Poem Guide

Robert Browning: “My Last Duchess”

A poet uses a punctuation mark to plot a crime.
Black and white photograph of Robert Browning.

Robert Browning’s dramatic monologueMy Last Duchess,” first published in Dramatic Lyrics (1842), is also an ekphrastic poem: one that engages with a work of art and in this case dramatizes viewers’ responses to the artwork. In the poem, Browning plays with the genre of ekphrasis to reveal the violence underlying representation. An obsessive Duke shows a visitor, and readers, a painting of his last wife. The Duke tries to distract us with courtesy but even as he controls the story of his wife and her image, his emotion exceeds his control and exposes his crimes. Using conversational couplets and telling punctuation, Browning gives us a study of violence, a test of the rivalry between words and images, and a battle between the male and female gaze.

The poem begins with the Duke of Ferrara, a historical figure from the Italian Renaissance, pulling back a curtain to reveal the painting of his wife to the emissary of a Count:

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive.

Such a casual beginning is full of wicked dramatic irony. Browning’s initial trickery appears in the ambiguity of the first words, seemingly functional and innocuous yet implying some curious notions. With “that’s,” the Duke conflates the painting and his wife into an object of “wonder” to be possessed and shown off; with “last,” he hints that he plans for a series of wives, and it’s soon made clear that he’s in talks with the emissary to marry the Count’s daughter. Even the off-hand conjunctive “as if” at first appears to compliment the talent of the painter, Fra Pandolf, but the painting’s splendid lifelikeness quickly summons the presence of death in the past tense “were.” The Duke conjures shadows in the eerie phrase “there she stands,” as if the Duchess herself or her ghost has appeared in the room, startling unsuspecting viewers and putting us on alert.

This uncanny ability to make absence present is built into ekphrasis, a genre that begins in the Iliad. Homer describes Achilles’s shield in such a vivid way that the shield appears to move and even make noise; the poet makes us forget that the shield is textual, imaginary—it seems alive, even when the crafty poet reminds us that it’s made of metal. Classical ekphrasis celebrates verisimilitude; the visual object comes to life and simultaneously remains a thing made, much like the poem itself. The poet creates a rivalry between word and image, as if to ask which is more accurate and more powerful. In the genre, a pattern emerged, a pattern that Browning knowingly manipulates in “My Last Duchess”: the masculine poet longs to dominate the silent, feminized image he feels attracted to or simultaneously threatened by. As Keats, following this pattern, observes the ancient Grecian urn in the British Museum, he desires to know the secrets of this “unravish’d bride of quietness” in his urgent interrogations, and he, famously, makes it talk, a trademark of ekphrasis.

The Duchess in this poem does not talk. Browning’s empathy resides in her silence, as the poem asks us to pay attention to the Duke’s attempts to disguise his aggression. Acting the polite connoisseur, the Duke invites the emissary, whom we never hear from, to sit and “look at her.” (Classical ekphrasis assumes the poet, viewers, and readers to be male.) In stilted syntax, typical of one hiding something, the Duke explains that many others have inquired after “the depth and passion of its earnest glance.” Notice here that “her” becomes an “it.” The Duke confesses, rather theatrically, that only he controls who sees the portrait: “(since none puts by / The curtain I have drawn for you, but I).” This parenthetical remark functions as another curtain, a veil drawn back and forth across her face, the past, the Duke’s secrets and our ability to discover them. An object of such compelling verity and beauty, the portrait so bothers the Duke that he keeps it hidden and under his power, as we can surmise he kept his wife, and perhaps this next Duchess, in his castle. Browning invites us to make a connection between looking, reading, and interpreting. Like amateur detectives, we must read between the lines.

With a swift narrative stroke, Browning introduces a source of the Duke’s motives—sexual rivalry for his wife’s attention—here in guise of Fra Pandolf, who speaks through indirect praise for the Duchess’s wrist and throat. The painter’s “hands / Worked busily a day,” says the Duke, linking the acts of painting, writing, and perhaps something more ominous: killing. The poet deftly lays bare how work done by one’s hands may preserve something beautiful and precious (such as the image of a woman) or still and silence it forever.

