My Last Duchess is a poem by Robert Browning (1812-89). Written in 1842, the poet called the piece a dramatic lyric, but it is really a dramatic monologue – a form associated with Browning. It consists of 28 couplets written in iambic pentameter. The rhyming words occur at the end of each line, but the poem employs the enjambment technique; ie – the sentence doesn’t always conclude at the end of a line. The rhyme scheme is easy to see on the page, but the poem is best recited. When read aloud it sounds like a conversation albeit a one-sided one.

Browning was famous for sometimes reaching depths of obscurity. When once asked what a poem of his meant he said that when he wrote it only God and he knew, but that now only God knew. My Last Duchess does not suffer from remote intelligence. It’s meaning is quite clear.

By implication the speaker is  Alfonso II d’Este, the fifth Duke of Ferrara (1533–1598), who, at the age of 25, married Lucrezia di Cosimo de’ Medici, the 14-year-old daughter of Cosimo I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and Eleonora di Toledo. The painter Fra Pandolph and the sculptor Claus of Innsbruck are Browning’s inventions. Lucrezia died at age 17 likely from tuberculosis rather than murder as suggested in the poem . The Duke then married Barbara daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I. She was the sister of the Count of Tyrol, the Count mentioned in the poem. His servant in arranging the marriage was Nikolaus Madruz, the person to whom the Duke is addressing his remarks.

The Duke is a super supercilious aristocrat consumed with the importance of his noble lineage. His main complaint against his late wife, whose portrait he and Madruz are looking at, seems to be that she was too nice a person. He appears to have been offended that she did not focus entirely on him and that she was not sufficiently impressed by the length of his noble heritage.

Accordingly, he had her killed. The poem can be take as a depiction of the endemic cruelty of renaissance Italy or as an allegory on the subjugation of women in Victorian England. Either works. Regardless, the Duke is a particularly nasty piece of humanity.

The meaning and emotional content of the work is much clearer when it is read by a skilled actor. The video below is a fine performance of the piece by the very talented Jonathan David Dixon. Dixon clearly reveals the poem’s meaning and impact. The text of the poem is beneath the video.

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
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
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!