Robert Browning's poem, "My Last Duchess" begins innocuously enough — with an unnamed Duke appraising the portrait of his late wife. The chatty Duke casually refers to the amount of hours the comissioned artist spent on the painting, commenting on how the Duchess "look[s] as if she were alive" in the finished piece (2). Such remarks seem to have a sentimental tone as readers themselves paint the portrait of a man still mourning over the loss of his wife. One could almost relate to the Duke and quickly deem this work a commentary on the universality of grief. Almost, that is.

Something seems amiss towards the middle of the poem, as the Duke's tone changes from somewhat jovial to disturbingly impassioned. He mentions detailed instances of his wife's flirtatiousness and condemns them as evidence of her ungratefulness and promiscuity:

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?

After continuing his rant for several lines further, he ends with a declaration of his authority, namely his authority over his wife.

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 left
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, foorsooth, and made excuse,
— E'en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop.

In this middle section of the poem, dashes pepper the Duke's speech as his thoughts skip from bitter memory to memory and from the past to the present. As the dashes mark gaps in the Duke's speech and thoughts, they act as a grammatical parallel for the larger omissions present in the work. Browning never chronicles the actual events that occurred when the Duchess was alive which leaves the veracity of the Duke's words up for debate. Consequently, the gap between the events, people, and artwork as presented by the Duke and these counterparts rooted in reality cause a constantly shifting appraisal of truth and falsehood. The reader is left to make the appropriate hops, skips, and jumps in a poem that features a condemned Duchess who may be innocent, a beautiful painting that commemorates a horrific memory, and a Duke who, in reality, does not seem to act much like nobility at all.

Questions

1. In the passage, the Duke asserts that he has given his wife the "gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name." Why does he choose to mention this specific quality (versus his "undying love" or his fortune) as his gift — especially in light of the fact that he is never specifically named?

2. The Duke mentions the word "stoop" three times in the passage, showing his clear obsession with authority and husband-and-wife power dynamics. Who does Browning deem more powerful: a wife whose "promiscuity" obsesses her husband even after her death or a husband who ends up killing a disobedient wife?

3. In "Porphyria's Lover," Browning also features a man who kills his beloved. However, this unnamed killer lingers over the woman's "smooth white shoulder" and "yellow hair" while chronicling the violent event as it happens in the present. How does this focus on physical appearance and present tense characterize Porphyria's lover as someone different from the Duke? Could these differences reflect a socio-economic difference between the two characters?

4. In Victorian society, social standing and gentlemanly (or ladylike) behavior remain tantamount to operating as effective citizens of England. In "The Gentleman," David Cody asserts that "[m]embers of the British aristocracy were gentlemen by right of birth (although it was also emphasized, paradoxically enough, that birth alone could not make a man a gentleman), while the new industrial and mercantile elites, in the face of opposition from the aristocracy, inevitably attempted to have themselves designated as gentlemen as a natural consequence of their growing wealth and influence."

An attention to morality as a morality of a gentleman pervaded Victorian thought. In light of this information, how difficult is it for the murderous Duke to retain his title in Victorian society?

References

David Cody. "The Gentleman." Victorian Web. 2009. April 1, 2009.


Victorian Overview R. Browning Leading Questions

Last modified 14 April 2009