Poetry is one of the major genres of literature. Therefore, any literature scholar needs to explore as many poems as possible during their academic journey. In this piece, I seek to explore the poem “My Last Duchess,” composed by the legendary English poet, Robert Browning, emphasizing the poem’s summary, the central thematic concerns, characterization, and the poem’s setting.
The poet introduces the readers to a historical figure, the Duke of Ferrara. Having been composed in the Victorian age, it is not surprising that Robert Browning extensively borrows from the life of the mentioned historical figure, Alfonso, who reigned during the sixteenth century. The better part of the poem is a description of the Duke’s former wife’s portrait. From the introductory line, the poet introduces the readers to the persona. Moreover, the readers can infer from the same line that the persona is a Duke since his former wife was a Duchess.
A summary of the poem is vital to offer a general outlook. It is equally important to note that the poem’s setting is the Duke’s palace in one of the rooms upstairs. As the Duke is entertaining one of his guests, the readers and the guest’s attention is drawn to a portrait of the Duke’s former wife. The better part of the poem is dominated by the Duke’s description of the Duchess. He categorically mentions the artist behind the painting, Fra Pandolf (line 3). The persona goes ahead to explain the reason why he mentioned him. Firstly, he notes that the Duchess was easily pleased by other men’s compliments (line 19-21). He categorically notes that her smile could have resulted from a sweet compliment from the painter and not the Duke’s presence, as most of his guests often assume (lines 13-21). The Duke further haltingly criticizes her for receiving and reacting to other men’s compliments other than her husband (lines 21-23). As the plot advances, the readers can infer that there are very high chances that the Duke murdered the Duchess out of jealousy, as illustrated in (lines 45-47).
In (lines 47 and 48), the readers get a clear picture of the poem’s setting. However, the context in the earlier lines insinuates that the poem is set in the Duke’s palace. The forty-seventh and forty-eighth lines paint a clearer picture of the scene. The Duke and his guest are in an upper room of the palace since the Duke requests him to accompany him downstairs so that they can join the other guests.
From the poem’s exposition, the readers learn that the poet has utilized four characters. The first character is the persona, the second one being the Duchess. Although the Duchess is dead, as illustrated by the personas remarks “looking as if she were alive” (line 2), it is justifiable to acknowledge her as a character as she was once a key figure in the persona’s life to the extent of him keeping her portrait in his palace. Thirdly, Robert has also utilized the artist Fra Pandolf as one of his characters (lines 3 and 4). Lastly, the poet has utilized a guest in the persona’s house, as illustrated in (line 5) where the Duke urges him to sit down. All four characters play a critical role in advancing the poem’s plot. Firstly, the persona is the poem’s voice, and from whose perspective the readers understand the plot. The Duchess is also a critical character as most of the poem is dedicated to the Duke’s explanation of her character while she was still alive. Fra Pandolf has also been used to advance the poem as had he not painted the Duchess portrait, then the poem could have had a different plot. Lastly, the guest is a crucial character as he is the direct audience of the Duke.
The poet addresses the theme of the place of women in society extensively. It is evident that the Duke objectifies the women in his life. Firstly, he proudly shows the former Duchess’ portrait. The portrait is displayed in one of the rooms upstairs. He even invites his guests to sit down and take a look at the portrait (line 5). the Duke’s invitation to the guest to sit down is ironic as he held the Duchess in very low regards to the extent of killing her as insinuated in (lines 45-47).
Moreover, the readers can infer that the guest is not the only one who had the “pleasure” of seeing the portrait (lines 12 and 13). His personification of the portrait further illustrates the Duke’s objectification of his former wife. Lastly, the Duke also objectifies his wife-to-be as he remarks on the lady’s beauty as the primary reason he wants to marry her (lines 52 and 53).
Lastly, the poem has a regular rhyme scheme. The deliberate choice of the poet to use a regular rhyme scheme is to ensure that the poem has an aesthetic effect and therefore entertains the readers. Moreover, the rhyme scheme makes the poem musical. The primary stylistic technique employed is a monologue in that the persona addresses his guest from the poem’s exposition to its resolution.
Browning, Robert, et al. Robert Browning, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2018.