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My Last Duchess: Power and Conflict Analysis

My Last Duchess was published in 1842. Browning based the poem on Alfonso II, the Duke of Ferrara, who lived in the sixteenth century. He was very rich and collected paintings. He married the fourteen-year-old Lucrezia de Medici in 1558, but she died two years later. There were rumours that she had been poisoned.

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,
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. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek; perhaps
Fra Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat.” Such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. 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! 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. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—which I have not—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse—
E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. 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. 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 pretense
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. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

Robert Browning 1842

Poem summary

The Duke of Ferrara shows a visitor the portrait of his last Duchess (former wife). He draws the visitor’s attention to her smile in the painting. He remembers how he became angered when she would give this smile too easily to others rather than reserving it for him. The Duke felt this showed ingratitude for the title (of Duchess) she gained in marrying him. He says he stopped her smiling altogether, hinting that he killed her. It is revealed that the visitor is here to arrange his next marriage.

The poem’s key message highlights the entitlement and possessiveness men in powerful positions might feel over others, and how they can potentially misuse this power.

Language

  • Browning describes the Duchess’s physical appearance in depth. He mentions her “countenance” (face), her “earnest glance”, the “spot of joy” on her “cheek”, her “wrist”, her “throat”, and her “breast”. This emphasises the Duke’s fixation on every detail of her appearance. He wanted to possess her, like an object, rather than sharing her with anyone else.
  • The language is conversational, showing that the Duke is explaining the story of his former wife to a visitor. We see him choosing his words carefully when describing his jealousy: “She had / A heart – how shall I say? – too soon made glad”. He also addresses the visitor directly, saying, “Will’t please you sit and look at her?”

Structure

  • There is a circular narrative to the poem. He begins by talking about the painting of his Last Duchess, admiring the artist’s work. He then gets drawn into a confessional narrative about his jealousy over her. At the end, he goes back to talking admiringly about a piece of artwork he owns.
  • The sculpture pointed out by the Duke at the end is of “Neptune… / Taming a sea-horse”. This mirrors the story the Duke has just told of someone using their power to force another into submission.

Form

  • The poem takes the form of a dramatic monologue. This is a poem in the form of a speech where the narrator recalls a series of events.
  • It is written in rhyming couplets, perhaps reflecting the Duke’s need for control.
  • The poem often uses enjambment (where sentences run over different lines). This shows the Duke’s uncontrolled anger as he recalls his former wife’s (supposed) flirtatious behaviour. 

Themes

ThemeAnalysis
Individual powerThe Duke uses his power to gain control of his wife. When she smiles at others, he feels she is not his possession. However, he acquires full ownership of her when he ensures that “all smiles stopped” (a hint that he killed her). He admits this freely to the visitor, showing how his power gives him the freedom to act in this immoral way.
PrideThe Duke has an inflated view of his own importance. He enjoys showing off his art collection, calling one a “rarity”, and saying the names of the esteemed artists whose works he has collected. He also sees himself as important because of his title and “nine-hundred-years-old name”. This high opinion of himself makes him outraged when his wife smiles at others in the same way she would to him.  
AngerThe Duke resents his wife enjoying simple pleasures like cherries or a ride on a white mule. In his opinion, she should respect his title to the extent that she shouldn’t be seen enjoying gifts given by others. The fact that she would give an “approving speech” or “blush” when given gifts by people he sees as inferior “disgusts” him. The short phrase “This grew” is followed by his hint that he killed her for this behaviour.  

Key Quotes to Learn

QuoteWhy is it important?
“That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall”The word “my” shows his sense of possession over his former wife. He has her “painted on the wall” to possess her in death as he couldn’t when she was alive.
“Too easily impressed”This demonstrates his jealousy when she showed a liking for others.
“I gave commands / Then all smiles stopped together”The chilling hint that he killed his wife – or ordered her death – in a jealous rage. This is the only way he can fully control her and stop her smiling at others.

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