of her? What
does his description of her "shortcomings" tell us about her, and what do they tell us about the Duke?
Part of the poem's impact comes from the Duke's certainty that he has behaved properly. As an exercise, write
a two-page monologue in which someone confesses to a crime for which he feels no remorse. Before you
begin, consider your approach. What tone will your speaker adopt? What words will he choose to describe the
crime itself? What justification can he offer for what he has done?
My Last Duchess: What Do I Read Next?
Robert Browning: Robert Brainard Pearsall gives a substantive look at Browning's life and ideas, with
continual reference to the poems themselves.
Maisie Ward presents a colorful and readable account of Browning's life and times in Robert Browning and
His World.
My Last Duchess: Bibliography and Further Reading
DeVane, William C, "The Virgin and the Dragon," in The Yale Review Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, September,
1947, pp. 33-46.
Friedland, Louis S., "Ferrara and My Last Duchess," in Studies in Philology Vol. 33, 1936, pp. 656-84.
Jerman, B. R., "Browning's Witless Duke," and Perrine, Laurence, "Browning's Shrewd Duke," in
Publications of the Modern Language Association Vol. 72, June, 1957, pp. 488-93.
Langbaum, Robert, The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition New
York: Random House, 1963.
Langbaum, Robert, "The Dramatic Monologue: Sympathy versus Judgement," in The Poetry of Experience:
The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition, Random House, 1957, pp. 75-108.
Raymond, William O., "Browning's Casuists," in Studies in Philology, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, October, 1940,
pp. 641-66.
Ryals, Clyde de L., "Browning's Irony," in The Victorian Experience: The Poets, edited by Richard A. Levine,
Ohio University Press, 1982, pp. 23-46.
My Last Duchess: Topics for Further Study 15
For Further Study
Atlick, Richard D., Victorian People and Ideas, New York: Norton, 1973.
An overview of Victorian culture and history, presented thematically as a companion to the literature of the
McCarthy, Mary, The Stones of Florence, New York: Harvest Books, 1963.
Writing about its most significant city, McCarthy paints a compelling picture of the Renaissance in all its
glory and corruption.
Pater, Walter, The Renaissance, Chicago: Pandora Books, 1978.
A Victorian, Pater resurrects the great figures of the Renaissance. His biographical sketches tell not only of
the period about which he writes but also about his nineteenth-century audience, which had grown skeptical of
its Renaissance legacy.

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