It’s not clear that the privileged observers of the painting ever dare to ask what created the “depth and passion” of her looks. But with barely restrained jealousy, the Duke lists the things that caused her intense look and brought “that spot / of joy” to her cheek—“Sir, ’twas not / Her husband’s presence only.” Fra Pandolf compliments her during the sitting, we suppose: “Paint / Must never hope to reproduce the faint / Half-flush that dies along her throat.” Anxious from sexual rivalry, the Duke assures us that this comment was mere courtesy to the Duchess. His need to narrate her thoughts hardly conceals his hurt narcissism, wounded by the painter who “chanced” to flatter his wife; this chancing hints that the Duke could or did retaliate against these offenses. The dismaying proximity of “dies” with “throat” in these lines also insinuates she was strangled (by him or a servant?). Possessiveness rears up again in the limiting modifier “only,” as the Duke implies that the Duchess should have blushed “only” in his presence.

Increasingly agitated, the Duke continues his list of what gave the Duchess joy: she liked his “favour at her breast” (marital respect, sex), the sun going down (banal, pretty), cherries brought to her by an “officious fool” (treats, flirting), a “white mule” she rode around the terrace (fun!). But he complains vainly that she liked everything “as if she ranked / My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name / With anybody’s gift.” All would receive “approving speech, / or blush” he says in the first mention of her voice. Readers picture a cheerful, charming, vivacious young woman married to a man fixatedly watching her every move. Like other famous literary villains, the Duke divulges his conflicted consciousness when he loses control of his language. Unaware, he gives us a clear vision of the open-hearted Duchess:

                                              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.

It’s precisely her heart (effusive) and her gaze (delighted) that infuriates the Duke. Between dashes, Browning inserts a move like one any of Iago’s deceptions in Othello, as the villain pretends that he doesn’t know what he’s doing or saying—plotting the death of a woman. This frantic pattern of dashes postures as spontaneous asides, ever more hostile and dishonest. Browning is having wicked fun here with the “Satan effect,” the artistic energy writers experience when writing from a malevolent perspective, as seen in Milton’s Satan, Shakespeare’s Iago, or Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert (also an abuser of the punctuation mark—the parenthesis). A nasty glee in composition, here in a simple dash; a fascination with embodying violence, here in a mark. The pleasure experienced in close reading the Duke’s foiled attempts to hide his guilt parallel our excitement and horror in observing the machinations of any fictional villain.

The Duke consistently describes the Duchess in imagery of passivity or excess. In the Renaissance tradition of the blazon, the Duke catalogues his excessive wife in parts: her glance shows depth, passion, and earnestness; her cheeks blush; her throat flushes; her wrist should be covered by her sleeve; her heart is overly happy and receptive; her speech is mistakenly approving; and, worst of all, her eyes “go everywhere.” Twice used to describe her heart, the adverb “too” is crucial; the Duchess is to the Duke what we call “too much.” “Easily impressed” is also important—like any soft surface, she is easily affected, moved, and marked; she is to him “easy.” The Duke wants to be the only one to impress her heart and mind; her expansive heart and gaze threaten him. Usually the activities of the Duchess remain in the passive voice to comfort the Duke’s fantasy that he overpowers her in life and death. Her first active moment appears when “she stands” in the ironic fourth line. Another key exception, obviously, is that she “liked whate’er she looked on” is presented as a flaw instead of a joy for life—a threatening gaze.

The male gaze, in league with the blazon—both of which are tangled up in the ekphrastic tradition—objectifies and remakes the image of the Other, usually a woman, into parts to alleviate the anxiety it provokes. The female gaze, and thus female sexuality, threaten the male viewer because they are simultaneously desired and castrating—think of the ultimate, terrifying female gaze: Medusa’s. The Duke, in all his entitlement, assumes that we will agree with him that his wife’s going-everywhere gaze was dangerous, evidence of her unfaithfulness. Though she is now dead—the ultimate control over her self and body—her gaze in the portrait still unnerves and angers him. Trapped by her gaze, which so captivates its viewers, as Medusa turned her onlookers to stone, the Duke feels compelled to undermine her power by accusing her of excess. Castration anxiety may also play a role in Browning’s meticulous punctuation: the calculated asides set in parentheses or dashes and the two false exclamations disclose the Duke’s fears. In an awful irony, the upset Duke unmasks his secret even at the very moment he negotiates for a new wife. Scholar W.J.T. Mitchell in the essay “Ekphrasis and the Other” deftly defines ekphrastic representation as “something done to something, with something, by someone, for someone.”

