Robert Browning's poem "My Last Duchess" is a splendid example of the irony that a poet can achieve within the format of the dramatic monologue, a poetic form in which there is only one speaker. When there is only one speaker, we necessarily have to weigh carefully what he or she is telling us, and we often have to "read between the lines" in keeping an objective perspective on the story or incidents that the speaker describes to us. We can gather from this poem's setting, "Ferrara," a town in Italy, as well as from the speaker's reference to his "last Duchess," that the speaker in this poem is the Duke of Ferrara. Twentieth-century scholars have found a viable prototype upon whom Browning may have based this characterization in the figure of Alfonso II, fifth Duke of Ferrara, who lived in the sixteenth century, and whose first wife died under mysterious circumstances. But what kind of person is this Duke, and what exactly is the story of his last duchess? To find out, let's take a closer look at what he tells us.
First of all, it is evident that the Duke is speaking to someone, and that he is showing his auditor a painting. "That's my last Duchess painted on the wall," he says, and then explains that the painter, Fra Pandolf, "worked busily a day, and there she stands." The Duke then describes the usual reaction that people have to viewing this painting—a reaction specifically to the Duchess' "earnest glance." He says that strangers often turn to him as if to ask "How such a glance came there," and then tells his auditor, "so, not the first / Are you to turn and ask thus." But has his auditor actually asked the Duke a question, or is the Duke simply making an assumption, based upon a look on his guest's face, that he is reacting to the painting as every other viewer has reacted to it? If he is jumping to a conclusion in the case of this latest viewer, then how do we know that he is right about other people's reactions to the painting? Perhaps he sees in other people's looks what he wants to see. We will need to remember this possible aspect of the Duke's character as we continue to listen to his story.
Next the Duke elaborates on his last Duchess' glance in the portrait, and calls it a "spot of joy." But it was not his presence only that caused her to smile in such a way, he says. The painter, Fra Pan-dolf, may have said anything from the simple " 'Her mantle laps / Over my lady's wrist too much,'" to the much more flattering " 'Paint / Must never hope to reproduce the faint / Half-flush that dies along her throat,'" and the lady's reaction would be this same, blushing "spot of joy." The Duke then tells us more about his lady's likes. She had a heart "too soon made glad," he says, and she was too easily pleased by everything she looked on. "Sir, 'twas all one!" he says to his listener, listing the things that pleased her: the Duke's own favor, a beautiful sunset in the west, a bough of ripe cherries from the orchard, a white mule she loved to ride—each of these things she enjoyed to the same degree, and each brought the same blush of pleasure to her cheek.
Finally we get to the heart of the Duke's problem with his former wife. She thanked people who pleased her, which was all well and good...
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in theory, but she thanked them all with equal affection, "as if she ranked / My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name / With anybody's gift.'-' The Duke seems to have been offended that she did not single him out among the others who pleased her, and underrated his gift of a well-established name and proud family heritage. She smiled, he says, whenever he passed her, "but who passed without / Much the same smile?" And how did the Duke react to this? "Who'd stoop to blame / This sort of trifling?" he asks his auditor. The whole business is beneath him. Even if he had "skill / In speech," it would be stooping to address such a situation, and he tells his listener that he indeed does not have skill in speech. This statement is ironic, for the Duke actually seems to be quite a polished speaker, although he may be telling us a great deal about his personality and history that he may not have intended to reveal. So what became of this seemingly kind and happy lady, who evidently enjoyed whatever she experienced? "I gave commands," the Duke says, "Then all smiles stopped together." He says for a second time, "There she stands / As if alive," suggesting that the lady is no more. And yet, strangely, he shows no compunction for his actions.
