My Last Duchess by Robert Browning cover image

My last Duchess by Robert Browning: Most Detailed Analysis & Meaning

“My last duchess” is a dramatic monologue written by Robert Browning and it was published in 1842 in a book of poems titled “Dramatic lyrics”. In this poem, the duke is portrayed to be a man full of vanity and is against the kind-hearted nature of the duchess. The duchess is not present there, but people look at her in a painting. She is not a human anymore, just an object placed on a wall.

“If patriarchy had a specific beginning in history, it can also have an end.” by Maria Mies. The quote is short but powerful for those who are aware of the patriarchal society prevalent during the Victorian Era.

Women objected to being controlled, owned, and dominated in society. Many people were against these norms of the society including Robert Browning, therefore to support his oppression he chose to write a poem that depicted what happened to women.

It is through this poem that we understand how women were only seen as property of marriage rather than real humans capable of love and feeling. Women were made to be controlled and look after the household and just listen and obey. The actual psychotic nature of men in the Victorian era is revealed in the poem.

My Last Duchess

FERRARA

That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will 't please you sit and look at her? I said
'Frà 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, 't was not
Her husband's presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps
Frà 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, 't was 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 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. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!
- Robert Browning

Meaning and Summary

“My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning describes how the duke has objectified the duchess in the poem. The speaker begins by telling us that the painting on the wall is of his last duchess of Ferrara. The painting makes her look lifelike and then he praises the hard work of the painter Fra Pandolf who worked busily on it. The speaker asks the guest to sit and have a look at the painting.

The speaker then tells his intention of naming the painter Fra Pandolf because of the strangers present there, who look at the painted face of the duchess with an earnest glance. Then everyone turns towards the duke as he is the only one who can pull back the curtain to reveal the painting.

Anyone who sees the painting of the duchess asks the duke how such an expression came to her face. And the duke tells the guests that they are not the first person to ask him this question.

The duke then explains to the guests that it was not only the presence of her husband that made the duchess blush, perhaps it was Fra Pandolf who had complimented her by saying that her shawl covers too much of her wrist and paint will never be able to create the blush that dies near her throat. The duchess thought that the compliments were out of courtesy but they were enough to make the duchess blush.

The duke then starts criticizing her by telling the guests that it was easy to make her happy or impressed. The duchess liked whatever she looked at and she looked at everyone and everywhere.

To the duchess, everything was the same, whether it was a brooch or present from the duke, or the sunset, or a branch of cherries, or the white mule she rode on the terrace. Her response and reaction to everything were the same.

The duke then complains about her manner of thanking men and how he was not able to express his concerns to her. He complains about the fact that valued the name and position of the duke, which is 900 years old, are the same as anyone else’s gift to her.

The duke then tells the guests that he could not stoop so low to argue with her about her behavior. The duke then imagines a situation where he actually would confront the duchess about her behavior and tell her that here she was a little too much or her character disgusts her.

But then he thinks what if she disregards his views? Even the thought of confronting him makes him stoop low and he would never lower himself that much for anyone.

The duke then says that the duchess had started smiling even more at everyone, so he gave orders and the smiles stopped, denoting the fact that he had killed her. And now the only place where she smiles and looks alive is the painting.

The duke then asks the guest to stand up and go downstairs with him to meet the rest of the guests. The duke also says that the Count who is the master of the guest and the father of his bride-to-be is well known for his munificence in money, that no matter the amount of the dowry it could never be turned down.

The duke makes sure to tell the guest that since the beginning of their discussion the duke’s objective is the Count’s beautiful daughter and not the dowry. The duke ends his speech by telling the guest that he and the other people should go downstairs along with him.

Then, he directs the attention of the guests toward the statue of the God Neptune taming a seahorse and tells that it is a rare work of art that Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze specifically for him.

Analysis of the Poem

FERRARA
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.

In the first line, the speaker tells us that it is the duchess of Ferrara painted on the wall, and she looks lively in the painting. The duke calls it a piece of wonder, as it is painted by Fra Pandolf. He had worked the entire day to make this particular painting.

After reading these lines we understand that a duke is a person who objectifies women. Readers would wonder why the duke is pointing towards a painting of the duchess rather than the duchess herself. Where is the duchess at the moment is a question that all readers might ask? The duke appreciates the art rather than the woman in the art.

Will ‘t please you sit and look at her? I said
‘Frà 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)

The duke asks the guest present in the room to take a seat and look at the painting. For the duke, it seems like the painting is like an object to be looked at. The duke then tells the guest that he deliberately mentioned the name of “Fra Pandolf” because strangers like the guest always look at the painting of the duchess with its deep, passionate glance and then turn towards the duke, because he is the only one to pull back the curtain from the painting.

