An analysis of the language and imagery in Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess

So, you’ve read the last two posts on the context, form and structure of Robert Browning’s poem My Last Duchess and now you want to know more about the language… this post will help you understand some of the main ways in which the poet is using language.

There are two real purposes in Browning’s use of language in the poem. One is to create the portrait of the Duke through what he says, and one is to create a verbal portrait of the Duchess (as opposed to the artistic portrait mentioned in the poem)

As always, I’m interested in what Browning is doing and why he might be doing it. I’m conscious always of what it makes me think about the aspects Browning talks about in the poem. On former exam papers, we called this technique and purpose and although the language might have changed a bit, the ideas are the same.

From the beginning of the poem, it’s clear we’ve entered in mid-conversation and that this is one side of a discussion. The word “That” is a pronoun that indicates an object  – a pointing word if you will – that refers to something that has been mentioned before. Thus, it’s clear from the word that there is some preceding context that we’re not aware of as a reader, but it also puts us into an active scene where the Duke is indicating something. Think of “this” and “that” and how they ‘point to’ an object. “That” doesn’t just refer to an object, it can refer to a person as well, in this case, and the first line makes it clear that he is indicating the Duchess, rather than the painting. Browning’s using it as an indicator to talk about something we can’t see, only imagine: the Duchess, not the painting. I don’t know about you, but it feels kind of dismissive and desultory, insulting even, calling her “that”.

We also get the possessive pronoun “my” which sets out his stall straight away: she belonged to him. Or rather, she didn’t. As we learn later, she never truly belonged to him. But the possessive pronoun shows a kind of interesting idea of ownership and belonging, which is picked up through the rest of the poem.

And then “last” – also a little rude, kind of throwaway. It’s like when men refer to their wives jokingly as “The current Mrs Jones” implying that there will be others. It implies an unspoken time limit in a way, which is what makes it sound throwaway to me. Forget all of this “in sickness and in health” business, or mourning periods that went on for years like Queen Victoria’s. It’s careless and there isn’t the remotest sense of grief, sadness or guilt in that word “last”.

It becomes clear that not only is Browning taking on a role, but he’s also inviting the reader to take on one as well: that of the person he is speaking to in the scene. We don’t know whose part we are playing yet – that only becomes clear at the end – but it’s like we’ve been transported onto this stage, in front of this painting, and the Duke has suddenly come to life, talking to us.

In the second line, the phrase “looking as if she were alive” also tells us part of the story: it perhaps refers to the quality of the painting, but also refers to his wife’s life. On the one hand, the painting is so realistic that it literally looks like it might move any minute. On the other, it reveals to the reader that his wife is dead. We actually need this information if we are going to play the part of the marriage broker (which we later realise that we are), since I’m pretty sure the marriage broker for the “next” Duchess would be aware that his previous wife was dead. This kind of double meaning is evident through the whole poem, and you can take many things in a dual way, especially the threats.

Funnily, I said last time that the Duke reminds me in some ways of Hannibal Lecter, and he does here. All these double meanings remind me of Hannibal saying that he was “going to have an old friend for dinner” – normal, obvious meaning is that he is having an old friend around to eat dinner with. Psychopath crazy meaning is that he is going to eat an old friend for dinner.

Here, it prompts a re-reading, a reassessment, as we find out more about the Duke and can see the way he plays with words. (Or, the way Browning makes him play with words).

You might, for instance, on first reading, think that the Duke calls the “piece” a “wonder” because he is grieving and it allows him to remember his wife. Often, people keep photographs of their dead loved ones and the photograph or painting reminds them of how much they loved their husband or wife. They get great pleasure from it because the person is no longer with them. Those paintings or photos are wonderful to them because they allow them to ‘see’ their loved one again. On second reading, we wonder who “that piece” refers to… and it seems to be the painting (well, the way he feels about his wife as we later see, he certainly wouldn’t be calling her “a wonder”) which is our first hint that there is something a little hinky about him. Why on earth would you think the painting was wonderful in itself and not because it reminded you of your late wife, unless the painting has come to mean more than your wife ever did?

