An analysis of the form and structure of My Last Duchess

Last week, I looked at the context behind My Last Duchess, as it’s such an interesting background to the poem. Although based on historical characters, Browning’s selection of the character and time period is interesting in itself. I think it represents a real shift from the Romanticism of the earlier poems in the new AQA English Literature GCSE syllabus. Browning brings to it his particular skill in bringing characters to life – particularly the ones who are just that little bit twisted!

So… let’s look now at the form: a dramatic monologue.

That in itself gives you a clue. You could have lifted this out of any play.

The purpose of a soliloquy in a play is to share with the reader things that wouldn’t have been revealed to any of the other characters, creating a sense of dramatic irony at times, or revealing deeper insights into the mind of the character. Think of what Macbeth’s soliloquys do. They reveal all those innermost thoughts and fears that he couldn’t reveal to anybody else. They show a character’s preoccupations, desires and fears. It’s kind of like talking aloud on stage.

A dramatic monologue is a little different. It’s one person speaking. There IS an audience, but they don’t reply. You get monologues in a lot of the plays – they’re part of other scenes usually. For instance, Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida gives a very long monologue. Henry V does as well to motivate his men before battle.Their purpose is a bit different. A soliloquy, by and large, reveals the real person. A dramatic monologue might not do so since you can still do a lot of talking and be wearing a kind of disguise or façade to the people you’re talking to.

BUT… there is an audience (onstage). And the person speaking wants something from the audience. They want their support, their forgiveness, their courage, their loyalty. Or they want to impress their power and their wisdom. Either way, the speaker has a very clear purpose, and it’s still a conversation, even if we only get one side of it. That’s the same here. It’s a one-sided conversation. There is a very clear audience (in this case a marriage broker who is here to arrange the marriage of the Duke to his ‘next’ Duchess).

In fact, it’s a role that Browning kind of puts us in. Either we assume the role of the marriage broker, where it’s like he’s making us take a role, a bit like street theatre or audience participation in a stage show… or we are unwitting eavesdroppers on this pair. But, as Browning seems to address the monologue at us, putting us in the position of the marriage broker with the second person address, he definitely wants us to get involved. It’s like he pulls us out of the audience to take the part of a character on stage, which certainly pulls us into the poem and gives us a role. You can’t help but be involved in that. At the moment of the poem, then, Browning is giving a voice to the Duke of Ferrara, and we’re giving ears to the marriage broker.

It’s an interesting question as to why Browning chooses so often to use other people’s voices, adopting a character persona. It’s like a mask for him. Behind the mask of the Duke is Browning. Or, perhaps a puppet master pulling the strings. Personally, I like the idea that he is giving voice to the long-dead Duke, rather than just pulling his strings, but Browning certainly does like to play with narrative voice.

It’s interesting to ask why he does this…. and for me there are several reasons that he might choose a voice other than his own.

The first is that it allows you to be someone else. It’s quite liberating to be able to fall into a role and become someone else, if only for the length of the poem. It allows you to explore other characters. Being the character as well also gives you a better insight. It’s more real. I can’t count the number of times I’ve watched something in the theatre, cinema or on television where you believe that the actor becomes the character – they’re that convincing. It allows you to be what you are not.

It may also allow you to explore characters that you have an affinity with, or you find intriguing. It allows you to get under their skin. It does beg the question why Browning enjoys so often writing as crazy psychopaths. I like to think he was just being what he never would be in real life, rather than he was secretly drawn to wondering how it would be to murder his wife for flirting with other men. For this reason, I don’t think of his dramatic personae as alter-egos, other versions of himself. I think that’s Browning’s power. He is so good at giving voice to a character that you forget he is at work behind it. It’s like he IS the Duke.

And that is something you must never lose sight of in the poem. Browning is at work behind every single word. We can’t – and shouldn’t – write about the Duke as if he were alive. Ironic, isn’t it, that the painter brings the Last Duchess to life, and Browning does the same with the Duke? That’s what power an artist has! He can bring the dead to life, just as the sculptor brings Ozymandias back to life, and just as Shelley does too. But… we should always remember that Browning is controlling and manipulating these words, and that the Duke isn’t a real person at all. If you find yourself writing “The Duke…” as if he is a real person, take a step back. You’ve fallen into Browning’s trap of convincing you that the Duke is a real person.

So we have not only a dramatic persona to consider, and how Browning brings the Duke to life, but we also have to consider the role he puts us in as his audience.

