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Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess" Essay

1084 words - 4 pages

In this essay, I would like to discuss one of Robert Browning's better known poems, "My Last Duchess." While some readers may be put off by Browning's language which now seems archaic, his poem is every bit as relevant today as when he wrote it almost two hundred years ago. It is as relevant in the twenty first century as it was in the sixteenth century which serves as the setting for the poet's history lesson. The poem focuses on a sixteenth century Italian duke who is regaling his guest with tales of his deceased wife from which the poem's title is derived. The Duke's guest is the envoy of a count whose daughter the Duke intends to make his next duchess.The poem takes the form of a dramatic monologue. Browning was one of the pioneers of the dramatic monologue in which a speaker's character is revealed to an implied audience through his words alone. Through his speech, the Duke is revealed to be a villain lacking remorse who ordered the murder of his former wife because she did not live up to his expectations. That he can allude to his wife's murder with impunity is testimony to the power held by such despots. Of course, he would not be beyond the reach of the law should he confess to the Count's envoy, which explains why the Duke speaks in ambiguities.As the poem begins, the Duke is discussing a portrait of the deceased Duchess with the Count's envoy who is invited to sit in order to listen to her tale ("That's my last Duchess painted on the wall, / Looking as if she were alive"). "That's" is a well chosen word because the Duke has objectified his wife, even when she was alive. He mentions the painting was done by an Italian monk, Fra Pandolph, whom he suspects of flirting with his wife by possibly saying to her that her cloak covered too much of her pretty wrist ("Her mantle laps / Over my Lady's wrist too much"). In this way, the artist was able to capture the Duchess' captivating smile ("spot of joy"). His former wife's smile was seen by the Duke as a spot or stain of noble character which was given too freely to others while it should have been reserved for him alone.In his long speech to the Count's envoy, the Duke makes it clear that his main grievance with his dead wife was that she readily showed fondness toward other men ("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"). She viewed no more fondly his attention ("My favour at her breast") than she did a sunset ("The dropping of the daylight in the West").She looked as favorably upon her husband as at an inferior who brought her a cherry branch or even at a mule ride around the terrace ("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"). She was as grateful to others as she...

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