My Last Duchess.

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My Last Duchess.

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jul. 11, 2011, 8:52am

I was going to post this in the 'Yellow Wallpaper' thread, prompted by some discussion about Elizabeth Barrett Browning bounding about the scenery; but it'd be a bit too irrelevant, there.

Has anyone read Robert Browning's 'My Last Duchess'? A marvellous and quite chilling poem and firmly within the Gothic genre, I think.

Also, I'd recommend anybody to hear James Mason's recording of it (unfortunately, not on YouTube, as far as I can find - but quite easy to get hold of). Only, if you don't know the poem, read it and get to know it first because Mason's reading is so powerful that if you hear that first you really have to fight to get your own take on it.

A mischievous question, perhaps (because I don't know anything much of Robert and Elizabeth's lives - for all I know they were blissfully happy): does the poem have anything to say about Browning's relationship with his wife?

jul. 11, 2011, 11:55am

My Last Duchess is one of MY favorite poems. I haven't heard Mason's recording of it, but I will look for it.

From everything I've heard/read, Robert and Elizabeth were devoted to one another.

I agree with you, it is quite Gothic in tone.

jul. 12, 2011, 7:10am

Never even heard of this, Paul. I'll check it out.

Editat: jul. 12, 2011, 8:23am

Actually, forget I mentioned James Mason's reading - it isn't as easy to find as I thought.

If you do online searches, the samples you find seem to be all from a CD called 'The Very Best of Robert Browning' and it's definitely not Mason (it sounds like Anthony Quayle to me). I have it on a HarperCollins CD called 'Classic Poems' which doesn't seem to be available any more. There is a James Mason CD called 'The Poetry of Robert Browning' but I can't find a list of tracks and it doesn't seem to be available in a download edition.

jul. 12, 2011, 9:19am

I haven't read this since high school, which I remember having to read several times in different classes. Seemed to be a favorite for English AP test prep.

But I don't remember much detail. I'll have to pull this out also.

ag. 9, 2011, 5:31am

Rankamateur, thank you for starting this thread. I have never looked at Browning's work but dug up The Last Duchess having seen your thread.

However, your having mentioned James Mason reading the poem means I cannot imaging it in any other voice. I read it and it was Mason's voice I heard in my mind. He had such a wonderful voice.

Interesting poem; as you say, Gothic.

gen. 6, 2012, 11:51am

I've really gotten quite into this poem/monologue since you first introduced me to it, Paul. That Mason reading is amazing! Have you seen Julian Glover's on youtube?

gen. 6, 2012, 12:20pm

>1 alaudacorax:,2
The original mischievous question was asked so long ago that it's unlikely anyone still cares, but for the record, "My last Duchess" was published in Browning's collection Dramatic lyrics of 1842, and it's thought to have been written in early 1842. He didn't meet EBB until 1845 (his first letter to her was on the 10th of January of that year, she replied the following day). So no connection.

After she died, he did keep a portrait of her in his study, but that's probably as far as you can link fact and fiction. I don't think anyone in their right mind would ever suggest that EBB was a flirt or that RB would ever have dreamed of getting rid of her.

gen. 7, 2012, 9:09am

Woah there, Thorold! I hope you're not suggesting the 'last duchess' was 'a flirt' - I'm quite fond of her (retrospectively, of course) and we could be talking pistols at dawn, here. I think the problems are a hundred per cent all in the Duke's mind - clearly a prospective bridegroom with a few marbles loose in there. I still haven't read up on the Brownings, though (someday, someday ...), but I'm pleased for them, hearing that about the dates.

#8 - J, funnily enough, I was listening to the Julian Glover on DailyMotion last night, but I'd found one with the audio only. I was imagining him (and Mason) in renaissance dress performing it. When I found your YouTube clip I was a little taken aback by Glover's youthful looks as I'd been envisaging him as he's looked more recently. For some reason I've always imagined the duke as getting quite close to elderly, and so having no real connection with or understanding of these two innocent young girls he's marrying - bearing in mind that they often were, quite literally, 'young girls' - I quite recently read someone pointing out that Shakespeare seems to regard a marriageable age for women as about fourteen. It all adds to the horror of it, for me. Excellent performance from Glover, though.

