Please describe the tone of Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess." 

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess" is my favorite of this author's poems. Perhaps one of the reasons is the tone of the poem.

More often than not, we (as readers) are quick to react to the mood—which is the author's intention. However, some people think that the mood and tone are the same. There actually is a significant difference. While the mood is how the audience is supposed to feel about the subject of the writing, the tone is how the author feels about the subject. In this poem, it is an interesting distinction. The speaker in the poem is actually a raging, jealous and murderous man—however, at first reading, the reader might only come away with a sense of distaste. (It is important to always read a poem at least twice, carefully, to get what you missed in the previous reading.)

Upon closer study, the reader may be able to perceive (especially by the reaction of the narrator's audience to his speech) that the author is probably insane. Specifically, by the end of the poem, the Count's envoy is ready to leave and the Duke of Ferrara tells him that he will go with the man and greet the Count; then a second time the Duke has to insist he will accompany the man. (We may infer that the envoy does not like what he hears from the Duke and is anxious to part company with his host.)

So, if the mood (how the reader feels) is one of disgust or even horror, is the author (Browning) feeling the same way? In my opinion, the author is repulsed and offended by the narrator's (the Duke's) behavior; we can see this in the details the speaker offers as he comments on the behavior of his wife. However, more importantly by far, are the details we can glean as Browning provides telling descriptions of the Duke's responses.

Of Browning's poem it is said:

In [the poem, Browning] paints a devastating self-portrait of royalty, a portrait that doubtless reveals more of the duke’s personality than [the Duke of] Ferrara intends.

The Duke of Ferrara is the speaker. Ironically, his criticism of his wife reflects poorly on him, not on her.

We learn that the Duke hires a monk to paint his wife's portrait—in one day. We sense that he was jealous of her and would not allow her alone in the company of another, even if it were a man who had vowed to live a chaste life. He notes that the monk's compliments, and not only her husband's presence, brought "that spot / Of joy" (14-15) to her cheeks. He complains that she was kind to everyone—which is irksome to him. It seems unreasonable that a man would be angry that his wife was a nice person—for there is never any indication that she was ever behaved inappropriately with anyone. The only real problem is the Duke's skewed perceptions.

The Duke points out that it was small things that she prized:

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 thanked
Somehow -- I know not how -- as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. (25-34)

He places his "favour" or approval, of her at the top of the list of things for which she should be thankful. He also points out that she was happy to see a sunset, to receive a "bough of cherries" and or ride on her "white mule," but he finds no joy in his wife's delight in the world around her. A husband might complain if his wife was never happy, but the Duke is annoyed not only that she was happy, but also because she found anything wonderful other than being married to him. He is exceedingly miffed that she found equal satisfaction in having his age-old family name that she also experienced with a sunset or a white mule. His over-inflated ego perceives that she is not as impressed with his title and name as he thinks she should be—but that she shows equal pleasure in all things.

Browning draws for us a mental picture of a member of the aristocracy that believes himself to be by far the most important person in the world, who demanded that his wife believe the same.  

Undoubtedly, though, the most dominant feature of the duke’s personality is a godlike desire for total control of his environment [...] the duke sees himself as a god who has tamed/will tame his duchess.

Unfairly, Ferrara would not stoop to tell his wife what about her "disgusts" him. She angered him without knowing why. She smiled at him the same way she smiled at everyone, and he resented this.

However, then everything changes:

Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. (43-47)

It should not be missed that the Duchess must be dead for how else would he be able to arrange for a second marriage? We can infer that the more she smiled at others (which would seem to be her natural character—being pleasant to all she met), the angrier the Duke became until he gave "commands." We read that all her smiles stopped completely, and we can infer that she did not experience depression or shed tears, but that she died. We can also infer that his command was the order to have her murdered! Even more appalling is that he does not miss a beat in his conversation as he slides from this statement smoothly on to the image of the painting, where (he notes) its subject stands as if alive.

Browning's tone seems to be this: here is a man who expects the world to bow to him. Here is a man who will not be dominated by law or morality: he uses his position and wealth to live as he pleases, answerable to no one. Even now he plans to marry again to receive a rich dowry to further support his lifestyle. We can assume that Browning detested members of the nobility who saw themselves as gods and treated others without concern, were accountable to no one, and were capable of criminal behavior without fear of punishment or censure.

Browning's structure of the poem also supports the tone:

Interestingly, unlike the traditional neoclassic heroic couplet, where lines are end-stopped, Browning favors enjambment, and the run-on line suggests the duke’s inability to control everything—his inability to be a god.

Browning artfully passes judgment on the Duke of Ferrara—the man whose own words find him guilty—while also providing a glimpse into the tyrannical power practiced by some members of the aristocracy, living a life of privilege during the 19th Century.