Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue “My Last Duchess” is his best-known and most frequently anthologized poem. What makes it so emotionally effective is the strong contrast between the speaker and the subject of his monologue. The speaker is a thoroughly loathsome man, while his last duchess was obviously not only a beautiful but a loving and lovable young woman. The woman and the man are like Beauty and the Beast.
The arrogant Duke, who had the exceedingly bad taste to show a portrait of his dead wife to the representative of the man whose daughter he was planning to marry, reveals his character in everything he says--but Browning has added a peculiar touch which serves to characterize the Duke even more effectively than the contents of his monologue. That is to be found in the open couplets which are so deliberately ragged, staggered, awkward, discordant and forced that they serve as proof of the Duke’s own admission that he has no skill in speech and highlight his ignorance, insensitivity and vulgarity. Here are a few examples:
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
--E’en then would be some stooping, and I choose
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!
It the entire poem is read with particular attention to the open couplets, the calculated awkwardness of the meter and the rhymes becomes strikingly obvious.
The Duke’s monologue fails to explain exactly what it was he found wrong with his lovely young wife. But the evidence he gives against himself seems to lead to the conclusion that he wanted to get rid of her because she could not be like him—which would have been the last thing she could have done and the last thing that would ever have occurred to her.
This reveals an aspect of human nature relating to people who are just basely not good. Shakespeare in King Lear has the Duke of Albany make the exceedingly astute observation that “Wisdom and goodness to the vile seem vile: Filths savour but themselves.” That is the case with Browning’s proud, greedy, sadistic, insensitive, and ignorant Duke: because he had no capacity for goodness himself, he couldn't tolerate his duchess' sweet nature.