Heritage and Art in Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess”


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English 250- A


April 10, 2003


Essay #2


Robert Browning, a modern, experimental poet of the nineteenth century Victorian Age, presents the problems with mankind and morality and attempts to solve them through his dramatic monologues. He wrote about Victorian themes, where his characters explored problems of faith and morality and the role of the artist in the modern world. He used startling expressions, shocking his readers with the darker side of life. He was widely recognized for his ability to create such unusual characters that come alive and speak for themselves. His dramatic monologue, “My Last Duchess”, incorporates these qualities and reveals his problems with social tyranny, predominately over women, by probing the psychology of an immoral and controlling duke through art and discussions of heritage.


Typically in Victorian literature, writers express problems with the modern world coexisting with their longing to escape to the past. Browning escapes to the past in this dramatic monologue by depicting a scene from the fourteenth century. He subtitled his monologue “Ferrara,” which is a reference to Alfonso II (1533-1598), duke of Ferrara in Italy. He was married to a young woman, Lucrezia, who mysteriously died after three years of marriage. Four years later, Alfonso began negotiating for a new wife with an agent, the Count of Tyrol. In Browning’s rendition, he represents the duke as addressing


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this agent for a new wife. The title is a reference to a painting on the wall that the duke points out to the agent as he discusses his marriage to his last wife and her significant death.


Browning illustrates through art the dire need for male domination over woman, which was common in Victorian society with their strict Puritanical codes of conduct. The duchess vied with these codes of conduct “She had / A heart…too soon made glad, / Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er / She looked on, and her looks went everywhere” (1353). She did not live up to the duke or society’s expectations. Her free spirit was contained within a tiny “spot of joy” upon her cheek, a permanent image contained within the portrait, an image that even paint cannot reproduce. She was a free-spirited woman who lived according to her own convictions; no man could eliminate her individuality and sense of self. However, the duke put an end to her life because he found her joyous attitude and behavior offensive to his aristocratic pride:


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


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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. (1353).


The duke was an art collector his love for art stems from his ability to control it. Many immoral men, such as the duke, exercised their power and domination, primarily over woman. He preserves his last duchess through a work of art, which he places a curtain over in order to conceal her sneering smile. He announces to the agent, “none puts by / The curtain I have drawn for you, but I” as he shows him the portrait (1352). The opening and closing of the curtain symbolizes the duke’s ability to control the duchess and whoever views the painting. The duke was unable to control the duchess when she was alive; therefore, he gains great pleasure in controlling the art that represents her image “Looking as if she were alive” (1352). He brings the agent’s attention to one final piece of art that he had specially made, a statue of Neptune taming a seahorse, because the duke is a tamer of women. Ironically, however, the portrait of the duchess is still considered a greater and more powerful form of art. W. David Shaw states, “Some of the best commentators of the poem believe that the Duke delivers his speech as a warning