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Robert Browning - 'My Last Duchess'


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Ferrara
A region in Italy. In 1561, Lucrezia (the wife of the Duke of Ferrara) died in suspicious circumstances. Rumours point to poison. Living in Italy for many years, and having somewhat of a fascination with the Italian Renaissance (14th-16th centuries), it's very likely that Browning used this real life 'duchess' as inspiration for the his poem: published in 1842.
That's my last Duchess painted on the wall, / Looking as if she were alive.
That possessive personal pronoun "my" and the assumed listener being addressed establishes both the possessive, sinister tone of the speaker (the Duke) and defines this piece as a dramatic monologue: Browning's preferred form typically associated with morally dubious characters confessing or reflecting on sinful actions.
as if she were alive
The past tense of the verb "were" and the simile construction of "as if" both immediately establish the death of the Duchess and begin our feeling of unease about Browning's Duke. Why is the figure so reserved and unfeeling here?
none puts by / The curtain I have drawn for you, but I
Browning reiterates the Duke's power and control through his personal pronoun "I". Only he has power here over the image. The tight end-rhyme of the couplets throughout ("by" and "I", here) further enhance the Duke's complete control.
they would ask me, if they durst / How such a glace came there
The past tense verb form of 'dare' ("durst") creates the sense that prior visitors were fearful of the Duke's temper. Browning begins to foreshadow the reason for the Duchess' death. The fact the Duke poses and answers this question without intervention from the listener (enhanced by the dramatic monologue form) further develops the character's utter control.
"the faint / Half-flush that dies along her throat"
Browning has the Duke assume Fra Pandolf's speech (yet more control) and embed within it a deeply suspicious deathly verb "dies" to further foreshadow the Duchess' likely cause of death: the Duke.
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
The repetition of the critical advert "too" has Browning create a voice of criticism from the Duke accusing his wife of flirting "everywhere". The enjambment of this section creates a sense of the Duke's anger beginning to run away with him as the sentiment is carried across several lines before escalating to a far greater degree later.
I choose / Never to stoop.
The defiant adverbial "never" in contrast with the belittling verb "stoop" creates a powerful sense of pride from the Duke. Browning uses a caesura here to cut the line in half, further enforcing the finality and power of the declaration.
I gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together.
The coldness of the verb "stopped", here - especially when likely to be euphemistically referencing his wife's murder - is terrifying. Browning's further use of caesurae enhances the violence of the line by echoing the destruction of the Duchess.
Will't please you rise?
This interrogative sentence is definitely rhetorical and to be read far more as an imperative order than a speculative request. Browning has the Duke come back to the present after his murderous digression. The ease of the character's change of mood should be disturbing.
his fair daughter's self, as I avowed / At starting, is my object.
We learn - near the close of the poem - that Browning's Duke is arranging his next marriage. The recurrence of the possessive pronoun "my" and that highly possessive noun "object" (meaning 'objective' or 'goal', here, but easily readable for its alternative latent meaning) have Browning hint at the dangerous future of the Duke's new bride.
Notice Neptune [...] / Taming a sea-horse
The poem finishes on another imperative command and the next of the Duke's collection. He is characterised as commanding and possessive throughout: his danger is created by both. Additionally, the reference of the powerful male god subjugating and "Taming" the wild "sea-horse" can be read as a metaphor for how the Duke sees himself: God-like and dominant.