‘My Last Duchess’ by Robert Browning: Mr Bruff Analysis


Hello everybody and welcome to this video
where I’m going to go through the poem ‘My Last Duchess’ by Robert Browning. As you can see on the screen, this is all
taken from ‘Mr. Bruff’s Guide to My Last Duchess’. You can pick that up through following
the link in the video. It’s exclusively available at mrbruff.com In the past when I’ve done these poetry analysis
videos, they’re so detailed that people say, “I can’t write it all down.” So what I’ve
done is I’ve written up everything I’m about to tell you. It’s about four and a half thousand
words in total. And you can download it through clicking the link below. So, let’s have a look at the poem. The first
thing to do when you’re analysing a poem is to look at the poet. But it’s really important
that you don’t just learn everything about the poet. When we’re analysing a poem, it’s
important to just study those biographical details of the poet’s life which seem key
to understanding the poem itself. So with ‘My Last Duchess’ this is quite
a challenge because Browning’s dramatic monologue was not written from his own point of view
but that of a fictional character. ‘My Last Duchess’ is set in the Italian
Renaissance and focuses on a controlling and possibly insane Duke. How can that possibly
link to the poet’s own life? Well, nevertheless, there are some biographical details worth
looking at which might help us understand the poem a little better. Here is Browning himself. So Browning was
born in 1812 in London, died in 1889 in Venice. He didn’t enjoy school much, and he ended
up being homeschooled by tutors who educated him using his father’s library which had 6,000
books in it. Now, this brave move played off because, by
the age of 14, he was fluent in Latin, Greek, French, and Italian. And, age twelve, wrote
his first book of poetry. In 1845 Browning married Elizabeth parent. Now Barrett’s
a famous poet herself, but the marriage was kept secret to begin with as Elizabeth’s father
was domineering and controlling. In 1838 Browning visited Italy for the first
time, and he would end up living there for much of his adult life and wrote poems that
say things like ‘open my heart and you will see, graved inside it, Italy’. And ‘My
Last Duchess’ was published in 1842. So what can we conclude? Why am I telling
you these particular details about the poet’s life? Well, firstly, we can see the poet lived
during the Victorian era which is important. I’ll talk about that in a second. But, secondly,
the details of Barrett’s controlling attitude towards his daughter posed a striking resemblance
to the Duke in ‘My Last Duchess’. But, this is what we call a red herring because,
actually, this poem was written before the two met. So these are the sorts of things you have
to look out for when you’re analysing poetry. It’s not about his father-in-law. He hadn’t
even met him by that point. You’ve got to be careful when you find those details. Of course, the fact that Browning visited
Italy shortly before the publication of the poem would back up the idea that actually
it might be based on a true story he heard whilst he was travelling. But I’ll talk about
that a bit more in a bit. Next, we’re going to look at the context.
Now, context is an important thing for me to explain here because, if you are taking
this poem as your GCSE on the AQA exam board in 2015 or 2016, then you do not write about
context in the exam. There are no marks awarded for it. However, if you’re studying for a different
exam board – I’m aware that these videos are viewed across the world – or even if
you’re studying for the 2017 onwards GCSEs, then context is assessed. So, I don’t want
to write off context because I know that some people will be interested to know about it. So what do we mean by the word ‘context’,
we essentially mean what was going on at the time that the poem was written. Although,
‘My Last Duchess’ is set in the Italian Renaissance between the 14th and 16th century,
it was written and published during the Victorian era in 1842. So we should examine what was
going on in Victorian England to see if there’s anything which seems important to our understanding
of the poem. There are a few things to talk about. Of course,
the Italian Renaissance – there’s the famous Renaissance painting by Raphael on
the left – and Victorian England are two very different times. But, quite often, if
a poet or a novelist has an idea or a message that they want to get across, and it’s quite
a sort of shocking or critical message about the society that they live in, they will quite
often, then, set their text in a different context so that it curves it up a bit and
they’re not just openly criticising or not so openly criticising the context that they’re
writing in. Well, one of the major issues with studying
context is that it can take hundreds of hours of study, and a lot of that might revolve
around topics which are irrelevant to the poem being studied. So my advice is to look
at the general contextual topics surrounding when a poem or a text was written, and, then,
to think about which ones should we look at further, which ones seem to be relevant to
the poem. So, let’s do that with ‘My Last Duchess’.
1842, that’s the early part of the Victorian era. And during this period of time, there
