The Value of Love in My Last Duchess
You cannot buy love; a theme Robert Browning successfully explores through his poem, “My Last Duchess”. The emotion and poetic craftmanship shown throughout the monologue influence this theme. Using structure, language, imagery, movement and sounds, Browning delves into the realistic nature of royal relationships during the renaissance era.
Robert Browning was born on 7 May 1812 in Camberwell, a middle-class suburb of London. Browning published ‘My Last Duchess’ in 1842 in a book of poems titled Dramatic Lyrics. His inspiration for ‘My Last Duchess’ was the history of a Renaissance duke, Alfonso II of Ferrara, whose young wife Lucrezia died in suspicious circumstances in 1561.
‘My Last Duchess’ is narrated by the duke, set strolling through his art gallery talking with an advisor. The duke’s character and emotions are visible when he starts to describe the relationship between him and his late wife, “The Last Duchess”. His tone grows harsh as the duke insists on his former wife’s unfaithfulness and ungracious nature about his lineage and his “nine-hundred-year-name.” The monologue suggests that the duke murdered his late wife “I gave commands; then all smiles stopped together.” This quote also gives audiences a clear understanding of what the purpose of the poem is.
Browning’s purpose with “My Last Duchess” is to expose the emotions and views of a Duke who murdered his wife over her outgoing personality and attitude. This deep understanding of the duke’s nature once again produces the idea that money cannot buy love, and that wealth is not equal to morality. There are two real purposes for Browning’s use of language and poetic devices throughout the poem, to paint a verbal portrait of the duchess, and to also explore the Duke’s manipulative persona, and his emotions.
Anger, jealousy and frustration are key emotions that efficiently sets the persona of the duke and gives audiences a clear understanding on the poems purpose. The Duke also has the charisma of being arrogant, evident in the quote “Oh Sir, she smiled, no doubt, whene’er I passed her; but who passed without Much the same smile?” In writing this poem, Browning seeks to evoke emotions of anger throughout audiences, particularly towards the duke, but also towards the inauthentic constitution of marriage during the renaissance. The theatrical expression of the duke’s emotions could also be an attempt to justify the death of the duchess, and his words are clearly influenced by the fear that the woman he is planning on marrying will act the same. Robert Browning has guided audiences towards understanding the purpose and theme of the poem by conveying this emotion through craftmanship. He has used structure, language choices, imagery and movement and sounds to further demonstrate the emotions of this monologue, and of the duke.
“My Last Duchess” is structured as a dramatic monologue as it is one person speaking throughout the entire poem. Iambic pentameter is used in this poem, meaning lines are structured as ten syllables, all the even syllables accented and the odd syllables unaccented. This poem is written as a monologue; however, the poet has still made use of poetic language features to convey his theme and purpose of the poem. Browning also includes the use of enjambment, which is the lack of punctuation at the end of lines, this adds to the conversational flow of the poem.
Due to it being a monologue delivered by the speaker, the duke, “My Last Duchess” does not rely heavily on metaphors or similes, however there are a few scattered throughout the poem. The most obvious one being the Duke referring to his duchesses’ “Spot of Joy” which has been referenced multiple times. This is where the Duke’s jealousy and anger really comes in to play, using the “spot of joy” as a metaphor for her rosy colored cheeks representing her pleasure. “Sir, ‘twas not her husbands’ presence only, called that spot of joy into the Duchess’ cheek”. The reader can really feel his rage in this quote that he is not the only one who gives her joy, and that she is “too easily impressed”. Overall, the poet’s language could be described as vivid, theatrical and descriptive; highlighting the themes of the poem and helping the reader to associate with the duke and imagine the scene from his point of view.
“My Last Duchess” is not rich in imagery. The entire poem consists of the duke talking about this picture of his late wife, however, there are good examples of symbolism, along with the metaphors mentioned earlier which do make use of this poetic craftmanship. The Duke speaks of “taming a sea-horse”, which is symbolism for the way the Duke likes to have control, and a reference to the Duke’s demand for a wife to be trained like a horse. Browning also uses imagery to create a portrait of the duke through his language. The use of the possessive pronoun, my”, paints a picture of renaissance marriage – the ownership of a woman. This idea is commonly referenced throughout the poem and is the basis of the emotions the duke conveys, that he owned her – but he did not believe she was his alone. This also paints a picture of the duchess herself, and leaves audiences with a verbal portrait of her and her nature.
The movement and sound of a poem can typically be an important dynamic to telling the purpose of the poem. The poem can be assumed one of lyrical structure, due to the poem being released as a part of Browning’s book ‘Dramatic Lyrics’ Whilst the poem is undeniably dramatic, the lyrical part is harder to identify. It is set up as a script almost, and consists entirely of the Duke’s speech. There are most definitely lyrical components, such as rhyming, continuation and structure – but to say it is a dramatic lyric does not necessarily fit. The use of enjambment, and interruption throughout, for example; ‘A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,’, shows audiences that this poem is in fact a speech, which also takes away from the idea that it is structured to be lyrical. The use of these devices imitates real interruptions or hesitations of the character speaking. Some more poetic language features used by Browning includes alliteration and assonance. The repetition of vowels and consonants makes the poem not only easier to read for audiences, but it also makes it memorable.
A poem can be defined as a piece of writing in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by attention to language, rhythm and imagery. “My Last Duchess” is a great example of this, and is rich in emotion and poetic craftmanship such as structure, language, imagery, movement and sounds. The use of these poetic devices throughout the poem demonstrates the theme Browning is attempting to convey; the theme of money cannot buy love, and the emotions of anger, jealousy and frustration. Browning’s talent in using and combining all these various techniques heavily contributes to the success and memorability of the poem.
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