Here, we understand that since the duke could not control the duchess, he covers her painting with a curtain that only he is permitted to pull and hides her from everyone. It is like a possession that he has, where only he is allowed to do anything to it. The poet ironically appreciates the painting and mentions the name of the painter to blame him for capturing such a moment in the painting.

The duke acts as though they would ask if they dared, how such a glance came to the painting. So, the duke says that the guest is not the first person to ask this question. Moreover, he continues to tell the guest that it was not only the presence of the duke that brought such an expression to the duchess’s face, but it was also some other reason that made her blush.

The duke makes sure to tell the guests that other people also ask him the same question about the painting. He tries to play the victim card and starts telling them the story of how it was not just the presence of the duke that made her blush.

Frà 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

The reason for the spot of joy on the duchess’s face was because of Fra Pandolf who had complimented her by saying that her shawl covers too much of her wrist and that paint could never recreate the blush on her cheek that dies near her throat.

The duchess thought that he was complimenting her out of generosity. And the duke says that the compliment was enough to bring the “spot of joy” visible on her face in the painting.

The duke here tries to blame the duchess by saying that it was not the presence of the duke that made her happy but it was the compliment given by Fra Pandolf that made her blush.

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.

The duke says that the duchess had a heart that was too easy to impress or rather she became happy easily. She liked whatever she looked at and her looks went everywhere. In these lines, the duke tries to describe the character of the duchess and he indirectly calls her easy-going and someone who became happy very easily. He even says that the duchess looked at everyone and not just the duke.

The duke wanted the duchess to just look at the duke like a puppet and obey his orders. However, it seems that the duchess was just a happy woman who liked even the little efforts that people made for her. It was not that she looked everywhere, but she respected every individual, and to pay her due respect she smiled at them.

Sir, ‘t was 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

All the looks and the happiness were the same for everyone. The brooch that the duke had gifted her or the sun rising from the west, or a branch of cherries that someone broke in the orchard for her, or the white mule that she rode on the terrace, everything is the same for her.

The duke continues to name several things that make her happy and he considers that she is equally happy with everything. The duke first names something that he gave her, signifying that it is more important than anything else and should be prioritized more. But his priority was not the same as the duchess, she practiced kindness more than anything.

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.

The duchess would thank everyone equally and blush the same for everything. The duke objects to her manner of thanking men and how he was unable to express his concerns to her. What the duke especially dislikes is that she considered the social position and the ancestry of the duke as equal to anything else.

It was the duke’s mindset that went against the duchess’s humbleness. The duke disregards her behavior of thanking people which adds to his perspective of not being thankful enough. It was not the duchess who was wrong; it was the mindset of the duke that made him believe she was.

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.

The duke wants to express his concerns to the duchess but also his ego comes in between and he chooses not to stoop so low. He imagines a hypothetical situation where he confronts the duchess about his concerns.

Even if he was good with words he would say that her behavior disgusts him and she crosses her limit sometimes. And, if the duchess chooses to be degraded and instead makes excuses then even the act of confronting her would be a sin. This act of confrontation would make the duke stoop and he never chooses to stoop for anyone, not even his wife.

This tells us about the character of the duke and how he wanted to suppress the duchess, but he did not want to stoop that low. We can never really say for sure whether he confronted the duchess or not.

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.

The duke continues to tell the emissary that the duchess did smile a lot, but the question is who did not pass without that smile? The smiles had started increasing day by day, then the duke gave orders and all the smiles stopped together forever. And, there is the duchess painted on the wall, looking as if she was alive.

These lines bring a turning point to the poem, as it is in this line we actually can get a clue of what happened to the duchess. The smiles were stopped together by the duke, signifying that he had given commands to kill the duchess.

The duke would rather look at her in a painting than see her alive. It seems that the poet has used the word smile, instead of “smiles”, it indicates that it was not just one person but more.

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;

The duke demands the guests to stand up and come downstairs to meet the company that is waiting for them. The duke repeats that he is aware of the Count’s generosity in matters of money and knows that no request that the duke makes regarding the dowry will go unheard by him.

In these lines, it is revealed that the Count is the guest’s master and the father of the duke’s prospective bride. It signifies that all the duke cares about is the wealth and not the woman who he is going to marry.

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!

The duke, however, makes sure to the guest that his main objective is the Count’s daughter and not the dowry as the duke had said at the beginning of the discussion. The duke insists the guest and his emissary go downstairs together.

While going down, the duke directs their attention to the rare painting of God Neptune taming a seahorse that the Claus of Innsbruck had cast in bronze, especially for him.

The duke tries to show the guests that people respect him a lot and so should they. The duke seems to be unaffected while blaming his last duchess. It is because he had suppressed the duchess, that we only heard his side of the story.

Themes

The theme of the poem “My last duchess” is control and power, objectification of women, art, pride, and jealousy. The poem is all from the duke’s point of view without any words from the duchess; this signifies the amount of control and power he wanted to have over the duchess.

