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:

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.

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.

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.

An analysis of the context in My Last Duchess by Robert Browning

My goodness there are some epic poems in the AQA GCSE English Literature poetry anthology section on Power and Conflict. From the pithy treatise on humanity in Ozymandias to the quasi-Biblical woe-begotten tale of London and then Stealing The Boat from the Romantic epic-to-beat-all-epics in Wordsworth’s The Prelude… now we come to a portrait of megalomania personified in My Last Duchess by one of the Victorian era’s most weighty and critically-acclaimed poets, Robert Browning.

Now, although it’s in the Love and Relationships section, you’d do well to read about Porphyria’s Lover as it gives you a bit of insight into another Browning monologue. In fact, this too is a twisted love-story, in a “used to love her, but I had to kill her (or did I?)” kind of way.

We’ve moved on from the Romantics with their passions and their feelings, and into the Victorian era of poetry: bleaker and more pessimistic about life. This is the era of morality – and a superficial morality at that, where your appearance was everything and yet the Victorians were a seething mass of repressed emotions. Think Jekyll and Hyde. The advent of alternative theories about the world and about history – other than the ones set out in Genesis – the rise of sociology and texts about morality, society and humanity made people really question where our morality and our values came from. On the surface, you’ve got a society that invents policemen and puts skirts on provocatively-shaped chair legs so they don’t make anyone feel a bit sexy. Underneath, you’ve got widespread prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases. Victoria had been queen for five years when this poem was published, so society is stuck more between Victorian and Romantic. It’s a long way from Jekyll and Hyde which was published in 1886, the height of that very contradictory “Victorian Morality”. Still, morality, money and power are right at the heart of this poem and influence it a great deal.

And into that context comes Robert Browning. The poem was written prior to 1842, and published in his Dramatic Lyrics which also included Porphyria’s Lover. Unlike Porphyria’s Lover, which was included in the “Madhouse Cells” section, My Last Duchess was included in the “Italy and France” section. I don’t know what that means. Does it mean that Browning didn’t think the Duke of Ferrara crazy, or that he thinks him more indicative of the Italians?

I think it’s interesting that when thinking of the literary tradition into which this poem fits, I was actually thinking more of the narrative literature and prose of the time. It is some years after Oliver Twist for example, which finds the same hypocrisies in the church and in society that you may find in Blake’s poetry. It’s also a little after the publication of Nicholas Nickleby, but it is a long way from Dickens’ social epics. I find Victorian poetry a lot darker than Romantic poetry, picking up more on the ideas of Blake than of Wordsworth. Browning made a couple of visits to Italy and was influenced by the places he visited and the stories he heard. Browning is also a master of drama, which is why I find him more like a novelist in many ways than a poet: his characters seem to weave stories of their own, albeit short.

In a few lines, with few words, Browning depicts characters that it takes lesser writers many chapters to convey. He allows us to create the backstory and to work out the mysteries of what is going on in the poems. Although it would be many years before psychology would become a field of scientific interest, he creates characters that are psychologically flawed, deeply interesting and very dramatic. Murder and monologue might be his by-lines for these poems, because you see the same theme in several of his monologues, from The Laboratory to Porphyria’s Lover. 

Not unlike that other master of the psychologically-flawed, Shakespeare, Browning takes historical characters and tells their stories. He’s just as carefree with the actual details: these are not historical biographies that he is writing. And like Shakespeare, Browning creates a voice for his characters through his use of dramatic monologue. Of course, Shakespeare’s characters’ dramatic monologues are deeply revealing of their speaker and the speaker’s state-of-mind, and these are too. A difference is that this poem is not a soliloquy. It is one side of a conversation, in which we are placed in the poem and forced to adopt the role of a character.

His poetry deals often with ‘exotic’ characters and themes. His characters are often removed from the present either in geography or in time. My Last Duchess is both of those, set in Italy in the Sixteenth Century.

So who was the real Duke of Ferrara, to whom the monologue belongs? And, more importantly, is it relevant? Let’s look at the speaker of the poem.

Alfonso II d’Este was the Duke of Ferrara from 1559 – 1597 (think of Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth I in England, and the tail end of the Renaissance in Italy, which was very much on the descent) and he was in fact the last Duke of Ferrara. I think that in itself is kind of interesting. You’ve got the end of Italian influence in Europe and the growth of new empires: the British, the Spanish, the French and even the Dutch, as the old world begins to colonise the new. Italy’s corrupt city states are definitely declining. Add to that a man who is at the end of his family line, and you’ve got some interesting context about a civilisation that is on the decline and yet is unaware of that.

The end of family lines was a real gothic motif in literature… you see it in The Castle of Otranto, the “first” gothic tale. Oh, and there you go, a crazy Italian noble at the end of the family line. You see it in other gothic novels as well, from The Mysteries of Udolpho to The Italian. Even Frankenstein has echoes of it: the patriarchal villain who runs the family, obsessed with family names and the continuity of the line. No doubt, then, if Browning knew the story of Alfonso II, it could have been one of the details that attracted him to use Alfonso as the character behind the monologue. Cruel and tyrannical husbands are ten-a-penny in gothic fiction. The end of the family name is another frequent gothic device, as is a historical or exotic setting.

