Browning's Duke

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Author: R. J. Berman
Date: 1972
From: Browning's Duke
Publisher: Richards Rosen Press
Reprint In: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 97. )
Document Type: Critical essay; Excerpt
Length: 15,431 words

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[(essay date 1972) In the following excerpt, Berman contends that most scholarship on "My Last Duchess" fails to consider the relationship between the poem's form and its intent.]


What so many commentators on Robert Browning's My Last Duchess seem not to account for is the form of the poem as a complement to, and a vital adjunct of, its intent. The work is not a narrative in limbo, one offered from the point of view of an omniscient poet with a particular pronouncement or moral lesson to aver and justify, but a statement of one hypothetical persona to another, a dramatic monologue--that "consists of three constituent parts: the occasion, the speaker, and the hearer."1 My Last Duchess differs from, for example, Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister or Porphyria's Lover insofar as in it one speaks directly to an identifiable other, both have demonstrable personalities, and the two are in a specific and detailed setting, the essential features of which seem completely comprehensible by the words of the one to the other. The 'monologue' aspect of the poem differentiates it from a soliloquy since, although the words of the poem emanate entirely from one of the personae, all are heard--and intended to be heard--by his immediate auditor. The poem, rather than being a narrative, is 'dramatic' because the whole of it appears to have been excerpted from the body of a play, of many characters and scenes and a conceivable plot; all of these dramatic features comprise the remainder, what precedes and what follows, which defines a drama of the reader's imagination, evocative but unwritten.

B. W. Fuson defined what he termed a "psychodramatic monolog" as "an isolated and satisfactorily self-contained poem successfully simulating a spoken utterance by a specific and subtly delineated individual clearly not the poet, uttered on a specified occasion and involving a particular localized dramatic situation of perceptible tensity, usually directed toward an individualized and responsive auditor, and affording the reader rich opportunities for insight into the speaker's personality."2

Many of Browning's dramatic monologues, wrote Hiram Corson, are "a double picture--one direct, the other reflected, and the reflected one is as distinct as the direct."3

"The work of Browning," observed Claud Howard, "was the final perfection of the monologue, brought about by infusing the dramatic spirit into the old form of lyric origin; the dramatic monologue came to be a hybrid of two types of poetry, the lyric and the drama. The distinctive qualities of this form justify its classification as a new type--genre--of poetry."4

Chapter 4, "The Solitary Voice," of Park Honan's Browning's Characters, contains a thorough discussion of the dramatic monologue and its poetic problems and possibilities. Honan noted the many terms other commentators have given the form, many of which are highly illuminating--for example, "soliloquies of the spirit," "pseudodialogues," "a dialogue in which we hear only the chief speaker's part," "a dramatic scene in the history of a soul," "monodrama," "a drama of the interior," "subjective drama," "introspective and retrospective drama," "one end of a conversation," "a monopolized conversation," "a combination of discourse, conversation, argument, soliloquy, reminiscence," "a self-disclosure in which we have the collaboration of an analyst at work."5

"In the dramatic monologue," noted W. H. Griffin and H. C. Minchin, "so freely used in the shorter pieces of Bells and Pomegranates, Browning had hit upon the poetic form which was henceforth to be peculiarly his own. No unessential details are admitted, and the effect is commonly won by concentration and a sparing use of ornament. It is impossible to dissociate these merits from his experience as a writer for the stage and his observation of theatrical exigencies. ..."6

But Browning's employment of the form of the dramatic monologue, as Fuson pointed out, was scarcely unique nor in particular innovative: "... Browning contributed virtually no technical innovation to his genre; in fact, it may be said to have been established a generation before his first dramatic monologs appeared in 1836. Far from being the inventor of the form, or even a pioneer in its external mechanics, Browning took over a ready-made vehicle used by scores of preceding and contemporary poets. Paradoxically as it may sound, Browning's better monologs actually exhibit a comparative restraint in the exploitation of the melodramatic potentialities of the genre; it was chiefly a more complex and brilliant psychography permeating the lines of his monologic poems that made them appear unique."7

Browning "is the successor of our great dramatists," wrote W. J. Alexander; "and no English poet since Shakespeare has seized and presented views of human life and character with such variety and vividness."8


... in the monologue Browning merely accepted a not uncommon form as an instrument for painting individual character more accurately than was possible in the sequent study of a single soul or the conversation of a contrasted group. As soon as Browning had created the Dramatic Lyric he abandoned play-writing altogether. The new method preserved all that was valuable both in it and its lumbering predecessor, attained the full individualism at which Romanticism had long unsuccessfully aimed, introduced a new type into English poetry, and brought before its readers such a company of living men and women as it had not seen since Chaucer died.9Essentially the Dramatic Lyric is a poem spoken by a person who is not the poet, but who is a person imagined by the poet and presented by him in a particular set of circumstances. As the speaker speaks his poem, his utterances express the effects of the impact on him of the given environment, situation, or circumstance.10 The monologue enables Browning to present his characters with an unusual directness. They are not described at one remove. They reveal themselves under the stimulus of some exceptional circumstance or propitious moment.11

But the form of the dramatic monologue contains enormous complexities in characterization, and even so straightforward a statement as John Bryson's wants some qualification: "In Browning's monologues every detail of the setting tells, and his tiny stage is peopled with fully rounded figures though only the main character has the speaking part."12 That view, however praiseworthy it might be intended to be, could be considered inaccurate. To be "fully rounded" is neither actual nor necessarily worthy as an ideal; such people who are, said Robert Frost, can only roll. Neither Oedipus nor Captain Ahab nor Lear nor Milton's Satan is balanced and knowable; all are reductions of irrelevancy and expansions of whatever in us is vital beyond ourselves. In terms of Browning's dramatic monologues, the speakers purposely lack any semblance of rotundity in their personalities because most of his speakers confront listeners (and, often enough, readers) who could be expected to oppose the views they pronounce, and most are struggling against more potent forces to justify the actions they have taken or would take: Andrea del Sarto against his vicious and vacuous wife and his debilitating love for her, Fra Lippo Lippi against the artistic and spiritual limitations of those in power (who include the guardsmen, of "gullet's-gripe" and empty hats), the Bishop of St. Praxed's against the avarice of his "nephews-sons" who can see good reason for "no more lapis to delight the world!" In My Last Duchess the Duke confronts less a commoner, a man whom he could expect to approve the Duchess' behavior and disapprove the Duke's, than the fearful mirror of his own 'nobility' and the strictures of his own pain. The Duke, asserted C. N. Wenger, "is marked by internal discords and use[s] monologue utterance to regulate action that promises to solve [his] difficulties."13

For quite other reasons, Wenger denied any 'balance' in Browning's speakers or their listeners:

Nowhere among the Browning delineations are there any full and rounded portraits, any viable personalities or completely analyzed character types. His personages lack integration with their environments and integration within themselves, too, both of which are essential for the realization either of complete character roles or of fully rounded personalities. Nevertheless, when appraised by apt criteria their limited portraiture is found to have a unique validity, for it pictures just those psychic phenomena which are ordinarily neglected or obscured in full delineations. Its excellence lies in its interpretive exhibition of those aberrations of the psyche which regularly flourish in any society, actual or fictional, during the collapse of traditional values.14

In his essay Wenger calls for the need for psychoanalytic examination of the poet, who "used the dramatic monologue as an unconsciously assumed mask whereby to give his subconscious conflicts an outlet, or meditative release, which his conventional, optimistic acceptance of the old order would not otherwise permit."15 Wenger would probably have included the Duke of Ferrara as one of the "dramatis personae of the nineteenth century who are beset with various psychic disruptions generally current in the decaying social order."16

The personalities of the other figures of Browning's dramatic monologues, other actions and conversations, other locations--all can be, with reasons justifiable by the immediate contexts of the immediate poems, hypothesized by the reader--or, rather, Browning's listener, for My Last Duchess, and his other mighty Renaissance monologues (The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed's Church, Fra Lippo Lippi, and Andrea del Sarto) must, for reasons that should become apparent, be heard--or even seen with a perceptive mind's eye.

While not directly involving the action indicated in the poem, a short play has been written by Leila Wade that pertains to sundry antecedent actions. Unfortunately, the value of this play lies wholly in its (quite unintended) hilarity. The action of the work has somehow gotten confused with The Ring and the Book, and the murdered Pompilia's son Gaetano has wandered amorously into the life of the Duchess of Ferrara, to have such unperishing exchanges with her as:

(smiling, reaching out her hand for the fruit ["a bough of cherries"]): For me, Gaetano? Did you break them for me?