As we make this discovery about the fate of his last wife, the Duke changes the direction of his speech to his auditor. "Will't please you rise?" he asks, and suggests that they go below to meet other guests, dismissing the difference in his and his guest's ranks by stating generously, "Nay, we'll go / Together down, sir." The Duke then provides us with a hint as to the identity of his auditor. He speaks to the man of "the Count your master," and hints that this Count's reputed wealth will surely provide the Duke with an ample dowry, a sum of money given by a bride's father to her new husband. These details indicate, ironically, that the Duke's guest is a messenger from a Count, and that his mission is to arrange a marriage between the Duke and the Count's daughter. At this point, do we believe the Duke when he assures us that it is not the money, but the Count's "fair daughter's self that is his "object?" Or perhaps it is both, for the word "object" seems to be an important one in making a final assessment of the Duke's character. He is a collector of art objects, after all, and he seems to enjoy showing off his rich collection. After all, the whole occasion of his speech has been an explanation of the origin of a portrait of his former wife. Moreover, on the way out of his art gallery, he takes the time to point out one final art object to his guest: "Notice Neptune, though / Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity, / Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!" Once again the Duke takes the opportunity to show off a piece of art that he is proud of and to drop the name of the artist, hoping to impress his guest. The subject of the sculpture adds to our reaction to the Duke's story; here a powerful god subdues a wild seahorse, much as the Duke has subdued his former Duchess. And as Claus of Innsbruck has caught this image for him in bronze, he has had Fra Pandolf catch his wife's "spot of joy" in a painting which can handily be hidden behind a curtain, at last giving the Duke complete control over whom his wife smiles at ("since none puts by / The curtain I have drawn for you, but I"). The final two words seem to say it all in summing up what the Duke values: after all, the sculpture of Neptune was cast "for me!"
Ironically, despite the fact that the Duke simply tells us the story of his first wife and how her portrait came to be painted, he manages to tell us a great deal more about his own personality. We can judge that he is a vain man who is quite proud of his heritage and his "nine-hundred-years-old name," and that he is quite proud of his art collection. As Neptune tames the sea-horse, he has tamed a former wife, transforming her uncontrollable spirit into an object of art and preserving her loveliness—"as if she were alive"—into a medium over which he can exert complete control. He is no longer subject to the "trifling" situation of her constant smiling, and he can now control whom she smiles at and who is exposed to her beauty. Much of the dramatic irony in the poem, however, lies in the identity of the auditor. The Duke has given all of this information about his personality and the history of his former marriage to an envoy who has been sent to arrange a new marriage. Some critics have even suggested that in this speech made to the man sent to negotiate his second marriage, the Duke is cleverly indicating what kind of behavior he will expect in his new wife. Nevertheless, knowing what we now know about this Duke, who would lead another unsuspecting young girl into such a situation?
Despite his wish to impress us with himself and to detract from his last Duchess' qualities, Browning's self-satisfied Duke ironically manages instead to paint her as a gentle and lovely person and himself as somewhat of a monster. He is truly a paradoxical, yet not entirely unappealing, character despite one's reaction to his morality by the end of the poem. It is hard not to be drawn into his skillful speech, which is carefully designed to impress his guest with his name and possessions and flatter the envoy into representing him favorably with his potential father-in-law. His pride in his painting, his willingness to dwell on the loveliness and virtues of his earlier wife despite his feelings about her, his generosity toward his guest, and his enthusiasm for his collection—stopping to comment on one last object before going down to "collect" one more wife—keep the reader guessing throughout the poem and constantly caught off guard by the revelation of one surprising personality trait after another.
Source: Arnold Markley, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997. Arnold Markley is a freelance writer who has contributed essays and reviews to Approaches to Teaching D. H. Lawrence's Fiction and The Journal of the History of Sexuality. He is currently an Assistant Professor in English at Penn State University, Media, PA.
Few teachers of Browning's "My Last Duchess" fail to encounter a common undergraduate assessment of the Duchess as at best a flirt, at worst a faithless wife. Usually unaccompanied by evidence, this assessment is easily dismissed by a practiced reader, especially inasmuch as received opinion enshrines the Duchess as a model of spontaneity and innocent joy and a victim of her ego-maniacal husband. While I believe the Duchess's character to be almost precisely what received opinion holds it to be, I would like to assert that the vague appraisal of the Duchess as flirtatious or unfaithful is a misappraisal only because incomplete. In fact, because the Duke is the source of this misrepresentation, ignoring it robs us of another example of his cunningly disavowed skill in speech and obscures Browning's art.
