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Robert Browning: The Excellence of 'My Last Duchess'

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Dramatic poetry was introduced in English Literature through the dream debates of Chaucer, The Owl and the Nightingale, and the ‘Metaphysical’ poems of John Donne and Andrew Marvell but it reached the height of its perfection in the Victorian age. Robert Browning was an English poet whose dramatic monologues made him a pioneering figure amongst the Victorian poets. His poems are widely acclaimed for their finesse in dealing with irony, dark humor, characterization, historical setting, and issues of social commentary. All of this is further accompanied by a challenging vocabulary and syntax. In the dramatic monologues of Browning, the words not only convey setting and action but also reveal a lot about the speaker’s character. The true essence of it lies in not what the speaker reveals about himself voluntarily but what he gives away inadvertently while rationalizing his past actions to the silent auditor. His excellence in this genre and style of writing can be proved by critics like Ian Jack who commented that most poets including Hardy, Kipling, Pound, and Eliot ‘all learned from Browning’s exploration of the possibilities of dramatic poetry and of colloquial idiom’.

Love and the manifold interpretations of it is one of the recurring themes in Browning’s poetry. On reading poems like My Last Duchess, Porphyria’s Lover, The Last Ride Together, or The Laboratory the readers come across a form of love that is extremely unique, a form of love laden with violence. Everyone has heard the proverb attributed to John Lyly, “Everything is fair in love and war”. Browning’s love poems make us question that if violence is fair when at war, is violence fair when in love? Another feature in the depiction of love and longing in the poems is the romantic immortalisation of the ‘last’ be it the last portrait of the duchess “Looking as if she were alive”, or enjoyment associated with the last ride of the narrator with his lover wondering “Who knows but the world may end tonight?”, or a destructive attempt to strangle the lover to have one last night of togetherness, or poison the lover and enjoy one last “dance at the King’s!”. Lovers after experiencing the end of a relationship generally reminisce over happy memories of believing in “Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die” and tend to ignore the moment leading up to the imminent separation, but Browning’s act of celebrating the end through his poems renders an optimistic take on love altogether. Since his approach towards poetry was way ahead of his time, his poems were often criticised by contemporary critics like George Santayana as the “Poetry of Barbarism”. Modern critics like Harold Bloom however gives the most adulatory judgment of Browning when he states, “Browning is a very difficult poet, notoriously badly served by criticism, and ill-served also by his own accounts of what he was doing as a poet. Yet when you read your way into his world, precisely his largest gift to you is his involuntary unfolding of one of the largest, most enigmatic, and most multipersoned literary and human selves you can hope to encounter”.

Browning’s dramatic monologue, My Last Duchess can be read as keenly observed documentation of the conflicts, contradictions, and complexities of the human mind particularly that of the speaker’s. Abiding by the norms, a dramatic monologue is supposed to have a single speaker amidst a conflict and a listener. According to author Henry James “Critical moment form the life of a protagonist” and rightly so because only during the critical moments the quintessential and real aspects of the speaker are presented with much clarity to the silent listener.

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The poem starts with a tone of urgency almost as if in the middle-of-action as, “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall”. The details about the speaker, the listener, and the historical setting of the dramatic speech are revealed throughout the poem, but acquiring full knowledge of it right at the beginning helps the readers illustrate the irony that Browning employs in his poem. Browning had derived the historical details for the poem from Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. As all dramatic monologues, Browning’s My Last Duchess is also presented in the form of a speech delivered by the protagonist, who in this case is the renaissance Duke of Ferrara, Alfonso II of the d’Este family of Italy. The Duke converses in rhyming couplets with a listener who, in this regard is the envoy, Nikolaus Madruz. He is the leader of the entourage sent by the Count of Tyrol to visit the Duke to negotiate his second marriage with Barbara, the Archduchess of Austria.