(expressively): From the very heart of the orchard, for you.17

Gaetano, by the way, "is eighteen, rather mature for his years, yet with an engaging boyishness of demeanor. He is dark, eager, and extremely handsome."18 In trenchant dramatic contrast, "The Duke is forty years old. He is tall, with a haughty carriage of the head and shoulders, which makes him seem even taller than he really is. His eyes are cold and searching. His face would appear impassive were it not for the look of extreme pride which is its habitual expression."19

The Duke enters with "Frà Pandolf," who "proceeds to adjust his easel, and to mix his paints," and offer: "I can finish the portrait today if this light holds. ... That is good, but my lady's mantle laps over her wrist too much. ... I could paint the cherries more easily. Paint must never hope to reproduce the faint half flush that dies along the throat." At this, "The Duchess blushes, but makes no comment."20

All must end tragically, however. The Duchess is compelled to emulate the end of Socrates; Gaetano, "with a gesture of infinite grief," emulates Sohrab over the body of Rustum; and "The Duke is seen on the walk at the back, surveying the scene apparently without emotion, as he moves toward the right. The stage is darkened, gradually, completely."21 The whole has only a bit less grace, depth, complexity, and subtlety than Eliza and the bloodhounds.

A drama involving the action implied in the work itself, in terms of staging and other speaking roles, has yet to be written, although in its mere fifty-six lines Browning has offered in the poem all except the complete dramatic form. Almost all requisite dramatic elements are present, the monologue wanting only a physical audience. Scrupulously enjoining the dramatist's art, Browning himself does not seem to project any moral strictures or judicial interference of his own beliefs; he allows his characters to convey their own personalities and the justification for their own behavior. Remarked one early commentator, "How he delights to work and worm and wind his way to the subtlest places of the soul, and to the maze of problems which the soul is perpetually seeking to solve! ... He is a dramatist in all that we usually imply by that word, entering into the innermost arena of the being. His poems are, to quote the title of one of his dramas, 'soul tragedies.' ... they present an order of tragedy different from Shakespeare's--the agony, the strife, the internal stress are more internalised. He transfers the circumstances of our being from the without to the within. In this way they all become noble pictures of the striving and attaining soul."22

However, Henry Jones, although not writing directly about the dramatic monologues of Browning, found the poet generally yielding to rather stringent moral strictures that antecede the works and pervade them, to their objective detriment: "... his moral interests are too obtrusive, and ... he is too conscious of a mission, and a mission destroys the drama."23 "... Browning found one theme whose interest was supreme, and ... the subject which was all in all to him was not purely artistic, but also ethical"24 "I find everywhere the poet's own mood and passion; moods and passions which have their root in some moral conviction, and which envelop the agents, subtly removing them from the ordinary life and giving to them an air of unreality and untruth."25 Jones compared Browning as a dramatist to Shakespeare, and found the Master quite the opposite: "Of no one of Shakespeare's personages can we say, 'There is the author himself;' of scarcely one of Browning's can we say, 'There the author is not found.'"26 Indeed, it seems not the least important and distinguishing aspect of Shakespeare's genius that he does not obtrude himself, does not take sides, but rather allows human passions and the inherent drama of circumstances to "spin the plot." Shakespeare never 'said' anything--Lear did, or Edmund or Goneril; Hamlet did, or Claudius; Othello did, or Iago.

"Fate often seems to hang by a thread," continued Jones; "and the pettiest incident may serve to set free the hidden forces in a character which otherwise might have lain dormant. The greater the dramatist, the better he knows this, giving outward circumstances their place without making his personages puppets. So the true dramatist is an observer and recorder and nothing more. He neither approves nor disapproves, but without either prejudice or partiality lets the characters evolve their own destiny in the outer world. This is the root of the magnificent objectivity of Shakespeare. This is why we cannot find him in any of his works. He has no preconceived theory, no dominant scheme of life, no likes or dislikes, but his bosom is broad as Nature's, and he sheds his sunshine on all alike. In a word, he gives them life and a world to work in, and then he stands aside while they pass judgment upon themselves."27

Quite to the contrary, "The defect in Browning's dramas is ... not that they have unity of purpose, but that this unity is separable from the rest, capable of being defined; it obtrudes itself; it is aggressive rather than pervasive."28

Browning can be Shakespearean in certain regards, offered another critic, but he is no Shakespeare. "A certain dramatic understanding of the person speaking, which implies a certain dramatic sympathy with him, is not only the essential condition, but the final cause of the whole species. ... Like the Shakespeare of proven knowledge in his throng of creatures, [Browning] can habitually merge himself in this man or that; and like the Shakespeare of conjecture in Sonnets, he can on occasion deliver his own soul; but he does not impress one as exceptionally able to see life steadily and see it whole, as Shakespeare does in the scope and implications of his greater masterpieces. He loves to break the white light through the medium of his own or a borrowed ego, and seldom reaches finality, except in so far as clear insight into truth in one of its aspects means implicit perception in the rest."29

Another commentator who would seem to have agreed with the appraisals of Jones and M. W. MacCallum is P. S. Grant:

The art of Browning in monologue was developed, it would seem, as a consequence of moral qualities in himself and his time. He shared the serious questions of his generation, and desired to teach his fellows truths of the spirit. He chose a poetic form, monologue, because that form permitted a combination of action and description, where his personal interpretation of the story might at any time intrude itself. This method led naturally to a cold, metaphysical, and lifeless treatment of his subjects, which were little more than abstractions, until the discovery of Italy as a rich storehouse of personages and incidents fortunately rescued him, and gave his themes warmth and motion. Browning is never truly a dramatic poet,--one who lets life act itself freely before his readers. He muses upon life in every vigorous speech, to be sure, but still in terms of the intellectual rather than in terms of action. He is analytical, searching the consciousness of his characters for motives, moods, and spiritual processes, and these he expounds with all the virile brilliancy of his strong nature and the egoism of the monologue.30

The presence of such moral obtrusion and an inappropriate "intellectualism" that might debilitate the self-determination of his characters might well have considerable validity in regard to a number of Browning's works; yet, if such is the rule, My Last Duchess (and, one would hasten to add, The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed's Church) might appear to be the exception. The vast bulk of commentary on the poem has been written to remark, or at least to point up, the surpassing villainy of the Duke (see below); Browning, in such commentary, must a priori find himself in moral opposition to such a man. But the poet might have been here far more astute than many of those who find this small drama defective, for he makes the Duke--or, perhaps more accurately, permits the Duke to make himself--not wholly unattractive. Like Claudius in Hamlet and Edmund in King Lear, the Duke of Ferrara speaks magnificent poetry; and, though his "wit" be "witchcraft," that "wit" has nobility and pungency. Perhaps by making him the target of their hatred, the commentators have tacitly acknowledged his realism and believability; the greatest compliment that can be paid Browning in regard to My Last Duchess is that the Duke is a Shakespearean figure.

Another observer found Browning "so sympathetic with the poor girl's [the Duchess'] lack of aristocratic discrimination that he regards the Duke's mere recital of the story as sufficiently explicit condemnation of him. This little masterpiece is, I believe, the only dramatic monologue in which an enemy of Browning's gospel is allowed to speak for himself without heavily underscoring his own error or being exposed by a giveaway."31

But perhaps that "condemnation" is not quite so "sufficiently explicit," no matter how much of "an enemy of Browning's gospel" the Duke might be. In terms of this poem alone, that "gospel" would be rather difficult for one to delineate, much less extrapolate; and the patent eloquence, dignity, and extraordinary subtlety-beneath-subtlety of the Duke would not seem to be characteristic of a man who is being "condemned."

Wenger remarked that "During the first half of [Browning's] career a majority of his dramatis personae were of ages other than his own. In delineating them, he usually stood somewhat aloof from their inner conflicts, balanced the subjective and objective forces, and so managed to achieve many vivid portraits."32

G. H. Palmer, too, citing My Last Duchess (as well as The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed's Church and Andrea del Sarto) as "illustrative" of "Browning's power as a constructive artist," eschews any moral intrusion or "preaching" on the poet's part--such as in Abt Vogler and Rabbi ben Ezra.33 "Browning's Duke, displaying the picture of his last Duchess, is himself a full-length portrait. His dignity, courtesy, cruelty, interest in sculpture, in painting, unite, unconsciously and without exaggeration, to show this cross-section of a Renaissance aristocrat. As Browning's aim too is not moral instruction but the dispassionate study of individual character, good and evil qualities are allowed to intertwine in the same perplexing fashion as in actual life."34

It might well be offered, then, that in My Last Duchess "the author is not found." The "vividness" of the "portrait" of the poem is that of a man who "subjectively" might be "an enemy of Browning's gospel" but who "objectively" is a fascinating man, who, despite the limitations of the action of the poem (a man with large public responsibilities would understand more than such a man's ambassador), states his own case with eloquence and perhaps more reasonableness than most would seem to credit him.

If the present study can be said to have a purpose beyond an explication of the text of the poem, that purpose might be to view the Duke as an extremely complex man in a rather intricate situation--which is somewhat more involved than an overtly, even defiantly, villainous martinet being "explicitly condemned."


The Duke of Ferrara alone speaks in this poem--to justify his own actions, to arrange for a marriage, to exhibit his art treasures. Whether he might be considered on balance an evil or a pitiable man, Browning allows him to tell his own story in his own manner; and he evinces himself to be, at the least, enormously interesting.

