My Last Duchess
“My Last Duchess” appeared in Browning’s first collection of shorter poems, Dramatic Lyrics (1842). In the original edition, the poem is printed side-by-side with “Count Gismond” under the heading “Italy and France,” and the two poems share a similar concern with issues of aristocracy and honor. “My Last Duchess” is one of many poems by Browning that are founded, at least in part, upon historical fact. Extensive research lies behind much of Browning’s work, and “My Last Duchess” represents a confluence of two of Browning’s primary interests: the Italian Renaissance and visual art. Both the speaker of the poem and his “last Duchess” closely resemble historical figures. The poem’s duke is likely modeled upon Alfonso II, the last Duke of Ferrara, whose marriage to the teenaged Lucrezia de’ Medici ended mysteriously only three years after it began. The duke then negotiated through an agent to marry the niece of the Count of Tyrol.
True to the title of the volume in which the poem appears, “My Last Duchess” begins with a gesture performed before its first couplet—the dramatic drawing aside of a “curtain” in front of the painting. From its inception, the poem plays upon the notion of the theatrical, as the impresario duke delivers a monologue on a painting of his late wife to an envoy from a prospective duchess. That the poem constitutes, structurally, a monologue, bears significantly upon its meaning and effects. Browning himself summed up Dramatic Lyrics as a gathering of “so many utterances of so many imaginary persons, not mine,” and the sense of an authorial presence outside of “My Last Duchess” is indeed diminished in the wake of the control the duke seems to wield over the poem. The fact that the duke is the poem’s only voice opens his honesty to question, as the poem offers no other perspective with which to compare or contrast that of the duke. Dependence on the duke as the sole source of the poem invites in turn a temporary sympathy with him, in spite of his outrageous arrogance and doubtlessly criminal past. The poem’s single voice also works to focus attention on the duke’s character: past deeds pale as grounds for judgment, becoming just another index to the complex mind of the aristocrat.
In addition to foregrounding the monologic and theatrical nature of the poem, the poem’s first dozen lines also thematize notions of repetition and sequence, which are present throughout the poem. “That’s my last Duchess,” the duke begins, emphasizing her place in a series of attachments that presumably include a “first” and a “next.” The stagy gesture of drawing aside the curtain is also immanently repeatable: the duke has shown the painting before and will again. Similarly, the duke locates the envoy himself within a sequence of “strangers” who have “read” and been intrigued by the “pictured countenance” of the duchess. What emerges as the duke’s central concern—the duchess’s lack of discrimination—also relates to the idea of repetition, as the duke outlines a succession of gestures, events, and individuals who “all and each/Would draw from her alike the approving speech.” The duke’s very claim to aristocratic status rest upon a series—the repeated passing on of the “nine-hundred-years-old name” that he boasts. The closing lines of “My Last Duchess” again suggest the idea of repetition, as the duke directs the envoy to a statue of Neptune: “thought a rarity,” the piece represents one in a series of artworks that make up the duke’s collection. The recurrent ideas of repetition and sequence in the poem bind together several of the poem’s major elements—the duke’s interest in making a new woman his next duchess and the vexingly indiscriminate quality of his last one, the matter of his aristocratic self-importance and that of his repugnant acquisitiveness, each of which maps an aspect of the duke’s obsessive nature.
This obsessiveness also registers in the duke’s fussy attention to his own rhetoric, brought up throughout the poem in the form of interjections marked by dashes in the text. “She had/a heart—how shall I say—too soon made glad,” the duke says of his former duchess, and his indecision as to word choice betrays a tellingly careful attitude toward discourse. Other such self-interruptions in the poem describe the duke’s uncertainty as to the duchess’s too easily attained approval, as well as his sense of being an undiplomatic speaker. On the whole, these asides demonstrate the duke’s compulsive interest in the pretence of ceremony, which he manipulates masterfully in the poem. Shows of humility strengthen a sense of the duke’s sincerity and frank nature, helping him build a rapport with his audience. The development of an ostensibly candid persona works to cloak the duke’s true “object”—the dowry of his next duchess.
Why the duke broaches the painful matter of his sordid past in the first place is well worth considering and yields a rich vein of psychological speculation. Such inquiry should be tempered, however, by an awareness of the duke’s overt designs in recounting his past. On the surface, for instance, the poem constitutes a thinly veiled warning: the duke makes a show of his authority even as he lets out some of the rather embarrassing details surrounding his failed marriage. The development of the duchess’s seeming disrespect is cut short by the duke’s “commands”—almost certainly orders to have her quietly murdered. In the context of a meeting with the envoy of a prospective duchess, the duke’s confession cannot but convey a threat, a firm declaration of his intolerance toward all but the most respectful behavior.
But the presence of an underlying threat cannot fully account for the duke’s rhetorical exuberance, and the speech the poem embodies must depend for its impetus largely upon the complex of emotional tensions that the memory calls up for the duke. As critic W. David Shaw remarks, the portrait of the last duchess represents both a literal and a figurative “hang-up” for the duke, who cannot resist returning to it repeatedly to contemplate its significance. So eager is the duke to enlarge upon the painting and its poignance that he anticipates and thus helps create the envoy’s interest in it, assuming in him a curiousity as to “how such a glance came” to the countenance of the duchess. The duke then indulges in obsessive speculation on the “spot of joy” on the “Duchess’ cheek,” elaborating different versions of its genesis. Similarly, the duke masochistically catalogues the various occasions the duchess found to “blush” or give praise: love, sunsets, cherries, and even “the white mule/She rode with round the terrace.”
Language itself occupies a particularly troubled place in the duke’s complex response to his last duchess and her memory. The duke’s modesty in declaiming his “skill/In speech” is surely false, as the rhetorical virtuosity of his speech attests. Yet he is manifestly averse to resolving the issue through discussion. In the duke’s view, “to be lessoned” or lectured is to be “lessened” or reduced, as his word choice phonetically implies. Rather than belittle himself or his spouse through the lowly practice of negotiation, the duke sacrifices the marriage altogether, treating the duchess’s “trifling” as a capital offense. The change the duke undergoes in the wake of disposing of his last duchess is in large part a rhetorical one, as he “now” handles discursively what he once handled with set imperatives.
The last lines of the poem abound in irony. As they rise to “meet/The company below,” the duke ominously reminds the envoy that he expects an ample dowry by way of complimenting the “munificence” of the Count. The duke then tells the envoy that not money but the Count’s daughter herself remains his true “object,” suggesting the idea that the duke’s aim is precisely the contrary. The duke’s intention to “go/Together down” with the envoy, meant on the surface as a kind of fraternal gesture, ironically underscores the very distinction in social status that it seems to erase. “Innsbruck” is the seat of the Count of Tyrol whose daughter the duke means to marry, and he mentions the bronze statue with a pride that is supposed to flatter the Count. But the lines can also be interpreted as an instance of self-flattery, as Neptune, who stands for the duke, is portrayed in the sculpture as an authorial figure, “taming a sea-horse.”
“My Last Duchess” marks an early apex of Browning’s art, and some of the elements of the poem—such as the monologue form, the discussion of visual art, and the Renaissance setting—were to become staples of Browning’s aesthetic. “My Last Duchess” also inaugurates Browning’s use of the lyric to explore the psychology of the individual. As many critics have suggested, character for Browning is always represented as a process, and the attitudes of his characters are typically shown in flux. The duke of “My Last Duchess” stands as a testimony to Browning’s ability to use monologue to frame an internal dialogue: the duke talks to the envoy but in effect talks to himself as he compulsively confronts the enigmas of his past.
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Source: Bloom, H., 2001. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House Publishers.