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Poetry - My Last Duchess

Robert Browning was a 19th-century British poet whose reputation and popularity has grown since his work was first published in the Victorian era. Many of his most well-known poems, such as 'My Last Duchess', are in the form of a dramatic monologue. Here we have an arresting psychological portrait based on the historical figure of Alphonso II of Ferrara. Browning quickly engages the reader's sympathy -- but with whom?

Read the poem and then test your analytical skills by answering the questions.

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My Last Duchess

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
Fra Pandolf chanced to say “Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat”: such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—(which I have not)—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
—E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

Robert Browning

  1. Who is the narrator, or speaker, of this poem?
    The Duke's speech to a silent listener forms the entire poem
  2. Where is the Duchess who is the subject of the poem?
    The reference to the Duchess as the Duke's 'last' Duchess, the way the Duke speaks of her in the past tense only, and the comment of her portrait that 'there she stands / as if alive' are clues to her death
  3. What is meant by the phrase 'a spot of joy' (lines 14-15)?
  4. Which of the following phrases gives the reader the impression that the Duke was a fond husband?
    Because the poem consists entirely of speech, it takes some effort on the reader's part to picture what is happening while the Duke is speaking.  He has drawn aside a curtain which normally hides the painting of the Duchess.  Viewing the Duchess is a privilege which only the Duke can grant, making him seem like a man whose grief at the death of his wife is still too raw to share
  5. 'She had / A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad' - What is the effect of the Duke's hesitation here?
    In fact, the Duke continues in a vein which implies that his wife was a shameless flirt. This statement, which introduces a passage condemning his wife's manner and behaviour, almost implies that he is too much of a gentleman to mention her shocking actions
  6. What effect does the repeated enjambment have in this poem?
  7. Considering its tone, the Duke's monologue is best described as a...
    In combination with the enjambment, the lack of any stanza divisions makes the Duke's monologue into a rant
  8. Which of the following is NOT one of the Duchess's misdemeanours, according to the Duke?
    The Duke refused to 'stoop' to asking his wife to change
  9. 'This grew; I gave commands; then all smiles stopped together.' - How should these lines be interpreted?
    Many readers interpret these lines to mean that the Duke murdered his wife, possibly because the 16th century Duke upon which the character is based was suspected of causing the death of his first young wife
  10. What is the Duke in the midst of planning?
    Browning draws the poem to a terrifying conclusion: some unlucky daughter of a Count will be the Duke's next Duchess. Will she, too, come to be known as his 'last' Duchess?

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