Discuss the poem "My Last Duchess" by Robert Browning.  Mention the tone and themes of the poem.

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Robert Browning wrote about themes of madness, jealousy, ruthlessness, and arrogance--all of which are found in his unusual poem "My Last Duchess."  Written in pre-Victorian England (1842), Browning's audience loved the mystery, evasion, and intrigue found his poetry.

The title of the poem provides important information.  The poem is in first person since the mention of "My" in the title.  Further, the subjects of the poem will refer to European nobility: Duke and Duchess.  Finally, the title portrays the Duchess as someone who is no longer alive since she is the last one.

In actuality, the inspiration for this work came from real life characters. In 1559,  Duke Alfonso Ferrara married Lucrezia Medici when she was 14.  By the age of 17, Lucrezia was dead.  Her death was under suspicious circumstances. 

In form, this is a dramatic monologue spoken by a Duke to a captive listener.  In essence, the Duke begins by pointing out the full length painting of his wife by a famous painter Fra Pandolf.  The speaker quickly gets to the heart of the matter.  Why does his wife have this blush on her face?  He has asked himself why was she blushing? He decides that she has chosen to blush and give her "spot of joy."

The poor woman dared to smile at people, to thank people, and to be generally too familiar with people.  According to the Duke, all of these emotions should have been saved only for her husband.  She was too easily made happy.  Her attitude was never serious enough. If the Duke gave her a present, she thanked him the same whether it was a corsage or jewelry. 

They did not argue because he would not stoop as low as she to argue. She was sweet to him and she smiled at him...but at everyone else as well. 

She thanked men, --good! but thanked

Somehow--I know now how--as if she ranked

My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name

With anybody's gift.

Finally, he commanded it, and the smiles ended. 

Nothing is ever established as fact, but obviously something happened to this poor girl.  Apparently, he had her killed.  Perhaps, she was sent to a nunnery or placed in a dungeon.  Whatever happened, she is his last duchess for now.

The tone of the poem runs the gamut of emotions.  He is proud of his art gallery and his painting.  His arrogance toward his relationships and his art runs throughout the poem.  Essentially, the Duke is a powerful, jealous, madman.  Who would murder his wife because she blushed or smiled too much but a lunatic.

The Duke controls his world.  From his captive listener to his beautiful art gallery, and lastly, his missing duchess--he dominates.

I choose

Never to stoop...I gave commands

Than all smiles stopped together.  There she stands

As if alive.

Browning's lesson in the poem was epitomizes the  corrupting influence of power.  This man's wife is dead, and he is without emotion for her. Now, he is hunting his next wife or should the reader say "victim." He is already wooing a Count's daughter. 

Even though the Duke recounted his disdain for his last wife, his ego-centricity will not let him pass by a sculpture prepared just for him of a seahorse that has been tamed.  His last wife could not be tamed; hopefully, for her sake, the next Duchess will learn more quickly.