was an array of changes in society. Three major areas: i. Industrialisation: Mass migration from
the country to the city. In 1837, 80 percent of the population lived in the countryside.
Most people worked on farms or spun wool. But with the Industrial Revolution came machines
that could complete the work in a fraction of the time, and, as a result, people began
moving into the cities to get work. And within a dozen years or so, 50 percent of the population
lived in the city. Industrialisation is a huge factor in Victorian
England, but doesn’t seem to be something that we see in the poem. ii. Women: Attitudes to women were changing.
In the Victorian period, a woman’s role was seen as the angel of the house who existed
to serve and entertain a husband. But that was beginning to be challenged. Women were
not given the same education as men, but the suffrage movement was growing, and the battle
for equality was also growing. iii. Religion. Attitudes to religion were
being challenged due to the theory of evolution and scientific developments which seemed to
disprove some biblical teachings. And there are minor ways we could link religion to the
poem, but, obviously, the key thing contextually is attitude to women. Now, whether you’re writing about context
or not, you still need to write about the writer’s ideas and themes which, in this
case, will link to power and gender discrimination. So if you’re doing this exam 2015 or ‘16
AQA, you don’t want to write about Victorian England. But you do want to write about the
poet’s ideas and messages relating to gender, power, women, and that kind of thing. So, let’s go into a little bit more detail
about what it was like for women in this time period. Well, the first thing is, when a woman
married, she became the legal property of her husband. Which is just unbelievable, really.
Women were not allowed to testify in court. Women could not vote. It was actually believed
that women were incapable of rational thought and, at the time, there were many female writers.
But a lot of them published their works anonymously or under male pseudonyms in order to boost
their book sales and get their work taken seriously. Jane Austen, for example, published
all of her novels anonymously. So it’s a very shocking time of inequality when it comes
to attitudes to women. And this topic is obviously a relevant contextual factor in the poem.
The whole poem explores attitudes to women. So could it be that Browning uses the poem
to explore his opinion on this topic? I think it could. It is possible to see this poem,
then, as a criticism of Victorian attitudes to women and their effort to suppress female
sexuality. It can be argued that the Duke’s obsession with fixing the behaviour of his
wife links to Victorian society’s obsession with the reputation of women being perfect. We could also suggest that Victorian men are
weakened by their dependency on power that they have over women. And the way in which
Victorian men are obsessed with their power over women is certainly something we see in
the poem. It seems that the men in this context saw their wives as a reflection of themselves. There is a different context to this poem
as well which is, obviously, when it was set. This is just an aside for a minute or two.
It’s quite interesting, but it’s not something you’d write about in the exam. But it is useful
to help our understanding of the poem. Lots of speculation about whether this is based
on a true story and who it is based on. Nothing’s known for sure, so I’m not going to go into
it. But many of Browning’s poems including ‘My Last Duchess’ were set in Ferrara
which is a town in Italy. Now, Browning seemed to be pretty much obsessed
with the place. He researched its medieval history. And in ‘My Last Duchess’ it’s
believed it was based on this guy Alfonso II. He was the fifth Duke of Ferrara, and
his first wife died in suspicious circumstances. There’s an idea this might be based on that.
But, as I said, this is the kind of detail that you’re not actually going to write about
in the exam. It’s interesting, but it’s not something that will be relevant to an exam
response. And, of course, Browning’s not the first poet
to focus his work on the lives of despotic Italian people. Dante’s Inferno has a number
of stories of various cruel Italians. John Keats was another poet who focused on a similar
topic in his poem ‘Isabella’. Now, when you’ve understood a bit about the
poet and a bit about the context, it’s important to just get the literal meaning of the poem.
And, obviously, what I’m trying to do in this video is teach you how to analyse all poems
in literature. So, really, what’s going on in the poem? You
can see it’s a long poem. I’ll translate it into modern English for you.
‘That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.’ So, what we have is the speaker who, of course,
is the Duke. He’s showing somebody a painting, and he’s saying, ‘That’s a painting of my
last wife on the wall there. It looks lifelike.’ – Or perhaps it’s suggesting something else
which I’ll talk about later – ‘And I would say that painting is a very realistic portrait.
A famous artist worked hard all day painting it, and, there she is.’ Then the poem moves on and says – ‘Will’t please you sit and look at her?
