MY LAST DUCHESS is a poem written by Robert Browning. The poem is set during the Victorian era where women were objectified and were defined as things to be possessed and controlled. There is only one speaker in this poem-The Duke.
“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,”
The poem begins with the Duke of Ferrara directing the attention of the envoy who has arrived to negotiate the Duke’s marriage. The Duke introduces his last Duchess from a painting on the wall to the emissary who was looking as if she was full of life. The duke calls it a piece of wonder and there can be no such doubt when it a piece of art from Fra Pandolf. The Duke asks the envoy to sit down at look at the picture. The Duke then explains that he deliberately said the name of the painter because all visitors look at the painting with earnest glace.
“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”
In these above stanzas he continues about the painting. The Duke tells the envoy that every visitor act as though they would ask, if they dared, how an expression like that came into her face. The duke informs the guest that he isn’t the first person to ask this question. He continues to say that the spot of joy on the cheeks of the Duchess was not perhaps just his presence. He says maybe Pandolf may have complimented her.
“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”
The Duke tells the messenger that the Duchess was too easily impressed and finds a reason to blush for everything. He says that she liked everything she saw and flirted with every person who crossed her. A brooch from the Duke or the sun setting or a branch of cherries brought by a person or her white mule gave the same level of happiness to her and she blushed the same way for everything. He claimed that she ranked his 900 year old name equally with anyone else’s gift. He says that he cannot stoop down by arguing with her.
“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 Duke of Ferrara imagines a situation where he would confront her and express about and her disgusting character. And if she had let herself be degraded by changing, instead of being stubborn and making excuses, then even the act of confronting her would be beneath him, and he refuses to ever belittle himself like that. He continues saying that she smiled at everybody at the same way and hence he gave orders to stop her smile forever indicating he killed her. He asks the envoy to follow him downstairs.
“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!“
This is the last part of the poem. Here, the Duke’s prospective bride’s father, a Count was known for his generosity in money and dowry. However, the Duke tells that his primitive objective is the Count’s beautiful daughter and not his dowry. As they walk together, the Duke directed the attention of the emissary towards the statue of God Neptune taming a seahorse, a rare piece of art that Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze specifically for him.
Speaking about the Duchess by the Duke speaks volume about his character and the men of his times. Husbands believed they owned their wives and considered that they had the right to dictate her feelings.