My Last Duchess

My Last Duchess

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Robert Browning is remembered for his mastery at capturing the essence and power of the dramatic monologue. Through symbolism, structure and technique, Browning creates the model of the ideal dramatic monologue in the poem, "My Last Duchess." "My Last Duchess" was published in 1845. "Ferrara" is the subtitle of the poem and assists in disclosing the design of the poem, a portrayal of Alfonso II, the fifth Duke of Ferrara. The historical life of Alfonso II fits intricately with the events and happenings within the poem. Alfonso II married Lucrezia de’ Medici who is the daughter of the Duke of Florence. The Duke’s family has a long credited name and wealth that had been around for ages. The affluence and power of the duchess’s family had been newly acquired, and when comparing the two families, the Duke’s was much more significant, at least in his eyes. The Duchess of Alfonso II died of poisoning in 1561. Three short years later the Duke arranged to marry Barbara, a niece of the Count of Tyrol. The speaker of the dramatic monologue is an egotistical and pompous Duke. He speaks to an envoy of the Count throughout the monologue. At the beginning of the poem, he slowly draws back the curtain and reveals a portrait. This portrait, he asserts, is his "last Duchess…looking as if she were alive" (lines1-2). The Duke continues by addressing the look upon her face and the many reasons for her blushing cheeks. Continuing the description, he depicts the duchess’s ways, including her virtues of innocence and unspoiled beauty. Examples are given by the Duke of how easily she is impressed by nature and the simple pleasures of life. He claims he is disgusted by her ability to see natural beauty as an equal delectation with his name and matrimony. Then very subtly he tells the envoy how he gave orders to have "all smiles stopped together" (line 46). The envoy is completely aware of the truth about the ordered killings and the Duke’s greedy reasoning for marrying the niece of the Count. The contemptuous way of the Duke is made perfectly clear to the envoy, and the envoy begins to leave. The delegate is completely aware of the truth about the ordered killings and the Duke’s greedy reasoning for marrying the niece of the Count. The Duke elaborates his reasoning for marrying the duchess, by declaring it is only for the dowry.

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The last few lines of the poem reveal the full essence of the Duke and how he sees himself as powerful and godlike. "My Last Duchess" contains multiple symbols throughout the poem. A few of the symbols in the poem are said by the Duke pertaining to the duchess. The Duke gives examples of things she was enamored by such as the "the dropping of the daylight in the West" (line 26), the "bough of cherries" (line 27) and the white mule. She enjoys and treasures the sunset for its beauty; this the Duke finds trivial. The cherry branch given to her by a servant is white and pink which could be representative of her youth and innocence. The white mule she would ride is something that gives her pleasure, she finds it exotic and interesting. All of these gifts of nature he finds to be elementary and insignificant, but to her they are beautiful and extraordinary. The symbols told by the Duke also echo her natural splendor and her innocent ways, since she is so taken by the simple things in life. Furthermore, the Duke could not understand how she could compare and find equal the nine hundred year old name he has given her to a sunset. "I know not how - as if she ranked my gift of a nine- hundred- year-old name with anybody’s gift" (lines 33-34). These various symbols of the duchess deeply contrast with the Duke, for he is only given pleasure by the intriacte and high-priced things in life. Symbols of the Duke’s pleasure are the statue cast in bronze specifically for him and the portrait of the late duchess. These two symbols represent his control, power and refined taste. The portrait is symbolic of how his duchess has been nothing more than a possession to be put on display and looked at when he feels it fit to do so. The title even become symbolic, for the usage of the word "my" has a possessive tone, and he considers her his property. Symbols of the duke’s control are scattered throughout the poem. When the duke draws the curtain, he remarks how that is his power alone and no one else of the household would even dare to ask to pull back the curtain. This proves his arrogance at the opening of the monologue and his extreme control. The last few lines of the poem contain some very vital symbols in the form of characterization and meaning. The primary symbol is displayed when the duke exclaims, "Notice Neptune, though, Taming a sea horse, thought a rarity, Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me" (lines 54-56)! When he directs the envoy’s attention to the statue, he describes the god of the sea as taming the sea horse. This can be interpreted in many different ways.

One of the interpretations is that the Duke represents the god, and the duchess is symbolic of the sea horse that he controls and tames. This interpretation leaves room to say that the sea horse is not just the duchess but any women the Duke encounters. He will always see them as just a possession to control and use to his desires at will, for he believes he is superior and godlike. The second interpretation is the Duke is Neptune, and the sea horse is the envoy. The Duke manipulates the envoy’s mind and controls him throughout the monologue. The Duke directs him to do everything, and the envoy obeys without much question. When the Duke asks him to look at the painting and later to slow his pace so they leave together and can further discuss the arrangements, the envoy complies. Nearly all of the crucial symbols represent his reasoning for his cruel actions or his supreme control. One of the essential techniques Browning uses is language. Through the format, word choice, and speech the intensity of the dramatic monologue is felt. Browning uses specific words to convey his tone and characterization. When the Duke refers to the "officious fool" (line 27) who brought the cherry branch to the Duchess, he initiates a time period and region. Those choices of words proves the Duke’s arrogance and ego, but also shows his status in society. He was part of the aristocratic society in, which people were excepted to have a certain amount of pomposity. When the Duke talks of how the Duchess disgusts him that also implies explicit word choice to provide accurate characterization. Those lines grant a dramatic monologue to come alive and breath contempt for the character. "E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose never to stoop,(lines 42-43)" this choice of words shows how the character views himself. In his mind killing her was the only way of going about it, for if he asked her to change that would make him inferior and powerless. The language Browning uses in the monologue provides the historical background to become evident. It also allows the reader to make amends for the Duke’s actions, beliefs and behaviors because of the period and culture. The language and specific words chosen give the dramatic monologue a realistic tone and sense of understanding for the era and the Duke. One could argue that the Duke was merely a product of his times and environment. When taking a psychological approach in interpreting and analysising the Duke many theories exist. One being he is insane or another is that he was conditioned by society to do everything in his power to fulfill himself without consequence. Another technique used to develop the monologue is by using the aside seen twice in the poem. The aside reaffirms the duke’s arrogance and his ego is revealed. Also the sentence variety displayed gives another opening for interpretation of the Duke. "This grew; I gave commands; Then all smiles stopped together.(line 45-46)" This line is filled with semi colons and brief, short phrases that deeply contrast his prior sentences that where lengthy and very elaborate. The sentence variety can also be viewed as symbolic of the events and characters. When he uses the long winded, detailed sentences he displays his arrogance and conceit. The short, choppy sentences could represent the shot lived life of the duchess that was taken in only moments. The format is very vital in developing the dramatic monologue.

"My Last Duchess" is composed of rhyming couplets. Enjambment is also used throughout the poem to off set the rhyme scheme to therefore give a sense of natural speech. The format and language is necessary to elaborate the essence of "My Last Duchess" and without those techniques the dramatic monologue would lose some of its richness embodied by the dissection of the human mind and the penetration of thought. "My Last Duchess" is a dramatic monologue that tries to dive into the reasoning of the human mind. The monologue also presumes an effect over the reader by the techniques used. The language, style, and form manipulate the readers thoughts and emotions. Furthermore, the symbols that are scattered throughout the poem give intensity and depth. Without the abundant symbolism, certain structure and specific techniques; "My Last Duchess" would not have the power it beholds as a dramatic monologue.


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