My Last Duchess

By Robert Browning

Robert Browning (1812-1889) was a celebrated English poet and playwright of the Victorian era. In this
famous poem, the speaker, a Duke, shows a painting of his first wife to someone visiting his home. Many
scholars believe that Browning’s Duke is modeled after the real-life Duke of Ferrara, whose young wife’s
mysterious death raised questions of foul play and betrayal. Skill Focus: In this lesson, you’ll practice
analyzing how a poet’s use of a particular literary element affects the impact of the poem as a whole. As you
read, take note of when the author reveals new information and how that affects your understanding of the
Duke’s first marriage.

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s1
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
‘Frà Pandolf’ by design,2
for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,3
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,4
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say, ‘Her mantle5
Over my lady’s wrist too much,’ or ‘Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat:’ such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart — how shall I say? — too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour6
at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool

  1. a fictional painter
  2. meaning “on purpose”
  3. Countenance (noun) a person’s face or facial expression
  4. the archaic past tense of “dare”
  5. shawl
  6. a gift to denote a mark of esteem
    Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
    She rode with round the terrace — all and each
    Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
    Or blush, at least. She thanked men, — good! but thanked
    Somehow — I know not how — as if she ranked
    My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name7
    With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
    This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
    In speech — (which I have not) — to make your will
    Quite clear to such an one, and say, ‘Just this
    Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
    Or there exceed the mark’ — and if she let
    Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
    Her wits to yours, forsooth,8
    and made excuse,
    — E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
    Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
    Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
    Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
    Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
    As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
    The company below then. I repeat,
    The Count9
    your master’s known munificence10
    Is ample warrant11 that no just pretence12
    Of mine for dowry13 will be disallowed;
    Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
    At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
    Together down, sir. Notice Neptune,14 though,
    Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
    Which Claus of Innsbruck15 cast in bronze for me!
  7. a reference to the prestige and power of the Duke’s centuries-old family
  8. an archaic term meaning “indeed,” often used to express surprise or annoyance
  9. Count (noun) a type of European nobleman
  10. Munificence (noun) extreme generosity
  11. proof
  12. request
  13. When a woman married, her family would give her husband property and/or money called a dowry. The husband
    and the woman’s father negotiated the amount.
  14. Neptune is the Roman god of the sea.
  15. a fictional sculptor
    Discussion Questions
    Directions: Brainstorm your answers to the following questions in the space provided. Be prepared to
    share your original ideas in a class discussion.
  16. What does the narrator mean when he says that he chooses “never to stoop” in line 43? Do
    you think he is being honest? What might this statement suggest about him, particularly in
    the context of the rest of the poem?
  17. To what extent, if any, do you think jealousy is normal in a relationship? How can one tell
    when a relationship has become unhealthy?
  18. Psychologist Phillip Zimbardo has said, “That line between good and evil is permeable. Any
    of us can move across it… we all have the capacity for love and evil.” Does “My Last
    Duchess” support this idea? As Browning has portrayed him, does the Duke have the
    capacity for both love and evil?
  19. In Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” the narrator, Montresor, plans revenge on his enemy,
    Fortunato, for insulting him. However, he says, “Neither by word nor deed had I given
    Fortunato cause to doubt my good will.” How is Browning’s Duke like Montresor? What
    message do these texts convey about pride? How does each author intend readers to
    regard these characters who seek secret revenge?