An often-cited comment on the poem is that by Robert Langbaum, who, although he found the Duke "an unmitigated villain" and even called into question his "sanity,"35 remarked upon the man's "immense attractiveness":

The utter outrageousness of the duke's behavior makes condemnation the least interesting response, certainly not the response that can account for the poem's success. What interests us more than the duke's wickedness is his immense attractiveness. His conviction of matchless superiority, his intelligence and bland amorality, his poise, his taste for art, his manners--high-handed manners that break the ordinary rules and assert the duke's superiority when he is being most solicitous ... ; these qualities overwhelm the envoy. ... The reader is no less overwhelmed. We suspend moral judgment because we prefer to participate in the duke's power and freedom, in his hard core of character fiercely loyal to itself. Moral judgment is in fact important as the thing to be suspended, as a measure of the price we pay for the privilege of appreciating to the full this extraordinary man.36

Langbaum attributed this seeming paradox to Browning's delight "in making a case for the apparently immoral position; and the dramatic monologue, since it requires sympathy for the speaker as a condition of reading the poem, is an excellent vehicle for the 'impossible' case."37

This 'danger' was underscored by William Cadbury, who would warn the reader about sympathizing with the "inhuman" Duke: "If the character's perverse attitude is too compelling, we may lose our bearings, forget the poet who controls the creature, and so read as final what must be only intermediate, a step on the way to philosophic thought."38 It would seem that an 'obtrusive morality' is being forced upon the poet to curb what perhaps a reader would see as a "perverse attitude." Sympathy for the Duke, Cadbury wrote, is "absurd." "We must test the poem against our outside knowledge of what kinds of character Browning will create and how he will judge them, if we are even to begin to resolve the possible ironies. We must supply, from outside knowledge, awareness of the poet displaying his narrator and to make the effort to disrupt our reading of the poem."39

But such "character[s] Browning will create" include a wryly humorous old bishop who loves beauty and learning and passion more than he cares about the salvation of his own soul--which salvation, like the ornate trivia about his deathbed, is "vanity"; and an artist who "chooses" to "pay [his] fancy" in loving a worthless but beautiful bitch rather than seek immortality. It is, perhaps, not a "disruption" of "our reading of" My Last Duchess that would be desirable so much as a "disruption" of our own moral parochialism and ignorance of the power and purpose of art.

George Bernard Shaw, in the "Tragedy, Not Melodrama" section of his "Preface" to Saint Joan, regarded tragedy as devoid of villains, as consisting of opposing forces or elements or persons both of which have some justification for their actions, both of which--to a degree--are right. In My Last Duchess--and in this consideration it is not unlike a tiny King Lear or Antigone--the two opposing forces, an imperious Duke with national obligations and a gentle Duchess with unrestrained appreciation, both harbor some right, perhaps in nearly equal degree, or some wrong, born of misunderstanding, also in equal degree. The result is not so much a moral horror story of virtue punished and vice rewarded, but a tragedy--without villains. And as in King Lear and Antigone, all forces lose. It is "a dirge over a marriage that was no marriage, but the death of two souls, ... in the tragic implications of My Last Duchess."40

The dramatic monologue, "since it requires sympathy for the speaker," seems to equalize the opposition and allow the reader to view the case for the side his own 'morality' would find objectionable or evil. The effect of the poem, after the settling of the dust of the cherry bough and the "nine-hundred-years-old name," is one of Thomas Hardy's "satires of circumstance," and a tragedy no less.

Browning's 1838 trip to Italy is fairly well documented,41 and did not include Ferrara, which "in 1840 ... had become the scene of half" of Sordello, his most ambitious poem to that time,42 not to mention My Last Duchess. Sordello, Griffin and Minchin noted, turns upon an event that "has ... no foundation in fact. ... Now, except that Browning was dealing with real people and places, and--somewhat freely--with historical events, this story is as fictitious as that of Aladdin. ... The real Sordello, also, was quite unconnected with Ferrara: he did not die there, nor did he die at the age of thirty: he is said to have lived to nearly three times that age."43

Griffin and Minchin mentioned that Browning "consulted" the Parva Chronica Ferrariensis in the British Museum, but only in much later life actually visited the city itself.44 He might have seen pictures of the gigantic moated Castello Estense, home of the great Este family, and certainly knew something of that famous family's history ... , but in My Last Duchess absolute historical accuracy is of little significant account either poetically or artistically. The histories of the particular individuals who might have been the rough basis for the poem--Alfonso II, the Count of Tyrol (Ferdinand I or Maximilian II), the emissary of the court of Tyrol to the court of Ferrara, the unfortunate Lucrezia de' Medici--need not be of overweaning concern here. None in this poem appears by such a title, designation, or name. Indeed, some strong doubt might be cast on the efficacy of our knowing a good deal about their biographical circumstances--or so much of the public 'events' of a person's life as another can discover or be said to 'know.' Browning has here not offered an account of events that can be corroborated by historical evidence; he has created the characters in the poem rather than simply reflected other personages; and the encumbrance of one's learning, for example, that the emissary might have been one Nikolaus Madruz might more delimit than expand his willingness to accept the situation the poet offers. He is the artist, the ultimate author; the persona of the Duke mirrors the vital center of his own attitudes, although his immediate words and actions are the poet's creation--the essence of a lifetime of a human being compended into a short, a very short, poem.

It is at least partly owing to that brevity and incredible compactness that the poem has achieved such celebrity. Even more often than this dramatic monologue is mis- (or under-) interpreted, it seems to be the object of unqualified admiration; for example:

Suggestion overpowers description. It's a gem for a royal collection. Its value lies in the dramatic situation, the vivid description and the concentration of power. It's a work of the imagination. ...45'The Last Duchess' [sic] has the attributes of perfection, lacking that certain undue insistence, and the sense of striving after a colloquial diction, that largely vitiates the achievement of [Browning's] dramatic soliloquies. The dialogue is unforced, dramatic, and functional in a poetic way.46... a miracle of compression.47... that masterpiece of poetic concision, where a whole tragedy is burned in upon the brain in fifty-six lines. ...48What a wonderful portrayal in fifty-six lines! Many a long novel does not say so much, nor give such insight into human beings. Many a play does not reveal processes so deep, so profound as this.49My Last Duchess encompasses a novel in about sixty lines, a sense of the infinite complexity of life, of the under and overtones of existence. ...50The poem is a subtle study in the jealousy of egoism, not a study so much as a creation; and it places before us, as if bitten in by the etcher's acid, a typical autocrat of the Renaissance, with his serene self-composure of selfishness, quiet, uncompromising cruelty, and genuine devotion to art. The scene and the actors in this little Italian drama stand out before us with the most natural clearness; there is some telling touch in every line, an infinitude of cunningly careless details, instinct with suggestion, and an appearance through it all of simple artless ease, such as only the very finest art can give.51


The very title of My Last Duchess seems less a label, a means of designation, than it does an additional source of the magnificent complexities of the poem and of its primary persona. It seems to be an extrapoetic commentary, perhaps the only one, by Browning on the Duke of Ferrara--the poet's word to us as readers about the man whom the poet, ultimately, allows to describe the situation and himself. The title of the poem is not merely a reflection of the Duke's first few words. The tightness of control habitually practiced by Browning appears to preclude any coincidence or casualness in the "My" commencing the work, the "That's my last Duchess" opening the speaker's words, and the "for me!" that completes them both, work and words. We are confronting one whose egotism must impress even himself.

The title should be pronounced with the emphasis on the middle word, since, from the point of view of the persona (and the consciousness of the poet), such is the principal subject of his statement (and monologue); "Duchess" could in itself refer to any possible previous consort, or consorts, or, indeed, to the subsequent one. The "Last" means the former or the latest, the most recent, of perhaps a rather lengthy succession. Nothing in the words of the Duke might be taken to indicate that his "Last Duchess" was either his only former consort or the latest of a number of former consorts--except that word "Last," which might suggest more a comparative than an exclusive designation, as would 'Late.' The Duke's history of marriages, of course, would be known to the Count, and to his envoy, so there would seem to be no reason why the Duke might wish to conceal the existence of any previous marriage(s); considering the present betrothal negotiations, however, there would seem equally no reason why he might want to call attention to them. It seems more tradition--and historical 'interference'--than contextual evidence that regards the "Last" Duchess as having been the only Duchess to the time of the Duke's monologue.

It is not to pass without notice that the term Browning employed is not 'Former' or 'Late' or another somewhat closer to denoting the woman's individuality. The poet, perhaps sardonically, perhaps more knowingly, reflects the woman as, ultimately, more a public "Duchess" to the Duke of Ferrara that she might have been a private 'wife' to Alfonso;52 the term, in the Duke's words (lines 1 and 15), seems an appropriate referent for the Duke's auditor. But, of course, he does not speak the title: in his own eyes, there is no poem, no drama, but only his words to the Count's emissary. The whole is a 'poem' from the consciousness of the poet (and reader) alone: the title is Browning's, and from his at least partially caustic coign of vantage, it is his, the Duke's, "Duchess," a unique and especially animated possession, but royal property nonetheless.

It might help our comprehension of the work were we to consider ourselves a theater audience actually witnessing only the action onstage. We must assume, as two characters appear before us, that they have come from somewhere else. What occurred in the wings, left and right, or onstage before the curtain goes up or after it goes down, can remain only conjectural, to be hypothesized from the words that we hear when the two characters are before us.

