Poetry Portfolio Example part 1
5 December 2021
Poetry Portfolio: Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess”
One of my favorite poems is Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess.” I chose the poem because I found its underlying story fascinating. At first, it just seems like a dull, arrogant man talking about his marriage. However, carefully reading the poem reveals that it’s the story of an abusive, eventually deadly relationship. I am not the first person to be fascinated by this dark tale of love gone wrong: It’s the most famous of Browning’s dramatic monologues.
According to the Gale biography of Browning, he began writing poems at the age of six. He left school at sixteen to write poetry full time. He married fellow poet Elizabeth Barrett in 1846 and they moved to Italy, where they had a son. Browning did not find fame and fortune as a poet until after Elizabeth’s death in 1861, when he moved back to England. Within seven years, he was one of the most famous poets in the country. After his death in 1889, he was buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, a high honor for a writer. Today, he is considered one of the greatest poets of the 19th Century (“Robert Browning: Biography”).
The body of this portfolio is in four parts. In the Window/Mirror Reflection, I discuss how “My Last Duchess” is both a window and mirror for me. In the Analytical Essay, I talk about the poem’s theme, the corrosive effects of jealousy, and how the duke’s voice and syntax reveal his feelings. For the Creative Response, I created an eight-picture collage inspired by the poem’s theme and imagery. Finally, the extra-credit section compares “My Last Duchess” with another of Browning’s dramatic monologues, “The Laboratory.” By the conclusion, I will have provided an in-depth overview of “My Last Duchess” and what it meant to me.
2. Window/Mirror Reflection
The first time I read “My Last Duchess,” I didn’t understand it. Browning creates the persona of a 16th Century Italian aristocrat, and Ferrara’s diction is formal and his vocabulary is difficult. The poem uses run-on lines and lacks stanza breaks, so there are no places where you can pause and think about what you’ve read. I had to re-read it several times before I understood the story Duke Ferrara was telling: He murdered his wife because her friendly behavior to other men convinced him she was unfaithful. That was when the poem drew me in.
Window and Mirror Analysis
“My Last Duchess” is a window into power dynamics in previous centuries. In 16th Century Italy, a woman couldn’t leave her husband because he was jealous and controlling. Marriage was considered sacred, and women were expected to obey their husbands. A man who was violent with his wife was not punished, especially if he was a powerful duke. According to Psychology Today, there are twenty clinical signs that you have a controlling partner. The Duke exhibits at least seven, including chronic criticism, making his partner feel indebted, spying, overactive jealousy, assuming his partner’s guilt, belittling her values, and being unable to hear her point of view (Bonior). There is no real evidence that the Duchess was unfaithful. From the reader’s perspective, she seemed like a kind woman. In the Duke’s view, though, she was an ungrateful cheater, so he murdered her. He was not prosecuted and remains rich and powerful—at the end of the poem, we find out he’s courting a new bride.
That is why the poem is also a mirror: There are controlling partners today, and they often get away with their behavior. When I was in college, I had a boyfriend who, while not homicidal, was almost as controlling as the Duke. He wanted all my attention, one time becoming enraged because I bought a Secret Santa gift for a male coworker. He did not respect my needs or wishes and ridiculed my interests. He criticized everything and got irritated when I spent time with friends or family. But I had a choice the Duchess did not, to walk away when I matured enough to see how toxic he was. The biggest difference between the poem’s time and now is that we can leave bad relationships. In some cases, it’s the woman who is controlling. That’s not progress: Emotional abuse is still abuse, no matter the genders of the victim and the victimizer.
3. Analytical Essay
Meaning of the Poem
“My Last Duchess” is about an abusive, obsessive love. Duke Ferrara is insanely possessive of his wife. That she smiles at other men makes him sick with rage. However, his ego makes it impossible for him to talk about his fears. Instead, he orders her to stop and then “. . . all smiles stopped together/There she stands/As if alive” (Browning 46-47). The reader understands that his wife is dead. Did he murder her? The syntax of those three lines suggests it. Through voice and syntax, Browning shows us the toxic effects of jealousy. The Duke killed his wife because he could not control her. Even after her death, he’s controlled by his obsession.
Literary Terms: Voice and Syntax
Very early in the poem, it becomes clear that the Duke is not just rich and arrogant, he’s also obsessive. He shows his visitor a portrait of his wife and comments:
. . . for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; (Browning 6-13)
How could he know what strangers are thinking when they look at his wife’s picture? It’s very odd that he assumes everyone is wondering about her smile (Markley). This is another early clue to his obsession: He is so preoccupied with his wife, he assumes everyone else is, too.
As the poem continues, he describes the Duchess’s behavior in more detail. She smiled at everyone, whether it was the portrait painter giving her a compliment or a servant bringing her flowers. She even smiled at her pet mule! The Duke complains: “She had/A heart—how shall I say?— too soon made glad,/Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er/ She looked on, and her looks went everywhere” (Browning 21-24). His words equate smiling with love and looking with infidelity: If she’ll smile at anyone, what else would she do with anyone? The Duke’s irrational jealousy has become even clearer.
As the poem moves towards its conclusion, the Duke’s arrogance is again emphasized: “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 anybody’s gift” (Browning 31-34) The Duke wants her to appreciate the favor he did her by marrying her and save her smiles for him. He’s so aware of his power and position, he can’t explain his feelings to his wife. He says even if he could, to bring up the subject “. . . would be some stooping; and I choose/Never to stoop” (Browning 42-43). Instead, he ordered her around. Then, she stopped smiling forever. Perhaps if he had “stooped” to explain, she’d have reassured him of her love. Instead, he committed murder, and all he has of her now is a picture. The Duke has punished the Duchess, but he’s also punished himself.
At the end of the poem, we realize that Duke Ferrara has been talking to a visitor who is negotiating his second marriage. Perhaps the Duke’s speech is, as critic Arnold Markley says, “indicating what kind of behavior he will expect in his new wife.” More likely, given the Duke’s previous words, Browning is suggesting the Duke is still obsessed with his first wife. He keeps a curtain in front of her picture: Nobody sees her unless the Duke allows it. Markley argues that this means the Duke finally controls his wife—but does he? He can’t bear for even a painting of her to be seen by casual visitors. He assumes anyone allowed to see her will be fascinated. He talks about her at length, though she is years dead, to the representative of his new wife’s family. All this suggests a man who is not in control: His first wife is forever out of his reach, smiling behind her curtain. She is dead, but his obsession lives on. His last duchess smiles forever.