There are other details about Alfonso II’s life that may also have appealed to Browning if he was making a conscious choice about who the monologue belonged to. He could, after all, have picked the name out of a book at random, like I used to do when writing stories – opening the telephone book and running my finger down the page until I found a surname I liked. We know Browning read about Ferrara when researching another poem called Sordello so it’s not beyond reason that something about Alfonso II stuck in his mind. In fact, in 1842, the year that the poem was probably written, Browning reviewed a book called Conjectures and Researches concerning the Love Madness and Imprisonment in Turquato Tasso by Richard Henry Wilde, which is, guess what, about love and madness in Italy… Dukes, nobles and Italian history… and perfect inspirational fodder for Browning.

So does it matter who the real Duke was? I don’t think so. I think there are aspects of Ferrara’s real life that Browning would have found intriguing, and it was a name in common circulation at the time. He had three wives, and the first of which, Lucrezia di Medici, came from an interesting family herself. Poison was suspected in her death, but it could equally have been any number of natural causes or diseases, like TB, which it is now believed that she died of. Alfonso’s death and lack of children meant that the Ferrara name all but died with him.

Ferrara was also a patron of the arts, paying for artistic works and supporting the works of many young artists, including Turquato Tasso, mentioned before. His name might not mean anything to you (or much to me) but he was one of the most popular and well-known Italian poets. A poet, who, guess what, was obsessed by the fact that he thought Ferrara was going to murder him. He also became obsessed with some of the subjects of his poetry. Still, instead of the madness of a love-tortured poet, Browning adapts it slightly and we see it from his jealous patron’s view. Like Ozymandias which picks up on the notion of the relationship between artist and patron, this does too. No wonder the true life story of Tasso and Ferrara was one that Browning thought interesting enough to write about.

So, you have the essential ingredients for a tale of intrigue: a rich aristocratic Italian, jealousy, a dead wife, artists and their subjects, Not unlike Shakespeare’s version of Richard III, however, there is a lot of fiction added to the facts, and many people believe the Browning fiction rather than the fact that it was the artist who was a bit crazy jealous.

What it is very important to do, however, is remember that this is a piece of literature, a poem, a fiction. You don’t have to know much more than the fact that Browning borrowed from real life and seemed very interested in the mysteries, intrigues and plots of late medieval Italy. Poisons, murders, plots, jealousies, suspicion, violent outbursts, intrigues… what’s not to like? There is little to link the poetic version of Alfonzo with the real life one, excepting he was an Italian noble with considerable power who had a number of wives and who was a patron of the arts.

The fictional Mrs Ferrara, a.k.a. the “Last Duchess” is therefore Lucrezia di Medici, the Duke’s first wife. The relationship depicted in the poem is as fictional as the character of the Duke himself. Still, some believed that she was poisoned.

What do we know for real?

First, she was young – only thirteen when she married Alfonzo in 1558. He was older, aged twenty-four. She died only two years into their marriage, and it was rumoured that they spent most of their marriage apart as her husband was away fighting. Some people believed that she’d been poisoned, but most people believe she died of natural causes. Still, her death, as in the poem, is all a bit of a mystery. Her family LOVED art, and her father founded one of Italy’s best art collections, the Uffizi. Her oldest sister Maria was engaged to Ferrara, but she died in 1557, meaning that Cosimo de Medici’s attempts to unite the Este family and the Medici family fell to Lucrezia. Her other older sister was in fact murdered by her jealous husband – and therein you have a loose plot that links us to My Last Duchess. In fact, her youngest brother, Pietro, some ten years her junior, was ALSO murdered by his wife because he cheated on her. However, the Medici dynasty was a relatively new dynasty, founded on a banking family, so no doubt the Medici patriarchs tried hard to make marriages that bonded the family to others. They did a good job as well, with several Popes and Queens in the mix.

The poem is actually one side of a conversation between Ferrara and the marriage broker who has come to arrange another marriage. We’d assume then that it’s either the person who’s come to arrange his second marriage or his third. Or even, why not, a mysterious fourth marriage that wasn’t forthcoming. It’s a fiction, in any case, since the first marriage he had was one to a new and upcoming family (who would have been grateful for that gift of a nine-hundred year old name) and not the second or third. His second wife lasted seven years. Interestingly, crazy poet Turquato Tusso wrote a few sonnets about Barbara, Ferrara’s second wife. She definitely died of TB. You can see Browning picking up another bit of the story that interested him (the dedications of a crazy poet) and conveniently forgot the other bits. She was the daughter of a king, so I’m pretty sure the real Ferrara wouldn’t have felt the need to impress his status upon the marriage broker. She was from the Habsburg family, not some up-starts like the Medicis. Between his second and third wife, there were seven years – suggesting perhaps an intenser period of mourning. Still, he marries his third wife, Margherita Gonzaga in 1579. She was fifteen and he was forty-five. Still, they were married for almost twenty years until the Duke died. Although she was from a minor family line, Ferrara would have had no need to threaten the marriage broker about fidelity, given that all evidence suggests that he and his second wife had a happy marriage. A story, then, that Browning plays with, without sticking to those mundane things that you or I might call facts. There is no evidence that Ferrara killed any of his wives, that he was a jealous man, or that he was the arrogant, maniacal villain depicted in the poem. That’s all from Browning’s imagination.

In terms of the context, then, you can see a little about the types of things that Browning wrote about, often using the dramatic monologue to explore the darker side of people. You can see the advent of Victorian morality and the decline of those passionate, emotion-filled poems of the Romantics. Browning has picked an interesting back-story from which he picks out some big ideas such as morality, power and fidelity, as well as exploring the relationship between artists and their subjects, as well as their patrons.

In the next post, I’ll look at the form and structure of the poem, as well as a bit of background about the monologue itself.

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.