Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ Egotism, Mystery, Few Poetic Devices Robert Browning's dramatic monologue, "My Last Duchess," a poem without poetics, is loosely based on the character Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara. Historically, the real Duke married Lucretia de Medici, when she was fifteen years old. The young Duchess mysteriously disappeared when she was seventeen. It is not clear that the Duke murdered her, just as it is not clear that the fictional Duke in Browning’s poem murdered his last Duchess, but the point in both narratives is the plausibility of a murder. “Looking as she were alive” The monologue begins with Ferrara telling a visitor, “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall / Looking as if she were alive.” Immediately, the listener/reader infers that the Duchess is now dead, since she merely “look[s] as if she were alive.” But this statement cannot prove her death. The listener then learns that the painting was done by an artist called Frà Pandolf, who painted the portrait in one day. The Duke is so impressed with work he calls it “a wonder.” Apparently, the Duke shows this painting to visitors regularly, and they always remark about the “joy” that seems to appear on the Duchess’s face. The Duke’s egotism The Duke becomes agitated as he surmises that everything made the Duchess joyful; he makes it clear that he thought he should be the only person at whom she directed her smiles and attention: “Sir, ’twas not / Her husband’s presence only, called that spot / Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek.” This remark alerts the listener/reader that the character of the Duke, indeed, suspect. He complains that simple pleasures gladdened the Duchess’s heart: the Duke’s presence, a beautiful sunset, a bunch of cherries, a white mule. It annoys him that she seemed to enjoy everything in life as much as she enjoyed him. His ego cannot take such an attitude, especially since he bears a “nine-hundred-yearold name.” Command to Stop Smiling The Duke admits that she smiled at him, but he becomes incensed that she smiled at everyone. He could never make her understand that he deserved more from her, so he “gave commands / Then all smiles stopped together.” What commands did he give? Did he command a servant to kill her? He reiterates, “There she stands / As if alive,” leaving the listener/reader to infer that she is dead at his command. His Next Duchess Then the Duke “commands” his listener to rise so they can meet “[t]he company below.” Here the readers learns that the Duke’s visitor belongs to the retinue of a Count, who is arranging for the Duke to marry his daughter. The Duke expects the “fair daughter” to fetch a fine dowry. But he tries to assure the listener that, of course, he is more interested in the daughter than the dowry. On the way down, the Duke directs the Count’s envoy to notice his statue of Neptune “[t]aming” a seahorse.” He brags that it is “thought a rarity, / Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!” Commentary The poem exemplifies the fact that poetry can function without, or with few, poetic devices. It consists of 28 rimed couplets. It is quite literal and does not rely on metaphor. The Duke has a gift of rhetoric, but not poetry. The closest he comes to waxing poetic is when he offers a possible quotation of Frà Pandolf, “Paint / Must never hope to reproduce the faint / Half-flush that dies along her throat.” Instead of “fades,” he says “dies.” The only poetic devices used in this poem are rime, uneven meter, and imagery. Yet the imagery is sparse, consisting of the painting, the “spot of joy”, that is, the blush on the Duchess’s countenance, and the sculpture of Neptune.