My Last Duchess | Study Guide

Robert Browning

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My Last Duchess | Summary



The Set-Up

The poem opens with the ominous pronouncement "That's my last Duchess painted on the wall, / Looking as if she were alive." The duke relates the painting was completed by Frà Pandolf, and then goes into detail about the talents of the (fictional) painter.

As the duke continues, he notes viewers who were permitted to see the painting looked at him as if they wanted to ask questions. The duke points out he is the only one allowed to open the curtains on the painting, implying he knows what people would ask as no one can see her without his presence. As he continues, he tells the listener "so, not the first / Are you to turn and ask thus."

The Duke and Duchess

Here the duke makes clear why he believes the last duchess was lacking—she thanked everyone equally. She blushed over Frà Pandolf's praise, and was "too easily impressed." He cites things that brought on "that spot of joy"—the sunset; cherries given to her by "some officious fool"; or riding her white mule. In fact, she thanked them the same as she thanked him for his "gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name."

He did not tell her she had failed in any way. He goes on to explain even if she were willing to "be lessoned" (taught) and did not make excuses, that would be stooping. He says she smiled when she saw him, but it was the "much the same smile." So he "gave commands" instead, and "all smiles stopped together."

The Lesson

The duke ends his story about his last wife with, "There she stands as if alive." His next statement is an invitation to his listener to "rise," and go downstairs to greet the rest of the company. At this point he mentions "the Count your master's known munificence," clarifying to whom he's been speaking (a representative of a count who is known to be generous). As he continues, the duke references "dowry" and "his fair daughter's self," thereby explaining he has been speaking to the representative of a wealthy count whose daughter the duke intends to take as his next duchess.

As they walk, he invites the servant to walk at his side (an extremely odd request to a servant), and points out another piece of art—a bronze sculpture of the god Neptune "taming a seahorse"—by another fictional artist, Claus of Innsbruck.


Meter and Rhyme

"My Last Duchess" is written in heroic couplets: pairs of rhymed lines in iambic pentameter. There are 28 rhyming couplets. This means every two lines (a couplet) rhyme:

That's my last duchess painted on the wall, (a)
Looking as if she were alive. I call (a)
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf's hands (b)
Worked busily a day, and there she stands. (b)

Iambic pentameter is one of the most common meters or patterns of rhythm. Each line has 10 syllables—one unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable. An easy way to conceptualize stress is to think of beats. A line has five (penta-) beats (iambs):

That's MY / last DUCH / ess PAINT / ed ON / the WALL

This was a meter used often by English playwright William Shakespeare, English poet John Donne, English poet Alexander Pope, and English poet Geoffrey Chaucer.


There are two pieces of art in the poem. The first is the painting of the duchess, which can be seen only with the duke's permission. The second is the sculpture of the Roman god Neptune taming a seahorse so it can be controlled. In both cases the art serves as a symbolic representation of control over a weaker entity.

This focus on art is also indicated by acknowledging its creators. Both of the artists are named: painter Frà Pandolf, and sculptor Claus of Innsbruck. Notably, these are not historical figures, although the Duke and Duchess of Ferrara are—as is the servant of the count to whom the duke is speaking.

The Reader

Within a dramatic monologue, the reader is either positioned alongside a stated audience, or eavesdropping. This poem lists an audience: the servant of the count. Because there is a stated audience, the reader can position him or herself alongside the servant of the count, or in the position of overhearing the duke.

Narrative Reliability

Notably, the duke has said others have "turned" to him and "seemed as they would ask me, if they durst." He does not say anyone has actually asked, nor is it clear the listener has asked.

He further expresses he could not express himself clearly, denying the same "skill in speech" he demonstrates in his monologue. These lines—which reveal dishonesty—will make the reader question the truthfulness of the duchess's history the duke shares with the count's servant.

This narrative reliability also invites the reader to question the duchess's fate. The implication in the duke's statement—"I gave commands"—is he had his wife murdered. This is furthered, incidentally, by the historical source of the poem. The death of the historical Duchess of Ferrara was suspicious, and poisoning was suspected, but not confirmed.

Regardless of the reliability of the duke's statement, his pronouncement he "gave commands" establishes his power, and he is not to be trifled with.

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