GCSE Poem analysis - My Last Duchess by Robert Browning

Madeleine

January 15, 2015

My Last Duchess - By Robert Browning

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!


This poem is set in 1564 and is based on the real-life Duke Alfonso II who ruled Ferrara, Italy in the latter half of the 16th century. In the poem, he’s talking about his first wife Lucrezia de’ Medici, 3 years after she died under suspicious circumstances shortly after marrying the Duke.

Duke Alfonso II and Lucrezia de’ Medici

Summary

This poem is set in 1564 and is based on the real-life Duke Alfonso II who ruled Ferrara, Italy in the latter half of the 16th century. In the poem, he’s talking about his first wife Lucrezia de’ Medici, who died under suspicious circumstances shortly after marrying the Duke.

In the poem the Duke is speaking to an emissary who is negotiating the Duke’s next marriage to the daughter of another powerful family. He is showing his visitor around his palace and stops in front of a painting of his late wife.

The Duke then begins to reminisce about his late wife’s portrait sessions with the painter, and then about the Duchess herself. His reminiscing soon turns into a verbal onslaught of his late wife’s behaviour, where he abjectly accuses her of being overly flirtatious with everyone, and not appreciating his “gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name”. As his speech continues, the reader realises with ever more terrifying certainty that the Duke was responsible for the Duchess’s early demise, due to her worsening behaviour: “I gave commands; Then all smiles stopped together”. After making this declaration, the Duke returns back to the discussion of arranging his next marriage. As the Duke and emissary leave to return to the other guests, the Duke calls attention to his bronze statue of Neptune taming a seahorse.

Structure and Language

  • This poem is a dramatic monologue which means it’s one person speaking through the whole poem. It’s written in iambic pentameter (same rhythm as much of Shakespeare’s work) and rhyming couplets. This means each pair of lines ends with rhyming words, for example: “ That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,/Looking as if she were alive. I call

  • Because it’s a dramatic monologue, this poem is structured as a long speech, which is evident in its use of varied punctuation. All of the colons  (:), dashes (-), commas (,) and full stops (.) are used to create the feeling of regular speech.

  • This poem is loaded with rhyme because of the rhyming couplets. However, it is also loaded with enjambment which can often mask the rhymes. Enjambment is when a line of poetry ends in the middle of a thought without any punctuation. When you read the poem, you generally read straight through to the next line and so you would not pause to emphasise the rhyming words at the ends of the lines. For example, “My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name/With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame” you would read straight through name to finish the thought which ends at the full stop in the next line: “nine-hundred-years-old name with anybody’s gift.” Thus the rhyme of “name” and “blame” is masked.

  • The imagery in this poem is rather limited, reflecting the Duke’s admission that he is not “skilled in speech”. There is a lot of imagery about possessing objects, as well as an abundance of personal pronouns. This suggests the Duke’s selfish and self-important character.

  • Themes of this poem reflect on wealth, status, and pride. The Duke, though a wealthy and proud character, is not seen in a good light. Despite thinking very highly of himself, the Duke comes across to the readers as arrogant and unlikable. The reader also sees that money cannot buy happiness; although the Duke is wealthy, he is insecure and paranoid about his late wife’s behavior.


Overall, the author wittily shows that sometimes a person’s commentary on a subject tells you more about the person than the subject. In this case, the Duke’s repugnant personality is revealed through his commentary on his wife.

For More GCSE poem analyses: Praise Song for My Mother, Nettles, The Yellow Palm, and Medusa

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Written by Madeleine K