Yesterday I had the pleasure of exploring this poem in the AQA Anthology, where it is enjoying the attention of today’s students once again. It has a very particular, if slightly unnerving appeal and like Browning’s other murderous monologues, this poem has a theatricality about it that allows the poem to be ‘seen’ and acted out imaginatively.The poem explores the near pschyopathic declarations of a power obsessed, misogynistic Duke who feels utterly safe from censure. Indeed My Last Duchess can be read as something resembling a confession delivered by a Mafia Boss!
A tutor once suggested that perhaps the monologues of Browning’s killers lose some of their thrilling energies after the first reading. Perhaps this is so. I love the insidious momentum of the voices in his monologues, as his speakers become more and more pleased with the sound of their own voice and with the momentum of their confession(s) .
Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ is also concerned with the act of murder. This act however is not consigned to the secrecy of the laboratory’s illicit ‘female space’ rather this act of murder is arrogantly admitted to in a very public space. Indeed the gesture that opens the poem encapsulates the whole problem and pleasure of the Duke’s dramatic monologue:
‘That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive.’
The Duke makes a seemingly casual gesture at the beginning of the poem: he is exhibiting a painting of his ‘last Duchess’ to a group of envoys sent to negotiate the dowry for the ‘next’ Duchess. The irony of the designation ‘last Duchess’ is all too evident when the reader( and the powerless envoys) realise that the last Duchess has in fact been murdered by the Duke and that such a fate may await the vulnerable ‘next’ Duchess.
The clear link between the setting of the poem; ‘Ferrara’ as a place of Art and the idea of the Duchess as a piece of art, an acquisition for the Duke’s great collection is made fearfully apparent with the Duke’s final gesture in the poem:
‘Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay we’’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me! ‘
The slippage between the acquisition of the new Duchess and the other Artefacts acquired by the Duke pathologises his desire for expensive objects. He is the embodiment of cold patriarchal power. His very ostentatious public gesture of ownership at the beginning and end of the poem is in direct contrast to the furtive, illicit actions of the female protagonist in ‘The Laboratory’. This poem explores male dominated space. The Duke fears no-one. He will not be governed or punished; he sees himself rightly as being outside the law. In fact he is the ‘Law’ and this is starkly emphasised by his infamous pronouncement to his captive audience:
‘…This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive….’
The fastidious use of hiatus or pause through the employment of the two semi-colons and the full-stop communicates the homicidal megalomania of the Duke. It is almost as if he is mentally lingering over the details of the Duchess’ slaughter once again. He seems to be pleasuring himself almost sexually with the memory of her murder and in this we see a similarity to ‘The Laboratory’ where murder is once again an erotic act.
The surety of the Duke’s carefully confessed revelation contrasts markedly with the faltering voice of Hardy’s protagonist in ‘The Man he Killed’ where uncomfortable epiphany brings about the destruction of the narrator’s tentative verbal assurance: ‘I shot him dead because – ‘ In Hardy’s world the pauses designated by the ‘ – ‘ signify the uneasy development of conscience and the failure of language to support a public and private lie about the legitimacy of murder even in war. This ‘faltering’ voice so evidenced in Hardy’s poem is of course no where evident in Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess.’
The wonderfully orchestrated build up to the disclosure of the murder of the Duchess reinforces Adam Phillips’ point that ‘the words of the mad are more prosperous than the words of the sane.’ If we take ‘prosperous’ to mean be propitious as well as ‘wealthy’ then we can see how morally ambivalent Browning’s poetry often is. The Duke survives his monologue and confession without punishment. He walks down his grand stairs freely and without a hint of remorse. His initial ‘veiling’ of his crime progressively unravels as he luxuriates in the power of his narration and articulacy. His narrative is a story of his own murderous, acquisitive triumph, re-enacted and enjoyed once more.
The destruction of the Duchess for her ‘sins’ of naivety and innocence is shocking to the reader as we can do nothing but spectate upon the Duke’s boastful retelling of her murder. Likewise the implied audience within the poem are also disempowered and can do nothing but continue to perpetuate the serial murder of the Duke’s wives by providing the Duke with yet another potential victim. The emissaries in the poem are also likely to be male and perhaps would see little wrong in continuing the degrading commodification of women within a patriarchal exchange system. This situation is of course in contrast with the female authority exhibited in The Laboratory’ albeit in a marginal, hidden space.
Hamlet opens with the famous first line: ’Who’s there?’ The dramatic monologue explores the many diverse replies that might be made in answer to this leading question about identity and madness. These replies to Hamlet continue on from Browning’s brilliant deployment of the dramatic monologue to their use in the work of Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy.
The Woman in Black
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