The misrepresentation of the Duchess begins when the Duke, anticipating the emissary's question of how the "spot of joy" in Fra Pandolf's portrait of the Duchess came to be on her cheek, readily explains its presence. Quickly he admits '"t was not / Her husband's presence only" that caused the blush, a statement superficially correct but whose negative phrasing forces a misconception. When he later reveals that a white mule or a calm sunset are presences that could stir his lady, one can see that "not her husband's presence only" has as its positive statement "The presence of many delightful things." But the positive rendering can also be understood as "The presence of men other than her husband," an implication accentuated when the Duke in the next line attributes the blush to Fra Pandolf's remarks. And it is these remarks—the way now prepared for them—that do most to taint the Duchess. While the first of these comments appears innocent enough—merely posing instructions to the lady—its syntax, as will be seen shortly, provides a telling complication. But the next remark from Fra Pandolf, that " 'Paint must never hope to reproduce the faint / Half-flush that dies along her throat,'" is an utterance no man could make directly to a woman without clear intention; if made directly, it can hardly be characterized as "courtesy," as the Duke quickly does. In fact, given the poem's social milieu, such verbal liberties with a Duke's wife would be unthinkable unless some encouragement prompted them. Thus artfully informed—and misguided—the emissary (and the naive reader) can respond in only one way to later remarks by the Duke that "she liked what'er / She looked on, and her looks went everywhere" or that she ranked the gift of a cherry bough from some officious fool with her lord's "favour at her breast."
The truth of the situation is apparent when the portrait-painting scene is properly visualized. It contains not Fra Pandolf and his subject alone, but is presided over by the Duke, keeping a close watch over his Duchess as well as a sharp eye on the manufacture by a hireling artist of yet another object for his collection.
The Duke's presence there, fully in keeping with his character as revealed throughout the poem, accounts for the ambiguous syntax of his direct quotation of Fra Pandolf. In the first comment the Duke attributes to him, Fra Pandolf apparently speaks to the Duchess in the third person ("Her mantle laps / Over my lady's wrist too much"), a familiar convention of formality by which nobility is often addressed. This convention prepares the emissary to assume the recipient of the second comment also to be the Duchess, and to do so because of the continued employment of the third person. Moreover, because the Duke is relating Fra Pandolf s comment to the emissary, his words may be taken not as direct quotation, which they are, but as paraphrase, whereby the "her" is understood to be reportorial substitution for an original "your." Through such verbal legerdemain the emissary is doubly misled and, carried onward by the Duke's eloquence, is left with the uneasy, half-apprehended sense that Fra Pandolf s second remark was, as previously argued, a seductive compliment, likely welcomed and perhaps even encouraged.
But with the Duke present at the portrait painting, the compliment on the Duchess's appearance is addressed by Fra Pandolf to him and becomes a sycophant's flattery of his patron's choice in women. As such, it is flattery emptied of the sexual implications that the Duke supplies in his reporting. In fact, returning to the utterance, "Sir, 't was not / Her husband's presence only," one sees that the artistry of the Duke's admission stems from its being larded with innuendo and at the same time accurate: his presence at the painting of the portrait was not the sole cause of the Duchess's spot of joy, but even Fra Pandolf s fawning remarks contributed.
There is no need to think that the Duke is conscious of his implications: given his excessive pride, his refusal ever to stoop, he could hardly tolerate allowing another to believe his Duchess unfaithful to him, especially through his own revelation, however subtle. Yet the implications are not entirely accidental on his part and can be seen as one of the poem's great strengths. What are the snares of language in the service of the thwarted human will? As he believes is only his right, the Duke attempts to acquire another Duchess who will respond solely to him, and to that end he tells his last Duchess's story. In so doing he reveals a colossal ego. But through his very skill in speech he betrays that ego, for his subtle and unconscious slander of his last victim exposes at bottom an instinctive self-justifier, or at least a man predictably insecure behind a tyrant's swagger. All in all, the Duke's account of the presence of the spot of joy in the portrait does not condemn his Duchess to a moral position tending to excuse his actions toward her, but instead reinforces the poem's greatest achievement: the delineation of an ego sustained by use of language both subtle and audacious. Paradoxically, it is an ego exposed and undercut by the medium with which it seeks to dominate its world.
Source: Michael G. Miller "Browning's My Last Duchess'" in The Explicator, Vol. 47, No. 4, Summer, 1989 pp. 32-34.
