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"My Last Duchess" is a poem by Robert Browning, frequently anthologised as an example of the dramatic monologue. It first appeared in 1842 in Browning's Dramatic Lyrics. The poem is written in 28 rhymed couplets of iambic pentameter.
The poem is preceded by "Ferrara:", indicating that the speaker is most likely Alfonso II d'Este, the fifth Duke of Ferrara (1533–1598), who, at the age of 25, married Lucrezia di Cosimo de' Medici, the 14-year-old daughter of Cosimo I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and Eleonora di Toledo.
Lucrezia was not well educated, and the Medicis could be considered "nouveau riche" in comparison to the venerable and distinguished Este family (the Duke's remark regarding his gift of a "nine-hundred-years-old name" clearly indicates that he considered his bride beneath him socially). She came with a sizeable dowry, and the couple married in 1558. He then abandoned her for two years before she died on 21 April 1561, at age 17. There was a strong suspicion of poisoning. The Duke then sought the hand of Barbara, eighth daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I and Anna of Bohemia and Hungary and the sister of the Count of Tyrol, Ferdinand II. The count was in charge of arranging the marriage; the chief of his entourage, Nikolaus Madruz, a native of Innsbruck, was his courier. Madruz is presumably the silent listener in the poem.
The other characters named in the poem, painter Frà Pandolf and sculptor Claus of Innsbruck, are fictional.
The poem is set during the late Italian Renaissance. The speaker (presumably the Duke of Ferrara) is giving the emissary of the family of his prospective new wife (presumably a third or fourth since Browning could have easily written 'second' but did not do so) a tour of the artworks in his home. He draws a curtain to reveal a painting of a woman, explaining that it is a portrait of his late wife; he invites his guest to sit and look at the painting. As they look at the portrait of the late Duchess, the Duke describes her happy, cheerful and flirtatious nature, which had displeased him. He says, "She had a heart – how shall I say? – too soon made glad..." He goes on to say that his complaint of her was that "'twas not her husband's presence only" that made her happy. Eventually, "I gave commands; then all smiles stopped together." He now keeps her painting hidden behind a curtain that only he is allowed to draw back, meaning that now she only smiles for him. The Duke then resumes an earlier conversation regarding wedding arrangements, and in passing points out another work of art, a bronze statue of Neptune taming a sea-horse. Throughout the whole poem you get the sense that the Duke owns his wife.
In an interview, Browning said, "I meant that the commands were that she should be put to death . . . Or he might have had her shut up in a convent."
My Last Duchess
That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Frà Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say “Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat”: such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. 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.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. 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
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. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!
The poem was parodied in a New Statesman competition to suggest unexpected second lines for poems: "That's my last Duchess painted on the wall. Ignore those artist's boobs, she had none at all.".
In his 1962 book, Punctured Poems, Richard Armour similarly offers an altered second line: "That's my last Duchess painted on the wall. I've tried, but I can't scrape her off at all."
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