Robert Browning wrote “My Last Duchess” in the early part of the Victorian Era in history. His topics placed him in a category by himself since his wrote about sexuality, murder, psychological abnormalities, and psychopaths. Much of poetry had as a side interest love and beauty.
His wife Elizabeth Barrett wrote in early poetry the poem “Aurora Leigh.” Part of this poem was devoted to what makes a poem good. Two of her main tenets were that the poet writes the poem for himself, and the poem should be read and interacted with an audience.
Since Browning wrote in a time period that had at its heart austere and chaste principles, he must have written his poetry for his own pleasure. Deciding that it was important to him to write about the topics that he chose gives the reader pause when it is known that his topics were controversial. In this poem, the speaker of the poem is a psychopathic murderer who killed his wife because she was too happy, smiled too much, and was not selective enough in her means of thanking her husband for his gifts.
This poem would be a considered a classic today. Since it was written almost 180 years ago and is still being read today, obviously it has been read by many lovers of poetry. Browning’s poems were especially popular in the twentieth century and even now in the twenty-first century because of their topics, psychological insight, and harsh language. The raw power of Browning’s poetry are valued versus the “flowery” Romantic poems.
“My Last Duchess” was based on an actual historical event. A duke, Alfonso II of Ferrara, was married to one of the Medici women, a young girl Lucrezia. The Medici family was one of the most powerful and wealthy in Italy and probably Europe. She married the duke at the age of fourteen and by seventeen she was dead. She died of suspicious circumstances in 1561. After her death, the duke Alfonso eventually married another young woman of nobility. Nothing was done to question or punish the duke for Lucrezia’s death.
The poem is a dramatic monologue with the duke himself as the speaker. It is written in rhyming couplets.
The duke has a private gallery. He brings a servant to show him the picture of his last duchess. He spends most of the poem pointing out how she failed as a wife and duchess. Deploring the fact that she did not appreciate his giving her a title from his important family, this apparently was the last straw and doomed her existence; however, he never actually admits his guilt of murder.
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?
The reader learns that the man the duke brought up to see the portrait is an emissary of a rich man who has another beautiful daughter that he wants to marry. As the duke leaves the gallery, he points out another beautiful statue that he says was made especially for him. It is obvious that the duke is a megalomaniac who is satisfied only by complete adoration.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Criteria for "good poetry" was that poets should write of the age they are in rather than the old "dead" ages which have no importance or meaning anymore. Robert Browning's poem "My Last Duchess" happens during the Renaissance which was during the 14th to 17th centuries. Thus "My Last Duchess" is in the grey area of Elizabeth's idea of "good poetry" as Robert's poem does not take place long long ago, nor is it in the modern age. The story of "My Last Duchess" could happen with any royal in any time period, so Elizabeth probably approved of this poem. Besides, there are exceptions to every rule.