Last Updated on September 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 960
“My Last Duchess” is a dramatic monologue by Robert Browning, first published in Browning’s 1842 verse volume Dramatic Lyrics. This collection was part of his Bells and Pomegranates poetry series, released in five volumes over the first half of the 1840s. At this point, Browning had already experimented with dramatic poetry, having written long-form narrative poems, such as Sordello (1840), and verse plays, such as Pippa Passes (1841). But Dramatic Lyrics marks a breakthrough in Browning’s dramatic verse writing, containing several of the short-form dramatic monologues for which he is admired and studied today. These include “Porphyria’s Lover,” “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” and “My Last Duchess,” each of which presents a memorable speaker enmeshed in an intriguing dramatic situation.
“My Last Duchess” is composed of fifty-six lines of rhyming couplets in iambic tetrameter. The poem contains no stanza breaks, allowing the duke of Ferrara’s monologue to unfold fluidly, with subtle changes of direction. The tone is a combination of aristocratic loftiness and conversational speech. On the one hand, the crisp pentameter and couplet rhymes lend the duke’s voice a formal strictness, but on the other hand, his diction and syntax reflect the elements of everyday speech, including contractions (“Will’t”) and hesitations (“—how shall I say?—”). These features, along with the frequent use of enjambment, make the poem’s style reminiscent of the dialogue of a royal character in a Shakespeare play. One central aspect of the duke’s narrative tone is the length of his sentences and the complexity of his syntax. Consider the following passage, which is a single sixty-eight-word sentence broken over nine lines:
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus.
The sentence contains several complex features, including verbs placed before their corresponding subjects (“never read / Strangers like you”), negative constructions, and a parenthetical aside.
Thus, paradoxically, the duke’s voice is both eloquent and obtuse, a quality that ends up being significant to the broader narrative in two ways. First, the duke claims not to have “skill / In speech,” a self-assessment that he uses to explain his choice not to articulate his criticisms of the duchess—a choice that in fact arises from his immense pride. Later in the poem, it seems that this claim to inarticulacy is ultimately a justification for his decision to have the duchess murdered.
Second, the duke’s monologue exists within a broader dramatic structure. For all the duke’s explanations, he fails to see how he is inadvertently portraying himself in his account. For all his lofty, aristocratic prosody, he fails to mask his own hideousness. In this sense, the tension between eloquence and obtuseness is connected to the dramatically ironic structure of the poem.
“My Last Duchess” is widely read as an exemplar of the dramatic monologue form. In its speaker, the duke of Ferrara, it presents a distinct character who clearly stands apart from the identity of the poet or from the generalized “I” common in lyric poetry. The poem then creates dramatic irony through the duke’s account, in which he inadvertently reveals aspects of his own personality while discussing the situation at hand. The crux of the dramatic irony is that the duke is expressing his criticisms of his late wife, whom he found “too soon made glad,” but in the process, he emerges as a prideful, possessive, brutal man, one who would murder his wife over such a “trifling” matter. The poem itself, then, stands as an implicit critique of the duke, one made up of his own words.
A core element of the duke’s reprehensibility is his pattern of misogyny. As the duke describes his displeasure with his late wife, it becomes apparent that he consistently sought to possess and control her. He wished to shape her perceptions so that she would view him as especially important and praiseworthy rather than distributing her attention and affection equally. Key to this desire is his sense of entitlement, both literal and figurative. Indeed, the duke feels that his title as duke of Ferrara should have made his late wife particularly grateful—and perhaps even indebted—to him. He had hoped his “nine-hundred-years-old title” could give him such leverage, but she saw it as she saw “anybody’s gift.” Unable to control her in life, the duke ordered for her to be killed, and so she lives on in his estate in the form of the portrait he studies now with admiration.
A crucial part of the poem’s drama arrives at the end, when the duke discusses the prospect of remarrying, this time to the “fair daughter” of the count whose emissary he speaks to. Tellingly, the duke first raises the issue of the dowry, suggesting that he expects to receive a generous monetary sum in the marriage arrangement. Only after this does the duke clarify that the daughter herself is his “object.” These comments strongly suggest that the duke’s pattern of possession and control will continue. Not only does he view his potential bride as a means to a financial end, he sees her as an “object” rather than a person, which echoes his treatment of his prior duchess. There is a palpable horror in the prospect that the duke’s misogynistic and murderous tendencies will find another target. Indeed, readers are left to wonder whether the duke’s implicit, sinister message is registered by the count’s emissary.