My last Duchess

My Last Duchess

By Robert Browning

In Robert Browning’s monologue poem “My Last Duchess,” the author
employs many literary techniques to convey the overriding jealous, controlling
demeanor of the persona, the Duke. The poem, through the Dukes careful words,
illustrates that appearances can indeed be deceiving.

In the first line Browning immediately withdraws the persona from the poem,
saying directly to the envoy, and thus the reader “there’s my last Duchess
painted on the wall” (1). Only four lines later, we are politely invited to
admire the painting: “Will’t please you sit and look at her?” (5). By
jumping right into the Duke’s comments to the envoy regarding his “last”
wife’s portrait Browning effectively draws the reader in, as we are enthralled
by the Duke’s courteous demeanor.

“‘Frà Pandolf’ by design” the Duke says, trying to impress his
audience. Browning invented the name of the artist, and thus the Duke’s
efforts to impress are foiled, since the name is unfamiliar. One explanation for
Browning’s reasons behind the invented name could be to illustrate that the
Duke had been duped. He may have hired the artist under the pretense she was
well known. This is the first major hint towards Browning’s underlying theme—the
Duke may appear to be of haute couture, but we are beginning to suspect we have
been deceived.

Later, after having eloquently spoken, the Duke comments, “Even had you
skill / In speech—which I have not” (35-36). The false modesty corresponds
with his forged politeness a few lines before. Then, after much discussion of
how certain things his Duchess did “disgusts” (38) him, and how she would
“miss / Or exceed the mark” (38-39), the Duke collects himself, and brings
us back into his control by adjusting his almost constant façade. “Will’t
please you rise?” (47) he asks, in the same breath complimenting “master’s
known munificence” (49). The circle is complete and we once again almost
believe his superficial mask to be true. Through the diction of the Duke,
Browning is able to show how easily one can be blinded by an allusion.

The Duke shows obvious jealousy and resentment towards his belated wife. She
was “too easily impressed” (23) and she “thanked men,—good! But thanked…as
if she ranked / My gift of a nine-hundred-year-old name / With anybody’s gift”
(31-33). The Duke was simply jealous of the Duchess love of life; he wished that
she would smile only for him.

Finally, filled with envious rage, he “gave commands; / Then all smiles
stopped together” (45-46). By this, Browning gives the initial impression that
the Duchess is now under the control of the Duke, like “Neptune…/ Taming the
sea-horse” (54-55). Even if one has caught on to the Duke’s falseness
through observance of his diction, superficial understanding of the poem stops
with the belief that the Duke finally has his prize—drawn behind a “curtain”
for only him, and a few choice people to view on the wall. However, Browning
drives the theme that appearances can be deceiving even deeper.

The Duke places a “curtain” around the painting to shield the eyes of the
acrylic face from wandering. After all, there is more to the world than a view
of the Duke. “Frà Pandolf” (6) attempted to convince the Duke that the only
thing that could be wrong with the Duchess’s portrait is the impossibility to
“reproduce the faint / Half-flush that dies along her throat” (17-18), or
that “Her mantle laps / Over my lady’s wrist too much” (17). But what the
Duke is haunted by is now a flaw in artistry, but his wife’s enduring, yet
unendearing, gaze. He himself admits, that she looks “as if she were alive”
(2) in the portrait he must shield from the world, as well as from himself. The
portrait “stands” (4), unsupported, mimicking how the Duchess stood,
independently, in life.

Much like the bronze god in the statue of “Neptune…/ Taming the sea-horse”
(54-55), the Duke is frozen forever, trapped by his inability to ever completely
control the Duchess. One may think that the Duke has “won” and conquered all
by finally having her “smiles stopped together” (45-56), but much like the
image of himself he tries so hard to convey, the Duke’s battle being over is
far from reality.

The end of the poem is a tragic one, as the cycle continues on. The envoy
understands by the end of the Dukes speech what he wants for his next wife, an
“object” (53) something he can truly control. The Duke knows the envoy will
get him what he wants, as well as an “ample…dowry” (50-51).