My Last Duchess by Robert Browning

FERRARA

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
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
Fra Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat.” Such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. 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 favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She 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 made 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!

Summary

In the palace of an Italian Duke, who is the speaker in this short but vivid piece, had come the envoy of a count whose daughter he was negotiating to marry. The Duke was a widower, and taking his guest round the family protrait gallery, he paused before the protrait of his last Duchess and drew aside the curtain. He began to comment on the picture.

It was a fine portrait, so beautifully executed, that the form of his wife came to life in it. Friar Pandolf who painted it, had spent a lot of time and labour over that masterpiece.

At once, the Duke turned to inform his guest that he had deliberately named a Friar as the artist. This was because the look of deep and intense passion on the Duchess’s face always intrigued onlookers. It was clear that they sensed something behind that look other than love for her husband; they would have asked questions about it if only they had the courage. The mention of a Friar’s name helped to check fancies about an affair between the Duchess and the painter.

It was obvious to anyone that the look on her countenance was caused by something more than the mere presence of her husband in the studio. Its joy was so clear and bright. But it might have been caused by a casual remark from the painter; either a suggestion that her mantle should not cover her wrist so much or that it was impossible to reproduce on canvas the faint, evanescent flush that suffused her face. In her case even such a formal, courteous remark was sufficient to call forth a bush of happiness.

She had an innocent, happy nature that could be pleased easily. Her earnest, impassioned, and yet smiling glance went alike to everyone. She who sent it knew no distinction of things or persons. Everything pleased her; everyone could arouse her gratitude. The same smile lighted her face again when he, her husband, showed her a special favour as when some over-zealous fool plucked a branch of the cherry-tree rich with leaves and fruits and presented it to her. The bright sky at sunset or the white mule she rode seemed to arouse the same smile of pleasure too. It seemed to him from her manner of showing her gratitude for such simple things that she ranked his gift the “gift of a nine hundred years’ old name”, with that of everyone else.

Naturally, this outlook filled him with anger that turned soon to disgust. It was beneath his dignity to complain about such things. He could have admonished her and corrected her,and perhaps she would have submitted willingly to his wishes. But this would have meant lowering himself from his wonted dignity. All the time her attitude grew increasingly disgusting. So he decided to act. He gave the necessary orders, and she never smiled again. He put her in a state where she could worry or insult him no more. In plain words he got her killed.

Thus, having told the story of his last Duchess, the Duke turned to more immediate things. First, there was the dowry that his prospective bride was to fetch him : he knew that it would be adequate, coming as it did from such a munificent man as the count. Anyway, his main attraction was the beautiful lady and not the fortune she would bring.

With that, he turned to more down his guest. As a gesture of carelessness, intended to suggest his indifference to such things, he pointed in passing to a rare statute in bronze, the figure of Neptune taming his sea-horse.

Analysis

My Last Duchess was published in Dramatic Lyrics in late November, 1842. In the collection of 1849, it was made one of the Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, and in the rearrangement of the poems in 1863 it was put under Dramatic Romances. In the first publications it was entitled Italy, and it was in the 1849 edition that the present title My Last Duchess was given.

Browning has represented the Duchess as a pathetic, stifled figure, rendered incapable by circumstances of giving expression to her talents and feelings. It has been suggested that it is based somewhat on the life that Elizabeth Barrett, later Mrs. Browning, lived in Wimpole Street. Her talents and passions were stifled by the tyranny of her father.

The Duke is addressing the envoy of a Count whose daughter he is going to marry. He draws his attention to the portrait of his last Duchess, now dead. He calls it a portrait done by Friar Pandolf, and then qualifies his statement with the remarks that he did so by design,because he had noticed that visitors were intrigued by the expression on the Duchess’s face,and almost wanted to ask what caused it. Most of them restrained that curiosity because they dared not wound his feelings.

The Duke means that often people, observing the expressions of passion on the Duchess’s face, were suspicious of an affair between her and the painter. He generally, there-fore, attributed the painting to one Friar Pandolf, since a clergyman’s name would remove all suspicion. He was also particular that no one but he drew the curtain to display the portrait.

He remarks on her nature. Instead of understanding her amiable nature, he says that she was a silly childish woman who was readily impressed and pleased. She treated all favours alike with a smile ready for everyone. The Duke tells the envoy that the sweet smiles on the lady’s face were not for her husband alone. The bright redness visible on the lady’s cheeks was very unique. The Duke explains why the portrait of the Duchess has a blush on her cheeks. Many people think that the blush appeared on her cheeks because her husband the Duke was present there when the portrait was being made. The Duke tells the envoy that the blush on her face was not because he was present there. There was some other reason of it,perhaps some compliment by the artist occasioned that happy spot on her face. The artist might have complimented her on her dress. He might have said that her loose cloak covered her wrist too much.

The poem shows us the inside of a typical Renaissance character typified by an unscrupulous and proud Duke. Talking to the envoy of a Count whose daughter he wishes to marry, the Duke shows him the portrait of his previous wife who is dead. He remarks on her nature. Instead of understanding her amiable nature, he says that she was a silly childish woman who was readily impressed and pleased, who treated all favours alike with a smile ready for everyone.

The Duke was annoyed with the Duchess because she did not feel thankful to him for the honour he bestowed on her by marrying her. Even the gifts to her by other people and those given by him made her equally happy. She thanked both with equal warmth. The Duke failed to understand how she could equate his gifts with everybody’s gifts. The Duchess was graceful for the least kindness done to her and when she thanked the people, the Duke, though he did not get angry at that, did not however feel happy. Being absolutely unaffected by such feelings of gratitude towards others, the Duke naturally could not understand or appreciate her attitude.

The Duke did not mind that she thanked people for their good acts. But she did no tgive him a special treatment while thanking others. He was her husband and belonged to a family of 900 years standing and reputation. He was shocked that she treated him at par with other people. Thus she disgraced his royal name and lineage. It was a mean act by the Duchess. He could have pointed it to the Duchess who might have corrected if she thought it fit. But then he did not like to do that. It would have been his insult had he done so.

The Duke tells the Count’s envoy that the reputation which the Count has for splendid generosity is enough guarantee that all his claims regarding dowry will be granted. The Duke further clarifies his remarks lest he should be misunderstood. He tells the envoy that even though his first and foremost attraction is the charming daughter of the Count, still he has mentioned about the dowry because he has great faith in the generosity of the Count. While going down he draws the envoy’s attention to a bronze-statue of Neptune-the sea-god. He tells the envoy that this pose of Neptune taming a sea-horse is a rare one. He also informs the envoy that the bronze-statue was made for the Duke by Claus of Innsbruck. The Duke wants the dowry to be worthy of his status, or at least what he considers it to be. It is significant that Browning makes him speak first of the dowry and then of the lady. That shows which is more important to him. Obviously, love has no place in such contracts entered into by him. We expect that in a sort while he would treat his second wife in the way he treated the first. The same fate awaits her.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *