Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
“My Last Duchess” is probably Browning’s most popular and most anthologized poem. The poem first appeared in 1842 in Dramatic Lyrics, which is contained in Bells and Pomegranates (1841-1846). Perhaps the major reason for the fame of “My Last Duchess” is that it is probably the finest example of Browning’s dramatic monologue. In it, he paints a devastating self-portrait of royalty, a portrait that doubtless reveals more of the duke’s personality than Ferrara intends. In fact, the irony is profound, for with each word spoken in an attempt to criticize his last duchess, the duke ironically reveals his utterly detestable nature and how far he is from seeing it himself.
Before the subtleties of “My Last Duchess” can be grasped, the basic elements of this dramatic monologue must be understood. The only speaker is the Duke of Ferrara. The listener, who, offstage, asks about the smile of the last duchess in the portrait, is silent during the entire poem. The listener is the emissary of a count and is helping to negotiate a marriage between the count’s daughter and the duke. The time is probably the Italian Renaissance, though Browning does not so specify. The location is the duke’s palace, probably upstairs in some art gallery, since the duke points to two nearby art objects. The two men are about to join the “company below” (line 47), so the fifty-six lines of the poem represent the end of the duke’s negotiating, his...
(The entire section is 1322 words.)
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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.
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...
(The entire section is 1242 words.)