- A Duke shows the portrait of his last Duchess to a guest in his palace. Artist Fra Pandolf painted it beautifully and the Duchess looks alive in the picture.
- The Duke tells his guest how his late wife was ever jolly and how she reacted with smile at anything and everything she looked at.
- The Duke’s costly gift for his wife had no special value to her. She appreciated all things in the same way. So, the Duke grew jealous and gave command to kill her.
- The Duke wants to get married again. Now he is negotiating a fresh marriage proposal with the guest, the envoy of a count.
My Last Duchess – Explanation
Line 1 – 3
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now;
The speaker of the poem draws our attention to the portrait of his last Duchess hanging on the wall. So, the speaker here is a Duke. Perhaps, he is in his art gallery showing the painting to someone. The portrait is so beautifully painted that she looks alive. That is why the Duke considers it a piece of wonderful art now.
The speaker here uses the word ‘last’. We are not sure whether he had a number of wives or only one.
Line 3 – 4
Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
So, now we know who painted the portrait of the Duchess. Fra Pandolf is the artist. He worked ‘busily’ to complete the picture in a single day. And the result is a marvelous piece of Art. The words ‘there she stands’ though can merely mean “there she is”, it might also suggest that it is a full-length portrait showing her full body and not only the face.
Line 5 – 8
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,
The Duke requests his guest (we still don’t know who he/she is) to sit down and look at the painting. Though literary polite, the request seems rather like a command from the Duke. And who would dare to disobey when he asks to do something?
The Duke reveals that he mentioned the name of the painter on purpose (by design). Pandolf’s work of art is so good that strangers like the listener could never understand (never read) how the painter put so much depth and passion in the look (glance) of the painted face (countenance) of the Duchess.
Line 9 – 13
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.
So, what do the strangers do when they don’t get a clue about how such a lively portrait was painted? They turn to the Duke, looking like they wish to ask him how such life-like expression was created, but they don’t dare (durst) to.
In the parenthesis, the Duke explains that they turn to him to ask it because none other than him is allowed to draw the curtain that covers the portrait. So, he is the only man who can answer queries about the picture. Therefore, our mysterious guest here is not the first person to turn towards the Duke with an intention to ask the same (so, not the first / Are you to turn and ask thus).
The Duke here talks about the weight he carries, which is why the visitors are afraid to ask him about the painting. Also, he being the only man to draw the curtain may suggest his possessiveness.
Line 13 – 15
Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek;
The Duke now addresses the listener as “Sir”, suggesting he is a man, not a woman. He also explains the reason behind that smile of his last Duchess. He says that it was not only his presence that made her glad. But she was ever Jolly, jovial and cheerful. So, seemingly, she was happy in anyone else’s presence too. And our Duke doesn’t seem to like that.
Line 15 – 21
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.
The Duke now says that maybe Fra Pandolf, while painting her portrait, praised the Duchess’ beauty by saying that her cloak is covering too much of her wrist. Maybe he admired her by saying that painting can never recreate the reddish glow on her neck and the throat.
She thought such trivial remarks were courtesy and reason enough to make her happy. So, she blushed in joy. And the artist captured that expression in the portrait.
So, now we know completely how that depth and passion of the Duchess’ expression were painted in her portrait. By now, we also get hints that the Duke was somewhat suspicious of his late wife’s actions.
Line 21 – 24
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.
Now the Duke’s focus shifts from the portrait session to the Duchess herself. She had a golden heart. Everything made her glad and impressed. She looked at everything and was easily captivated by whatever she saw.
Line 25 – 31
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 did not distinguish among some costly ornament given by the Duke, the beauty of the sunset, a branch of cherries brought by a subordinate and the mule on which she rode around the terrace. All pleased her equally. She praised all in the same way. In simple terms, his wife had no sense of discrimination. Even if she did not speak, she would at least blush at everything and anything.
So, the Duke finds it offending that his wife gives the same importance to trifle things like a bough of cherries or the mule as to his precious gift. Again, appreciating the cherries is not probably his problem, but some “officious fool” bringing it to her is the issue. We see the Duke’s jealousy here and he was suspicious as if she had an affair.
Line 31 – 34
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.
She thanked everyone and the Duke had no problem with that. But her words of appreciation towards all were the same. She had no special appreciation for the gift of the Duke. She did not make any distinction between the 900 years old ancient name and rank the Duke bestowed on her and others’ gifts. She treated all equally.
But the Duke fails to understand how it was that she treated everything just the same. The Duke was, it seems, desperate to get special attention and appreciation of his Duchess for his costly gifts and his rank, but in vain.
The Duke also thinks he is superior to the Duchess in terms of family heritage and he gives her the nine-hundred-year-old name with which the aristocracy, power and prestige of his centuries old family are associated.