Just a random point, not really connected to the thread: listening to a variety of poems online last night, it occurred to me that actors are a hell of a lot better at reciting poetry than most poets.

gen. 7, 2012, 9:17am

That last post has woken a recurring itch. I have a clear memory of buying, a few years back, a rather attractive, red, cloth-bound, collected Robert Browning - I even seem to remember whereabouts on my shelves it should be. I've been hunting for it ever since I joined LT and it just doesn't seem to exist - not in this house, anyway.

Does that ever happen to anyone else?

I have exactly the same memory/false memory of a really nice, leather-bound and gold-lettered, Thomas Hardy The Woodlanders. Infuriating.

gen. 7, 2012, 7:41pm

I've got a multi-volume audiobook (on cassette! As late as 1995!) called Penguin English Verse which includes "My Last Duchess" read by John Moffatt. A metallic sort of voice (and, yes, elderly) but very good at getting the sense of the monologue over to the listener - emphasising the important phrases that could otherwise get lost in Browning's complex sentences.

I don't remember studying Robert Browning at school, though; in fact, I'm sure I came away from there with the impression that English poetry wasn't worth bothering about between Andrew Marvell and the WWI Poets (with maybe a nod towards Blake, but short shrift to the other Romantics).

gen. 10, 2012, 12:41pm

>12 housefulofpaper: ...English poetry wasn't worth bothering about between Andrew Marvell and the WWI Poets

Pretty much the same here. Teachers who were put off the 19th century by F.R. Leavis, I suppose. Leavis considered Browning to lack "adult intelligence". One of the many things I'm grateful to the Open University for is that it got me over that particular prejudice.

Have you heard the cylinder recording of Browning himself reading the first few lines of "How they brought the good news..."? It's on the Poetry Archive site:

gen. 10, 2012, 2:03pm

> 13

Yes, I remember this from a BBC radio programme of old recordings. It's part tragic, and part farce, that the only section you can really hear clearly is "I'm sorry I can't remember me own verses". In that respect, it's a lot like the recording of Brahms at the piano, where you can barely hear the notes for the banging of the pedals.

Editat: nov. 17, 2015, 8:46am

I probably haven't listened to or read this since the last posts in this thread, but, for some reason, I awoke this morning with James Mason's reading buzzing round my head, so had to listen to it with my morning cup of tea.

Then it suddenly flashed into my mind to wonder if there is added significance in the word 'last' - 'Last Duchess'? I'd been reading 'last' as 'previous' - relating her to the prospective one - but doesn't 'last' really imply the final member of a sequence? Which adds a whole new level of horror.

Perhaps that wasn't in Browning's mind at all, but ...

nov. 17, 2015, 9:36am

>15 alaudacorax:
I'm sure it's quite deliberate. Browning wants us to get the hint from the start that there's something missing from the Duke's emotional equipment. Any normal widower would have said "my late wife", or used her name, but he's talking about her as though she was an unsatisfactory employee ("My last cook...") or item of property ("My last car..."), notable only in having been the most recent.
It doesn't really matter whether there were any previous duchesses: there might have been, but we know already that he would regard it as inconsistent with his dignity ("stooping") to assign them any more importance than he does this one.

nov. 17, 2015, 9:46am

I actually had to study this (and other selected Browning poems) for O-level English Lit.

nov. 17, 2015, 7:00pm

>17 justifiedsinner:

I can't remember what poetry I studied for O-level, but for A-level, apart from a cursory look at the 17th century metaphysical poets, we concentrated on 20th century poets. This was from 1983 to '85.

nov. 18, 2015, 5:32am

One of the things I've realised from reading younger people's posts online is how horribly 'sanitised' the school curriculum was in my day.

Sci-fi, horror, fantasy were strictly beyond the pale: we were allowed to bring in our own books to read in the day or two left after the end-of-term exams and one of my abiding memories is of being forbidden to read my library book (I still thank the gods for the local library) - John Wyndham's The Kraken Wakes - 'unsuitable reading'. No way would we have been allowed to read even Shelley's Frankenstein. I don't remember Oscar Wilde ever being mentioned in my schooldays (I'm thinking of The Picture of Dorian Gray) but I suppose I could have tried Stevenson's Jekyll & Hyde to see what reaction I got - Travels with a Donkey was part of the curriculum so he must have been considered 'sound'.