I said “Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance, 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,
How such a glance came there;’ Now, what does that mean? Well, basically,
the Duke is saying, ‘Will you please sit down and look at the painting? I name-dropped
the famous artist Fra Pandolf on purpose because people always look at this painting and they
turn around and they want to ask me, “How is it that that look on your wife’s face was
arrived at?” And everybody asks that question.’ 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 Fra Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle
laps 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. Now, what does this mean? Well, basically,
the Duke is saying, ‘No, it wasn’t only me who could make my wife look so happy.’
So, the look on his wife’s face is a kind of blush or a look of happiness, and he’s
saying, “No, it’s not just me as her husband who could make her feel that way. It might
be that the artist flattered her, perhaps saying, ‘Your shawl’s too long. Pull it
up a bit. Show a bit of flesh.’ – You know, being a bit flirtatious – ‘Or maybe
he told her that, ‘Oh, it’s impossible for paint to recreate something so beautiful as
you,’ and she was so delighted that she blushed.’ Back to the poem.
‘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 favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West, The bough of cherries some officious fool
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.’ What’s he saying here? Bizarrely, he’s saying
that she was a woman who was too easily impressed by things. She liked everything she looked
at, and she looked at everything. And everything was the same. The effect I had on her as her
husband was the same as when she looked at the sunset or when somebody who admired her
brought her some cherries or when she rode a horse. Everything impressed her and made
her happy. She blushed with delight at everything moving. Moving on then,
‘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. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you the 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, and made excuse –
E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop.’ A little bit sinister now coming in. So, what’s
he saying? He’s saying, ‘Well, she thanked people. She was polite as a woman, and that’s
good. But she thanked people in a way that it made me feel like she wasn’t sufficiently
grateful for the ancient and honoured surname which became hers when we got married. And
who’s going to lower themselves to argue with her? Even if I was a good enough communicator
to do it – and I’m not – I wouldn’t do it. I’d have to lower myself down to her level
to tell her to stop behaving this way, and I never lower myself.’ Back to the poem:
‘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.’
So this is the really ambiguous part of the poem, basically saying, ‘Sir, she smiled
whenever I went by. But then, she smiled like that at everybody. And, in the end, I gave
some commands.’ – And we’ll talk about that later – ‘And, then, there were no
more smiles. But in this painting she looks lifelike.’ Or perhaps, ‘In this painting
she looks alive.’ Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then, I repeat, The count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretense Of mine for dowry 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, though, Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me! So, at this point, we realise who the Duke
is speaking to. And he’s speaking to an envoy who works for somebody else. So, he’s basically saying ‘Will you please
stand up now? I’ve shown you the painting of my last wife. I’ve told you the story of
her; that she was too happy and everything made her happy, and, therefore, I stopped
that. Now, we’ll meet the others downstairs. The count, your boss, is so rich, I’m sure
he’ll give me a nice financial incentive for marrying his daughter. But what I want is
the daughter herself. Not the money so much. Before we go down, have a look at this statue.
It’s a statue of Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, taming a seahorse. And it’s a rare
statue by a famous artist.’ So, the poem is long and is quite confusing.
But, really, it’s just a man showing another man a painting of his ex-wife which, bizarrely,
is kept behind a curtain. So you pull back a curtain, there’s a painting of his wife
smiling. And she’s got a sort of rosy cheeks or she’s blushing. And he says, ‘You know
what? Everything made her happy. And I didn’t like that, so I stopped it. And, now, I want
to marry the daughter of your boss. Let’s go and carry on our conversation.’ There she is, the beautiful My Last Duchess. Let’s have a think on the theme of this
poem then. Now we understand the basics of the poem, it’s important to consider the major
themes. What is the poem trying to say? We need to
move beyond what happens in the poem – which is the subject – to what the poem is trying
to say. Does it have a message or a moral? And there are a number of themes, but all
of them revolve around one major theme which is power. There are two distinct types of power demonstrated
in the poem. There’s political power, which we see through the Duke’s political power