Imagine the scene: your loved wife has died. The photographer who took your wedding photos gives you a photo of your wife. Your first reaction is “what wonderful lighting and I love the way the shot is composed!”

You just wouldn’t, would you?

Browning shows us that the Duke certainly appears to be more interested in the painting itself than he is in what it captured. We even get that in the next lines where he says “she” and “her” – it seems fairly ambiguous at points that he’s even talking about his wife and not the painting (some people do use gender-specific pronouns for inanimate objects, like calling cars and boats by female pronouns) If you like, apparently, you can even use “she” to talk about a country, like “Mother Russia” or even your gun. I don’t think that the Duke is using it to talk about the painting, but even so, there’s a real sense that he’s more admiring of the woman immortalised in the painting (and more pleased by the painting itself) than he is about his actual wife. Again, it smells like a psychopath to me, someone who seems to appreciate art, but not life.

On line 3, we have the first name-dropping. Browning creates a real portrait of a man who loves to name-drop artists. Who does that and why would Browning give us this detail? One reason is that it shows the Duke to be more obsessed by names and status, than by his wife. He wants to impress the marriage broker. It’s all: “Look at me, with my original artwork by arty geniuses”. You look at the people who have artwork on their walls… it’s often a status symbol rather than actual art appreciation. Let’s face it: all the people who really love art aren’t likely to have a genuine Picasso or Van Gogh on their wall. You can look at all the people who own original artwork by famous artists and you’ll see that it’s a) rich American business men b) rich Saudi business men c) Kings and the likes d) rich Russian business men or e) massive great big businesses. You can add rich Chinese, Japanese and Mexican businessmen to the list as well. So who owns fancy artwork? People who want to show their power, their wealth and their culture. Not people who truly appreciate art.

That’s exactly what that “Frà Pandolf” reference is designed to do: show the marriage broker how powerful, how rich and how cultured the Duke is. He doesn’t just namedrop once though, he repeats it with “I said/’Frà Pandolf’ by design” as if the negotiator might not have heard him.

And what does it really do? Show us how vain, possessive and foolish the Duke really is. It shows us a man who pretends to have this cultured side, this appreciation of art, this delicacy and ability to recognise fine art, yet it reveals him to be a crass snob who is more bothered by status and possessions than he is by any actual appreciation of art.

On line 5, Browning is using mock-polite language in an interesting way… look at that question, “Will’t please you sit and look at her?” Do you think the marriage broker is of an equal status to the Duke? I doubt it. I doubt too that this is a genuinely polite request, more a “sit and do as you’re told whilst I make it clear to you how it’s going to be…” kind of question. I don’t think there’s any point at which the audience (or in this case the reader) is supposed to say, “no, thanks. I don’t want to look at a painting of your dead wife, thanks.”

However, the way the question is asked makes it seem as if we – the marriage broker – have a choice. I think it’s that question that reveals the Duke’s thinly-veiled threats. He has the ability to make everything seem charming, but really you don’t have a choice.

It also reiterates another very important point: the Duke is clearly in control of who looks at his wife (well, the portrait of her) and it’s his decision who sees her or not. This is seen again when he adds the aside later of “(since none puts by/the curtain I have drawn for you, but I)” which again shows how now the Duke has absolute control over who sees his former wife and who doesn’t. He is in absolute control over her (or the image of her). Ironic, really, since he could not control in real life who looked at her or who appreciated her.

When he says, “for never read/Strangers like you that pictured countenance”, the Duke is reiterating his control: this portrait and the look it captured is very much under his control. He chooses who sees it and who doesn’t.

What I find particularly interesting in the poem is this “pictured countenance” as it seems the Duke is obsessed by the look on his wife’s face, her “earnest glance” and “the spot of joy” on “the Duchess’s cheek”. Either it captures the blush of a woman who is flattered by the attentions of the painter, or the feelings of the painter for his subject, but it captures this very intimate moment between the painter Frà Pandolf and the Duchess.

Now that’s a bit weird.

Either the Duke thinks they’re cheating on him, or he’s angry that his wife was so easily flattered…. whatever was going on, or not, between the painter and the Duchess, it’s a painting that captures a private moment between the two of them.

