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“My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning Essay

The speaker is notably a snobbish, childish, and indifferent Duke. He does not seem to have any remorse for his murder of his “Duchess” and remains arrogantly steadfast to his justification that his murder was for the cause of her (the Duchess’s) “too soon made glad” by other men, and her smiles to everyone who passed. He describes her as if she was just another distant thing in the past, and disregards the painting of her as just another piece of artwork.

The poem begins with the Duke of Ferrara introducing the painting to an audience (probably another duke). He begins with how the painting was made, and then moves on to how her “heart [was] too easily impressed”. As the poem develops, the Duke becomes more and more spiteful about his “last Duchess” and feels that she regarded his gifts as “anybody’s gift”. He resents her smiles to him because she smiles to all who passed, and resolved to give commands to stop all the smiles together. Finally, he moves on to show his other artworks in his collection, referring to his Neptune taming a sea-horse sculpture.

The poem has rhyming lines, but the rhyme is usually in the middle of an idea or sentence, giving the poem a thrusting movement forward. The mainly iambic pentameter unifies the poem, with occasional trochaic, dactylic, and anapestic words to offset certain ideas, such as “countenance”, “busily”, “easily”, “broke in”, and “all smiles”. Certain denotative words such as “countenance” and “earnest” also offset certain ideas, as well as give subliminal messages revealing the Duke’s murderous intents.

#2The Duke of Ferrara craves attention, and would kill those who do not pay special attention to him. The poem starting in the middle of some Duke’s guide through his art collection, with no reference to things directly before or after, other than a few allusions to the past, leaves the reader slightly bewildered, and forces the reader to thread together the ideas into a complete, comprehensive picture. The reader must pay close attention in order to understand the meaning of the poem; similarly, the Duke of Ferrara wants people to pay dedicated attention to him to understand his character.

From the beginning of the poem, it is obvious that the Duke regards his “last Duchess” as merely a “wonder”, a replaceable piece of artwork, with her memory just another thing of the past. He recalls the painter of his Duchess’s portrait, Fra Pandolf, and his ability to capture the depth and passion of the Duchess’s “countenance” in an “earnest glance”. He boasts of the glance as “her husband’s presence only”, but from there he remembers the way in which his Duchess blushed at the painter’s flattering remarks. From there, the Duke digresses and lapses into arrogant and childish jealousy.

“She had a heart … how shall I say? … too soon made glad” was his initial criticism. As the poem develops, the Duke becomes increasingly critical of his Duchess’s “smiles” and attention to everyone, with no singular attention to him. He transgresses from his reminiscing by concluding that he “gave commands; /Then all smiles stopped together.” The Duke then moves on to other artworks such as his “Neptune […] taming a sea-horse” and comments that it is a “rarity”, further demeaning the importance of his “last duchess”.

The poem has rhyming lines, but the rhyme is usually in the middle of an idea or sentence, giving the poem a thrusting movement forward while maintaining certain continuity for the reader. The reader must pay close attention to not skimming the poem because of the thrusts at the end of lines, again reinforcing the theme of attention-craving. The mainly iambic pentameter unifies the poem, with occasional trochaic, dactylic, and anapestic words to offset certain ideas, such as “countenance” (for diction), “busily” (emphasize jealousy), “easily” (emphasize Duchess’s “too easily impressed”), and “all smiles” (emphasizing again the “too soon made glad”). Certain denotative words such as “countenance” (appearance or a look of encouragement) and “earnest” (meaning either sincere or grave/serious) also offset certain ideas, as well as give subliminal messages revealing the Duke’s murderous intents.


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