‘…our human speech is naught.
Our human testimony false, our fame
and human estimation words and wind.
…Art remains the one way possible
of speaking truth…’
The Ring and the Book (1869)
‘L’histoire est juste peut-être, mais qu’on ne l’oublie pas, elle a été écrite par les vainqueurs.’
Alexis Guignard De Saint-Priest
Histoire de La Royauté (1842)
The Duke, the Duchess, a silent emissary – Browning makes all three known to us in the first two lines. The Duke speaks, the Duchess ‘looks’, and the emissary, an implied listener, trembles in the background.
The dominance of the Duke is carried through the poem; we can hear his clipped tones and impatience. The abrupt end to the meeting, framed by two counts of caesurae on one line, confirms to the reader that this is a man who dictates when conversations must start and when they must stop. Let us consider, though, the other power structures at play in this dynamic.
We picture two men standing before a painting of a now-dead woman:
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive.
The assumption we reasonably make here is that she is ‘looking’ life-like. The observation is being made by the viewer. Let us invert this to consider the Duchess in an active role – reread the line and think about the Duchess ‘doing’ the looking. This transforms the role of the Duchess, from an object who resembles an alive person, to a person gazing out of the painting, dominating the scene. Of course, she’s confined by the bounds of the painting, but still she looks at the Duke, with that ‘faint|Half-flush’ and ‘that spot|Of joy’ – made immortal by the brush strokes that scandalised his fragile ego. This dead woman is reimagined by the Duke; he has caught her mid-smile and the Duke has committed her to his wall. We rely on him for an understanding of her character – history, after all, is scribed by the victor. The Duke can now control where this ‘earnest glance’ goes, and can cover it up at his leisure.
A further line of enquiry taken by Ashby Bland Crowder in a Notes and Queries essay explores the ‘piece’:
I call | That piece a wonder, now
For it seems to be taken for granted by readers that the ‘piece’ is the painting. Crowder shows us why this may not be the case; the ‘piece’ is the Duchess. Crowder explains that ‘piece’ to refer to a woman or a girl was a common Renaissance usage and that ‘only later did the term acquire a depreciatory sense’. It is impossible for me to reconcile that ‘piece’ for a woman could be anything other objectifying – but the idea that she is the referent is helpful, for the Duke is referring to the painting as the woman. And here, on the wall, she has ‘depth and passion’ – a marked contrast to ‘much the same smile’ that she gave everybody when alive. The Duchess is transformed to a woman of depth in the painting, from the Duke’s description of a frivolous and rather bland woman when alive. This does not mean that we should excuse the murderer; far from it. But what we can do is understand Browning’s presentation of the truth of her through the art. The Duchess is shown as a profound woman of substance in the painting, and the narration is more possibly reliable as the Duke is describing the painting in front of a witness, the emissary. His human testimony of the girl ‘too easily impressed?’ Words and wind.
The Duchess, then, who we now know to have depth, looks out of the painting – held captive forever by the ego of her killer. This poem does not invite us to revel in the Duke’s ego, though. We see the emptiness that lurks beneath and the fragility of his hubris – for here he stands, bragging to a lowly messenger, lording the control he holds over a painting (‘since none puts by | The curtain I have drawn for you, but I’) – it’s a pathetic image. A character with a nine-hundred-years-old name who is crowing the exclusive rights to draw a curtain. Of course, this is all part of the makeup of this shallow man, who stands centre stage, surrounded by his things. So committed is he to his belongings that he couldn’t quite let go of his Duchess altogether – he immortalises her in paint. When he takes her smile and her last breath, he takes away her vision. He can look upon her, and retain her beauty, but her rights to live, breath and actively look are removed. He gazes on her; her image gazes back, as she lies cold underground.
We can piece together the Duke’s belongings through the poem. It can be helpful to consider the objects in a poem and reflect on how they help us relate to the text, and how characters interact with the world around them. As well as the ‘piece’, we learn of the curtain, which he pulls aside, and then the ‘mantle’ – another covering, pulled aside at her peril. The sunset, the cherries, his wife and the white mule – images strengthened and brought together by their proximity within three lines – give the reader the same picturesque scene that the Duke fell in love with. We imagine a man gazing out at a woman he loves, or owns, or both and it’s not quite enough for him. It feels unrequited; she’s become part of a scene that he looks upon, and this pleases him. Her person, though, does not please him; he oozes resentment. He destroys her, and she becomes another thing in his possession, elevated to a work of art. ‘Elevated’ because, evidently, it is in art where he places value. She sits on display, alongside Neptune taming a seahorse, as something to show visitors. Oblivious to the impression he creates, the Duke continues on his way, muttering banalities about his bronze with as much gusto as he described her murder.
Lastly, let us not miss the fleeting irony before the poem reaches its close – for a man who chooses ‘never to stoop’, Browning has cemented him in history as the man who stooped lower than we would think possible.
Crowder, A. B. (2012), ‘The Piece in Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’’. Notes and Queries. OUP