Line 34 – 43
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 thought it beneath his dignity (to stoop) to tutor her. He tells his guest that he is not skillful in speech. He could not make his intentions (will) clear to his former wife. If he had the ability to tell her what things of her disgusted him or where she failed to meet his expectations (the mark), still he would never have talked to her about this.
Even if he could tell her what she could change, she might give excuses or might not agree with the Duke to change herself. The Duke therefore considers it equal to stooping. As a Duke he can never bend before anyone. So, he remains silent.
The Duke’s relationship with his last duchess was seemingly not open and it was rather guided by his will and command.
Line 43 – 45
Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile?
The Duke is basically repeating the same point redundantly. Maybe he is trying to justify something too hard by being judgmental to her actions again and again.
According to the Duke, his wife had no discrimination in her smile too. She smiled at her husband when she saw her, but she smiled at anybody else in the same amiable way.
Line 45 – 47
This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive.
Now we reach the climax. Our speaker clears all our doubts. When the Duchess’ gesture of courtesy increased day by day, the Duke could no longer tolerate this, so he gave commands to kill her and had her murdered. Her smiled stopped forever. The Duke again points out to the painting and says it looks ‘alive’.
Though we cannot be sure of what the ‘command’ was, it is very much understandable from the words “as if alive”, suggesting that she isn’t alive in reality.
Line 47 – 48
Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then.
After ending his story, the Duke invites the man to get up and go downstairs to meet others. This seems similarly commanding as his earlier request to sit down and look at the painting.
Line 48 – 53
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.
Whoa! Now we discover the identity of the silent listener. He is an emissary of a Count. And looks like we are getting into some marriage negotiations.
The Duke says that the master of the envoy, i.e., the count is known for his generosity. Being wealthy, he should be able to provide any reasonable dowry for his daughter to bring to the marriage. However, he clarifies that, as he told them earlier, the beautiful daughter of the count is his main object.
So, we now see the Duke asking for a sizeable dowry and he doesn’t think that to be below his dignity. The Duke’s hypocrisy, shrewdness and desire for possession are revealed here.
Line 53 – 56
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!
It looks like our guest is trying to get away from the Duke as quickly as he can. He might be afraid after hearing all these. But the Duke stops him saying that they both will go together downstairs.
On their way, the Duke points out to a statue representing Neptune (Sea God) taming a sea horse. It is a rare statue specially carved out on bronze for the Duke by Claus of Innsbruck, Austria.
The statue is symbolic of the Duke’s own character. He, like Neptune, has been successful in taming the obdurate sea horse, his last wife. And by tameness he understands ‘death’. Drawing the visitor’s attention to this statue may also be a warning for his future wife.
My Last Duchess – Critical Commentary
“My Last Duchess” is a famous poem written by Robert Browning, one of the greatest Victorian poets. The original title of the poem was Italy. It was first published in “Bells and Pomegranates – III” under the title “Dramatic Lyrics” in 1842. The poem was then paired with “France” under the general title “Italy and France” and was replaced by the present title in 1849. It was also included in “Dramatic Romances” in 1868.
Though written in 1842, “My Last Duchess” is Set in the 16th century. The poem is set in Ferrara, a fortified city of Lower Lombardy. It was the hub of culture during the Italian Renaissance.
Browning got inspired to write this poem by the history of Alfonso II, the fifth Duke of Ferrara who married Lucrezia de Medici in 1558 when she was only 14. She died mysteriously in 1561 aged 17. It was suspected that she died by poison. After her death, the duke got married with Barbara, the niece of the Count of Tyrol. The context of the poem is a marriage settlement where we see the envoy of the count comes to the Duke of Ferrara with a marriage proposal.
The other characters mentioned in the poem – the painter Fra Pandolf and the sculptor, Claus of Innsbruck – are fictional. The poem deals with the theme of male and female relationships and their contrasting powers or lack of it. The Duke in this poem uses his power to control a woman, his duchess.
Written in iambic pentameter, the poem consists of twenty-three rhyming couplets. The poem also abounds with enjambments, i.e., continuation of a sentence over to the next line without a pause. A total of thirty-six line-enjambs are there.
“My Last Duchess” is a representative dramatic monologue of Browning. As a perfect dramatic monologue, it not only has a speaker other than the poet, but also a silent listener who never appears in the poem. Here the speaker is the Duke of Ferrara and the listener is the envoy of the count, who has come to finalise the Duke’s second marriage. The action of the poem is presented in a dramatic way with an abrupt beginning. And the revelation of the speaker’s character is the primary goal here.
The poem is also rich in its use of irony, where the intended meaning is different from what the words apparently suggest. The Duke tries to present her late Duchess as an unfaithful wife, but the readers see the jealous and egotistical mind of the Duke himself.