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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
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!
It is easy to overlook the fact that this poem is entirely in rhymed couplets because they are not closed couplets and because they are intentionally awkward and often strained or unpleasant in order to add to the bad impression made by the Duke in his monologue. He himself confesses that he has "no skill in speech."
Browning's poem is a dramatic monologue, characterized by irony. The Duke reveals his prideful, flawed perception of the Duchess but utterly fails to exhibit any self-awareness.
The poem is Browning's interpretation of an event in Ferrara, Italy, in which the Duke of Ferrara married a second woman after the mysterious death of his first wife.
Browning is probably alluding to a real Florentine painter named Fra Fillipo Lippi, about whom Browning wrote the poem "Fra Lippo Lippi."
Because it is fashionable for powerful men to patronize artists of merit, the Duke takes great pleasure in the fact that his wife has been memorialized by Fra Pandolf.
The arrogant Duke is emphasizing his total control over all things.
This is the core of the Duke's hatred of his first Duchess--she has no perspective because she enjoys everything to do with life.
The Duke gets to the heart of his complaint: the Duchess doesn't seem to value appropriately the honor of his name, which she ranks equally with other gifts.
This statement captures the arrogant, unyielding personality of the Duke. Rather than discuss his feelings with his Duchess, which might have led to an understanding on her part, he chooses to ignore her.
In other words, the Duke made life so miserable for the Duchess that he crushed her good nature.
The Duke fails to explain what happened between the time the Duchess's smiles ceased and her death. The implication is that her death is not from natural causes.
The Duke is not after a new wife; his interest is only in her dowry, the money that she brings into the marriage. Even though in the next line he assures the Count's representative that he is only interested in the Count's daughter, not her dowry, the Duke is clearly masking his motives for the marriage.
The statue of Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, taming a fragile sea-horse, which was created especially for the Duke, is a symbol of his violent, powerful nature, and of his cruelty to those who cannot defend themselves. The Duke is, of course, completely unaware of the irony in his choice of statues. In addition to being arrogant and cruel, the Duke is also blissfully ignorant of his own nature.