Friday, 18 December 2009

My Last Duchess - Robert Browning

In his dramatic monologue 'My Last Duchess', written in 1842, Robert Browning gives us a glimpse into the world of Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara, in the sixteenth century. Ferrara is a city in what is now northern Italy. Alfonso was a real person, but the situation described in this poem is fictional. The Duke is addressing an envoy from a Count and is showing him a portrait of his former wife.

In the opening line, the Duke states plainly that the painting is of his 'last Duchess'. His comment in the second line that she is 'looking as if she were alive' gives the impression that this is a masterpiece, but as we read on we realize that there is a more sinister meaning to this phrase. The artist referred to, Fra Pandolf, is a fictional one. The Duke explains that he is the only one who shows off the portrait by drawing back the curtains that normally cover it. Everyone who sees it comments on the 'depth and passion' in the facial expression of the Duchess, and wonders what the reason for it was. The Duke refers to her expression as a 'spot of joy', and we begin to understand his attitude as he tells the envoy that he was not the cause of it: the artist was. The Duke imagines the compliments that Fra Pandolf might have paid to the Duchess as he was painting: 'Paint/Must never hope to reproduce the faint/Half-flush that dies along her throat.' It is clear that the Duke disapproved of his wife's reactions to such remarks, as he says that she was 'too soon made glad'.

The Duke's comment that 'her looks went everywhere' (line 24) suggests that he could not tolerate the fact that the Duchess delighted in beauty and appreciated gifts from others. He recalls that she considered his 'favour at her breast' no more important than the setting of the sun or a present of cherries from the orchard. He admits that she was right to thank people for gifts, but resents the fact that she did not seem value his gift to her, his 'nine-hundred-years-old name' above anything else.

On two occasions the Duke mentions the idea of stooping to explain to his former wife what it was that displeased him about her (lines 34 and 42-43). This clearly shows that he considered himself to be far above her. His language is very direct when he tells the envoy that he might have said to her 'Just this/or that in you disgusts me'. Again, in lines 39-40, the Duke refers to how the Duchess might 'let/herself be lessoned', leaving us in no doubt as to his attitude towards her. She is seen as an inferior being that would need to be taught how to behave, almost like an unruly child. He admits that she smiled when she saw him, but comments that she did the same to everyone she saw. As this went on, the Duke could no longer bear her behavior and 'gave commands;/Then all smiles stopped together' (lines 45-46). It soon becomes obvious that the Duchess did not merely cease to smile, but ceased to live: the Duke's orders had been to kill her. Once more he says 'There she stands/As if alive', and we are in no doubt this time that she is no longer alive.

The Duke's comments on his former wife are over and he asks the envoy to come downstairs with him. Only at this point is the purpose of the envoy's visit made clear: the Duke wishes to marry the Count's daughter, and the dowry is being discussed. Before they leave the upstairs room, however, the Duke draws the envoy's attention to another painting. This one, again by a fictional artist (Claus of Innsbruck) depicts Neptune 'Taming a sea-horse'. There seems to be a clear parallel here with the concept of the Duke 'taming' his last Duchess.

Browning's use of the dramatic monologue is of course ideal for emphasizing the Duke's dominant role in this situation. His is the only voice we hear, and his view of his relationship with his former wife is the one we are given. Our impression of the Duke is one of arrogance, intolerance, jealousy and cruelty. Does a wife who has looked at others and been generous with her thanks deserve to die? We are told (line 31) that on some occasions she merely blushed on meeting people when she went out for a ride; this would seem to suggest shyness and modesty. She appears to have been a lady who felt it right to express gratitude or smile in a friendly way, and we are left with the feeling that the Duke was a proud and ruthless man who over-reacted to his wife's charming manner.

Browning has composed his poem in rhyming couplets with iambic pentameter (ten syllables to a line, with stressed and unstressed syllables alternating). The use of enjambement, where one line flows into the next without a period, gives a more natural, conversational feel to the poem. Without this, the use of rhyme might have seemed a little too contrived. The poem is virtually devoid of metaphors and similes: as the Duke tells the envoy, he has no 'skill in speech'. The dashes in particular give the impression that thoughts are occurring to the Duke spontaneously as he speaks.

The use of the word 'you' throughout the poem may make us feel that the Duke is addressing us personally as we read, since it does not become clear until the final few lines that he is talking to an envoy. We should remember that at this time 'you' was actually a polite form of address, as the familiar form 'thee or 'thou' was also in use.

Browning has, in 'My Last Duchess', skilfully portrayed a domineering character, full of his own self-importance, in the Duke. It is hard to read the poem without feeling compassion for the Duchess who died at his hand, apparently for having a warm, friendly and polite manner. I am left wondering how the next Duchess was to fare, and whether there was hope for a little more tolerance.

No comments:

Post a Comment