The Duke of Ferrara and the emissary, or ambassador, or envoy, of the "Count" have apparently been closeted in a private sitting room on an upper storey of the colossal ducal palace.53 The "company" (line 48) is "below." It would seem unlikely, in particular consideration of the imperious nature of the Duke--a trait probably not unknown to the emissary's "master"--that this emissary would have bargained with the Duke about the size of the "dowry" to accompany the Count's "fair daughter's self." Far more likely, the man has the task of closely observing the Duke and, if possible, being able to return to the Count with some notice of the Duke's financial expectations. He appears not to have been able to secure such a figure, however, since the Duke appears never to have stated any (see lines 49-51). Putatively, then, negotiation was not the overt subject of the upstairs conversation; that was elegant temporization and obfuscation by a man who well knows that he is being tented to the quick, and by his observer, who knows that the other knows of his scrutiny. With grand offhandedness, the Duke might have alluded to the "known munificence" of "The Count your master" by appearing cognizant of some of the latter's important possessions, or the favorable circumstances of the Tyrol's political position, or the Count's expansive holdings, or the like. But it would seem that such information as the Duke has, has been by means of his own envoys. He does not know the Count any more than he knows his "fair daughter," so that "known munificence" becomes a general comment, a diplomatic compliment that contains as much admonition and courteous, courtly intimidation as graciousness. The emissary was doubtless the man who had the less to say: not only is he not being employed to talk overmuch, but the fragment of ducal pronouncements that we, the audience-readers, are permitted to overhear well enough indicates that the royal personage is accustomed to his own monologues and rarely enough must have dealings with another of commensurate stature. What transpired upstairs, then, when the two were cloistered, was probably elegant, suave, most "skill"-ful "speech" about no demonstrable subject matter at all. The Duke had, perhaps, with equivalent subtlety and firmness, indicated to the ambassador his expectations for the next Duchess--expectations underscored in the context of the words of the poem themselves. Dowry, finances, expected behavior, the Duke's aristocratic prominence--all were communicated to the ambassador without a syllable spoken about any of them directly.

The two men have completed their elegant persiflage upstairs, and are on their stately passage through the long corridor and down the enormous staircase to "meet / The company below." That "company" would consist largely of sophisticated liegemen, factotums, and myrmidons of the Duke of Ferrara, who have been dutifully entertaining the train of the Count's ambassador. If the Count himself had come, lesser dukes, minor princes of state and church, and the like would have comprised that group of worthies "below." An ambassador would have to be content with the presence of the Duke's lesser relatives, the local administrators of the territory, and perhaps merely a bishop.

It would seem likely that, as the two proceed along that corridor and down that staircase, the ambassador a respectful, ambassadorial step behind his royal host, the latter has been pointing out some artistic treasures of his patrimony--perhaps not only those for the acquisition of which he has been personally responsible, although the two "pieces" he mentions in context were done during his reign, for him.54 Well he knows what he is about, and he has a multiple purpose in indicating those treasures: he is preparing to talk about his "last Duchess" thereby, he is alluding to his wealth and nobility, and he is emphasizing his impeccable taste. Many of the works would be ancestral portraits--perhaps including one of a former ex-Duchess. Here, he might have semicondescendingly allowed, is a portrait of his great-grandfather Ercole I, or of his granduncle Ippolito I, Cardinale d'Este, or of his grandaunt Isabella, Marchessa di Mantova, or of his mother, La Duchessa Renea di Francia; here is a Tiziano, or Palma Vecchio, or Salviati, Mantegna, Parmigianino, Dosso Dossi, or a Lorenzo di Credi. He walks slowly, graciously bored amid the opulence and perfect taste of his splendid family. The portraits and other works extend the length of the hall and onto the wall bordering the staircase. That staircase must have been enormous to have supported a landing of a size sufficient to hold a divan--although not a particularly, and typically, sybaritic one--and some feet of viewing space before the portrait of the "last" Duchess of Ferrara. As the two men reach that landing, the Duke pauses. Of course, the ambassador, who most likely had been feigning a polite interest in the art, the artists, or the subjects of the works, stops also. He follows the Duke's gaze to an object he certainly has noticed before, as they began their descent, or a while before, as they went upstairs to converse. The object is a large, three-quarter-length portrait, strangely obscured, for the most part, by curtains hung from a rod affixed to the frame.

B. N. Pipes, Jr., argued that the work is al fresco, that the Duke's statement that the likeness of the Duchess is "painted on the wall" is to be read literally.55 However, for various contextual as well as extracontextual reasons, the work would appear rather an oil, or a tempera and oleo-resin colors, canvas. In context, Browning is indicating, through the Duke, that it is about a portrait that the royal personage speaks; the "painted on the wall" would be, then, essentially expository, for the purposes of the reader's--not the ambassador's--comprehension. Were the phrase not included in the poem, the Duke's referent, here at the beginning of the poem, would be uncertain. In much the same manner, the Duke's identification of "Neptune ... Taming a sea-horse," "in bronze," is actually gratuitous to his immediate auditor, since the latter quite well can recognize by his customary trident the Earth-Shaker, can recognize the action depicted in the work and the medium of its composition. In the tradition of the great Classical and Elizabethan playwrights, Browning here interweaves exposition of background information for the enlightenment of his audience and the words of the drama with a minimum--or a total absence--of external stage directions ... .

But this portrait differs from the others in that it is nearly wholly concealed by dark curtains, no doubt of velvet or silk. The curtains are dark not only the better to 'obscure' the work, but because the portrait they almost 'conceal' is of one probably recently deceased.

That the painting is a ritratto is obvious: the curtains are not quite shut; and others, "strangers" to the palazzo like the emissary and therefore unfamiliar with this particular work, have "read"

                                        ... that pictured countenance
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,

and have looked to the Duke in deferential puzzlement as though to remark on the excellence of the work or the splendid features of its subject. Probably no one has ever "durst" to inquire, and probably the emissary has not "turn[ed] and ask[ed] thus." But were the painting entirely covered to present a would-be viewer with only the opaqueness of its total concealment, that "earnest glance" could never have been noted--and less, "read." There might be a brief and questioning look, but no one would "turn" or "ask," since no one would "durst" inquire into something that His Grace had chosen to secrete. But the Duke manifestly wants questioning, searching glances; he has apparently left a narrow strip in the center of the painting exposed precisely to elicit "strangers'" inquisitively "turning" to him. He wants almost desperately to talk about the picture--or its subject. He has had the portrait placed on the wall of the landing, an ideal location for contemplative, though not intimate, viewing. A divan has been placed on the landing to front the picture, much as galleries have divans, benches, or chairs opposite their most valued or popular works. It would seem to be a divan rather than a single chair fronting this painting because a chair certainly would invite the observation that single viewing is intended, which observation might lead to the further one that the Duke often enough views the portrait alone, unaccompanied, and hence that the subject is a manifestly vital one to him. Admitting tacitly to that would be to the Duke tantamount to acknowledging a personal disturbance, or even "stooping." Contrarily, divans spaced along the corridors to afford comfortable viewing places would in no manner seem at all remarkable. It would then be a reasonable surmise that the Duke not infrequently does regard this portrait by himself, from the comparative safety of a divan that can theoretically accommodate several simultaneous viewers, that the work in particular fascinates him, and ultimately that the subject--and not its possible aesthetic worth alone (see the last three lines of the poem)--moves or disturbs him. That anyone would deduce that the "last Duchess" strongly affects the Duke of Ferrara would indicate a weakness in him, an uncertainty, a hesitancy, a diminution of his assumed perfection; such notice would be for the Duke intolerable. For these reasons this particular divan would not be so attractive, comfortable, inviting as most of the others more typical of the setting of the palazzo.

Therefore a divan, a cassapanca--and Renaissance furniture, especially that belonging to so elevated a nobleman, was massive; therefore, the landing was enormous, the staircase enormous, the residence of the Duke of Ferrara a colossal palazzo, the setting of the poem grand, awesome.56 In a visual regard alone, then, the poem's audience confronts a tremendous prospect.

One can be reasonably certain that the Duke would notice the ambassador's gaze even though the latter is behind him, or even were the ambassador suavely to attempt to conceal it, or were he, remarkably enough, not at all to take note of the curtained work. The Duke, it would seem, has left exposed the primary features of the face, or one eye, the "glance." He has in fact hidden little by the curtains but the rest of the subject's human form--itself scarcely unique--and the background of the subject, which we may assume is not of especial distinction of design even though fine in execution and totally appropriate to that subject.

