My Last Duchess
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"My Last Duchess" is a poem by Robert Browning, frequently anthologised as an example of the dramatic monologue. It first appeared in 1842 in Browning's Dramatic Lyrics. The poem is written in 28 rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter.
The poem is preceded by "Ferrara:", indicating that the speaker is most likely 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.
Lucrezia was not well educated, and the Medicis could be considered "nouveau riche" in comparison to the venerable and distinguished Este family (Alfonso II d'Este's remark regarding his gift of a "nine-hundred-years-old name" clearly indicates that he considered his bride beneath him socially). She came with a sizeable dowry, and the couple married in 1558. He then abandoned her for two years before she died on 21 April 1561, at age 17. There was a strong suspicion of poisoning. The Duke then sought the hand of Barbara, eighth daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I and Anna of Bohemia and Hungary and the sister of the Count of Tyrol, Ferdinand II. The count was in charge of arranging the marriage; the chief of his entourage, Nikolaus Madruz, a native of Innsbruck, was his courier. Madruz is presumably the listener in the poem.
The other characters named in the poem - painter Frà Pandolf and sculptor, Claus of Innsbruck - are fictional.
The poem is set during the late Italian Renaissance. The speaker (presumably the Duke of Ferrara) is giving the emissary of the family of his prospective new wife (presumably a third or fourth since Browning could have easily written 'second' but did not do so) a tour of the artworks in his home. He draws a curtain to reveal a painting of a woman, explaining that it is a portrait of his late wife; he invites his guest to sit and look at the painting. As they look at the portrait of the late Duchess, the Duke describes her happy, cheerful and flirtatious nature, which had displeased him. He says, "She had a heart – how shall I say? – too soon made glad..." He goes on to say that his complaint of her was that "'twas not her husband's presence only" that made her happy. Eventually, "I gave commands; then all smiles stopped together." This could be interpreted as either the Duke had given commands to the Duchess to stop smiling or commands for her to be killed. He now keeps her painting hidden behind a curtain that only he is allowed to draw back, meaning that now she only smiles for him.
In 'My Last Duchess' the Duke of Ferrara is addressing the envoy of the Count of Tyrol. Although he is on his best behaviour, the Duke of Ferrara demonstrates many sociopathic tendencies as he recalls the time he shared with his now-deceased Duchess. Even in death the Duke wished to hide her away behind the curtain where no other man could admire her beauty. The Duke then resumes an earlier conversation regarding wedding arrangements, and in passing points out another work of art, a bronze statue of Neptune taming a sea-horse by Claus of Innsbruck, so making his late wife but just another work of art.
In an interview, Browning said, "I meant that the commands were that she should be put to death ... Or he might have had her shut up in a convent."
- The 20th century American poet Richard Howard wrote a sequel to the poem, "Nikolaus Mardruz [sic] to his Master Ferdinand, Count of Tyrol, 1565", in the form of a letter from the listener in Browning's original that details his response to the Duke's monologue.
- Science fiction author Eric Flint uses portions of "My Last Duchess" in his book 1634: The Galileo Affair (2004).
- Canadian author Margaret Atwood's short story "My Last Duchess" appears in her short story anthology Moral Disorder (2006). It is about two high school students who study the poem and argue about its meaning.
- South African author Judy Croome based the main character Rax-ul-Can in her apocalyptic short story "The Last Sacrifice" (published in "The Weight of a Feather and Other Stories", Aztar Press, 2013) on the Duke in Browning's "My Last Duchess".
- In "The Painter", a song by Chris de Burgh, the lyrics also take the Duke's point of view, but show a less stable mindset than the original poem.
- Philip V. Allingham. "Applying Modern Critical Theory to Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess"". Retrieved 16 December 2009., Note 16-C
- Robert Browning, John Woolford, Daniel Karlin (1991) The Poems of Browning: 1841–1846, Pearson Education 518 pages. (ISBN 9780582063990), p. 157
- Harmon, William, and C. Hugh Holman. A Handbook to Literature. 8th edn. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999.
- Text of "Nikolaus Mardruz to his Master Ferdinand, Count of Tyrol, 1565" by Richard Howard at Poets.org
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