My Last Duchess
by Robert Browning
[This poem comes from Browning’s Shorter Poems, edited by Franklin Baker, published in 1917 and now in the public domain. Mr. Baker’s introductory and line notes are included below–numbers in parentheses such as (1) refer to explanatory notes located at the end of the poem; the notes have been slightly adapted and reformatted for this webpage.]
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 (1) 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) 10
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 20
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, 30
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 40
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. (2) 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 pretence 50
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 (3) cast in bronze for me!
Ferrara still preserves the mediæval traditions and appearance in a marked degree. The Dukes of Ferrara were noted art patrons. Both Ariosto and Tasso were members of their household; but neither poet was fully appreciated by his master.
(1) [line 3] Frà Pandolf. An imaginary artist.
(2) [lines 45-46] Professor Corson, in his Introduction to Browning, quotes an answer from the poet himself: “‘Yes, I meant that the commands were that she should be put to death.’ And then, after a pause, he added, with a characteristic dash of expression, as if the thought had just started in his mind, ‘Or he might have had her shut up in a convent.'”
(3) [line 56] Claus of Innsbruck. An imaginary artist.
This poem is a fine example of Browning’s skill in the use of dramatic monologue. The Duke is skilfully made to reveal his own character and motives, and those of the Duchess, and at the same time to indicate the actions of himself and his listener.
Construct in imagination the scene and the action of the poem. What has brought the Duke and the envoy together? What things indicate the Duke’s pride? Was his jealousy due to pride or to affection? Does he prize the picture as a work of art or as a memory of the Duchess? What faults did he find in her? What character do these criticisms show her to have had? What did he wish her to he? Note the anti-climax in lines 25-28: what is the effect? What shows the Duke’s difficulty in breaking his reserve on this matter? What motive has he for so doing? Where does the poet show skill in condensation, in character drawing, in vividness, in enlisting the reader’s sympathy?