And this is the painting the Duke chooses to keep.

I kind of wonder if he keeps it behind the curtain so that people won’t ask him why his wife had “a spot of joy” on his face, or if he himself can’t bear to look at this image that is in essence a private moment between the Duchess and the painter. Either way, it’s a weird thing to keep around.

Like… say for instance a famous rock star wrote a song about your girlfriend or boyfriend, when it was clear there were pretty intense feelings between the two, would you buy the limited edition and keep playing it?

That’s a weird, weird thing to do. Whether the Duke thought they were being unfaithful or whether he just thought his wife was a dumb social climber who wasn’t discerning enough to ignore the flattery of a poor artist, why would you keep around an image that reminds you of the one thing that really annoyed you about them?

The only reason I can think the Duke might do this is that the painting by itself (or even the person who painted it) is more significant than the feelings he had for his wife. It emphasises that the painting in itself may well remind him of how much his wife irritated him, but the value of the painting is more than the irritation. Or, he likes being reminded about how much that wife annoyed him. Kind of like keeping a photo of your ex-husband on the mantlepiece just to remember how much wrong they did by you.

Either way, not particularly healthy behaviour.

In Line 11, we also get the little embedded clause “if they durst,” which hangs at the end of the line, meaning that most people are too terrified to ask anything about the painting, or the circumstances in which it was painted. We get the feeling that Browning is giving us an image of a man who wants to paint himself as frightening, how most people “dare not” ask about the painting. It shows a little of the terror that we also see in Ozymandias. Not only that, we see an artist who captures the true qualities of his subject. Instead of capturing the terror that the subject instills in people in this case, the painting manages to evoke the terror that the Duke himself instills in people.

Still, also a bit weird that the Duke thinks that he was in some way responsible for “that spot of joy” even if the rest of it was the annoying flattery by the painter that made his wife blush.

In fact, we then have five lines that depict the relationship between Frà Pandolf and the Duchess:

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:’

I mean, that speaks to a bit of obsession on behalf of the Duke, don’t you think, to spend five lines speculating about what Frà Pandolf had said to the Duchess to make her blush? And that inane flirtation really needles the Duke. He imagines the kind of compliments the painter might have paid to the Duchess and it really gets on the Duke’s nerves to remember it. In fact, it’s not the compliments that needle him, but the effect they have on his wife. I’d argue that it’s not a particularly private moment between the Duchess and the artist. You’d have to be pretty dumb to flirt with a guy’s wife right in front of him if he’s the kind of guy that the Duke seems to be. Also, Frà Pandolf says “her throat” which implies that he is not talking TO the Duchess, but ABOUT the Duchess… these are his excuses for not being able to get the exact colour right to the Duke, rather than attempts to flirt with a guy’s wife right in front of him. Either way, the Duchess finds it flattering, thinking it good manners, “such stuff was courtesy” and the Duke finds it a sign that she is just too dumb to appreciate things as she should. By that, I mean too dumb to appreciate “his nine-hundred-years-old name”.

I don’t know what irks him most: the flirtation, his wife’s reaction, or the fact that the compliments were coming from some lowly painter.

I mean, it’s hardly saucy flirtation, is it? “Your cloak’s covering a bit too much of your wrist, love.” or “that’s a nice bit of light on your neck, darling…”

It doesn’t seem to be the stuff of wildly passionate flirtation, does it? (If you want to see that, dip into some of Spenser’s sonnets where he’s comparing his girlfriend’s nipples to flowers)

And yet… yet the neck and wrist ARE erogenous zones. The Japanese geisha have a whole line of ritualised flirtation involving the nape of the neck and the wrist. And if you think about vampires and which bits they suck… always necks and wrists, the kinky devils. Apparently, and I kid you not, body language experts think that neck and wrist signals can be some of the really flirty stuff.

Now Browning didn’t have body language experts and behavioural psychologists to help him… but those Victorians were also a bunch who covered up and covered up, so that those occasional glimpses of a wrist or ankle were, well, a most massive flirtation indeed.