We get to know about the duchess through a painting. The painting looks lively but whether the duchess is alive is left uncertain. Moreover, the duke did not like it if the duchess thanked anyone else except him or smiled, since he could not confront her about it, he decided to do something with his power.

The duke tried to show his power to the duchess by stopping all smiles together. It is quite clear that the duke did not want love or affection from the duchess, he wanted her to stay quiet and obedient to the duke, and he wanted to control her with his powers.

Objectification of women is one of the most important themes in the poem where we understand how the duke has objectified the duchess since the beginning of the poem.

The duke starts talking about the duchess through the painting that the guests see and starts describing her as unfaithful and stubborn, which implies the fact that he prefers her as a painting rather than a living woman. The way the duke behaves reflects the thinking of the Victorian Era in which the women were controlled by men and were not fully independent.

He thinks that women are like objects to be owned, used, and then discarded. The duke has placed the painting of the duchess in a place, where everyone could come and look at her like a piece of art, like the woman in the painting did not exist in real life.

He found the actions of his wife unforgivable because she was kind and independent. He wanted to own her like a possession, which the duke was against. He wanted to control her happiness and kindness because he thought a woman should be hollow with no inner feelings of her own.

The poet has reflected the duke’s mindset through the art pieces in the poem. Beginning with the painting of the duchess that was made by Fra Pandolf, he also tries to remind the guests of his social status.

It is because of his power that a painter like Fra Pandolf painted such a rare piece of art. Moreover, later in the poem when they go downstairs the duke points towards a statue of God Neptune taming a seahorse cast in bronze by the Claus of Innsbruck.

The duke tries to present to the guests that he has a refined taste in art. But Neptune was the Roman God of the sea and the statue depicts the God forcefully overpowering the creature who challenged him.

This suggests that the duke is the God and he will tame the Emissary and the Count just as he did to his last duchess. For people like the duke, beauty is not something to be appreciated or valued rather it is something to be dominated.

The duke was full of pride and was jealous of the way the duchess appreciated everything equally and was independent. The duke was always so full of himself and his pedigree that he never really cared about living.

Everything to him was about wealth and maintaining his social status and when the duchess did not do that, he stopped her from doing anything at all. She was no more there, but only alive in a painting where she could not speak. The duke wanted to prove that nothing goes beyond his rules.

It is through these themes that we get a deeper understanding of the poem, we understand how the duke wanted to control his last duchess and even the emissary that was present there. We understand that the duke thought of himself like a God, full of power and pride. He treated women as objects with no feelings and mere puppets to be controlled by him.

Form and Literary Devices

“My last duchess” is a dramatic monologue, written from the duke’s point of view. The poem does not have stanzas or breaks, denoting that the duke is so full of himself that he is the only one to talk without any interference, just like he controlled women, he also controlled the monologue.

The poem is written in iambic pentameter, which suggests that the speaker is talking normally, rather than artfully. But in the poem, the duke tries to pretend to talk normally with the emissary but rather he tries to manipulate and control them with his words. The rhyming scheme of the poem is AABBCCDD, it is written in rhyming couplets.

The literary devices used in the poem include:

Enjambement: The poet has used enjambment to imply that the poem is like a normally free-flowing conversation, without any convictional end or stops. For example:

Will ‘t please you sit and look at her? I said
‘Frà Pandolf’ by design, for never read

Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ‘t was not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot

For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,

Caesura: The poet has used caesura throughout the poem to imply the breaks in between the conversation. For example:

And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,

A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,

She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.

Metaphor: The poet has used a metaphor to describe the way the blush dies in her throat. For example:

‘Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat:’

Personification: The duke personifies the painting by telling the readers that she looks alive and she stands, which is not possible for a painting to do. For example:

Looking as if she were alive.

there she stands.
Will ‘t please you sit and look at her?

Sibilance: Sibilance is the repetition of letter sounds that have a hushing or hissing quality. For example:

The depth and passion of its earnest glance,

Her husband’s presence only, called that spot

such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough

Conclusion

“My last duchess” is a poem by Robert Browning written in the Victorian era, where Browning through the poem tried to express the society that he lived in. Patriarchy prevailed during that time and women were looked down upon as objects to be possessed and owned and like puppets to be controlled. However, through this poem, Browning wanted to express how he was against all this.

I believe it is through these poems rather than textbooks that we understand what women went through because textbooks make us study and read but poems make us feel. The Duchess was assassinated just because she was kind and a happy person who treated everyone equally, she was independent and unaware.

Even if she was aware of the intentions of the duke she could have done nothing. The duke did not just objectify the duchess for himself, he objectified her in front of the whole world, she was like a rare piece of art in a museum where everyone looked at her and her story was narrated by the duke because she was not there anymore to speak for herself.

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