Robert Browning: My Last Duchess
|📗 Book, Love, Poetry, Renaissance, Renaissance Art, Symbolism
Table of Contents
Robert Browning was born in May 1812 in England. His mother was a devout Christian and pianist while his father was a scholar, artist, antiquarian and worked as a banker. Browning learnt German, French, and Greek before he turned fourteen. He learned other skills such as dancing, drawing, horsemanship and music. He wrote a Bryonic verse that he titled ‘Incodita’ at the age of 12, which still remains unpublished. At the age of thirteen, his cousin gifted him with a book containing Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry, which he was so taken with that he demanded the author’s complete works for his thirteenth birthday. He however, did not start writing poetry until he turned twenty. Browning published his first major work anonymously in 1939 titled Pauline, which was immediately followed by Sordello. He started writing plays Strafford and the Bells and Pomegranates series, which were considered generally unsuccessful. After getting married to Elizabeth Barret, a fellow poet in 1845, he wrote Collected Poems which she inspired. In 1855, he penned Men and Women, which is today regarded as one of his best works. Barret died in 1861 and a devastated Browning relocated to London. He published Dramatis Personae in 1864 and the Ring and the Book in 1869. He met his demise in 1889 on the same day final verse of Asolando Fancies and Facts got published.
My Last Duchess’ can be said to be one of the most popular of Browning’s works and one which has been anthologized the time. Indeed, it is the finest exemplification of a dramatic monologue. This book is a narration by duke of Ferrara to a representative of a Count that has a daughter whom the duke intends to marry. The duke reveals to the representative a picture of the first wife who is actually ‘the last Duchess’. The painting is hidden throughout behind a certain which only the duke draws aside. The duke describes his first wife as a person who was equally pleased by everything and everybody and her passion was earnest. In the process of talking about the portrait, he reveals several unpleasant truths about himself. One particular truth is that he was responsible for ending his wife’s life. The story is one that relies heavily on irony to bring it out. This paper shall analyze the poem in regard to both the composition and the meaning.
This poem is made up of rhymes in the pentameter lines. These lines do not make use of end stops instead they use grammatical units which are not usable at the end of lines. The result of this is that the rhymes do not create a closure when they come. Instead, these varying rhymes are used as a driving force that is used behind the compulsive revelations of the boss (Loucks, James and Andrew 60). Indeed, it should be noted that the Duke is a performer who easily creates dramatic hypothetical situations, mimics other people’s voices and uses his big personality to make everything he says more colorful.
The dramatic monologue that the Duke creates cannot be easily ignored as it will keep you enchanted throughout the poem. The poet is a distinct entity from the speaker and while an audience is suggested throughout the poem, none appears. The primary aim of the poem is to reveal the Duke’s character and it manages to do so without any sideshows.
Nonetheless, the poet has a lot more in mind that the creation of a colorful character in a historical scene. He intends to bring the reader’s attention to the Italian Renaissance which fascinated Browning. The Italian Renaissance represented the flowering of both the human and the aesthetic simultaneously and in other cases the moral and religious (Woolford, John, and Daniel 38). Each of these pairs of ideas would not existed along each other harmoniously since each represented the opposite of the other. For instance, humans were expected to focus on the serious side of issues as opposed to the beauty of life. However, at this time, many artists, painters and singers began being celebrated for their artworks. Art was soon incorporated into a career and artists could now earn a living off their art. The setting of the poem allowed Browning to explore violence, sex and all the aesthetics of lie as they were intertwined.
The lush language used in the poem points to the fact that the Duchess was killed for being a sexual being as many women were at the time (Loucks, James and Andrew 86). At that point in history, men thought themselves responsible for fixing the sexuality and desires of a woman which were considered sinful. This got to a point where people, such as the Duchess herself were murdered in order to tame them. Such actions mirror the efforts of the Victorian society to tame and mold the behavior of individuals, whether sexually or otherwise. The revelations and ravings of Duke showed the inner turmoil that he underwent after his wife’s death. Additionally, it also showed the very nature of the Victorians who saw sin in every action of man. The Duke had grown up to believe that man had evil intentions and was not to be trusted.
During the Italian Renaissance, people were trying to be modern and anonymous but their instincts, particularly for a basic need such as sex remained primal (Browning 45). During this period, men such as the Duke were used to exercising absolute power and they used it to control and stabilize. The story lacks a flow since the ranting of the Duke come from different times in his life without a chronological order. The reader is forced to piece the story together on his own thus becoming utterly involved in the book. This way, the reader is also obliged to question his reaction to the subject matter. The book is not written with any emotion in mind and the reader is forced to explore his own feelings and choose a reaction. For instance, the reader is required to ask himself what he feels about the death of the Duchess and how the Duke should have handled the issue differently.
The Duke brags that he had the portrait of the Duchess made by a well known artist Fra Pandolf. Ironically, the artist is a monk who specializes only in sacred art. Imagery is well employed here since the reader can clearly see that the Duke is still enchanted with the Duchess and considers her holy (Loucks, James and Andrew 91). The fact that he continuously talks about her also shows that he has not yet let her go and perhaps is only seeking a second wife in order to forget her. However, this could also mean that his need for power and control is exhibited even in her death. question of money also comes in at the end in a manner that makes the poem more colorful. He brings dowry to the envoy he is speaking to as if to suggest that he has now bought her and will do with her whatever he pleases. This he does after telling them about the murder of his first wife which would have made them fearful for his second wife.
For such an amoral man, the Duke has a wonderful sense of beauty and can captivate the listeners. This poem was written to preserve history and to engage the listeners in looking back into the past and understanding it. The book leaves the reader wondering whether the Duke was an actual person and whether this narration actually took place. It is a timeless treasure whose lessons are useful to date.
- Browning, Robert. Robert Browning’s poetry: authoritative texts, criticism. Ed. James F. Loucks. WW Norton, 1979.
- Loucks, James F., and Andrew M. Stauffer. Robert Browning’s Poetry. New York: WW Norton, 1979.
- Woolford, John, and Daniel Karlin. Robert Browning. Routledge, 2014.