In his highly memorable poem “My Last Duchess,” Robert Browning uses a variety of literary devices to enhance the effectiveness of the work. Three of the more subtle of those devices are the following:
- Indicative phrasing – that is, phrasing that points or calls attention to specific details. Such phrasing helps to make this poem especially vivid and dramatic. It gives us the feeling that “we are there” as we listen to the Duke speaking to another person. Examples of such phrasing include the following specific instances (with the key, indicative words italicized): “That’s my last duchess” (1); “That piece” (3); “there she stands” (4); “that pictured countenance” (7); “that spot” (14), etc. Each time the duke uses phrases such as these, he reminds us of the immediacy of the imagined situation: it is almost as if we are standing next to the duke and as if he is addressing us as well as the emissary to whom he is actually speaking. Each time he points to the painting and comments on some specific aspect of it, he helps us imagine it in our own mind’s eye.
- Contractions – that is, the omission of letters from phrases so that the phrases seem shorter, more casual, and more colloquial. Thus “can’t” is a contraction of “cannot”; “don’t” is a contraction of “do not,” etc. The duke uses contractions repeatedly in his monologue, as at the very beginnings of the first and fifth lines and also in lines 23-25:
. . . she liked whate'er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, 'twas all one! [emphasis added]
The use of contractions contributes very effectively to our interpretation of the duke’s personality. He is relaxed, informal, self-assured, and completely in command. He feels no need to speak formally to the emissary, whom he naturally regards as his inferior. He is not at all nervous in the presence of the emissary. He also seems completely untroubled morally by his murderous treatment of his wife. He is an egotist and will speak however he wishes. It never occurs to him that the emissary might be troubled by the story the duke tells; the duke of course assumes that he will soon be getting a new duchess to replace his old one. He feels no need to be especially courteous to the emissary, and so he speaks to him in a tone that is simultaneously colloquial and condescending, both familiar and superior.
- Repetition of first-person personal pronouns, especially “I” “my,” “myself,” and “me.” These words are used continuously throughout the poem, appearing in the following lines: 1, 2, 5, 9, 10, 11, 22, 25, 32, 33, 36, 41, 44, 45, 48, 52, and 56. Sometimes such words are used more than once in the same line. It hardly seems surprising that the very last word of the poem is “me.” By continually referring to himself, the duke displays his essential self-centeredness and self-regard. He is the center of his own universe. His wife was – and remains -- important to him merely as an object.
By using such subtle strategies as these three – even more than by using more obvious literary devices such as similes or metaphors – Browning implies a great deal about the dramatic situation, the character of the duke, and the duke’s attitudes toward others.