A Formalist Approach to "My Last Duchess" by Robert Browning

Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” begins appropriately with a literary deception. The title suggests that the poem is about the Duke of Ferrara’s former wife. However, after second and later readings, it becomes apparent that the subtitle “Ferrara” truly depicts what the poem is really about, for we learn more about the Duke of Ferrara than we learn about the Duchess. As the Duke talks about the Duchess, he really reveals his own controlling characteristics. This irony is significant, because it sets up the paradoxical nature of the rest of the poem. “My Last Duchess” is based upon a series of ironic twists and deceptive appearances, which are supported by the poem’s form and literary devices.

The general form of “My Last Duchess” betrays the Duke’s true demeanor. The poem is a dramatic monologue, written in heroic couplets. In a dramatic monologue, “the speaker addresses a silent listener, revealing himself in the context of a dramatic situation at hand” (Bedford 97). In the case of “My Last Duchess,” the Duke is speaking to an envoy of a count whose daughter he is trying to wed; with his words, the Duke reveals himself to be a questionable and potentially dangerous match who is very controlling and yet out of control. This obsession is evident in the dramatic monologue’s use of heroic couplets. Heroic couplets should be rhymed and end-stopped. But in “My Last Duchess,” many of the lines feature enjambment, with the Duke’s controlling words pushing over the line as illustrated in lines two, three, five, and six. The enjambment is not pure coincidence; the enjambment exemplifies that the Duke is out of control.

The caesuras-breaks in the lines-seem to implicate that the Duke is struggling to make his point as he tells the envoy “She thanked men, --good; but thanked Somehow. . . I know not how. . . as if she ranked My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name With

Anybody’s gift.” (lines 31-34). Here the Duke is frantic about the idea that the Duchess is treating him in the same manner she treats ordinary men.

The repetition of certain words, such as Fra Pandolf and smile, suggest that the Duke has some sort of jealous fixation. The Duke does not mention Fra Pandolf to show admiration; he repeats the name to suggest that “perhaps Fra Pandolf chanced to say, ‘Her mantle laps Over my Lady’s wrist too much’” in an attempt to seduce the Duchess (lines15-17). The word, smile, is tied to the Duke’s suspicions about the Duchess’ behavior toward men. This is demonstrated when the Duke tells the envoy “Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt, Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without Much the same smile?” (lines 43-45). With these two lines, the Duke is obviously hinting at the seductive behavior carried out by the Duchess.

Certain phrases in “My Last Duchess” are very crucial to the poem. For example, the Duke says he is not a master of speech, yet ironically his words betray him, for he is speaking through a very elevated poetic form which he mishandles with broken speech and enjambed lines. But at the same time, we know that he used language “to give commands” which ultimately put an end to the Duchess’ smiles. Thus, the control he has over the language is a dangerous one.

Through several readings of the poem, we see that the Duke is a collector-of brides, of art, and of statues. At the beginning of the poem the Duke reveals that he has a gallery in which he has his “last Duchess painted on the wall” (line1). In a final attempt to exercise his control, the Duke controls who sees the painting, “since none puts by The curtain” he draws. The symbolism hidden within the painting of his Duchess is closely stranded together with the symbolism in the sculpture of Neptune “Taming a sea-horse” (line 55). The image of Neptune taming the sea horse suggests that the Duke’s view of art and women are the same. Thus, the sculpture depicts the Duke’s control he intends to have over his future wife which he refers to as his “object” (line53).

A formalistic approach to literature involves a close reading of the text. Formalists believe that all information necessary to the interpretation of a work must be found within the work itself; there is no need to bring in outside information. I found this approach to be very frustrating, however, for I had to view the text in isolation. This was rather difficult, for I felt an urge to look up information about the history, society of the time, and about the author’s life, in order to successfully analyze the poem. However, one advantage to the formalist approach was that I was able to analyze the work through the lens of a formalist, without much research.

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