This is from my english teacher...
The poem is a dramatic monologue spoken by a duke to an emissary who has come to negotiate the Duke’s marriage to the daughter of a powerful family following the death of his ‘last Duchess’. The negotiations take place in a private chamber in front of a portrait of his last duchess ‘painted on the wall’. As the monologue unfolds, we realize that the Duke has had his last duchess murdered on the grounds that she was promiscuous. The Duke is highly conscious of his position in the patriarchy and the power that accompanies ‘a nine-hundred-years-old name’. He is obsessed with the duchess’s sexuality and chooses to read her propensity for blushing as a marker of unruly sexual appetite or immodesty. But blushes can equally be read as a sign of female modesty and given the lack of evidence to corroborate his suspicion of her infidelity, we are invited to see his obsession with these subtle bodily changes as a form of compulsive neurosis. The portrait they are looking at represents the Duke’s attempt to control and subdue the duchess’s sexuality by reproducing her image onto a flattened, two-dimensional canvas. But as the echo of the first line towards the end of the poem indicates ‘[t]here she stands / As if alive’, the major irony of the poem is that the painter captured the blush and that the Duke remains tormented by the ‘spot of joy’.
Some Key features of Language, Form and Structure
· Dramatic monologue: Browning’s dramatic monologues often create a tension in the reader between fascination and judgement. In the case of ‘My Last Duchess’, we are fascinated by the Duke’s confession, by his facility with language, despite his profession to lack ‘skill in speech’, and at some level we enjoy the intimate moment we share with him as he lifts the veil on his crime and his wife’s portrait; at the same time, we remain critical of his homicidal megalomania and the diseased subjectivity it implies. The poem demands a very complex moral, aesthetic, and psychological response from the reader.
· Pentameter couplets and enjambement: the couplets reproduce natural speech rhythms and make the Duke’s tone accessible and conversational. The rhymed couplets seem to reflect his desire for power and his attempts at control and order. But the enjambement undermines this sense of power and control and indicates the Duke’s subtle neuroses and his compulsive thought patterns.
· Repetition with variation: reinforces the syntactical disorder produced by the enjambement and reflects the Duke’s compulsive obsession with the past.
· Symbol: the Duke’s erotic imagination is rich and is part of our fascination with him as speaker. But the pattern of symbols associated with his duchess ‘the spot of joy’, the ‘half-flush’, and the ‘white mule’ can also symbolise innocence and modesty and provide an alternative way to ‘read’ the Duchess which undermines his misogynistic narrative.
· Allusion: the Duke’s allusion to another story of male violence towards a woman in the story of ‘Neptune taming a sea-horse’ further undermines his account and reinforces the ironic gap between reader and speaker.