So whilst at first glance you might think there’s nothing so saucy about what Frà Pandolf is saying to the Duchess, you might find it completely harmless and innoffensive, I think there’s something quite suggestive about it – another story to be told. That said, in the second part of those five lines, he’s quite clearly NOT talking to the Duchess directly, but to the Duke, so the jury’s out on the flirtation or whether it’s just an artist with good manners who wants to see a bit more wrist.

Does the Duke miss this saucy subtext? Does the Duchess? He tells us that she thought it “courtesy”. Either she means just plain good manners, respectful and polite, or that of “courtesy books” which were popular guides to etiquette and behaviour in Renaissance Italy… but the Duke tells us that the Duchess found nothing wrong with this.

All those layers of “he said… she said…” as well, that’s interesting. The Duke is a third wheel in that relationship between the painter and his subject. But we only have his word for what happened, and a many-layered story.

You have Frà Pandolf, who may or may not be a gentleman, who may or may not be flirting with quite serious intentions… or making excuses for why he can’t get the colour right on the woman’s neck.

Then you have the Duchess, who may or may not believe Frà Pandolf to be a gentleman or to have only honorable intentions.

And then you have the Duke, who may or may not believe what Frà Pandolf’s intentions were in flirting with his wife, or even that the Duchess said these things at all.

Confusing, much?

What we can agree on is that it’s a very biased and one-sided account of what happened, where we are asked to make our own judgements about it. You make up your own sub-story.

So was there anything going on between them?

I think not. I think it better suits the poem that the Duke is jealous and controlling. It suits the story better for the Duchess to be charmed simply by the painter, who is perhaps a little free with his compliments in the presence of the guy paying the bills. I like to see the Duchess as an innocent victim in all of this. It serves no purpose if we think she was up to mischief with the painter. Indeed, it may even make us sympathise with the Duke.

We wouldn’t be the first people to be in doubt over the Duke’s nature though. One critic (B. R. Jerman) intepreted his behaviour as ‘witless’, meaning he is simply stupid and foolish, perhaps not even seeing the affair happening right before his eyes. Another interpreted it as ‘shrewd’ and suggests that the character is cunning, knowing absolutely what it is that he is implying (Laurence Perrine)

And behind all of this you have Browning, pulling strings. What do we know about Browning? He LOVED ambiguity. He adored the fact that you never quite knew. And I have to agree with him… it makes it all the more tantalising as a story if we don’t know if the Duke is just stupid, or if he is really just issuing a veiled threat about the behaviours he expects of his next wife. (Although… if you were a marriage broker, would you advise your boss to let his daughter marry this guy? Even with his “nine-hundred-years-old name”, fancy paintings of dead wives and statues of Gods taming seahorses) I think it is very deliberate that we have this beguiling story that we can’t get to the bottom of. It just makes the poem so much more delicious in its intrigue.

Either way, from line 22, we get to the seed of the real source of irritation for the Duke. “She had a heart – how shall I say? – too soon made glad, too easily impressed ;” All those fragments we’ve discussed before. This is a seasoned speaker, who speaks easily and fluently (compare it with lines 7 and 8 which end with “countenance” and “earnest glance”) yet here, his speech falls apart. He stumbles. The dashes show us his pauses, his hesitation. Is he trying to find a polite way to talk about her?

And what does he mean? The Duchess liked stuff. She liked things and she was happy. How utterly appalling. “She liked whate’er she looked on”. She liked everything. Oh my word, well, that would make a man miserable! Kind of ironic how many men complain that they can’t choose the right present for their wife and here’s one who likes everything. No pleasing some husbands. We really sense the Duke’s indignation in “Sir ‘t was all one!”

Those monosyllables truly reveal his feelings. He is insulted that she likes everything and treats everything the same. He finds that disgusting. The Duke is deeply offended by the Duchess’s happy nature and the way she likes stuff.