Now the Duke goes in for the kill: “Who’d stoop to blame / This sort of trifling?” His tone turns insidious with Browning’s simple rhyme of “name” and “blame.” The Duke’s family name gives him the right to blame her for everything. Slipping into fury, the Duke poses a hypothetical situation between someone with “skill / In speech—which I have not—to make your will / quite clear to such an one.” The follow-up of rhymes “skill” and “will” also instruct, attaching the Duke’s skill, which he claims in pseudo-modesty not to have, with his absolute will, which he indeed has—at his time and place and in Browning’s Victorian era, women had few legal rights against their husbands. He will use his skills to make her succumb to his will. We can imagine what fiendish fun the poet must have had playing with these couplets.

Suddenly the Duke berates his wife, in indirect quotations again, offering us a window into their private life. All nonchalance, he tells us that he lectured the Duchess about “just this / or that in you” that “disgusts me.” The word “disgusts” unveils so much—the Duke’s condescension; his visceral repulsion of her presence, especially her body (seen in the cataloguing of her body parts); and a misogyny strong enough to kill. So interesting is the line “here you miss, / Or there exceed the mark.” Here or there, simple as “this or that,” sleights of a villain’s hand adroitly slipping his crime up his sleeve. Yet his arrogant tone exposes him. Missing the “mark” resonates. A mark, a limit, a measurement, a bruise, a dab of paint, a stroke of ink on the page. Browning does not miss, as he accuses the Duke in punctuation marks in this crafty passage:

                         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.

Her final action—“she smiled”—condemns her in the Duke’s eyes. She gave the “same smile” to all, he says; her smiles, like her looks, went everywhere, leading to the extraordinarily chilling line, “Then all smiles stopped together.” Browning drags us through the Duke’s twisted rationalizations to hang him with these caesuras—six in four lines!—and with semicolons. Moments before, the Duke insists that he has had to stoop to her “trifling” and declares “I choose / Never to stoop.” That limiting modifier erases any possibility that those conversations were hypothetical, which makes all the more disturbing the line’s syntactical companion: “I gave commands.” His personal pronoun takes total power over another, power enough to command servants to kill his wife or power enough to do it himself. Through the off-rhyme of “stoop” with “stop,” Browning uncovers motive and crime at once: the Duke never stoops, so he must stop her breathing. Another possible clue of strangulation: distressing semicolons punctuate the murder scene, and those gaping pauses mark her gasps for breath and her erasure.

Returning to the present from the violent past, the Duke gestures back at the painting and summons the ghost: “There she stands / As if alive.” The casual “as if” repeats and points to the painful friction between reality and representation, life and death. The Duchess’s portrait is thought to be modeled after a painting of Lucrezia di Cosimo de’ Medici (1545–1561). Married at 13 to the Duke of Ferrara and Modena, Alfonso II d’Este (1533–1597), she came with a big dowry, as the daughter of the Grand Duke of Tuscany would, yet soon died at the age of 16 from suspected malaria or tuberculosis or, as it’s speculated, of poisoning. The Duke of Ferrara then brokered a deal with the Count of Tyrol to marry a daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor (after that wife died, he married her niece). This painting, attributed to Agnolo Bronzino in 1560, catches viewers within the tense web of the Medici princess’s heavy dress and jewelry, her wary eyes, her tense lips, and her dimpled hands—one holding up a jewel, one resting on a sphere. Reverting to the gallant host, Browning’s version of the Duke finally invites the emissary to meet the company below (the Count and the next Duchess maybe). He brings up the large dowry that she will bring, smugly adding that the Count’s fair daughter is of course his “object.” This word pushes us into the final image—a rare bronze sculpture of Neptune taming a sea-horse that the Duke shows off to his guest. Browning rhymes “fair” with “rarity” to leave us with an implacable image of an unassailable man dominating a gentle creature. Wives, like precious art objects, are to be collected, still and silent, until they can be exchanged for a newer or better one. The Duke’s endeavor to command and end his first wife’s life succeeds, but he does not control her gaze, nor escape its power over him. She exceeds his mark and captivates us yet.

Originally Published: August 16th, 2017

Born in Seattle and raised in Pittsburgh, poet Camille Guthrie earned a BA at Vassar College and an MFA at Brown University. She is the author of the poetry collections The Master Thief (2000), In Captivity (2006), and Articulated Lair: Poems for Louise Bourgeois (2013). Her experimental long poems and inter-textual poetic sequences often engage...

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