One commentator believed that the Duke "had Frà Pandolph [sic] surround the Duchess with testimonials to her appreciation of the simple and naturally beautiful: a sunset, a bough of cherries, a white mule. She valued the Duke's favor--the painter has clearly given it first place among the accessories--but she did not value the artificialities within his castle. It was no accident that Frà Pandolph painted her clear of those walls which could have become nothing but a prison for her."57

Since the Duke is the patron and sponsor of the artist, however, it would seem most unlikely that he would request--or permit--a background depicting such items, "testimonials," as those he demonstrably abhors. Furthermore, her being painted "clear of those [castle] walls" because she "did not value the artificialities" they contained seems quite at variance with her liking "Whate'er she looked on," which would include the Duke, the "mule," the "favor," the sunset, the treasures of the palace quite as well as those of "orchard," "terrace," and beyond. Indeed, one of the Duke's major condemnations of the lady is that there was nothing that she did not "value." Pipes appears to have been accurate enough, however, in pointing out that, besides the Duke's "favor," the three items the nobleman mentions as sources of her delight are all characteristic of the outdoors; and the Duke does seem the indoor type.

Walking with "strangers" to the palace, the Duke does desire to notice their interest in the work, or even in the phenomenon of the partially closed curtains over it; the Duke wants to talk about the Duchess, perhaps largely to justify what transpired to her, and why, after a few preliminary, albeit purposive, remarks about the work as a painting, and the painting as a work of a famed artist. What he wants physically to conceal is the Duchess' portrait when he is not present. Exposing her is the equivalent of exposing himself as one who could not master her. She is gone now; and that mastery, never realized while she lived, asserts itself by his manipulation of a cord that draws curtains--scarcely satisfying control, but one that must suffice him now. A large part of his consciousness knows that she has finally beaten him by making him recognize something about himself it would be better for him not to have known, and the frustration--even rage--beneath his ducal restraint must be terrible.


The two men walk slowly down the corridor. 'That Crocifissione is by Iacopo Bellini; that's my grandfather's sister Isabella, painted by Mantegna. ...' They reach the great staircase and begin descending it. 'That's Dosso's portrait of Ercole I, and Oriolo's portrait of Ercole's brother Lionello, and,' he goes on with finely studied torpidity, 'that's my father, Ercole II, a Tiziano. ...' They reach the landing. The Duke takes due note of the emissary's almost unavoidable gaze, pauses before the curtained work, and perhaps with a barely audible sigh of tolerant resignation, swiftly and decisively pulls the cord; with a softly rising metallic hiss, the sombre, heavy hangings part; and after looking at the painting for a moment and considering--again--the substance of what he will say, and brooding for a moment at the pain the portrait always gives him, the Duke turns slowly, regally, to the Count's emissary, and speaks, lending the opening (and later, the closing) of the poem the quality of an ellipsis, the drama's commencing in medias res. The curtains of the small play open for the audience simultaneously:

That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive.

He looks at the ambassador then, and not back to the portrait until he says "and there she stands" (line 4). Then he turns to the other man to speak, until "'twas not / Her husband's presence only ..." (lines 13-14), following which he takes little formal note of his auditor--other than lines 21-23 and 42-43, and the aside about his want of eloquence (lines 35-36)--until "Will't please you rise?" (line 47).

The Duke's immediate purpose in speaking about the painting--a purpose certainly not wasted upon such a shrewd and subtle man as this silent emissary must have been--is to communicate to him how this "last Duchess" fell far short of the Duke's expectations of how a Duchess of Ferrara must comport herself. Comprehending, then, how she failed in her regard of the Duke and his ancient patrimony, the emissary will carry his impression back to his "master," who would thereupon warn his "daughter" of what might well befall her were she to be so unselective in her valuation of the many "gifts" that would be visited upon her. Such is the Duke's immediate rationale in speaking of his "last Duchess" to the emissary, and he has most carefully plotted what he will say, if not the actual words; he has enough confidence in his articulateness to preclude a rehearsal of his "speech."

Laurence Perrine enumerated three "motives" for the Duke's speaking as he does to the emissary: "He wishes (1) to stipulate politely but clearly what he expects for his share in the bargain, both as to dowry and as to daughter, (2) to impress the envoy with his position, his power, and his importance, and (3) to flatter the envoy so as to ensure a favorable report on the envoy's return to his master. He accomplishes all three purposes."58

The curtain has lifted; the actors have entered the stage of our immediate perception. The Duke indicates by a nod the barely revealed--or, rather, barely concealed--portrait, and speaks. The "painted on the wall" appears to indicate that he is close enough to the painting just to have opened the curtains in front of it; the more distant, affectedly uninvolved "That" refers more to the subject than it does to the painting. "Looking as if she were alive," addressed directly to his listener, would seem to reflect the appearance of the work to another, a verbal reflection of what such a "stranger" might be thinking. Since the two men have been discussing, after their own diplomatic indirection, the preliminary arrangements for the proposed union with the Count's "fair daughter," the nobleman's use of the word "Duchess" need not appear strained or in any way a compromise of the context in which they had been conversing; indeed, that would appear to have been the only reasonable, consistent referent for the woman. However, the term certainly does connote an enforced distance; he does not seem to think of her as his former 'wife,' in her private, or body natural, regard, but as the woman who for a time contributed the assumed services of the necessary female sharer of the title, a consort, a Duchess--pure body politic. What the Duke intends by "last" probably is former; latest does not appear to be a term to be employed before a man who would, perforce, represent the interests of the next or newest one--a designation hardly promising for the lady's well-being, longevity, and good fortune. By "Looking as if she were alive" the Duke indicates to the ambassador verbally what the curtains manifestly symbolize, that the lady is dead, and not the possibility that she might now be in a nunnery or otherwise dispossessed of both her title and "husband"; the Duke, at the outset of his remarks about the lady, wants to communicate that her death is a certainty.

"I call / That piece a wonder, now"59 does not indicate the Duke's not being near enough to the painting as yet fully to expose it; the term used is "That," which rather evidences both his possessive regard of the "piece" rather than its subject, and a continuation of his apparent emotional remoteness from the subject herself--or so he would have his listener believe. The "last Duchess" is offered for the moment, and here to the emissary, as a portrait, a work of art, as the bronze of Neptune and the sea-horse will later be offered; the figure is a "piece" of superb craftsmanship, a treasure, itself a "rarity"; it is an object that might be "a wonder," but more so aesthetically than personally. Apparently at one time, perhaps during the Duchess' sittings, the Duke of Ferrara, "connoisseur to his fingertips" that he is supposed to be,60 considered the work somewhat the less to be valued, because he does amend, after the slightest of pauses, "now," the reason for his former hesitation in pronouncing it "a wonder" following the colon:

                                                                                          Frà Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.

T. J. Assad asked whether "the painting seems all the more lifelike now that the Duchess is the 'last' Duchess. Or is it that the Duke has learned something about art?"61 Neither of those two possibilities seems sufficient to account for the "now," the first because the Duke must see himself as admiring the work rather than its subject, the second because he would scarcely acknowledge to another that his judgment of art has ever been less than that of an exemplar.

It might seem an extremely subtle petard that hoists the Duke here, but Stanton Millet believed it could be one nonetheless, and one peculiarly his own. Millet's thesis is that in the Duke's considering the portrait "a wonder" because it portrays the Duchess as being deeper and better than one could credit her with being in life, he has ignored what might well have been in the lady all along:

As the Duke fully understands, the question [of "How such a glance came there"] stimulated by this intriguing glance involves not only the relationship between the portrait and the living woman, but certain conscious or unconscious assumptions about that relationship. In asking 'How such a glance came there,' the strangers and the envoy show that they take the portrait to be a reflection of the Duchess' total personality, of her reaction to some specific circumstance, or of both at once. They further reveal that they do not consider the portrait an end in itself: they assume (since they are, significantly, strangers who do not know her) that the living Duchess was more interesting and perhaps even more complex than her portrait suggests. Having anticipated this question, the Duke had begun in his first remarks to the envoy to expound what he apparently considers a remarkable irony: there was nothing in the situation nor in the living Duchess' personality to correspond to the complexity of her painted expression. He mentioned Frà Pandolf because the painter was solely responsible for whatever is of interest in the Duchess' expression. That is why he considers the portrait 'a wonder.'

The Duke's "primary, conscious motive is to explain the contrast between the portrait and the living model. To argue that he denounces the Duchess because of 'the depth and passion of her earnest glance' is to obscure the richest irony of his lecture. He is able to maintain his tone of chillingly casual objectivity because he is convinced that the living Duchess was quite unlike the portrait. ... As for her 'earnest glance' in the portrait, that too was Frà Pandolf's work: the living Duchess, he insists, was a fatuously good natured woman who smiled at everyone who passed. She missed and exceeded 'the mark' in so many ways that the Duke found her, as he says, disgusting.

... While we cannot know the portrait except in the Duke's description of it, we can legitimately ask whether it is a 'good' or a 'bad' likeness on the same grounds that we ask about the true nature of the Duchess. That is, has Frà Pandolf given the admirably ingenuous Duchess a conventional 'depth and passion'? Or has he perceived in her a depth which was really there but which the Duke was unaware of?... If it is indeed a true likeness [since it "satisfies Fra Lippo Lippi's requirements in that it reveals both beauty and soul"], the Duchess escapes the Duke in the painting as she escapes the charge of his indictment. Her real depth of soul, caught in the portrait, is revealed to everyone but the Duke, and he, admiring the painting for its expression [as "a wonder" of the painter's art] but failing to see that art in this instance truly reflects reality, is again convicted of tastelessness and lack of discrimination.62

In other words, the "piece" is "a wonder" to the Duke because it is such an accomplished artistic portrayal of an undistinguished subject. But to anyone else except the Duke who might have known her, the "piece" would be, rather, an accurate transfer of that "deep and passionate" lady to canvas, the "earnest glance" that was ever an inseparable part of her preserved quite undiminished or altered. The portrait, then, is rather the truth than "a wonder."