Browning uses a list of things that the Duchess liked (I can imagine her on Facebook, ‘liking’ everything and the Duke watching her in his feed, getting more and more cross with the stuff she’d stick a heart or ‘thumbs up’ on!) and we get a sense of the Duke’s growing frustration and indignation. She liked the Duke’s compliments about what a nice rack she has (as so she should, because he is obviously not a man who finds favour in many things) but she liked sunsets, cherries, her pony… Good Lord, how is a man to cope with a wife who likes watching sunsets, eating cherries and riding a horse?! His list of things she likes seems pathetic when you think that IF he had her murdered, these are the reasons he had her murdered. She liked all of these things, ” – all and each/would draw from her alike the approving speech,”

And he doesn’t stop to think that the Duchess herself might just be being courteous or polite.

Now for the thing that REALLY gets his goat. As if cherry appreciation wasn’t enough. Look at how fragmented this bit is as he struggles to keep his temper in, even now, despite her being dead,

“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.”

Outrageous isn’t it? She just wasn’t grateful enough, wasn’t appreciative enough of his “gift” of a surname. And the Duke is so cross about that. We can see his anger building up through those fragments (which I’ve deliberately put on separate lines so that you can see clearly) The way that ‘MY’ falls at the beginning of a line, even though it is the object of the verb “ranked” and belongs with it in that phrase, on that line, it really emphasises it. It is a personal insult, he feels, that she treats everything the same.

The Duke finds this absolutely and utterly incomprehensible, with the rhetorical question, “Who’d stoop to blame/this sort of trifling?” and becomes even more angry. We see in the poem the way that this anger played out and built up.

So it’s her graciousness in receiving compliments, her appreciation of nature (and perhaps even true “beauty” – unlike the Duke with his obsession with manufactured art) of sunsets and cherries, white horses and the likes, that sets him off, since she doesn’t seem to appreciate his name as much as she should.

So the Duke becomes dictatorial, when he says “to make your will/Quite clear”, to “make your will”… that in itself sounds like a massive euphemism for what the Duke may have done to the Duchess in order to point out what he considered to be the error of her ways. The way he calls her “such an one” I think really stresses his frustration with her, and his loathing of her behaviour. The way the Duke repeats what he said to her, “just this or that in you disgusts me ; here you miss or there exceed the mark” reveals him to be a control freak who wants to ‘iron out’ all the ‘imperfections’ that he sees in his wife. If it is indeed “just this or that” and he finds minor aspects of her behaviour to be irritating, it reveals him to be a very pathetic kind of guy indeed, especially by our standards of relationships. It reminds me very much of a petty, pathetic armchair dictator, who wants to ‘direct’ all of his wife’s behaviour, just as the painter does when he says her coat hangs a little too low on her wrist. It’s like the Duke is trying to ‘mould’ or ‘shape’ the Duchess – despite the fact that Browning paints her as a remarkably lovely person, with her “spot of joy” on her cheek and her love of ponies and cherries. She is a woman who prefers the simple things in life. Although the Duke finds her behaviour to be lacking, his despotic behaviour when pointing out his wife’s every flaw reminds us that our characters and personality, like art, is all a matter of opinion. He is an autocrat who wants everything his way.

What becomes clear is the Duke finds that he is socially superior to his wife, that he finds he has to “stoop” or lower himself to her level. When he says he chooses “never to stoop”, he makes it pretty clear that he himself is perfect, that he finds he has no need to modify his behaviour or compromise in any single way at all, revealing his deep arrogance and vanity. The story then becomes a lesson for us, in the place of the marriage broker. It is an account that reveals that the Duke is making it clear that he will make no compromise and that he expects his next wife, whom you are representing, to be perfect. Like the dictatorial Ozymandias, he “gave commands” and “all smiles stopped together”. That, for the Duke, is the end of the story. He moves from “all smiles stopped together” back to the painting, or the Duchess’s images, “There she stands/As if alive” which not only refers to the quality of the painting, which is incredibly life-life, but is an ambiguous reference to the Duchess’s fate and what happened to make “all smiles” stop.

So what did happen to the Duchess?

Did the Duke order her murder? Are those “the commands” he “gave”?