As Browning explained to a literary group, the Duke's "design" in mentioning Fra Pandolf at the beginning of "My Last Duchess" is "To have some occasion for telling the story, and illustrating part of it." Although accurate when fully understood, his explanation is subtly misleading in that it permits commentators to dismiss the Duke's reference to the painter as an unimportant conversational gambit. A typical example is B. R. Jerman's recent suggestion that the "first mention of the artist is, as it were, bait. The envoy may have exclaimed, 'What a beautiful portrait! Who on earth did it?"Picasso, of course!' the Duke replies. The bait is out, and the Duke knows, from having stalked other prey, what questions such a man as the envoy would ask."
I contend that the Duke's reference to the painter is part of his answer to a definite aesthetic question with which he is directly concerned in all but the last few lines of his monologue, and that if one simply dismisses it, he fails to appreciate (1) the Duke's ironic misunderstanding of the proper relationship between reality and art, (2) the rationale of his attack on the Duchess, and (3) the degree to which, as W. C. DeVane says, he "reduces his Duchess to an object of art."
In the first place, whether he actually states it or simply implies it by his reaction, the envoy apparently poses his question after the Duke's first mention of Fra Pandolf, not before. The Duke and his visitor, on a tour of the palace, pause in one of the upper galleries while the Duke draws a curtain to reveal the fresco portrait of a woman. Identifying it as his "last Duchess," he remarks that he considers it "a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf s hands / Worked busily a day, and there she stands." Either at this point or immediately after he has been invited to "sit and look at her," the envoy asks "How such a glance came there." If he questions the glance before the Duke begins to speak, the first four lines of the poem would be almost garrulously beside the point, but if he does so after the brief introductory remarks, the Duke's next sentence is perfectly apposite. "I mentioned Fra Pandolf on purpose," he says, "because every stranger who has been permitted to see this portrait has asked me (at least by the implications of his attitude) precisely the same question which you have just asked." What Mr. Jerman calls "the bait," then, would seem to be the portrait itself, and the identification of the painter a part of the Duke's answer to a question which he has fully anticipated and is perhaps eager to discuss.
But the question is not "Who painted it?" It is "What accounts for this expression?" We must recognize that no matter what our conception of the living Duchess may be, the Duchess of the portrait is not laughing or even smiling. Her expression is specifically described as an "earnest" (i.e., serious) look revealing "depth and passion" set off by only a "spot / Of joy" in the "cheek." And it is as the Duke describes it. Phelps' argument that his description is "intense irony, in ridicule of the conventional remarks made by previous visitors" is clearly contradicted by the evidence. Every stranger who had seen the portrait was moved not merely to comment on it, but to question it, and always in the same way. If they were all merely uttering conventional praise or inquiring about the painter, why should they be afraid to speak, as the Duke says they were? There must be something in the Duchess' glance which infallibly calls forth a question about its sources, and it seems doubtful that a simple smile, or indeed anything less than the complex expression which the Duke describes, would be sufficient to do so in every instance. Even if one were to argue that the question is a strategic one manufactured by the Duke and imputed by him to the strangers and the envoy, the fact remains that he, at least, considers the glance remarkable enough to justify explanation.
As the Duke fully understands, the question stimulated by this intriguing glance involves not only the relationship between the portrait and the living woman, but certain conscious or unconscious assumptions about that relationship. In asking "How such a glance came there," the strangers and the envoy show that they take the portrait to be a reflection of the Duchess' total personality, of her reaction to some specific circumstance, or of both at once. They further reveal that they do not consider the portrait an end in itself: they assume (since they are, significantly, strangers who did not know her) that the living Duchess was more interesting and perhaps even more complex than her portrait suggests. Having anticipated this question, the Duke had begun in his first remarks to the envoy to expound what he apparently considers a remarkable irony: there was nothing in the situation nor in the living Duchess' personality to correspond to the complexity of her painted expression. He mentioned Fra Pandolf because the painter was solely responsible for whatever is of interest in the Duchess' expression. That is why he considers the portrait "a wonder."