and is demonstrated through the ambiguous line ‘I gave commands’. The reader is
left wondering, “Who were these commands given to?” No doubt to a servant, some sort
of social inferior. And, then, there’s domestic power. The Duke
wishes to assert the power that he has in his kind of political sphere over his wife.
And that links to the themes of the role of women and gender roles, sexism, inequality,
that kind of thing. So, now, we’re going to have a look at the
language that is used in the poem. When you’re analysing any literature texts, you analyse
through language, structure, and form. Now, language refers to the words which are
used by the poet, and it’s the simplest type of analysis. And it’s the one which most students
write about first. So, you’re basically picking out words or phrases which seem important.
Sometimes, it might be similes and metaphors. But it might just be a single word that seems
to be significant. If you can, though, in your exam, you should
aim to analyse and make points about structure and form because those are the trickier bits. So, structure refers to the organisation of
a poem. So it’ll be thinking about things like:
• Where do the verses break? • Where do the stanzas break? If at all.
• Why do they change when they change? • Is there variation in verse length?
• Does the poet use enjambment, repetition, rhyme?
• What’s the rhythm like? • Where do the stress patterns change?
• Is there a rhyme scheme? Is it free verse? • Where’s the punctuation? Why is it important? But we only want to analyse the structure
if it links to something important about the poem. So, for example, if you’re going to
write about the exclamation mark at the end of the poem, you only want to write about
it if you can link it to the theme of power or whatever the exam question is about. Form is referring to the times when poets
follow particular rules about the organisation of a text. So,
• is it a sonnet? • is it a dramatic monologue?
• is it a ballad? But, again, you’ve got to link it to the theme
or the exam question. It’s no good just – what we call – device spotting, like, “Oh,
there’s a simile. There’s a metaphor. There’s some alliteration.” It’s, why is that important
and how does it help our understanding of the poem? And I think one of the key things about this
poem as we move into analysing the language is that we first need to establish – did
the Duke have any cause for concern with his last wife? Because the Duke says things like
‘her looks went everywhere’. And this makes the readers think, “What? Is he implying
that his wife was promiscuous? Did she flirt with other people?” But I don’t think the
Duchess – and I’ll explain this again in a second – was a flirt or promiscuous at
all. It’s clear that the Duke was disgusted with
his previous wife. But it’s ironic. When we look at the qualities of the Duchess, she
was actually humble; grateful; she was pleased by simple things such as the dropping of the
daylight. So she seems to have an almost childlike innocence to her. But that’s not necessarily
a positive. The nineteenth-century feminist writer Mary
Wollstonecraft once wrote that while children should be innocent, when the epithet is applied
to men or women, it is but a civil term for weakness. In other words, we expect children
to be innocent, but if adults are innocent we’re basically saying that they’re weak. So, in other words, the wife is presented
by the Duke as weak and undeserving of such an amazing husband that he is. So, no, the
Duchess didn’t do anything wrong. I will explain that further in a second. The Duke is just
this controlling, mad man. And that’s where we’re going to now move into the use of language
to present that. So what I’m going to do is, I’m going to look
at the characterisation of the Duke – how the Duke is presented – and I’m going to
analyse language, and, then, structure, and form to look at how the Duke is presented. Here’s the poem all on one tooth. Amazing So, the first thing to talk about is the pronoun
‘my’ which is repeated throughout the poem. And that shows how the Duke is possessive.
It’s all about him. He is self-obsessed, and he believes that his wife belongs to him.
So he’s not only possessive, but he sees her as one of his objects that he owns. The next thing is the talk about Fra Pandolf,
this famous artist. Now, Fra Pandolf and Claus of Innsbruck are both name-dropped. They’re
not real artists, but they are, for the purpose of this poem, used to show how vain the Duke
is. You know, when people know somebody famous and they want to throw it into a conversation,
it’s showing off. It’s being vain. But, the title Fra is also important. Fra
means brother. And that title ‘brother’ suggests that the artist was perhaps a monk
or certainly a religious figure. So the suggestion here is that the picture was painted by a
monk or some religious figure. And why is that important? Well, it seems that Browning
wanted to make it clear that the artist was not at all romantically involved or even flirting
with the Duchess. And so, when the Duke says that he might have said this; he might have
flirted with her or given her a little flirtatious comment to provoke the look in her face, it
seems that he’s actually just being paranoid. Which, again, if this is a monk or religious
