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Int2/Higher

Essay

Critical
My Last Duchess by Robert Browning

Task: Choose a poem which deals with a real or imaginary person or place.
Show how the person or place is introduced and how the techniques
used give a convincing portrayal of that person or place.
SQA Past Paper/Int2/2004/Q7
My Last Duchess by Robert Browning is a poem which deals with
the imaginary character of the Duke of Ferrara. In essence, the poem is a
psychological portrayal of the Duke presented to the reader as if he or she is
simply listening in on a conversation. As the poem unfolds, the reader
becomes aware that the Duke is talking to an envoy from his fiances
family in order to make final arrangements for his new marriage. Thus, the
nature of the discussion seems rather strange as the Duke is standing in front
of a portrait of his former wife, recounting memories of his last marriage.
The fact that the reader is able to get a strong sense of what the Duke is like,
is testament to Brownings skilful use of the dramatic monologue form,
coupled with effective word choice and imagery.
I found the use of the dramatic monologue particularly effective in
creating a convincing portrayal of the character of the duke as it allowed me
to feel that I could judge a character with no interference from the writer. Of
course, the fact that I felt this way is indicative of Brownings successful use
of the form as nonetheless, the character of the Duke is his creation.
Furthermore, while Browning uses the highly regular form of iambic
pentameter with lines arranged into rhyming couplets, he successfully
employs the technique of enjambment to allow the poem to adopt a speech
like rhythm. This is effective as it makes the conversation seem more
realistic, portraying the character in a more convincing and acceptable way.
The title: My Last Duchess and first line of the poem give an
immediate impression of what the Duke is like. The use of the possessive
my is the first clear indication of the Dukes possessive and controlling
nature as he refers to his former wife as nothing more than a possession.
This aspect of his nature is further emphasised by the fact that at no point in
the monologue does the Duke refer to his former wife by her name. Such

references to the Duchess made me think of the character of the Duke as a


cold man who regards women as inferior and thus sees using their titles as
an unnecessary practice.
This idea is further supported by the fact that he seems happy to
mention the two male artists, Fra Pandolf and Claus of Innsbruck, by name.
However, not all male characters in the poem have the same attitude towards
women. The artist Fra Pandolf is such an example as the Duke comments on
the artist complementing the Duchess, and shows his disgust for Fra Pandolf
by imitate him say: Paint must never hope to reproduce the faint/Half
flush that dies along her throat. This suggests that the Duke is jealous of
the Duchess being complimented by other men and that he is annoyed by her
reaction of blushing.
The Dukes annoyance to her reaction to the painter is perhaps ironic
as not only did he arranged for his wife to sit for a portrait, but he also
reveals his great satisfaction with the piece of work in describing it as that
piece a wonder. I found it strange that the Duke is shown to be
appreciating the portrait of the duchess with the envoy. However, the fact
that they are viewing the portrait may be symptomatic of the dukes
possessiveness as he sees the portrait as a piece of art, rather than a picture
of a person.
In addition, the Dukes controlling nature is revealed through his
assertion that: none puts by the curtain I have drawn for you, but I.
This shows that the reader is so possessive of the Duchess, and indeed her
portrait, that he has positioned a curtain in front of it so that she can only be
seen when he decides. This is crucial as it gives the Duke the complete
control which he so desired during his last marriage. In addition, the poets
use of sentence structure to place emphasis on the pronoun I at the end of
the sentence is effective in highlighting the Dukes sense of self-importance.
This was successful in unveiling another aspect of the Dukes character and
making me find the portrayal of the character convincing.
Another aspect of the character is his frustration with the Duchess
behaviour. This frustration stems from the duchess being too easily
impressed with trivial things such as showing satisfaction with the bough
of cherries some officious fool/broke in the orchard for her and her
white mule which she rode around the terrace. Furthermore, the Duke
holds the belief that she saw these gifts as equal to those which he bestowed
upon her. His rage is best illustrated when he precedes his list of trivial gifts
by telling the envoy: Sir t was all one! My favour at her breast. Here,
the exclamation mark is important in making it clear that he is angry. This is

effective as it adds to the readers impression of the Duke by emphasising


the Dukes possessive nature.
This frustration is also evident when the Duke comments more fully
on the Duchess behaviour:

She thanked men good! But thanked


Somehow I know not how as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old-name
With anybodys gift
This again highlights that the Duchess behaves in much the same way
towards the Duke as she does towards any other man. This annoys the Count
for a number of reasons: Firstly, the word ranked has strong connotations
of social class and so suggests that the Duke is very aware of social
hierarchies. As a Duke he would be a member of the upper-class and so
would be infuriated to see his wife give equal regard to those of lower social
standing. I find this effective in contributing to the readers impression of the
character as it makes me think of the count as a rather pompous character.
This sense of superiority is also shown in the mention of his nine-hundredyears-old title and the arrogant tone in which my gift would be spoken.
Another example of an unattractive quality possessed by the Duke is
that of arrogance. This is demonstrated in that he seems to feel that he
cannot lesson the duchess on how he wishes her to behave as this would
be some stooping; and I choose/Never to stoop. This means that he feels
that discussing the problem would be a sign of weakness and as such would
lead to his loss of dignity.
Nevertheless, perhaps the most shocking aspect of the Dukes nature
is his callousness which is revealed in that he gave commands and then
all smiles stopped together. This strongly suggests that the Duke had his
wife killed. This made the poem more interesting for me as I feel this
revelation adds weight to my belief that the Duke is a rather nasty character.
Such an impression is reflected in the reaction of the character of the
envoy who seems disturbed by the Dukes admissions and concerned about
the Dukes obvious attitude towards his new wife. It is clear that that his new
wife will also be viewed simply as my object, and that the most significant
part of a marriage for the Duke is the dowry; thus making the ceremony
nothing more than a business transaction. This is illustrated by the
characters hurry to move away from the Duke which is reflected in the
Dukes command: Nay, well go together down sir!. I found this effective
as it confirmed my feelings of revulsion towards the Duke.
Lastly, the introduction of the sculpture of Neptune taming a seahorse at the end of the poem, adds to the sense that the Duke sees women

as nothing more than objects. This effect is achieved as Browning cleverly


structures the poem to allow the ending to recall the beginning. The Duke is
simply bragging about another object in his collection and in effect
discussing a statue in the same breath as his late wife in order, and in doing
so showing his possessive side. Furthermore, this statue can be considered
an important symbol as it represents the brutal male dominance which the
reader now associates with the Duke.
Overall, Browning successfully uses the techniques of dramatic
monologue, word choice and imagery to create a convincing picture of the
Duke. The reader is easily convinced, through the Dukes speech and the
envoys reaction, that he is a cruel, arrogant and possessive individual.

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