The monologue form allows us to do that. It was a form explored also by Tennyson, the other heavyweight Victorian poet. He’d published Ulysses in 1833, and had been using poetry to tell stories for a good ten years before this poem of Browning. It’s by no means Browning’s technique alone, but it’s fair to say he’s a master of it. His aim is not to tell a story but to create a portrait of the man through what he says. He’s a portrait of a type of person, rather than the Duke himself, and we must remember that Browning has added a substantial fiction to the poem. The Duke is both a picture of the petty aristocracy at the tail end of the Renaissance, as obsessed by stature and position as any Gothic hero, and a picture of a man with very deep psychological flaws. Kind of ironic, too, that you have a poem that is in itself a portrait of a man, just as Ozymandias is. It might be about the power of the artist/creator to depict an individual just so, but it’s as much a triumph of the poet as it is the painter Fra Pandolf in recreating the Duchess of Ferrara and the unnamed sculptor in Ozymandias.

As for other aspects of the form, it’s fifty-six lines of rhymed couplets written in a very structured way, with ten syllables per line. It gives it a regularity and a control, which is particularly interesting from a character that is quite controlled in his threat, what he reveals and how he reveals it. The form is perfect for such a measured and calculating man.

It’s also one of the ways by which he creates a very eloquant and cultured speaker. I love that superficial veneer of culture, art and all things highbrow, and then he’s just a plain thug beneath. It’s a split we see often in later Victorian literature like Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde and one that we see in later psychopaths such as Hannibal Lecter. Having good taste doesn’t mean you’re not a base villain underneath. Let’s be clear: Hannibal killed a musician for being out of tune. We’ve got here the same thing – someone who thinks (or seems to think) little of life, and considers himself cultured. I love that mix of civilising influence and brute nature underneath. The meter is one way that Browning creates that calm, cool, collected speech from a calculated man.

Still, we see the marks of “normal” speech in the form: the caesura and enjambment that lead us through it. I’ll look more at the effect of those split sentences and the enjambment when we look at the words and their meaning in the next article, but there are a few bits where I find the use of caesura and enjambment to particularly highlight certain phrases, which you can see here:

… 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?

Browning is also using the punctuation to help him out here. Look how broken and brittle those lines seem, how fragmented…

… 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?

You can see it more obviously here. It’s really fractured. It’s like that veneer is cracking here. His emotions seep through and he can’t keep up that smooth and superficial meter that he had before. For me, the caesura, the enjambment, the verbs split from their object, the staccato punctuation of the dashes, exclamations and questions, the repetition, the monosyllables, it all adds up. The cumulative effect for me is that this is the pinnacle of the poem. However, it’s by no means the only fractured part of the poem. You can see a smoothness and regularity to the first lines, the polysyllabic words, the careful rhyming of “countenance” and “earnest glance” and around about line 21, where we have the caesura before “She had/a heart – ” we get these fractured, broken sentences, heavily punctuated, more heavily monosyllabic as his anger at her grows. With line 47 and “Will’t please you rise?” we have a return to control and calculation. This is by no means the same cool, collected meter as Porphyria’s Lover where the guy doesn’t miss a beat when he’s describing how he strangled a girl with her own hair, because the Duke of Ferrara can’t stop his anger and resentment seeping out.

In terms of structure, the poem is one single place and moment in time (which is one of the things that marks it as a dramatic monologue) and perhaps for that reason, it is one single “paragraph” or stanza, like Stealing The Boat. It encapsulates one single moment… where the Duke is showing the marriage broker the painting. It begins with that and ends as they leave the room. The progression that we see is in fact a disintegration: a disintegration of the calm and measured showing off of the Duke, which he comes back to once again at the end. Kind of ironic that the final image is one of Neptune “taming a sea horse” – an image of mastery and domination, power and control – something he didn’t manage to do with his wife, even in her death. This final moment reminds us of the central theme of the poem: power and mastery. It also reminds us of the crassness of this Duke, name-dropping as if the marriage broker is supposed to be impressed. It’s a bitter reminder of the central themes of the poem: you can possess as much art as you want, but your nine-hundred-years-old name will be forgotten, and you with it, unless some kind poet brings you to life. Like Ozymandias, your power and tyranny is useless beyond the grave.

(This statue is from a different time period, but I think it happily illustrates the kind of statue we end the scene with)

In the next post, I’ll explore the use of language and imagery in My Last Duchess. If you want to make sure you get regular updates, make sure you subscribe to the blog. That way, you’ll get all of these posts delivered to your email account as soon as they’re published.

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1 thought on “An analysis of the form and structure of My Last Duchess

  1. Pingback: An analysis of the language and imagery in Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess | Teaching English

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