For some reason, Shakespeare's comedies were strictly excluded - only history plays were done - I suspect, now, that they weren't letting us anywhere near all those love affairs. And my mind still boggles at the mentality of the twat who thought his Henry VIII would achieve anything on the curriculum, but that's a digression. School put me off Shakespeare for some years until I (he?) was rescued by the telly.

Have I ridden this hobby-horse previously? Sorry - still have a lot of resentment about the place after fifty years.

Editat: nov. 18, 2015, 5:39am

>19 alaudacorax:

See? I get so much on my hobby-horse on this subject I forget the original point of my post. It was the suspicion, on reading >17 justifiedsinner:, that My Last Duchess would probably have been regarded as 'unsuitable' at my school, too - anything treating any kinds of relationships between the sexes, apparently.

nov. 18, 2015, 8:03am

>17 justifiedsinner: - >19 alaudacorax:
I also belong to the "O" level generation - we did Hardy and some of the Georgian poets for Eng Lit. The novel was Far from the madding crowd and the play Death of a salesman, so the poetry was by far the least sensational bit. "Drummer Hodge" was about as political as it got.

I don't think I can accuse our English teachers of sanitising the curriculum: they played it safe with the choice of exam syllabus, but outside that they were very hip and seventies. No-one was ever discouraged from reading sex, violence, horror, science-fiction, Thor Heyerdahl or Erich von Däniken (all of which were on offer through the school book-buying scheme). But Wordsworth, Browning and Tennyson would probably have been frowned upon. If we read poetry outside the syllabus it was usually contemporary: Ted Hughes, the Liverpool Poets, etc. Not the late Mrs Ted Hughes, though - I don't think the women's movement had penetrated very far into boys' schools by the mid-seventies.

Editat: nov. 18, 2015, 10:10am

>20 alaudacorax: Since O-levels are set by university boards I don't think suitability entered into it. The school either accepted the board (Oxford, if I recall correctly) or went with another, probably less prestigious, board.

The other 'book' we studied was The Merchant of Venice which did give me an unending love of Shakespeare's language so I guess the course was of some use after all.

nov. 18, 2015, 10:52am

>22 justifiedsinner:
I don't know how it works now, but back then each Board normally offered a choice between several different texts in each category, and the most important consideration for the school was likely to be which books they had in stock in sufficient numbers (or how much room there was in the budget for buying new sets). If you have adventurous teachers who are good at prying money out of the administration you do the "wild-card" text that the Board has put in to show that it's not stuck in the 1890s; if you have dull teachers, they are happy to teach the same three Shakespeare plays in an endless cycle.

nov. 19, 2015, 9:55am

>23 thorold: So they had different exam papers for each set of books?

nov. 19, 2015, 11:09am

>24 justifiedsinner:
I've taken quite a few other exams since then, so the details are a bit hazy, but as far as I remember the questions for all the books were there on the same paper and there were scare-stories about candidates who had panicked and written an essay about a book they hadn't studied (and got an A or an F, according to the point the teller of the story was trying to make...).

But there might well have been other Boards that had separate papers called "Eng Lit (Syllabus A)" and "Eng Lit (Syllabus B)" or something - our History exam was like that.

Editat: nov. 21, 2015, 5:40am

>23 thorold:
There seemed to be at least one other factor to choosing books in my day (early 'sixties). Anyone (UK) remember local 'watch committees'?

I remember one of my English teachers - new to the job and fresh from university, I think - got the local watch committee on his back. Harold Robbins' The Carpetbaggers had come up in conversation with the class - just mentioned in passing - and, next thing he knew, they were after him for 'recommending it'. It was very much beyond the pale, apparently. I can't at all remember the book now, but I do remember that this affair was the only reason I read it; which I imagine is the effect such local busybodies usually have.