The Duke wishes to project the idea--which quite possibly he himself believes--that the famous painter "Frà Pandolf" was all in a flurry of eagerness obviously to please His Grace alone; the painter differs from other "officious fools," who have the same objective, by being talented--even, as the Duke will mention in a moment, celebrated for his excellence. He not only "Worked busily a day," but his "hands" did, effecting the image to the Duke, thence to the ambassador, that the man was in a terrific agitation to please his royal patron. The quickness with which the words pass seems to complement the rather derisive images of the servile painter the Duke wishes to project: "busily a day" depicts the painter's ostensible zeal to complete his work, subsuming his artistry, if necessary, to the Duke's demand for a finished portrait.

The duration of the painter's efforts is quite often taken to mean one day, or no more than a few hours of sitting.63 But "busily a day" might more imply "busily" "day" after "day" (after "day"). With heavily stressed syllables before and after it, "a" seems to be barely audible, distinguishable as a separate word, as the Duke speaks; 'one' would seem a more germane word were he either stating or intimating that "Frà Pandolf" did his work within that brief span. If the portrait is on canvas, as it appears to be ... , its completion in several hours, one "day," is unlikely from at least two major considerations: portraits painted in the Renaissance generally occupied the artist two to three weeks or longer--and even the extremely few fresco portraits took at least a week for completion;64 and the Duke of Ferrara's wanting an extremely hasty work would be most inconsistent with, even antipodean to, both his familial pride and the superior artistic sensibilities that he believes he has.

The Duke avers that "Frà Pandolf's hands," note, did not paint; they "worked": even as a painter he remains a worker, almost a laborer, for the Duke, just as the renowned "Claus of Innsbruck" is later mentioned to have "cast in bronze"--a figure again more of menial than of creative effort--another "piece" for the Duke.

... and there she stands,

the nobleman pronounces rather perfunctorily.


Turning back to the emissary, the Duke as much as commands him to be seated upon the convenient divan, and not so much to "look" as listen: "Will't please you sit and look at her?" "Her" in this line expresses both the subject of the portrait and a hint of the Duke's subsequent discourse; it does not seem to be about the painting itself, then, that he wishes to speak. He wants to talk about his recent Duchess and then does so by way of the expedient of talking about her portrait--initially, about the making of her portrait. But the elegance--or, depending upon one's current view, the pomposity--of the man causes him to phrase the injunction in as politic a manner as he can, rendering it urbanely interrogative (see also line 47). The divan has been placed on the landing opposite the painting the better for one to view it, but the Duke alone "puts by / The curtain," so that he manifestly wants to speak about the work--or, rather, its subject--not infrequently. He has a specific, external, demonstrable purpose for doing so now; but the surmise is that there might be another purpose, more subtle and immediate to his own self. "... look at her," he tells the emissary; listen to her, learn about her, learn from her, learn about me from what I shall tell you of her, he means.

The contiguity of the "she" (line 4) and "her" (line 5) seems a quick transition from the subject of the painting as the sitter of the artist to the subject of the painting as a personality to the one speaking. Perhaps the Duke noticed the "her" after he had said it and, lest his auditor think, however briefly, that the Duke is more concerned, at least at this point, with the woman than with a "pictured countenance," the Duke at once speaks of "Frà Pandolf" ... .

As though to anticipate the emissary's idea that perhaps the Duke insists too much on the authorship of the portrait, and also to keep the subject of the painting herself away from him a little while longer (thereby building the anticipation he feels in talking about the lady), the Duke mentions the painter again, indicating that he well recognizes the intent of his own words. "I [did say] 'Frà Pandolf' by design," he avers; I say everything "by design," he intimates; I have not committed even the veriest of errors; I do not make mistakes.

One rather bizarre, not to say forced, explanation of "by design" was offered by N. B. Crowell: "Her naive acceptance of the obvious flattery of Frà Pandolf, who calls the blush to her cheeks as much for perverse sexual pleasure as for art, is hardly to be construed as a revelation of the poverty of her intellect. Perhaps she was aware of the imperious decree of her husband that the painter finish the portrait in a single day as a means of occupying hands suspected of dexterity in the art of love as well as of painting. If this surmise is correct, her blush might be appropriate to a much more worldly woman than she is."65

And E. E. Zamwalt would have the Duke himself, because he is "ignorant of Christian virtues," hint that the portrait "reveal[s] sexual implications which indict the Fra and the Duchess. Loveless and jealous, he thus completely misunderstands and condemns the general spirit of love and courtesy, the basic assumptions of Christian love, which the priest and the Duchess differently symbolize."66

But almost all the critics who have chosen to comment on the subject agree that the Duke's "design" was rather to obviate this extraordinary possibility of a liaison between the Duchess and the painter. P. E. Kilburn, for example, believed that the emphasis in line 6 ought to be on the first word, "'Frà,'" because thereby the Duke rejects the idea that "that depth and passion seem to compromise [him] by implying that the painter had been her lover, for no such glance would ever come on the face of a woman not in the presence of her lover. Yet the name 'Fra Pandolf' itself explains and refutes the implication. ... The Duke assumes that his audience will know that the Fra's vows are good. The fact that Pandolf is a monk is refutation enough of the implication of the Duchess' glance."67

The Duke's "use of the name 'Frà Pandolf,'" wrote Assad, "is clear evidence that he is purposely minimizing the role of the artist. The 'Frà' may indeed be meant to indicate there was no 'affair' between the Duchess and the painter. ..."68

L. S. Friedland wrote that "Perhaps it is not too fantastic to imagine that Browning made his Pandolf a 'Frà' to remove all wrongful implications of an 'affair' between painter and Duchess,"69 and "Not even the Duke, her husband, suspects her of wrong-doing."70 And Leonard Burrows observed that "Part of [the Duke's] intention [in speaking of her], no doubt, is to make it quite plain that his late wife's 'depth and passion' did not blot his 'scutcheon with anything so positive and shameful as conjugal infidelity--he has not been cuckolded."71 "The Duke's indictment of his last Duchess starts from that earnest glance of depth and passion depicted by Frà Pandolf, whose name is mentioned 'by design'--presumably to disabuse the onlooker of any suspicion that the glance was called forth by the personal charms of the artist."72

And Alexander wrote that "so full of self-revelation and feeling was the expression [in the Duchess' portrait], that a stranger might suspect some tender relation between sitter and painter; the husband, therefore, names the artist Frà Pandolf, whose well-known character would preclude any such suspicion. ..."73

There is nothing in the poem that might even remotely suggest that the Duke had cause for a mistrust of the Duchess for any illicit involvement, and it might seem that many commentators bring up the point in order to dismiss it. No more guilt would fall upon "Frà Pandolf" than would attach to the "white mule" (which, just as rationally, might have been "mentioned" instead of a "horse") by an accusation--or an accusation by a denial of that accusation--of the Duchess for the tendencies of Catherine the Great. Sexual implications in this poem are not justified by the context; even a hint of a possibility of a sexual relationship between "Frà Pandolf" and the Duchess is poetically and artistically grotesque.

"By design" the Duke mentions the painter because His Grace wishes to boast of his patronage; he wishes to justify that patronage by spreading the artist's name; he wishes to evidence his own taste by indicating that no other artist could so excellently freeze the essence of the Duchess (or what it ought to have been), could so perfectly "picture" in a portrait her (idealized) "countenance" in life; and, as Browning himself responded when asked "By what design?", the Duke wishes "To have some occasion for telling the story, and illustrating part of it."74

Further, Renaissance painters who were friars were scarcely the rule, but not so uncommon to warrant especial emphasis on the "Frà" title of "Pandolf"; Browning readers ought to know of Frà Lippo Lippi, Frà Angelico, Frà Lorenzo Monaco, and perhaps also of Frà Bartolomeo della Porta. And Matthew Pilkington readers (among whom was Browning) might know, in addition, of Frà Simone da Carnuli, Frà Tiburzio Baldini, Frà Paolo Pistoiese, Frà Agostino Leonardo, and so on.75

In his time, "Frà Pandolf" either did have considerable celebrity or the Duke is trying to establish it by mentioning his name--three times in sixteen lines--perhaps to justify his own patronage of that portraitist. But the painting indeed must have been an exceptional one, and other visitors might very well have wished to ask its owner about the subject or identity of the artist ("if they durst"). But the ambassador probably never did ask--although one critic would have had him ask aloud, in so many words, about the painting, "How such a glance came there," after the first four lines of the poem, or "immediately after he has been invited to 'sit and look at her.'"76 However well such a question by the ambassador might serve the plot of the poem, it would appear adventitious to the Duke's words, such a question could well be incorporated into his most active and potent silence, and it would be dysfunctional to Browning's technique--and genius--in the dramatic monologue. Andrea del Sarto's wife smiles a few times, turns her head, cocks her ear, rises in anger, and perhaps even takes the key he offers to open a drawer in order to get "the thirteen scudi for the ruff"--but she says not a word. Lippo's and the Bishop of St. Praxed's audiences are similarly active; but because a monologue is a monologue, no one but the speakers speaks a word.