figure, backs up the innocence of the Duchess. She’s unlikely to have actually been suspicious
in any way here if it’s just a religious figure who is painting her. What about the word ‘sir’? The manner
in which the Duke speaks to the envoy through the term ‘sir’ and ‘you’. These are
formal terms of address. They actually might seem quite polite to a modern reader, but
they are not. They clarify the Duke’s superiority over the envoy. The more personal terms of
‘thou’ and ‘thee’ might have been used if they were on a friendly terms or equal
terms. So, the Duke is keen to point out that he is socially superior. And I would say this
presents him as condescending. Now, a couple of things here. The Duke is
proud. He feels, perhaps, the fact that his wife has married him and, in doing so, has
inherited this 900-year-old name is something she should be delighted at. It’s a gift. So, my surname is Bruff. So, when I married
my wife, Claire Cunningham was her name. And when she married me, she became Claire Bruff.
And, in this analogy, she should be delighted and proud of the fact that I gave her my name
Bruff. So, this is very proud character being presented.
It’s also a character who’s disingenuous, who lies to us, who is clearly not telling
the truth because he says, ‘I could have stopped to speak to my wife and tell her what
she was doing wrong and what annoyed me, but I don’t have the skill in speech.’ And you
think, “Well, hang on a minute. You do have skill in speech. For a start, you’re talking
in perfect iambic pentameter,” – which I’ll come to in a minute – “but, also,
you’re delivering this long, well-structured argument to your visitor and someone you don’t
know. So don’t pretend you wouldn’t be able to just have a chat with your wife and say,
‘Look, could you stop doing this? It’s really frustrating me.’ ’ So, he’s disingenuous. There’s reason to believe
that we can’t trust everything that he says. He’s also self-obsessed, which is seen through
the repetition of the pronoun ‘I’. You can see the arrows here pointing – ‘I
choose’, ‘I passed’, ‘I gave’, ‘I repeat’. This man is self-obsessed. It’s
all about him which is. of course, what we see through the repetition. We, then, see a very controlling aspect of
the character when he seems to ask questions. There’s a question earlier on – ‘Will
‘t please you sit?’ – and a question – ‘Will ‘t please you rise?’ – but
these are not really questions at all. They are demands. The Duke frames his demands as questions,
but, make no mistake, this is a social superior demanding something from an inferior. He’s
a controlling character. And we see that through the fact, as well, that the Duke remained
stood so the envoy sits down. And that is a symbol when we look up to people. So the
envoy would literally have to look up to the Duke. And, of course, that’s something that
we learn from a child-to-parent relationship. This symbolism of looking up to someone, we
say, “I look up to him. I admire him.” It’s a symbol of a child looking up to a parent. So the Duke makes the envoy sit down, and,
in doing so, symbolizes, again, his controlling character but, also, the fact that he is the
superior. So, not a very pretty picture presented at
all of the Duke. The language in the poem suggests that the Duke is proud, possessive,
controlling, vain, condescending, disingenuous, self-obsessed, and irrational. There are a couple of other interesting things.
Now, the poem doesn’t have a lot of poetic devices in it, such as similes and metaphors.
And, on the one hand, that makes sense because this is supposed to be a poem which, as a
dramatic monologue, is just like a conversation. So, in real conversation we don’t talk in
similes and metaphors, do we? But there are a couple of examples where there
are metaphors. And one of those is with this piece of artwork which is talked about at
the end of the poem, the Claus of Innsbruck statue of Neptune taming a seahorse. Now, what does that mean? Well, Neptune was
the Roman god of the sea. And he is presented, as in this picture, as this big, strong, barrel-chested,
masculine, domineering god. And here he is in the sea taming a wild creature. So, that
is a metaphor for the Duke himself and what he feels his role is over women – ‘I am
here to domineer and control you and to tame you. This is my domain. You’re in the sea,
the world which is the male-dominated society of Victorian England.’ Obviously, it’s set
in Italian Renaissance but, in terms of what Browning is saying, the man’s job is to dominate
the woman and to tame her as if she’s wild. There’s also another metaphor in the poem
which is, of course, the painting itself. As I talked about earlier, it is hidden behind
a curtain which only the Duke can pull back. Now it’s interesting to think about this because
the Duke didn’t like that his wife smiled at people, everybody. He just wanted those
smiles for himself. Now, what he’s done is he’s got a painting of her first smiling,
and he’s put a curtain in front of it which only he can pull back. So, now, he gets to
control the smiles of his wife and have them just for himself, which is what he wanted
in life. So, we can see quite a clever bit of metaphor
and symbolism here, that he gets to control the wife – his past wife and, in theory,