Is she actually dead? Divorce wasn’t a regular thing in the time that the poem is set, but a marriage annulment could be possible. Another possibility is that she could have simply been to send her to a nunnery. When he was asked about what had happened to the Duchess, Browning said, “the commands were that she should be put to death… or he might have had her shut up in a convent.” (Corson, 1886. An Introduction to the Study of Robert Browning’s Poetry)

So what does Browning reveal about the Duke?

He is an autocratic monster, who has a façade of an art connoisseur or collector, who collects wives as he collects art. He comes across as a Victorian Bluebeard, a monster who cannot see his own flaws, despite noticing every single flaw of his “Last Duchess.” Browning has chosen someone whose “nine-hundred-years-old” name is about to become extinct, which I find deeply ironic. But did Browning do that on purpose or not? Who knows. It is certainly ironic that this man who finds himself to be such a “gift” is a footnote in history books, completely forgettable except to Italian Renaissance history buffs, except for Browning’s poem. It’s deeply ironic too that Browning, like the sculptor in Ozymandias and Frà Pandolf, has the power to keep the Duke alive and to breathe life into him. Perhaps then, the real power lies in the hands of the artist, the writer or the sculptor, who has the power to immortalise (well, sort of, and if they are lucky!) their subject as well as how they are remembered. I can’t help but think of Shakespeare here, who is largely responsible for how we view Richard III or Macbeth, despite the fact his art is fiction.

What Browning does in the poem is skilfully create an image of a petty, autocratic monster who cannot see beauty where it truly is. Browning’s use of language creates deliberate ambiguities which leave us wondering if the Duke is just stupid and ill-bred, despite his family name, or whether he is indeed a man who has ordered his wife’s death, a petty tyrant who is using the painting to give a subtle threat to the marriage broker that the ‘next’ Duchess better be more biddable and more appreciative of his “gift” of the family name.

The end of the monologue ends in a very business-like way, with a discussion about the bride-to-be. The Duke asks the marriage broker to come with him, putting an end to the viewing, “Will’t please you rise?” And the Duke says that they will meet the rest of the group downstairs. When he says, “I repeat,” he seems to be picking up something he was talking about before, the generosity or “munificence” of the Count, whose daughter the Duke is arranging to marry. It is like he is flattering the broker, saying that the Count is known for his generosity. The mention of the dowry, the money, property or goods that a wife brings with her as a “gift” from her family to the husband shows this to be a business transaction, despite the Duke saying that he is interested in the Count’s “fair daughter”. He comes across as mercenary. His discussion of business and money in such an overt way also comes across to me as being crass and ill-mannered. Goodness only knows who instilled upon me the rudeness of talking about money. Emily Post, one of the most famous people who decided on good manners and wrote books about etiquette and manners, said that it is very vulgar to talk money. Maybe that’s why I find it very vulgar of the Duke to be discussing money. But then he is a very vulgar man. Mind you, I’m of the generation that finds it rude and unthinking to give money as a present, so I’m no doubt hideously old-fashioned and that view of the vulgarity of the money talk at the end is mine and mine alone!

The Duke can’t resist, as he goes, a final show-off moment. Have a look at my wonderful bronze statue of a God taming a sea horse, if you will. I think it remarkably telling, revealing much about the Duke. Perhaps it acts as a metaphor for his relationship with the Duchess, that he too tried to “tame” her or “break” her. Either way, the moment leaves us in no doubt that the Duke is a collector of fine art and likes to show off about it.

What I think, then, is that we have a man who thinks he is cultured, a collector if you like, who has no true appreciation of what is beautiful. He is ill-mannered and snobbish, the worst of the aristocracy. He has not merited his title and his ugly personality is far from refined or cultured. He is a boorish show-off. If you ask me, I don’t think his last wife died of anything in particular. I don’t think the Duke’s words show that he cared about her, only in that she was his possession, in return for his name. He is a colossal snob, who doesn’t realise that his artwork as well as his speech reveals him very perfectly. He is a petty dictator, but he couldn’t even manage to get his wife to bow to his bidding. Kind of ironic that her painting, which he may choose to only reveal to a very select few, is a depiction of her ‘defiance’.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthology, please send me an email via the website or Facebook and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.

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