One of the most sinister and compelling voices in literature is that of the Duke of Ferrara, the narrator of Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue My Last Duchess. Set in 16th century Italy, the poem is a conversation between the Duke and an emissary from another nobleman. They are looking a painting in the Duke’s vast and stately gallery. It is a portrait, one usually covered by a curtain, which the Duke has now drawn aside. It is a portrait of his former wife,

Looking as if she were alive.

It’s a remarkable likeness, so the Duke affirms, of a beautiful young woman – no more than a girl, really. In the portrait she is smiling delightedly, seeming to blush as she catches the eye of the portrait painter. The Duke maintains it is an excellent representation of his youthful wife’s sunny personality, and yet for this – her happy, outgoing nature – he criticises her.

She had a heart – how shall I say? – too soon made glad

The Duke’s visitor and the reader begin to realise that behind the elegant words, the false modesty, there is a hard-hearted despot whose fury at his young wife’s lack of discernment knew no bounds. He reproaches her for being insufficiently grateful that he has bestowed on her the great gift by marrying her.

she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift.

Duke acknowledges he could have spoken to his wife, could have made her aware of his displeasure and asked her to curb her open friendliness to all. He is aware, too, that such words of his might have made her change her ways. But he regards such dialogue between husband and wife as a sign of weakness, of ‘stooping’.

And I choose never to stoop.

The Duke chose, instead, a solution which is devastating in its impersonal finality. He makes this choice quite clear to his listener, this representative from the family of the young woman the widowed Duke is now planning to marry. This is a deliberate revelation of the Duke’s power, his ruthlessness and his determination to have his own way. The final image of the poem is of a piece of beautiful artwork from the Duke’s collection. The subject matter is menacingly significant.

Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

My Last Duchess

That’s my last duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Frà Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: 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”: such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart how shall I say? too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favor at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She 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? Even had you skill
In speech which I have not to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
“Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
“Or there exceed the mark” and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and make excuse,
E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretense
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

Robert Browning


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