What has heretofore escaped notice is that his entire indictment of the Duchess is not a gratuitous attack, but the logical, fully developed continuation of this answer. Sexual jealousy and fierce, even psychotic possessiveness may well be his fundamental motivation, but his primary, conscious motive is to explain the contrast between the portrait and the living model. To argue that he denounces the Duchess because of "the depth and passion of her earnest glance" is to obscure the richest irony of his lecture. He is able to maintain his tone of chillingly casual objectivity because he is convinced that the living Duchess was quite unlike the portrait. The situation to which she was reacting was no more than a few trivial compliments ("stuff) uttered by the painter. She was not "deep" but excessively shallow and undiscriminating: "She had / A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad, / Too easily impressed: she liked whate'er / She looked on, and her looks went everywhere. / Sir, 'twas all one!" This is proved to his satisfaction by her ranking of art, "My favour at her breast," with what he considers trivial natural delights—sunset, a "bough of cherries," a ride on a white mule. And he is perhaps more contemptuous of her taste than jealous of her person when he remarks that "she ranked / My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name / With anybody's gift." As for her "earnest glance" in the portrait, that too was Fra Pandolf s work: the living Duchess, he insists, was a fatuously good natured woman who smiled at everyone who passed. She missed and exceeded "the mark" in so many ways that the Duke found her, as he says, disgusting.
It is needless to comment on the more obvious irony of this indictment. For most readers, the Duchess emerges as an innocent, admirable woman while the Duke unconsciously reveals his own shocking arrogance, cruelty, and emptiness. Not so obvious is the bearing of his answer on the problem of possessiveness itself—the degree to which he is successful in reducing the Duchess (or as he seems to think, elevating her) to the level of a work of art. The key to this question, kept by Fra Pandolf opens up two alternative answers. While we cannot know the portrait except in the Duke's description of it, we can legitimately ask whether it is a "good" or a "bad" likeness on the same grounds that we ask about the true nature of the Duchess. That is, has Fra Pandolf given the admirably ingenuous Duchess a conventional "depth and passion"? Or has he perceived in her a depth which was really there but which the Duke was unaware of?
If we accept the first hypothesis, arguing that the work is a typical court painting cynically calculated to please the Duke and perhaps flatter the Duchess, then the Duke's possession of her is more complete than anyone has realized. Since he has given "commands" which apparently led to her death, she continues to exist only as an artifact which he controls with a curtain. But most important, he (or at least his agent Fra Pandolf) has altered her nature to make her conform to the characteristics which the Duke values. In this, his taste is less than admirable: he places a higher valuation on an essentially unrealistic court painting than he does on living reality, and he regards a painting as "a wonder" simply because it flatters his prejudices. The other alternative, that Fra Pandolf perceived and caught the Duchess' true "depth and passion," may have equal support in the poem. In the course of the Duke's remarks, we become convinced that the Duchess was not really shallow and fatuous, and it is not difficult to believe her capable of the depth which the portrait reveals. At least one "officious fool" admired her, and it may be that Fra Pandolf also admired and meant it when he said that art could never hope to do justice to her beauty. Above all, the painting is apparently good enough to call forth an intense reaction from everyone who sees it. If it is indeed a true likeness in this sense, the Duchess escapes the Duke in the painting as she escapes the charges of his indictment. Her real depth of soul, caught in the portrait, is revealed to everyone but the Duke, and he, admiring the painting for its expression but failing to see that art in this instance truly reflects reality, is again convicted of tastelessness and lack of discrimination.
In "My Last Duchess," then, the Duke's reference to Fra Pandolf is "an occasion for telling the story" in that it introduces a topic which the Duke wants to expound, and it is a means of "illustrating" his thesis that reality, the living Duchess, was infinitely less admirable and less complicated than the Duchess "painted on the wall." Others, particularly Hiram Corson, have noticed that "the Duke values his wife's picture wholly as a picture, not as the ... reminder of a sweet and lovely woman," but they have failed to perceive either the full implications and rationale of this choice or the extent of its contribution to the characterization and structure of the poem. Whatever else the monologue may reveal about character, motive, and action, it is presented as the Duke's fluent answer to an aesthetic question involving the relationship between art and reality.
Source: Stanton Millet "Art and Reality in 'My Last Duchess'" in The Victorian Newsletter, No. 17, Spring, I960, pp. 25-27.