My Last Duchess

 Greg Wise

  My Last Duchess by Robert Browning

  performed by Greg Wise

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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!

Interpretation by Martin Garrett

Art, for Browning's Duke, is a means of control. The painted Duchess is fixed in a frame; her looks can no longer go ‘everywhere’. She is to be shown and interpreted by the Duke alone - 'none puts by/The curtain … but I'. The Duke also refers to another artwork by Claus of Innsbruck, which, like the painting of the Duchess also celebrates dominance – Neptune taming a sea-horse, but the Duke cannot so successfully control his own image. 

'My Last Duchess' is a dramatic monologue, that is a monologue addressed to a listener.  Does the silence of the Count's envoy within the poem suggest deference or horror? The reader, like the envoy, remains free to judge, to see the painted 'spot/Of joy' as a tribute to the Duchess' human warmth, the qualities the Duke cannot ‘stoop’ to appreciate. The poem ends not with proud proclamation of his 'nine-hundred-years-old name' but with the small, appropriate rhyme-word ‘me!'.

Martin Garrett is a scholar and writer and the author of volumes on Byron, Mary Shelley and both Elizabeth and Robert Browning.  He has taught on a number of undergraduate courses for the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and London.