The leisurely and solemn lecture and the frigid formality and imperiousness of the Duke of Ferrara, and the oddity of the drawn curtains not quite covering a painting in an obvious position to be examined, the normal diplomatic deference--all perhaps contributed to the ambassador's curiosity and puzzlement; but such curiosity would infrequently be expressed before this Duke. What the ambassador quite probably did was to note the curtains (from a considerable distance, or as the two men walked up that staircase an hour or two before), to glance at the Duke in order possibly to elicit an explanation, and to regard, almost clandestinely, such features of the subject as one could distinguish through the slight opening. Of course, the Duke would note the direction of the other's gaze, even had that been only marginally perceptible. One might appreciate the Duke's notice as the two men went upstairs for their private conversation and his restraint in preserving this coup for nearly the last impression he wishes to make upon the ambassador. He had, perhaps, alluded to his "last Duchess" before, without granting any specific information or reflection to an emissary a significant aspect of whose mission was to discover the reason for Ferrara's current marital availability. His earnest interest and concern have patently been whetted, and he does look to the Duke with that interest, of course understated in the direction and sharpness of his gaze: he himself must be an awfully suave and subtle man. He "turn[ed]" with his head and shoulder, he "ask[ed]" with a slightly raised eyebrow; but his political and ambassadorial position would seem to proscribe one word of overt concern. If the Duke chose to speak of, or ignore, one of his innumerable possessions, he would do so; he would not be persuaded or dissuaded by another. So much the emissary must already have learned.

The latter does as he is bidden and sits on the divan--not quite comfortably: to relax would have been a most inappropriate liberty. The Duke of Ferrara stands to one side of the parted curtains and addresses him:

                                                                                                                                  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.

The iambic pentameter simulates speech, and speech is ordinarily prose, so that this eight-line segment actually simulates one 'sentence'--a magnificent burst of articulateness (as are lines 48-53) that expresses ideas rather difficult to utter. "Frà Pandolf" alone among artists now, the Duke posits, has such skill to transfer to canvas that "depth and passion of [one's] earnest glance." (The word "its" rather rawly, defiantly, renders the subject of the painting as neuter; here the Duke somewhat compensates for his use of "her" [line 5] when he wants to speak more of the painting itself than about its subject.) Any "stranger" would "seem" to "ask me" with his own "earnest glance" about the heart of this remarkable woman, so extraordinarily frozen forever by the artist's skill. The Duke offers the emissary a vague compliment in wanting to note the latter's would-be question about the subject of the portrait and not alone regard his glance as a mark of mere curiosity about its bizarre concealment, the cause of other, less intelligent and appreciative, "strangers'" covert "glances," the Duke intimates; most of the "strangers" to the palazzo are just inquisitive, but some few--like you--"would ask" an intelligent question or two--"if they durst."

Manifestly, no one would be so cavalier (or, maybe, suicidal) as to open the curtains himself; indeed, no one would be so impolitic and presumptuous as even to inquire about this lady or "How" the portraitist worked his skills. The words by which the Duke describes the expected behavior of "strangers" are cautious and oblique--"seemed," "would ask," "if they durst." No one, he softly avers, would have such temerity. The parentheses of the Duke--those asides ever softer than soft--are devastating; they stiffen him, render him even more remote, unattainable, gray, gothic. They are supernally articulate.

                                                                                                    (since none puts by
The curtains I have drawn for you, but I)

expresses in gentle monosyllables (save, of course, for the 'technical' word "curtains") a rather intricate statement. The jewels of that clarity are the verb "puts by" and the pause, indicated by a comma, before "but I"; "puts by" seems so rational, even automatic, natural, inevitable, that any other term would become a compromise of verbal proportion; and that pause so subtly underscores his incredulousness at anyone's even asking about this work "painted on the wall."

You "ask thus" with your politic eyebrow, offers the Duke; and that "asking" would be as overt, as manifest, as verbal, as the direct question that you--or anyone else--"would ask me"--"if they durst." Two "ask's," and not one word spoken by the other; yet he knows that he has "asked" with his glance and he cannot demur.77

The Duke certainly would not expect any questions regarding the painting, since such a breach of etiquette, a base and unconscionable disregard of noblesse oblige, is unimaginable. I am the Duke of Ferrara, he need but whisper; but his royalty might appear largely on the surface. "Frà Pandolf's hands / Worked busily a day" for me; no one "durst" "ask" the Duke of Ferrara so intimate a question as one regarding the "pictured countenance" of the subject of any one of the many portraits in the vast palazzo; no one, indeed, would dare to address any question at all to him. He will say what he will say, and he will omit what he will omit. The almost inaudible 'ah' before and after "if they durst," and the strong emphasis on the verb further stress his imposed, and assumed--though, perhaps, not wholly self-imposed, and assumed--remoteness, detachment, and ducal elevation.

The Duke refers to the emissary on four separate occasions (lines 13, 26, 43, and 53) as "sir," quite possibly as further insistence upon his own comparative status: so important and regal a figure as he could not be expected to remember--perhaps even to have heard before and then forgotten--the name of so comparatively insignificant a man as an emissary, an envoy of another, a hired agent. Even acknowledging that the man indeed has a name, a separable personality, would be somewhat a compromise ("stooping"?). But the Duke is so condescendingly egalitarian and mockingly democratic (lines 53-54, obviously, mark the apotheosis of such an attitude), that he does call the other "sir"--an "eminently safe" designation in that, exteriorly, it seems in no wise even suggestive of condescension. And it does directly, with its sharp and arresting sound, and at least quasi-personally, with its overt politeness, involve the emissary; it does demand his close attention to the words and intonations of the Duke; it does even seem respectful.

He turns from a brief regard of the painting to the envoy now, quite purposefully, with that incisive, democratic, vilifying word. The other man hastily meets the speaker's eyes, then looks back to the Duchess as the Duke does so (line 16). He is learning rapidly when to observe the man, when the painting when the Duke's eyes are on it, and when deeper homage would be served by his gazing at the portrait before him as the Duke looks at him.

In a brief study that credits neither Browning nor the Duke, nor envoy nor reader, with any measure of intelligence or subtlety, Ethel Mayne tried to observe the words and implied action of the poem from the consciousness of the envoy; she equated his reactions to the Duke's monologue with what she expected the right-thinking reader's ought to be. The envoy, throughout the monologue, sits in "mute amazement and repulsion, listening to the Duke, looking at the Duchess."78 He "listens, with a thought of his own, perhaps, for the next Duchess! ... More and more raptly he gazes; his eyes are glued upon that 'pictured countenance' and still the peevish voice is sounding in his ear. ... And almost he starts to hear the voice echo his own thought, but with so different a meaning--

'... There she stands
As if alive'

--the picture is a wonder!"

"Still the visitor sits dumb. Was it from human lips that those words had just now sounded? 'Then all smiles stopped together'?"79

When the Duke has finished saying what he wishes to say about the Duchess and has closed the curtains, "The envoy rises, but not shakes off that horror of repulsion. Somewhere, as he stands up and steps aside, a voice seems prating of 'the Count his master's known munificence,' of 'just pretence to dowry,' of the 'fair daughter's self' being nevertheless the object. ... But in a hot resistless impulse, he turns off; one must remove one's self from such proximity. Same air shall not be breathed, nor same ground trod. ... Still the voice pursues him, sharply a little now for his lack of due deference:

'... Nay, we'll go
Together down, sir,'

--and slowly (since a rupture must not be brought about by him) the envoy acquiesces. They begin to descend the staircase. But the visitor has no eyes for 'wonders' now--he has seen the wonder, has heard the horror. ... His host is all unwitting. Strange, that the guest can pass these glories, but everybody is not a connoisseur. One of them, however, must be pointed out:

'... Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me.'

"... Something else getting 'stopped'! The envoy looks."80

Commensurate with the surface level of the politeness of the "Sir," "Her husband" as the Duke's reference to himself appears to play down his own importance, in a continuation of his mock humility; but the position of the qualifying "only" enforces its emphasis in pronunciation and well evidences that that humility might be protested a bit much. "Only" that "presence" of "Her husband" would be quite sufficient "For calling up that spot of joy" noticeable in the "pictured countenance," the Duke posits; but he now commences speaking as directly about her as a woman as about the subject of the portrait. "Pictured countenance" seems the transitional phrase, evocative of both portrait and Duchess. Perhaps as well, the word "husband" casually emphasized, shouted softly, does suggest that he was "only" that to "her"; this is the first indication in the Duke's monologue of her indiscretions and the root of her failure as his Duchess of Ferrara. She had confused his public, body politic, function with his private, body natural, character (but, then, so perhaps did he). His calling her "the Duchess" (line 15) might well underscore her indiscretion: she was ever to me my "Duchess"--"the Duchess" of Ferrara--while I was for her "Her husband" "only." At the same time it should be noted that the Duke consistently refers to her as "the Duchess" and by the noncommittal "she" and "her," and not once as 'my wife.' His intent is unmistakable.