his future wives – as he wants. Very clever. Now, of course, it’s ambiguous all the way
through. Did he have his wife killed for what he didn’t like in her or not? And I’ll talk
about those ambiguities in another section of this video. Form: dramatic monologue
But let’s have a look at the form of the poem. ‘My Last Duchess’ is an example of a dramatic
monologue, which means that the poem contains a single person giving a speech to somebody
else. But the speaker is not the poet. So this isn’t Robert Browning talking. And the
listener – the envoy – is silent throughout. We don’t hear them speak. Now what that means is we’re listening to
a one-way conversation. And that’s a form which is used in poetry because it allows
us to identify the speaker’s character from what they say. The reader becomes almost a
detective, analysing clues which reveal key details about the speaker. In this case, the
Duke. And there’s a gap between what the speaker wants us to know and what the reader can read
between the lines. This poem is written entirely in iambic pentameter,
which is lines of ten syllables per line with every other syllable being stressed. And the
rhyme scheme is also tightly controlled with the whole poem being written in rhyming couplets. So, let’s put those two things together. You
can see ‘wall’, ‘call’, ‘hands, ‘stands’, ‘said’, ‘read’, etc.
This tight control of rhyme scheme and the amount of syllables per line reflects the
tight control of the Duke, how he is an extremely controlling character. So, that is an example
of form reflecting content. That the way the poem is formed reflects the character of the
Duke himself. But it goes a little bit further than that, as we look at structure, because
the poem contains enjambment. Now when I read the poem just a second ago,
it wouldn’t have sounded like the lines were rhyming. It wouldn’t have sounded obvious
where the rhyme scheme was. Because, although the end of each line rhymes, the sentences
actually run over the lines. So, for example, if you look here,
‘That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, Looking as if she were alive.’ That is a sentence. And, then, this is a sentence
– I call
That piece of wonder, now: Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands. So, enjambment, from the French, is the technique
where sentences run over the lines. And I think this is quite clever. Number one, because
the poem is supposed to be real speech, it wouldn’t seem real if the sentence is ended
at the end of each line and the couplets stopped at the end of each line. It would sound mechanical.
It wouldn’t sound like real dialogue. But an alternative interpretation – and
you’ve got to look for alternative interpretations to hit those highest grades in the exam – is
that the enjambment reflects, actually, that the Duke doesn’t have complete control. He
himself is quite uncontrolled and wild in his anger. So, although he does everything
he can to control others, which is reflected in the tightly controlled rhyming couplets
and the iambic pentameter, the fact is he can’t control himself. Seen through the enjambment,
he can’t stop this blurting out of all this emotion. And, also, you could say he’s uncontrolled
because look at what he’s talking about. He shouldn’t be talking about these things to,
essentially, someone connected with his future wife. So, the image that is created here is this
crazy man who can’t control his outbursts. And, of course, we can look at the structure
as well and say, “Well, the poem is one long verse.” Remember I talked about, in
structure, we should look at ‘where do the verses change?’ ‘why is that important?’ But if the verses don’t change, if it’s just
one long verse, that’s also important to think about. Why is that? Why is that significant?
Well, again, I think it tells us a few things about the Duke. The fact that the verses don’t
stop and change at all reflects how the Duke doesn’t stop. He doesn’t stop to think about
what he’s saying. He just gives his own explanation of events. He doesn’t care about his listener,
particularly. He just spouts out his thoughts in a stream-of-consciousness style. But we should also consider the effect on
the reader. When we read this poem aloud, with no major breaks or pauses because there
are no stanza changes, we are overwhelmed. We’re almost breathless from the immensity
of the poem. And this overwhelming aspect reflects how the Duke himself is an overwhelming
character. So, again, the form of the poem reflects what the character of the Duke is
like. As I said, there’s some ambiguity in this
poem. It’s possible to think that the Duchess is dead and was murdered by the Duke. Or that,
at least, he called for her to be murdered because he didn’t like the way she was behaving.
But it’s also possible to think, perhaps, they split in some other manner. We see this
line ‘as if she were alive’. Now, when he’s looking at the painting, he
says, “Look at this painting of her. It’s as if she were alive.” And that can have
two possible meanings. It could mean the painting is lifelike – ‘it looks almost photographic
in its lifelike representation of my former wife’ – or it could mean ‘Look. It looks
like she’s alive there,’ because she is actually dead. Now, spoiler alert, Browning did give an interview
