Written in the Victorian era, Browning’s dramatic monologue ‘My Last Duchess’ tells the story of the ruthless 16th century Duke of Ferrara in order to explore the complex issues pertaining to gender relationships and marriage equality as they were evolving in the Victorian era. While the poem is ostensibly about self-importance and status, ‘what is un-said in the poem and what can be inferred from within are a lot more important than what is said’ (Negrut, 2011, p. 149). This essay will argue that ‘My Last Duchess’ makes innovative use of form and meter, narrative voice, and imagery in order to depict a character who sees marriage as a means of subjugating and controlling women.
In My Last Duchess, enjambment is used to create an unsteady and irregular form and meter, creating an overall impression of mental instability on the part of the speaker of the poem. Specifically, the enjambment in My Last Duchess indicates the Duke’s psychotic and cold-blooded egotism. The most chilling example of this comes towards the end of the poem, when he states, ‘This grew; I gave commands; then all smiles stopped together. There she stands / as if alive. Will’t please you rise?’ (Browning, 2017, n.p.). The use of semi-colons gives the impression of cool, passionless statements of fact, suggesting that he is unmoved by the murder he is admitting to. This lack of empathy or guilt is reinforced by the enjambment at the end of line 46, which suggests that in his mind the painting of the Duchess is equal in worth to the living woman. Examples such as these show how Browning is using form and meter to reveal a mind made unstable by the experience of marriage, whether as a result of too much power or as a result of being the victim of another’s power.
In ‘My Last Duchess’, narrative voice is also used to reveal mental instability, as the Duke revealed to be consumed by the need for power and control. His obsession with power is revealed through the narrative voice in ‘My Last Duchess’. For example, his speech is littered with self-depreciating comments, such as, ‘Even had you skill / In speech ‘ which I have not ‘ to make your will / Quite clear to such an one’ (Browning, 2017, n.p.). Although the Duke downplays his skills and ability in these lines, his insistence on making his ‘will’ clear, as well as the following declaration that ‘I choose / Never to stoop’ (Browning, 2017, n.p.), betrays the falsity of this modesty: the Duke is characterized through this narrative voice as someone who is consumed with his own sense of power and self-worth. The easy manner in which his speech about control slips into speech about murder emphasizes the psychotic nature of his deployment of this power within his relationships with women. In this poem, therefore, narrative voice reveals a character who has been made unstable by the power-dynamics within his marriage relationships.
Finally, this poem uses imagery to further indicate the extent to which power within marriage has destabilised the Duke’s mental sanity. The imagery of the curtain in My Last Duchess symbolises the power the Duke ascribes to himself. When he tells his guest that ‘none puts by / The curtain I have drawn for you, but I’ (Lines 9-10), he is asserting the power he exercises over the dead Duchess, controlling who sees her and owning her as a possession to be shared or hoarded as he wishes. There is, in this possessiveness a sense of voyeurism, as the Duke’s assumption of the right to ‘share’ the Duchess with favoured visitors ‘ the same liberalism he denied to her when she way alive ‘ carries with it a hint of promiscuity, as though the Duke’s murder has provided him with the means of controlling her sexuality. In both poems, therefore, imagery shows the way in which marriage has become more about power than love for this unstable character.
An idea central to Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ is the idea that men exert damaging power and control over women in marriage relationships. While many poems show the negative effects of marital inequality on women, Browning suggests that it can be equally damaging for the psyche of the man. The poem draws awareness to these negative implications by characterizing the speaker of this dramatic monologue as mentally unstable, challenging readers to question more closely the traditional power dynamics within the marriage relationship. The unspoken themes in this poem, therefore, suggest that Browning is unusual for his times in questioning the supposed superiority and power of men.
- Negru?, D. (2011). Robert Browning and the dramatic monologue. Scientific Journal of Humanistic Studies, 3(4), 149-153.
- Browning, R. (2017). My last duchess. Retrieved from: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/43768.