1. Howard, "The Dramatic Monologue: Its Origin and Development," p. 35.

2. Fuson, Browning and His English Predecessors in the Dramatic Monolog, p. 22; italics Fuson's.

3. Corson, "The Idea of Personality, as Embodied in Robert Browning's Poetry," p. 53.

4. Howard, ibid., p. 86.

5. Honan, Browning's Characters: A Study in Poetic Technique, pp. 109-111.

6. Griffin and Minchin, The Life of Robert Browning, p. 133.

7. Fuson, Browning and His English Predecessors in the Dramatic Monolog, p. 9.

8. Alexander, An Introduction to the Poetry of Robert Browning, p. 9.

9. Palmer, "The Monologue of Browning," pp. 130-131.

10. Charlton, "Browning: The Making of the Dramatic Lyric," p. 349.

11. Blackburn, Robert Browning: A Study of His Poetry, p. 137. See also Watts and Watts, A Dictionary of English Literature, p. 353; Curry, Browning and the Dramatic Monologue; Langbaum, The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition, especially chapters I, II, and IV; Sessions, "The Dramatic Monologue," especially pp. 508-510; Anon., Review of the 1849 edition of Browning's Poems, pp. 211-213; and Baker, Browning's Shorter Poems, p. xiii.

12. Bryson, Robert Browning, p. 70.

13. Wenger, "The Masquerade in Browning's Dramatic Monologues," p. 227.

14. Wenger, ibid., p. 235.

15. Wenger, ibid., p. 238.

16. Wenger, loc. cit.

17. Wade, "My Last Duchess," in Plays from Browning, p. 43.

18. Wade, loc. cit.

19. Wade, ibid., p. 41.

20. Wade, ibid., pp. 46-47.

21. Wade, ibid., pp. 50-51.

22. Anon., "The Poetry of Robert Browning," p. 438.

23. Jones, "Browning as a Dramatic Poet," p. 19.

24. Jones, ibid., p. 16.

25. Jones, ibid., p. 20.

26. Jones, ibid., p. 15.

27. Jones, ibid., p. 17.

28. Jones, ibid., p. 23.

29. MacCallum, "The Dramatic Monologue in the Victorian Period," pp. 276-277.

30. Grant, "Browning's Art in Monologue," pp. 65-66. See also Gleason, The Dramatic Art of Robert Browning, pp. 64-84.

31. Fairchild, "Browning the Simple-Hearted Casuist," p. 225.

32. Wenger, "The Masquerade in Browning's Dramatic Monologues," p. 227.

33. Palmer, "The Monologue of Browning," pp. 140-141.

34. Palmer, ibid., p. 133.

35. Langbaum, The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition, p. 85.

36. Langbaum, ibid., p. 83.

37. Langbaum, ibid., p. 86.

38. Cadbury, "Lyric and Anti-Lyric Forms: A Method for Judging Browning," p. 34.

39. Cadbury, loc. cit.

40. Routh, Towards the Twentieth Century: Essays in the Spiritual History of the Nineteenth, p. 102.

41. See, e.g., Griffin and Minchin, The Life of Robert Browning, pp. 94-103.

42. Griffin and Minchin, ibid., p. 102.

43. Griffin and Minchin, ibid., pp. 101-102.

44. See also Burton, "Renaissance Pictures in Robert Browning's Poetry," p. 70.

45. Latimer, "A Browning Monologue," p. 183.

46. Boulton, "Browning--A Potential Revolutionary," p. 175.

47. Friedland, "Ferrara and My Last Duchess," p. 684.

48. Sharp, Life of Robert Browning, p. 129.

49. Curry, Browning and the Dramatic Monologue, p. 99.

50. Blackburn, Robert Browning: A Study of His Poetry, p. 173.

51. Symons, An Introduction to the Study of Browning, p. 60.

52. The name is used here only for body natural convenience, as "Lucrezia" will be.

53. See also Perrine, "Browning's Shrewd Duke," pp. 377-378.

54. Like most of the great Renaissance Italian families (the Medici, the Sforza, Gonzaga, della Rovere, Farnese, Gritti, Schiavone, Strozzi, and others), the Este of Ferrara were notable sponsors and patrons of many great artists--in painting and sculpture, Iacopo and Giovanni Bellini, Michelangelo, Mantegna, Tiziano, Rogier van der Weyden, Pisanello, Piero della Francesca, Benvenuto Cellini, Cosimo Tura, Raffaello, Dosso Dossi, Francia, Ercole Roberti, and Francesco del Cossa (whose titanic Due Mesi di Schifanoia murals remain in the Saletta dei Giochi, the Small Gameroom, in the Castello Schifanoia in Ferrara), among others; in music, Palestrina, Josquin des Prez, Adriano Willaert, and Johannes Ockeghem; in letters, Boiardo, Ariosto, Castiglione, and Tasso. (See Solerti, Ferrara e la Corte Estense nella Seconda Metà del Secolo Decimosesto, chapters I-II and VIII; Chiappini, Gli Estensi and Eleanora d'Aragona, Prima Duchessa di Ferrara; and Cittadella, Il Castello di Ferrara.) Of these masters, Alfonso II was the personal patron of Palestrina, Ockeghem, Tasso, Tiziano, and Giovanni Bellini. But Ercole I was possibly the most notable art patron of the family; he commissioned Mantegna to paint the celebrated Madonna con Figlio e Cherubini (now in the Brera in Milan) and Cosimo Tura to paint portraits of many members of his family. (See Chiappini, Gli Estensi, Chapter VII; and Eleanora d'Aragona, p. 45.)

55. Pipes, "The Portrait of 'My Last Duchess,'" pp. 384-385.

56. As has been noted, Browning had not been to Ferrara up to the time of the composition of the poem, but he had been in other northern Italian cities with huge palazzi, and he might in addition have seen illustrations of the interiors of yet other Renaissance homes of vast dimensions--e.g., those of Florence, Milan, and Rome.

57. Pipes, ibid., p. 384.

58. Perrine, "Browning's Shrewd Duke," p. 340.

59. Beatty (Browning's Verse Form: Its Organic Character, p. 25) called attention to the alliterative linking, "which has a fusing effect on the whole line," of lines 2 and 3:

Looking as if she were alive.
I call,

to which might be added the first line as well:

                                                  ... painted on the wall,
Looking. ...

Beatty also noted the same effect in lines 18 and 19:

                                        ... the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat.

60. Dowden, Robert Browning, p. 79.

61. Assad, "Browning's 'My Last Duchess,'" p. 119.

62. Millet, "Art and Reality in 'My Last Duchess,'" pp. 25-26.

63. See, for example, Crowell, The Triple Soul: Browning's Theory of Knowledge, p. 172; Rogers, The Best of Browning, p. 518; Pipes, "The Portrait of 'My Last Duchess,'" p. 384; Jerman, "Browning's Witless Duke," pp. 332-333 (cf. Perrine, "Browning's Shrewd Duke," p. 341), etc.

64. Our authority here is Professor Howard McP. Davis, of the Department of Art History, Columbia University, in conversation.

65. Crowell, ibid., p. 172.

66. Zamwalt, "Christian Symbolism in 'My Last Duchess.'"

67. Kilburn, "Browning's My Last Duchess."

68. Assad, "Browning's 'My Last Duchess,'" pp. 118-119.

69. Friedland, "Ferrara and My Last Duchess," p. 678.

70. Friedland, ibid., p. 662.

71. Burrows, Browning the Poet: An Introductory Study, p. 116.

72. Burrows, ibid., p. 117.

73. Alexander, An Introduction to the Poetry of Robert Browning, pp. 11-12.

74. See Brockington, "Robert Browning's Answers to Questions concerning Some of His Poems," p. 317.

75. Matthew Pilkington was an Eighteenth Century compiler of brief biographical and critical sketches of painters; his major compilations include the 1770 The Gentleman's and Connoisseur's Dictionary of Painters, the 1805 A Dictionary of Painters, and the 1824 A General Dictionary of Painters ... . Browning referred to these works--especially A Dictionary of Painters--constantly; and the Pilkington works became the source "from ... which most of his early knowledge of the history of art was gained" and the "influence of [which] is plainly traceable in his work" (Griffin and Minchin, The Life of Robert Browning, p. 15).

76. Millet, "Art and Reality in 'My Last Duchess,'" p. 25.

77. See also Monteiro, "Browning's 'My Last Duchess,'" p. 235.

78. Mayne, Browning's Heroines, p. 171.

79. Mayne, ibid., p. 173.

80. Mayne, ibid., pp. 174-175; the suggestive and outraged ellipsis marks are Miss Mayne's. See also Davison, "Browning's Portraits of Women," pp. 352-353.

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Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420091365