where he explained that, “Yes, I meant that the commands were that she’d be put to death.”
And that explains the next line ‘I gave commands’. So she’s smiling all the time, and he doesn’t
like it. And, then, he just says, in this cold, short, brutal line,
‘I gave commands.’ It’s ambiguous because we think, “Well,
what commands did he give? Did he say to her, “Look, you need to stop smiling all the
time?” Or did he give commands that she be killed.” And, as I said, Browning did
give an interview where he said it was about her being killed. The line is ambiguous, but it’s important
to know that Browning did clarify the ambiguity. So why is the husband unhappy with his wife?
He seems to suggest that it’s because she’s just happy all the time and smiles at everything.
But there’s an ambiguity in this line as well where he explains ‘her looks went everywhere’. It almost suggests, as I talked about earlier,
that he was jealous of what his wife was looking at. Maybe she was eyeing up men, but, again,
this just seems to be a paranoia because he was also paranoid that, perhaps, the artist
had given some flirtatious comment. And it doesn’t seem, to the dispassionate reader,
that that’s likely, given the fact that the artist was a religious figure. So, to finish off this analysis, one way of
looking at it is that it is a poem about power; it is a poem about complete control – despotic
control – that the Duke has and how he uses that power to have his wife killed for no
good reason. Now, if we look at it in that sense, we can
interpret the poem as being about male power, gender roles in Victorian England, how men
have complete control over women. But there is another way of interpreting the
poem, which is to think about it, actually, as a portrayal of the Duke’s weakness, not
power. We can think that his insecurity is seen in this line ‘her looks went everywhere’.
So he’s looking at his wife, and she is just looking around, smiling at people; and she’s
happy about everything. And he’s paranoid; he’s insecure; he thinks this means something
when, perhaps, it doesn’t. The fact that his dialogue is this sprawling,
uncontrolled speech and it seems careless – the details he’s giving to the envoy – also
suggests weakness. But, I think the cleverest thing about this poem is that, even if we
read the poem at face value – with it being a poem about a man who didn’t like the way
his wife acted so he had her killed – that still presents the Duke in some ways as being
weak because – and this links to the Victorian society again – Browning’s poem can be read
as a message that Victorian men are weakened by their dependency on the power that they
have over women. It can be argued that Victorian men saw their
wives as a reflection of themselves, and this disempowered them. Or, to put it a different
way, why is it so important to the Duke that he has control over his wife? Now, of course,
we never hear the wife’s side of the story. The silenced voice again reflects the absolute
control the Duke has. Whenever you study a poem, if it’s a dramatic
monologue, it’s often important that we don’t hear the other side of the story. And, again,
that reflects how women in Victorian England were silenced, voiceless. Their opinions were
not valid, as I said earlier, in a court of law and all the rest of it. Women were not
seen as important. We don’t hear the other side of the story, and that reflects what
society was like at the time. In this way, the Duke’s desire to control his wife’s
behaviour can be read as a metaphor for Victorian society’s obsession with the behaviour and
reputation of women. The fact the Duchess did not reserve her smiles
for her husband alone is seen as this huge problem for the Duke. And, in the same way,
Victorian women were considered to be failures if they didn’t give their lives over, exclusively,
for their husbands. So, there are two ways of interpreting the
poem. Male dominance and male power through this oppressive control. Or the fact that,
actually, if he feels that he has to control his wife and if he feels that what she does
is such a reflection of him and on him, then that’s weakness because he should be his own
person and his wife shouldn’t, in any way, reflect him at all. So, I hope you found this video useful. Please
do and pick up the PDF version, which you can get by following the link at the bottom
of the video. If you’ve made it to the end here, well done.
It’s a long, long video; took me ten or twelve hours to prepare. So, it would really help
out if you picked up the poetry guide there. And the thing about this poetry guide, which
is why I’m offering it exclusively through MrBruff.com, is that it’s going to grow. I’m
going to add more and more poems to it. And as I do that, I will resend, to everybody
who’s bought it, the new and updated version. So you might think it’s just one poem, but
it will add and grow and grow. If you do pick up a copy of the guide, I’ll
just show you the sort of thing it looks like. So you’ve got detailed notes and paragraphs
explaining basically everything I’ve gone through in this video and, then, colour-coded
annotations to all the important bits. So, it really is going to help you with your
studies. It’s 17 pages in length, 4694 words. So, please do pick up a copy.

