What is the tone of Robert Browning's poem "My Last Duchess"?

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The tone of "My Last Duchess" is ironic. Browning uses the duke's self-justifications to show that he committed a heinous act of murder. This is opposite of the impression the duke wishes to make.

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Tone reveals a poet's attitude toward their subject. In this poem the tone is darkly ironic. Browning uses the duke's own words to show that he is a disturbed individual who has committed an unjustifiable act of murder—the opposite of the impression the duke intends to make.

The poem is a dramatic monologue. In it, the speaker, the duke, is explaining to a courier sent to arrange his next marriage what happened to his last wife.

Irony occurs when words or situations mean the opposite of what is intended. The duke fully believes the story he tells justifies the death of his young wife. However, our response as readers is one of horror. The innocent young duchess did little more than to show kindness to people around her, such as the artist painting her portrait or the person who gives her a cherry bough. She smiled, blushed, or was pleased. The duke finds this behavior intolerable. He believes he should be the only one to receive positive attention from her. He even feels in competition with the "white mule" that pleases her to ride around on.

As the duke puts it, the former duchess acts

as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift.
However, he goes on the explain, he refuses to "stoop" to explain this to her. Therefore, the duke says,
I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together.
The duke comes across not as a reasonable person but as a sociopath who is unable to enter into mature relationships with other human beings.
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The tone of the poem is that of an ignorant, vulgar, insensitive, selfish, arrogant, and brutal man who is trying his best to sound like a courtly aristocrat. One of the ways in which this tone is achieved is through the content of the poem itself. The speaker inadvertently reveals all of his many faults while describing his lovely "last duchess" whom the visitor can see right in front of him. What would seem to most people to be good qualities in the young woman seemed offensive to the Duke, although he couldn't explain exactly why this was the case. He finally reveals that he apparently had the poor girl murdered and that he is now looking for a replacement who will bring him some more money as her dowry.

The other way in which Browning establishes the rather repellent tone of the poem is through the use of open rhyming couplets which are so awkward, ragged and crude that they betray the speaker's low intelligence and vulgarity, in spite of the fact that he pretends to have refined taste in art and lives in luxury. For example, here are the opening lines of the poem: 

That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,

Looking as if she were alive. I call

That piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf s hands

Worked busily a day, and there she stands.

Will't please you sit and look at her? I said

"Fra Pandolf" by design, for never read

Strangers like you that pictured countenance,

The depth and passion of its earnest glance,

Browning, through the Duke, rhymes "wall" and "call," "hands' and       "stands," "said" and "read," and so forth. Typically the word at the end of one line runs right into the next line, so the reader may well wonder where to pause to take a breath. This unusual feature also gives the impression that the  Duke is a man who is used to doing all the talking and having everyone else do all the listening, a sign of his arrogance and despotism.

The Duke is rudely interrupted when the visitor can stand no more of this brutal man or his memoir and abruptly leaps up and starts to hurry down the stairs. We are happy to see the Duke discomfited and deprived of the opportunity to discuss the dowry of the young girl he hopes to marry.

Will't please you rise? We'll meet The company below, then. I repeat, The Count your master's known munificence Is ample warrant that no just pretence Of mine for dowry will be disallowed; Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed At starting, is my object. Nay, we'll go Together down, sir.
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The tone of Robert Browning`s `My Last Duchess' is not a simple matter. The poem is a dramatic monologue spoken in the voice of the Duke. Thus we can talk about the tone the Duke uses, but the effect of the poem as a whole is to undermine the Duke and reveal aspects of his character that he might be trying to keep hidden. Thus the subtext has a rather different tone than the surface text.

The Duke`s tone is that of a collector showing off a collection, and speaking of his Duchess in the same distantly appreciative manner in which he speaks of bronzes. There is an undercurrent of possessiveness to his speech though, that is amplified into a sort of cold suppressed anger by the time he reveals that he `stopped`his wife`s smiles.

The poem as a whole though, gives an effect of repulsion in reaction to the Duke.

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

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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.

 

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