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Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess”

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Robert Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess” is a splendid poem achieve within the format of the dramatic monologue, a poetic form in which there is only one speaker. Because there is only one speaker, we the reader must wonder carefully what the Duke is telling us, and we often have to read between the lines in order to keep an objective perspective on the what is happening in the poem. This paper will discuss how the use of the dramatic monologue makes the subject (the Duke) tell a story while, at the same time, unintentionally and ironically revealing unflattering characteristics about himself. Through diction and imagery Browning further reveals the character of the Duke.

The style and structure of this poem plays a significant role in the effect of the poem. “My Last Duchess” is written as a dramatic monologue: one speaker relates the entire poem as if to another person present with him. This format suits this poem particularly well because the speaker, the Duke of Ferrara, comes across as being very controlling, especially in conversation. For example, he is jealous that he was not able to “monopolize” his former duchess’ smiles for himself (Dupras 14). He also seems to control the actions of the person he is addressing with comments such as “Will’t please you rise” (47) and “Nay, we’ll go/Together down, sir” and his refusal to “stoop” out of respect to the count (53-54, 43).

Browning uses many grammatical techniques, including a simple rhyme scheme, enjambment, and caesura to convey various characteristics and qualities about the Duke and the situation. The rhyme scheme used is AA BB, which is very common to ballads and songs. This pattern is called a heroic verse because of the couplets rhyme in an iambic pentameter format. The icy ways of the Duke is established through the aa bb rhyme scheme. This pattern, although, “imperceptible” is “unfailing” in its contribution to the Duke’s character (Burrows 56), because the Duke hardly every speaks and then stops as in normal conversation. The heroic couplet meter used is emblematic of many of the great poets, including Pope, who wrote many of his major production in this format. Yet, according to William Phelps, the rime scheme evident in Pope is scarcely heard at all in “My Last Duchess.” Phelps writes that the effect of this scheme is so muffled and concealed that the poem is often mistaken as blank verse. This again contributes to overall character of the Duke and is a “subtle” force behind revelations that he later makes (171).

One has only to glance over at the printed page of “My Last Duchess,” to realize how few of the lines end in punctuation points. The inability of readers to notice these grammatical errors during recital of the poem is due to the extreme occurrence of enjambments within the poem; that is, sentences and other grammatical units do not conclude at the end of lines. Take for example the following passage from “My last Duchess”:

Quite Clear to such an one, and say, “Just this

Or that in you disgust me; her you miss,

Or there exceed the mark”–and if she let

Herself be lessoned so, or plainly set

Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,

–E’en then would be some stooping; and I chuse

Never to stoop.

This grew; I gave commands;

Then all smiles stop together. There she stands

As if alive. (37-47).

Since the meter of this poem is iambic pentameter, this creates a feel of regular speech and further helps to create the tone of the Duke. The run–on sentences in lines 37-39, the enjambment in lines 37-39, and the break in speech (caesura) in line 39 indicated by the dash all add to the feel of regular speech. The semi colon used in line 38 is the caesura that creates a break and forces readers to look at the quote in two parts; while the dash sets the quote apart from the rest of the poem, writes Dupras (25). The use of the enjambment creates a naturalistic feel of the verse and emotion–in the Duke’s case the emotion is indignation and jealousy toward the last duchess. Notice through passage the lines do not end in punctuation marks but, instead, runs over into the next line naturally–this too is the enjambment. This frequent change in punctuation creates a feeling that the Duke is hiding something, and that the lines have more to say “This grew,” and most ominous– “All smiles stopped together” (45-46).

This beckons the reader to ask what else is there? What does the Duke mean “this grew” and then “all smiles stop”? This effect is used, probable, to make the Duke seem less formal than his personae really is. This laxness, writes Lancashire, creates a cold and calculating tone within the Duke (3). This callous and relax façade of the Duke slithers its way through much of the poem until, about, line 31 where the punctuations changes abruptly and the Duke seems to be holding back strong emotions. His emotions explode when he finally–we can infer–admits guilt: “This grew; I gave commands; “then all smiles stop together” (45-6). Another critic points out the frequent use of repetition, especially of the letter “I”, “my” and the statement “There she stands/As if alive” (46-47), all so lends a hand in showcasing the possessive and “audacious” nature of the Duke (Phelps 211). The structure of the poem contributes to unveiling the Duke, just as irony will allows us to further explore the Duke’s possessive ways.