Browning’s dramatic monologue emphasise a typical confrontation or futility in the life of the protagonist. Lucrezia, the previous or ‘last’ Duchess was born in the ‘nouveau-riche’ Medici family of Tuscany and the Duke was a ‘blue-blooded’ aristocrat so naturally, both of them enjoyed completely different upbringings and way of treating people and situations. The Duke wanted Lucrezia to imbibe the same aristocratic pride that he possessed. He wanted to control the domestic sphere of marriage the same way he controlled his lands. The contemporary socio-political conflict between the newly rich bourgeoisie class and the aristocratic class is, thus, very subtly depicted in this poem also proving the feminist doctrine that for women “personal is political”.Though the title of Browning’s poem emphasises Lucrezia’s portrait, it is what the Duke’s observations regarding it reveal about his character that entices the readers’ attention. In My Last Duchess, the Duke cannot deny his role behind his previous wife’s untimely death as it must have been a well-known fact in contemporary society. However, to justify his “commands” he projects his image as that of a long-suffering husband having endured the negligence and indifference of a frivolous and uncaring wife. Yet, many of his utterances ironically establish the truth about his intolerant, arrogant, and domineering nature. Though the reader acting as the virtual listener may be detached or even sympathetic in the beginning, the duality in the Duke’s character is bound to evoke our criticism. This is what Robert Langbaum refers to as “sympathy verses judgment” in The Poetry of Experience.The poem begins with the controlled reveal of the portrait of Lucrezia painted by the reputed “Fra Pandolf by design” through which the Duke exhibits his affluence in having employed him to immortalise the Duchess’s beauty. The reader is intrigued by the Duke’s repeated reference to the “spot of joy” and “the faint/ Half flushed” on her “throat”. He refers to “The depth and passion” of the “earnest glance” in the eyes of the Duchess in the portrait, suggesting that it had been caused by the painter’s presence. The Duke thus attempts to plant suspicion in the observer’s mind that some adulterous relationship may have developed between the Duchess and the painter. With disgust he finally comments, “such stuff/ Was courtesy” to her.

The excellence of Browning’s poem lies in the maintaining of a delicate balance between the contradictory aspects of the Duke’s character. On one hand, he is too innately domineering and jealous to suppress his patriarchal inclinations for subjugating his wife. On the other hand, he cannot allow his eminent image of a cultured Duke to be tainted by any direct accusation of his previous wife or use any vulgar expression to malign her. Consequently, he refers to her faults with ambiguity mentioning “…She had/ A heart how shall I say-too soon made glad/ Too easily impressed”. Ironically his list of objections against her cannot prove to the listener that she was frivolous or flirtatious but merely suggest her intrinsic goodness, humility, compassion, and spontaneity. His charges against her of being delighted by “The dropping of the daylight in the West”, riding on a “white mule…round the terrace”, or receiving a “bough of cherries” from a commoner, only prove her innocence.In the poem, however, ultimately the protagonist is unmasked. The Duke’s aristocratic arrogance, rigid chauvinism, and unrelenting patriarchal dominance over his wife are exposed when he declares, “I choose/ Never to stoop”. He refers to his brutal decision of murdering her in the most casual manner, shocking the readers, when he mentions, “This grew; I gave commands;/ Then all smiles stopped together”. When he draws the envoy’s attention to the rare statue of Neptune “Taming a sea-horse” sculpted by the famous “Claus of Innsbruck”, he includes a concealed warning to the messenger regarding his second would-be wife. She too is expected to be docile and submissive, failing which she would face the same consequence as his “Last Duchess”. He also does not forget to diplomatically place a demand for dowry for his second marriage. Nonetheless, his condescension on commoners, crude display of affluence, and brutality towards his previous wife linger in the readers’ minds as a final impression about him.

Finally, this poem can also be read as a commentary on art. The Duke never felt any form of affection towards the living breathing Duchess but is enamoured by a static representation of her similar to the narrator of Porphyria’s Lover. Artists often have to face this same dilemma which Browning too had explored in many of his works. As a poet, he strives to represent contradiction accompanied by movement, and psychological complexity but these things cannot be pinned down into a singular object and in the end, all he can create is a collection of static lines.

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Robert Browning: The Excellence of ‘My Last Duchess’. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 4, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/robert-browning-the-excellence-of-my-last-duchess/
“Robert Browning: The Excellence of ‘My Last Duchess’.” Edubirdie, 15 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/robert-browning-the-excellence-of-my-last-duchess/
Robert Browning: The Excellence of ‘My Last Duchess’. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/robert-browning-the-excellence-of-my-last-duchess/> [Accessed 4 Feb. 2023].
Robert Browning: The Excellence of ‘My Last Duchess’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 15 [cited 2023 Feb 4]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/robert-browning-the-excellence-of-my-last-duchess/
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