My Last Duchess Poetry Explication English Literature Essay

Robert Brownings poem, My Last Duchess, dramatizes the internal conflict of the speaker, the Duke of Ferrara, an Italian aristocrat. The beginning of the poem states “Ferrara,” which suggests the speaker is modeled after Alfonso II d’Este, the fifth Duke of Ferrara, and his last Duchess, Lucrezia de’ Medici (“Poetry Analysis”). He is conflicted with the faults of his last wife, and the desire for change in the upcoming marriage to his new fiancee. Ultimately, the struggle deals with power and jealousy. The Duke speaks to an emissary of his new fiancee about his previous wife, explaining her faults and weaknesses. The Duke speaks in a mocking manner; however, he manages to portray himself as a victim of his previous wife’s failings. The poem begins with the Duke stating, “that’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,” (Browning 1). The Duke continues to speak of his deceased wife without interruption from the listener. The poem is a dramatic monologue depicting the Duchess’ imperfections and the resulting effects on the marriage. The emissary is seated, admiring the painting as the Duke speaks standing beside him. The Duke is striving to emphasize the blemishes of his previous wife in hopes of preventing those same faults in his next wife. He portrays his last Duchess as the problem in the marriage, while in reality the faults he described are in fact admirable qualities.

Browning constructed this poem without breaks; the absence of multiple stanzas highlights the length of the Duke’s monologue, therefore empowering his speech. The shape of the poem emphasizes his thoughts and also his power over the listener and the deceased Duchess. The conflict described by the Duke is accentuated by the flow of his words; his monologue navigates from the painting, to the Duchess, to her flaws, and ends at his upcoming marriage.

Robert Browning utilized the main character’s power to manipulate the image of the Duchess into one of an inadequate wife. In the beginning of the poem, the Duke asserts his power by characterizing the emissary as a “stranger,” (Browning 7). This subtle statement establishes the lower rank of the listener and the higher rank of the Duke. As the Duke continues, he begins describing the Duchess’ imperfections, for example, “she had a heart-how shall I say?-too soon made glad, too easily impressed,” (Browning 21). The Duke took an admirable quality and turned it into a flaw. As he continues to speak, he paints himself as a victim to the Duchess’ faults by saying, “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,’” (Browning 35). This quote shows the Duke’s intelligence; he attempts to portray himself as a “plain-spoken” man, when clearly he is well-spoken (Napierkowski 167). The Duke manipulates his words to teach the emissary what are undesirable qualities in a wife while still seeming a good and wholesome man.

The poem, My Last Duchess has a natural conversational tone due to Browning’s use of rhyming couplets in combination with enjambement (Napierkowski 169). The use of rhyme keeps the lengthy poem from being monotonous and flat. The poem’s relaxed flow is established early on in the poem, “I call that piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf’s hands worked busily a day, and there she stands,” (Browning 2). The punctuation and enjambement used accentuate the informal language. Browning used enjambement to create the rhyming couplets throughout the fifty-six line poem, while still maintaining a conversational essence. The Duke’s monologue is enhanced by the rhyme used, keeping the reader and the emissary he is speaking to interested. The informal sense throughout Browning’s poem is furthered by the use of colloquial vocabulary. Even though the Duke holds more power than the man he is speaking to, he uses everyday speech to make it seem as if they were equal men. Browning’s main character once again manipulates the listener by creating a comfortable setting through careful word choice. When the elements of rhyme, enjambement, and diction are combined the poem is understood as a conversational monologue describing a woman and her faults, in hopes of expressing the expectations of an upcoming marriage.

Visual patterns also play into the purpose Duke’s monologue. Browning incorporated multiple images to express the Duchess’ assumed imperfections. “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,” (Browning 26). This description emphasizes the Duke’s interpretation of the Duchess’ actions, which in his eyes were seen as problems. Her equal treatment of all men led the Duke to jealousy and anger, which may have resulted in a possible murder. “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,” (Browning 43). Browning hints that murder is the cause of the Duchess’ death. The Dukes raging jealousy of the Duchess’ equal treatment of all men in all ranks may have pushed him to murder. The images and rhyming throughout the poem draw attention to the conflict the Duke of Ferrara is experiencing.

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