Oddly enough, googling local watch committees, I can't find anything much about them.*

ETA - *Other than that they were responsible for the local police force - so I don't know what they had to do with school books. I vaguely remember the local cinemas having trouble with them, too.

nov. 21, 2015, 11:38am

>26 alaudacorax: Well, my school was run by Jesuits, who used to burn people, so I doubt they had need of a watch committee.

nov. 21, 2015, 2:06pm

>27 justifiedsinner: Yes, schools these days don't know how to impose discipline ...

nov. 27, 2015, 3:09pm

>26 alaudacorax:
I don't know very much about watch committees - I think the point about them was that they were local politicians and magistrates who controlled small borough police forces, without much external oversight, and could therefore do a good deal of micro-managing of the way the police worked if they thought it would look good in the local papers, especially on "public morality" questions. I've seen them mentioned a few times in the context of "dirty books" cases and cinema censorship, also of course in the pre-Wolfenden pogroms against gay men. Watch committees were known for overstepping the mark in the other direction too, on occasion, making sure the police turned a blind eye to misbehaviour by councillors and their cronies, which was why they were eventually replaced by a small number of big police authorities the Home Secretary could keep more firmly under his thumb.

nov. 30, 2015, 12:00am

I've been reading a few academic treatments of this poem online this evening ('this morning', I should say - should have been in bed hours ago). I've been surprised to find several references to the last duchess as 'flirtatious' and, even, one suggestion that Browning was hinting at something more than flirting between the duchess and the painter.

Though we see fairly clearly that Fra Pandolf and others were captivated by the last duchess, I think it's quite wrong-headed to think of the duchess herself as giving the duke any legitimate cause for complaint.

Bearing in mind that flirting - let alone anything stronger - on the woman's part would probably have been regarded as much more culpable in Browning's time than today, the idea that the last duchess has any guilt in the matter leads inevitably to the idea that 'behaving properly' could have avoided dire consequences for her and can avoid them for the next duchess. This 'she had it coming' element, to my mind, quite sabotages the whole poem - or would if it existed. In fact, the duke, in his "How such a glance came there ..." and the lines following, acknowledges an apparent evidence of what we might call 'real' impropriety - and immediately shows it as false, instead giving us a stereotypical portrait of girlish innocence.

The main factor in the poem must, surely, be the undercurrent of horror and menace. Though we see the last duchess through the duke's eyes, we become aware of his seriously warped viewpoint and can see through it to realise her complete innocence and, hence, in the light of her fate, the next duchess's peril. Surely this horror and menace must be predicated on the two duchesses being firmly in the tradition of passive, virtuous and helpless heroines/damsels-in-distress? These are creatures things happen to, not players, and the reader is expected to feel the horror of their fates in direct proportion to their innocence.

nov. 30, 2015, 4:19am

>30 alaudacorax:
I agree that it would be wrong-headed to start "blaming the victim", but you also have to be careful not to go too far the other way. All we know about the Duchess is what the Duke chooses to tell us: the question of whether she was really a flirt by any objective standard (not that there is an objective standard for flirting...) is as unanswerable as what she was called or how tall she was. Browning simply doesn't choose to give us that information.

The real character of the Duchess is beside the point, what matters is what has been going on in the Duke's mind, the frightening way he has gone from the sort of mild, unspecific (and normally baseless) jealousy that anyone might experience in a relationship to putting himself in a position where he "gave commands" directly or indirectly leading to his wife's death. Browning's not really interested in the Duchess, he wants to explore the distortion of normal moral perspectives that might go with the pride of "a nine-hundred-years-old name" and absolute power over those around you.

If you want to pursue this further, have a look at The ring and the book, a much later (and very much longer) work, where Browning looks in detail at the case of another aristocrat who has had his wife and her presumed lover (and a couple of innocent bystanders) killed on suspicion of adultery. In this case it's made very clear that the (child-)wife has simply run away because her husband has been mistreating her abominably, but there is a long legal and moral debate about whether he's entitled to avenge the insult to his good name or not.

nov. 30, 2015, 7:39am

>31 thorold:
I think we're going to have to 'agree to disagree' on this one.

