My Last Duchess | Study Guide

Robert Browning

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My Last Duchess | Symbols


Painting of the Duchess

The most prevalent symbol in "My Last Duchess" is the painting of the duchess. The artwork, one in which the duchess is "looking as if she were alive," is completely under the duke's control. He is the only one allowed to pull back the curtain with which it is covered. He chooses who can look upon her face, and "the depth and passion of its earnest glance." This is in direct contrast to the depiction the duke gives of his late wife's behavior in life. When she was alive, "she liked whate'er / She looked on, and her looks went everywhere." In death the duke can contain and control the duchess in a way he could not when she was alive.

Bronze Sculpture by Claus of Innsbruck

The symbol of the sculpture at the end of the poem is one of dominance over a subject: "Notice Neptune, though, / Taming a seahorse, thought a rarity, / Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!" Here it is not a duke controlling who sees a painting of the deceased duchess, it is the sea god "taming" a seahorse. The reader may also recall one of the stated flaws of the duchess was her pleasure in riding a mule around the terrace.

The common phrasing for taming a horse is "breaking" the horse. The objective is for the animal to learn to accept being ridden, and to obey its master's commands. The sculpture represents a powerful being exerting power over a weaker subject. The duke is aligned with this art, and he intentionally points it out to the servant. The art is expensive—another representation of the duke's power and status.


The symbol of nature—as opposed to art or prestige—is associated with the duchess. Three things the duke cites as drawing the duchess's attention are aspects of nature: "The dropping of the daylight in the West. / The bough of cherries ... the white mule / She rode with round the terrace." The duchess's attention was given to the sunset, fruit, and a mule, and all three brought her the same joy, which she demonstrated in the presence of her spouse.

The duke, on the other hand, is represented in two art items—a painting of his wife, and a sculpture of a sea god taming a seahorse. He demonstrates wealth via the arts, created by famous artists, and by his long-standing family name (nine centuries of history). The duchess, however, finds joys in simple things.

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