My Last Duchess Summary

In Robert Browning's poem “My Last Duchess,” the duke of Ferrara addresses an emissary of the count whose daughter the duke intends to marry.

  • The duke begins describing his deceased first wife while admiring a painting of her. She was a kind and courteous woman who was easily pleased.
  • Though the duke's descriptions are at first flattering, it becomes clear that he resented the duchess's attentions to others.
  • The duke sinisterly remarks that he "gave orders" resulting in the duchess's ultimate silence.
  • The poem concludes as the duke reveals his intention to marry again.

Summary

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Introduction

Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” was first published in his 1842 collection Dramatic Lyrics, where it was initially given the title “Italy.” The poem exemplifies the dramatic monologues upon which Browning’s contemporary reputation largely rests. The poem’s speaker is the duke of Ferrara, who shows a portrait of his late wife to the emissary of a count whose daughter he intends to wed. The duke’s remarks subtly reveal the depths of his own jealousy.

Summary

The poem begins with a subtitle announcing the setting: “FERRARA.” In the first line, the speaker gestures to a portrait on the wall of “my last Duchess,” who looks “as if she were alive.” These details, along with the subtitle, indicate that the speaker is the duke of Ferrara and that he is discussing his deceased wife. The duke admires the artistry of the portrait, which was rendered by a painter named Fra Pandolf, and invites his addressee to take a seat.

The duke says that strangers, such as his addressee, who look upon the duchess’s portrait always seem to want to ask the duke about the “depth and passion” of her expression, just as the addressee does now. In saying this, the duke remarks that he keeps the portrait behind a curtain that only he may draw aside.

The duke then begins to answer the question. Pointing out the “spot of joy” on the duchess’s cheek, he suggests that his presence was not the only cause of this blush. As he worked on the painting, Fra Pandolf requested that she draw back the cloak covering her wrist and later noted that his painting should not hope to depict the “half-blush” on her neck. The duke suspects that the duchess falsely interpreted these comments as compliments, provoking the depicted blush.

The duke expands on this last observation, noting that the duchess had a heart “too soon made glad.” In his view, she lacked discernment, reacting to everything she encountered with equal appreciation and enjoyment. The duke lists several examples of things she reacted to favorably: his compliments on her breast, a view of a sunset, a cherry branch presented to her by “some officious fool,” and the mule she would ride. These various objects or events elicited the same appreciative response from the duchess, usually a word of approval or a blush. The duke brings up a final example, one he found particularly maddening. The duchess would thank many men for the various gifts they offered her, but she viewed these gifts as being equal in value to the duke’s greatest gift to her, his “nine-hundred-years-old name.” Apparently, her very title as duchess meant no more to her than anything else.

In response to the duchess’s lack of discernment, the duke felt that he could not raise the issue with her. It was such a minor matter that the duke would have embarrassed himself to criticize her for it. Even if he had the eloquence to make such a complaint, which claims to lack, he would have debased himself in trying to correct her behavior, whether she would have taken the advice to heart or retorted with a justification or excuse. The duke finishes this point by saying, “I choose / Never to stoop.”

The duke adds that the duchess always smiled when he passed by her, but he reiterates his criticism, noting that everyone who passed by her received the same smile. He then enigmatically remarks that this trend continued until he issued some commands, at which point her smiles ceased altogether. Now, the duchess only exists in this portrait, where she “stands / As if alive.”

The duke then invites his addressee to rise and go with him downstairs, where they plan to meet others. He brings up the business for which the addressee has come to his estate. The addressee is an emissary for an unnamed count, and the duke clarifies his intentions to marry the count’s beautiful daughter. Citing the count’s wealth and generosity, he underscores that he will request a considerable dowry and that it will be appropriate to do so.

Before they head downstairs, the duke asks the addressee to look at one more artwork: a bronze sculpture of Neptune taming a "sea-horse." It is a rare piece, completed for the duke by Claus of Innsbruck.

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