Thanks to the author for sharing this article, which originally appeared in Victorian Poetry 1 (1963): 235-37.
WHEN Browning was asked, nearly fifty years after the initial publication of "My Last Duchess" (text), why the Duke says "Frà Pandolf by design" (my italics), he answered: "To have some occasion for telling the story, and illustrating part of it.1 Although readers have more often than not dismissed Browning's latter-day remarks on his poems, they have done so in this instance not without some loss, for this remark, slight as it appears, calls attention to one of the poem's central metaphors.
Indifferent to Browning's statement, notably to the implications of occasion and illustrating, a recent critic of the poem assures us that "we need not assume that the Duke has planned it [the incident] this way: he is simply quick to take advantage of an opportunity,"2 I hope to demonstrate that it is not a question of whether we need to assume that the Duke has a plan, but rather that the poem may be misread in a crucial way if we do not acknowledge his premeditation. Virtually a libretto, the Duke's monologue sustains a central metaphor of drama and performance.
The dramatization of the basic action rendered by the poem begins in medias res. The gesture implicit in the first line directs us toward the revealed portrait of the last Duchess, but an earlier moment in the performance has come with the withdrawing of the curtain before the painting, for the speaker soon insists, "none puts by/ The curtain I have drawn for you, but I. Moreover, just as we see that the Duke begins his play with this curtain, so too does it become clear that he has anticipated in detail the events which follow. At precise moments he instructs his guest with questions that are in effect commands: "Wil't please you sit and look at her?" "Will't please you rise? We'll meet / The company below, then." And in a gesture of calculated munificence and quite possibly social flattery he grants; "Nay, we'll go / Together down, sir/' But he directs the situation even more closely, for he also presents his listener with descriptions of what the latter's natural reactions should be to whatever is provided him. The Duke maintains that those who have been privileged to look upon Frà Pandolf's portrait of the Duchess have in all cases "seemed as they would ask me, if they durst, / How such a glance came there." Yet it is not clear that the envoy has expressed any such question; for he too is like the "strangers" who have merely "seemed as they would ask"— that is, "if they durst." And since we never do know the precise nature of his silent reaction to the painting, the Duke's next phrase—so, not the first / Are you to turn and ask thus" (my italics)—serves ac- tually a double purpose: to underscore the point that it is the Duke who frames what he has chosen to consider his guest's 'question,' and to lead us to his disingenuous search for the exact word—'How shall I say?"'—and his artful disclaimer of "skill / In speech—(which I have not)."
Ultimately the Duke directs the envoy's attention to a second work of art While the painting of the Duchess is representational and, if we trust the Duke's word in the matter, perfectly accurate in mak- ing her look "as if she were alive," the sculpture depicts Neptune in the midst of one of his most typical acts. As personal allegory, however, the latter work is directly relevant to the drama the Duke makes of his life. If the portrait captures permanently the essential effect of the Duchess' momentary and momentous smile—in former days the source to her lord of pleasure turned finally to disgust—the sculpture, working on a different plane, portrays the god-liice power over spontaneous natural force that the Duke finds analogous to his exercise of temporal rights sanctioned by a nine-hundred-years-old name. Over "Neptune taming a sea-horse" hovers ominously the Duke's clipped account of his own show of force: "I gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together."3
Yet our perception that the entire episode has been staged works a fortiori to the idea that the Duke sees himself in a dramatic light. While this stance enables him to project his listener's unasked ques- tions, it also informs his final imperative, which along with under- lining his callous dedication to collection brings his performance to completion. In his closing words—"Notice Neptune, though, / Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity, / Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!"—a pun on cast extends our understanding of the Duke's inordinate hubris. For the artist has happily cast the Duke as a mythological god.4 The Duke's pleasure in seeing himself in the guise of Neptune is evident, but what is more significant is that he has chosen to view himself in a show of force.5
This revelation of the Duke's absurd vanity throws light on his attempt to win the envoy to his terms. Having presented him with an argument that by analogy reveals his view of a suitor's rights and a husband's expectations, the Duke momentarily abandons indirection for explicit statement: "I repeat, / The Count your master's known munificence / Is ample warrant that no just pretence / Of mine for dowry will be disallowed; / Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed / At starting, is my object." Immediately, however, as if he has caught himself in an act of excessive munificence, the Duke calls attention to Neptune taming a sea-horse. This gesture, s the Duke well knows,6 has the contextual effect of confirming i still another way his personal efficacy. For the Duke's drama of uncon- scious challenge and final domination is reenacted in the spatial con- junction of the two works.7
Last modified 27 October 2011