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A murder mystery story wrapped up in quick-paced monologue is the root of Robert Browning's poem My Last Duchess. The duke of Ferrara is taking the agent of an Austrian count for a tour of his home and his assets. They quickly pause at a hidden portrait of the duke's first wife, who as explained in the footnote, he had married at the age of fourteen, and died mysteriously three years later. Browning never reveals the true nature of the first duchess' death. He does, however, use many different literary techniques to describe his protagonist and his true feelings about his first wife and her death. It is up to the reader to solve the mystery.
The entire poem is written as a monologue by the duke to his guest. This alludes to the count's controlling nature. The poem is clearly a segment of a longer conversation; however in fifty-six lines, the second party of this conversation says nothing. The guest is given direct orders from the count to "sit and look at her" (line 5) and then later to "riseâ€¦ meet/ The company below, then" (lines 47-48). The guest's role is simply to listen to the duke's speech and to follow orders.
Browning has the duke reveal his own jealous and controlling nature throughout his speech. He repeatedly recounts that the duchess' smile was given to everyone and to anything that passed her eyes. She did not save it for "her husband's presence only" (line 14), his "favor at her breast" (line 25), or his "gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name" (line 33). She thanked everyone she encountered for even the smallest courtesy and was pleased by all that she saw. It was a continuous insult to him and to his rank. The duke feels that it was beneath him to have had to reprimand his wife for her actions. He says that it would have been "stooping," something that he never does. The duke feels that he is a man of privilege, with his nine-hundred-year-old name, and that he is owed certain rights because of his rank. He could not stand that his own wife, who was supposed to hold him in the highest regard, could treat him in equitable fashion as a "fool" she encounters in the orchard or her mule. He also tries to hint that he felt his wife was unfaithful. He says that she thanked men "and I know not how" (line 32). His speech reveals that he believes that she should have been aware of her duties as his wife and that any actions he was forced to take were the justified results of her careless, and possibly unfaithful, actions.
In addition to his words and the nature of his speech, the duke's controlling nature is also revealed in his actions. The portrait of the first duchess is hidden behind a curtain that he states no one is allowed to draw aside, but himself. Now that she is dead, he alone controls who is first wife may share her smile with. Even the last short subject of the poem portrays the duke's controlling nature as he points out a second piece of art to his guest. He describes a bronze statue of Neptune taming a sea-horse. He values the "rarity" of the depiction of the sea king seizing control of a wild animal, an unbridled spirit, and forcing it into submission.
The structure of the poem itself is AABB. This rhyme scheme represents the comment that duke makes about his lack of skilled speech (line 36). It also helps lend itself to the quick, almost nervous, pace of the monologue. Most of the lines of the poem do not end on a completed sentence. In fact, the majority of the sentences within the poem end in the middle of a line. The enjambment format of the phrasing of the poem also adds to the quick pace. This pace of the duke's discussion of his late wife has a nervous tone to it, alluding to the guilt he feels. He goes on and on about her grievances to him, and yet when it comes to the point of his explanation of his own actions - "I gave commands; then all smiles stopped together" (lines 45-46) - it is done in brief statements. Then the duke quickly shuffles his guest on to the next location and refocuses his attention on his next work of art, the bronze statue of Neptune. The hidden nature of the late duchess's portrait also hints at the duke's feelings of guilt. He keeps her innocent young smile, a constant reminder of his murderous deed, behind a curtain that no one is allowed to open.
The dramatic irony of the poem is that the duke is trying to sell himself to his guest's master, the father of his next intended bride. He is taking his guest on a tour of his estate in the hopes of portraying himself in the best light so that the agent will give his approval to the Austrian count. The duke does not seem to be aware of his confession through his words and actions. As the reader pieces together the evidence, one can only hope that the agent is doing the same.