While, to a degree, I go along with your idea that Browning is not really interested in the duchess, I think this lends weight to the idea that she's to be seen as a stereotype and a stock figure - and that that stock figure is the innocent ingénue, probably taken, very young, straight to marriage from cloistered, convent education or the like, and quite ignorant of the tricky, adult world she's now entered, and quite innocently enjoying the trappings of being a wealthy, Renaissance aristocrat's wife. I think 'innocence' is the really important point, both in the sense of ignorance of worldly matters and in the sense of absence of guilt, and its purpose is to give the starkest possible contrast to the darkness of the duke's mentality - pure white to his darkness, figuratively speaking - depth of horror coming from such a situation happening to such an innocent.

In the lines from 'Sir, 'twas not Her husband’s presence only ...' to '... the approving speech, Or blush, at least ...', I see Browning as quite deliberately creating such a picture of innocence and simultaneously ratchetting-up the tension of the poem by having the duke give it to us almost inadvertently while intending to be, and clearly being, disapproving. He is not appreciating what's really there while Browning intends that we do appreciate it. I don't see any subtlety there, the duchess pretty much a cardboard cut-out of the type; at the same time, it's very well done, so that she does have real appeal - which is essential to Browning's purposes, obviously.

Well, that's my take on it, anyway ...

nov. 30, 2015, 12:51pm

>32 alaudacorax:
We probably don't disagree all that much!
All the same, I would be a bit wary of taking Browning at face value. If he intends us to see the Duchess as the stock figure of the innocent ingénue, that means he either thinks that women really are like that, or assumes that that's what the reader will expect and is using it as a handy stylistic shortcut. Neither seems in character for him, and I can't imagine that EBB (who had good reason to know an infantiliser when she saw one) would have had much time for his poetry if he were the sort of poet who resorted to such tricks.

So I'd put my money on it being the Dook who is doing the infantilising. Which makes more sense to me, because he clearly does live in the sort of world where he can't imagine women as articulate, rational adults capable of engaging in discussion as his intellectual equals. From his perverted point of view, it even becomes a kind of defence: "I couldn't prevent the poor unworldly little creature from destroying herself" might be tragic, but it sounds a lot better than "I had my wife killed in a fit of jealousy".

Editat: març 29, 2018, 8:43am

Thoroughly enjoyed this poem, as written, but was glad to have heard an audio interpretation of it on The Poetry Foundation. The fade out at the end was very effective, as the characters seemingly walked away from the portrait, proceeding further along the gallery.

It brought to mind Effie Gray (2014) with Greg Wise & Dakota Fanning, but I haven't seen it. I only know it is about a young woman who marries a much older man and neither are very happy about it, it is mostly for appearances. Standard I suppose back then, but likely not far off base even today.

Totally distracted by High Spirits (1988) because I am in need of a good laugh (Irish castle, ghosts, O'Toole, enough said) but will get back to investigating the mindset of a young woman who would dutifully or deceptively marry a famous man knowing it would make her miserable. The Last Duchess seemed a straightforward conversation from one man to another about a woman he had no emotional ties to ... she served a purpose and he 'dismissed' her when that purpose was served, at the hands of his own wounded paranoid selfish irrational ego. Makes for a great poem but I doubt it reflected Browning as a man. EBB was much too smart to get caught in that kind of trap! Mutual devotion and loving calm can sometimes allow for the creative imagination of life's unsavoury influences, because the poet knew it couldn't touch them. That makes me happy, and makes me cheer for the Brownings, individually and as a couple. And it makes me feel much sorrier for this Duke fellow than for his wife, The Last Duchess. I also took it to mean 'former', since his personality could no more stop the conquest or the hunt, than could a wild animal. Manners serve a purpose, but they merely camouflage the blight of a soul within. He was mismatched with any young lovely, and would not tolerate a woman his own age who would actually stand up to him, so he will continue to repeat the pattern until death. Mr. Weinstein, anyone? You cannot convince me that he will ever change his mindset, no matter how much therapy they press him into. He deserves jail, nothing less, as does this ridiculous Duke. Both, however, will likely escape penalty until the day they die. Without apology. Turns my stomach. The fact that Browning wrote it, is what makes characters like this digestible.