What kind of person is the Duke, and what exactly is the story of his last duchess? To answer these questions close examinations of the Dukes own words are required. First and foremost, it is clear that the Duke is speaking to someone, and he is showing this person a picture of his last duchess. “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,” (1) he says, and then goes to explain the painter, Fra Pandolf, “worked busily a day, and there she stands” (3-4). The Duke then describes the usual reaction that people have to viewing the painting–a reaction that is created because of “earnest glance” of the Duchess (Butler 2). In short, the Duke is a very manipulative and controlling man, whose obsession with his Duchess leads him to–we can infer— murder. But why did the Duke hate the last Duchess?

All that we know of the Duchess is told through the words of the Duke, and from his own words she seems like a good person. He starts of by saying she was too happy “[a] spot/ of joy” (14-15) always gleamed across her face. She thanked people who pleased her, which every one would observe as a good thing, except to the Duke because he does not want any wife of his thanking people as equals, especially as the Duke sites “as if she ranked/My gift of nine-hundred-year-old name/With anybody’s gift (32-34). It seems the Duke was offended that the Duchess ranked him as equal among all other things, which shows a very “democratic” characteristic of the Duchess and makes the Duke look terrible (Burrow 58). According to the Duke, the last Duchess was too friendly, she smiled too much “”She smiled, no doubt, whene’er I passed her; but who passed without much the same smile?” (line 44)-this, of course, infuriated the Duke, who believed her smile was for him and him alone. This is also ironic because who would not want a wife that was pleasant and diplomatic.

The Duke is so possessive that he blind to the good qualities of the duchess, writes Lancashire (7). The Duke, of course, says these things, ironically, believing that he is highlighting the negatives of an otherwise good person. The Duke believed she ranked other things above him, which is a completely inappropriate action to the Duke –a self confess egomaniac; nothing should out rank “The Duke.” Thus, when the Duke reads a list of things the Duchess ranked equally (“My Favour at her breast/The dropping of the daylight in west, /the bough of cherries some officious fool [gave to her]…” (26-27)) we are reminded, once again, that the Duke expects his wife to value presents that he gives her more highly than even the Sun, which is highest above all. This, again, further illustrates the arrogance of the Duke, who ironically, keeps, according to Lance Butler, “[…] condemn[ing] himself out of his own mouth (171). The imagery that Dukes gives of his wife further showcases his possessive nature.

Browning’s use of imagery further adds to the possessive nature of the Duke. The Duke tells of his wife’s love of riding her “white mule”(28) in the terrace and watching the sunset in day, which paints a picture of a young woman who enjoyed life–who had a mind of her own outside of the Duke. The Duchess is an ideal Duchess and an ideal wife, at that. She is appreciative, calm and collected and enjoyer of things beautiful. But, not to the Duke, a brute who is both “avaricious and cruel” (Phelps, 186), who detested the Duchess because she smiled too much to please him and “she had a heart…/ too soon made glad” (21-22). The possessive nature of the Duke is seen in the art he collects and the way he displays it. The poem starts of with the Duke simply describing the Duchess “…painted on the wall (1).” He speaks of the painter, Fra Pandolf, the liveliness of portrait “looking as if she were alive” (2) and even shows some admiration of the portrait since he the only one that can view the picture.

But, read between the lines and one senses the aura of a controlling man. He describes the Duchess has his “my last duchess” and according to Joseph A. Dupras, if you stress, emphasis and pause over this phrase a clear picture comes to mind of a man that “…reduces a woman [to mere] collectibles […] that are […] replaceable” (4). A mere object that he controlled and wanted others to admire his supremacy over her. He called her portrait a “piece” (3) –a rather vulgar term, perhaps, use to set her off as a sexual object. Perhaps the most striking imagery in the poem is giving towards the end of the poem, when he invites his guest to admire his statue of Neptune taming a horse by the artist Innsbruck. The subject of the sculpture deepens the negative reaction readers have of the Duke. Here, again, is an image of powerful man taming a horse much like he tamed and silenced his last duchess. The allusion of the Claus of Innsbruck, writes Lancashire, captures another image of the Duke taming his wife, just like Fra Pandolf captured in his in painting a “a spot / joy”(15-16) for which Duke can cover and expose as he pleases (6).

In his dramatic monologue Browning manages to capture the possessive and domineering characteristics of the Duke. Also, through use of grammatical techniques, irony and imagery Browning further establishes these traits. Through the enjambments, caesura and heroic verses the cold and calculating tone of the Duke is created. Through irony readers are forced to “read between the lines” to uncover the Dukes true revelations of his last duchess. And last, but not least, imagery allows the readers to view the last duchess as good woman and the Duke as calculating and evil.

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