Here's the link, if anyone is interested. I have no immediate access to the Mason version.

març 30, 2018, 2:57am

>34 frahealee:

Here's the Mason version - currently - don't know how long it will stay up -

Just listened again - it still chills me,every single time.

març 30, 2018, 3:14am

>34 frahealee:

I don't think Browning means us to believe that the 'last duchess' had any choice in the matter - they are clearly discussing a purely 'arranged' marriage and he gives no indication that the last one was any different. That's an important part of the horror of it for me.

març 30, 2018, 3:23am

>34 frahealee:

Just listened to the Poetry Foundation audio you mentioned. I do urge you to listen to the James Mason version - I think he much better conveys an arrogant, power-corrupted psycho.

març 30, 2018, 9:29am

We use My Last Duchess in a trial advocacy program for which I coach. The students have to give an opening statement on behalf of the Duke. It's very interesting to hear their varied takes on the poem.

març 30, 2018, 11:20am

>38 lilithcat:

I think that would defeat me.

Editat: març 30, 2018, 1:45pm

>35 alaudacorax: >37 alaudacorax: >38 lilithcat: Cannot imagine defending such a rotter, brings to mind Sam Rockwell in The Green Mile (1999). No defense is justifiable. It's the victims who need our sympathies.

Caught the Mason version in time. Pure menace. The other reader sounds to me more indignant.

The Poetry Foundation podcast link near the bottom of the page explains the reader is Al Molina. I know most of his work, thus am more used to him than to Mason. The place I notice the difference between them is in the 'I choose never to stoop'. Mason, furious that he has been put in that position, to have to defend himself, so he does not. Molina has a sense of disbelief without resolution, so-why-bother kind of attitude. Even if he could make himself understood in a 'teaching' lesson with his young bride, he does not. He says he has no skill with language, so any effort feels trite. Al seems more soft-spoken, even flustered at having to expose his position on the matter, which others of his rank would surely already know. He shrugs it off. The podcast host explains a few simple things; it occurs during the Renaissance, it is a castle in Italy (that explains everything, and has my Italian blood scorched with shame), and the people he is showing around the gallery are emissaries for the father of another young lady he hopes to marry. Good Lord. How did I miss that? Also, Browning wrote it at age 30 in 1842. Did his travels witness such an event?

Interesting observations by the duke;
* the jewel he gave her, sunset, a bough of cherries, a mule
* the portrait of his former wife, Neptune taming a rare seahorse

After hearing these men read the poem so differently, what I liked the most is that it put me in a mindset of the old man's eye in The Telltale Heart by Poe. Even when he tried not to think about it, it haunted him, to the point of obsession, which led to the madness. This blush in her cheek. The portrait has a curtain which only he has the right to pull a cord to reveal. This lens, for me, gives the poem more weight, more menace, thus Mason hits a home run. (applause!) Again, his inner fury and cool exterior detachment melts my marrow. He never cracks. The Duke keeps the portrait visible but covered, like a serial killer might keep a souvenir from each of his victims. The first time I saw a portrait covered by a curtain was in Colin's bedroom in The Secret Garden (1993) with Maggie Smith. Another good dose of Gothic for young adults.

The reason Molina is effective, is his ability to make the Duke look like he'd done nothing wrong. Mason seems to know it and defend it without expecting any rebuttal, Al is less overtly defiant because it never dawned on him that he might be in the wrong, thus nothing to be feared. Mason sounds more defensive, taunting the company and the reader to resist him, knowing they won't take the bait. The gallery guests are wise to remain mute as the Duke rambles on. I would like to know what they did after leaving ... guys, guard your daughters! But she was likely sold also for the price of admission. =(

març 31, 2018, 6:58am

>40 frahealee: - ... without any rebuttal ...

That's where the chill is for me, that absolute assumption of unbridled power with the two brides having no more agency than two flies caught in a web.

He says he has no skill in language ...

I've never quite been able to get my head around this. His '... which I have not ...' and the rest would seem a self-evident lie to the chap who has been standing there listening to him; I don't believe Browning would have put it in merely to fill up the line; so what's the significance of it? There's something rather grotesque about this smooth old devil saying it - is that grotesqueness Browning's only purpose? That idea doesn't quite satisfy me, somehow, and I always feel I'm missing something.