100 thoughts on “‘My Last Duchess’ by Robert Browning: Mr Bruff Analysis

  1. when your English teacher just says "go watch Mr Bruff" 😂😂

  2. I am a year 11 student doing my English Literature Exam in a few months, and I was wondering if you thought this point was valid:

    The last line ends in "cast in bronze for me!". The use of the exclamation mark could emphasise on the Duke's anger because it evokes the idea that he is desperate for a wife, because​ he is desperate to control someone, as he cannot stand the sight of women having voices of their own.

  3. thank you sir! i have been getting 16 marks in poetry after watching your videos and making notes i got 24 marks. i was not even ready yet i got that. thank you soo much!

  4. can i use the context on mary wolstencroft in the exam to back up why the duke views the duchess and disrepectful

  5. i want to give this a dislike BC ITS SO LONG compared to the other poems but i cant bc the actual content of the video literally saved my life oof

  6. At 36:00 you spoke how the lack of separate verses creates a feeling of being overwhelmed could this be paired with the lack of reply from the envoy to show this clearly as the envoy is taken aback by the duke's uncontrollable outbursts of anger and emotion

  7. Thank you very much Mr Bruff. I found this video very helpful at GCSE, and have come back to it again because we are looking at it in light of crime writing. :)))

  8. Excuse me sir, but do you have a book on all poems you need to learn in English GCSE, the power and conflict poetry?

  9. Using these to revise for my GCSE's next year, your video's are amazing!!

  10. hi, my name is parker, my teacher told me to introduce myself to you. and to make you my friend.

  11. where is the download link to a document of all of this that he mentioned at the beginning?? please help!!

  12. Cheers for this video, i have english lit p2 in a week and it is actually helping me have some knowledge on the poem which i really struggled on

  13. Doing last minute revision for after tomorrow, our teacher told us to watch this for homework XD Thank you so much Mr. Bruff, you have saved my literature grade

  14. watching this the day before the exam fml HOW WILL I WATCH EVERY VIDEO IN TIME!??

  15. is it possible to read this poem as an attack on the patriarchal society of the time? for example, the fact that the tight rhyming couplets cannot actually be noticed when read allowed due to the enjambment could mirror women being kept down by men in society. Despite their best efforts women cannot simply be controlled and denied any power by men? idk if that makes any sense haha

  16. When the exam is tomorrow so I start going through this entire playlist

  17. Savior to students fighting against finals. Thanks for this quality video!

  18. Hi sir, I enjoy watching your videos as they are a massive help with schoolwork but I was wondering if you could do grade 9 responses on the poetry questions of the exams. I am doing my exams next year and am in desperate need of more videos.

  19. Im sorry but any teacher who sets you this to watch the full video clearly hasn't met a class of students before, because I don't know about you but I don't have the attention span to sit through a 40 minute long English video.

  20. Hi, will you be doing an analysis on the Edexcel 2018 Poetry theme of 'Time and Place'?

  21. Hey! Can you please upload a video relating to Robert Browning's poem "A Grammarian's Funeral"! It would be really helpful for my course especially because all your videos relating to poem analysis are incredibly understandable👌😊

  22. Hello, I am English teacher who loves your videos. Have you ever thought about producing resources such as worksheets for use in class? Thank you for all the amazing videos.

  23. “This is not relevant for your exam” 10 minutes later still saying something irrelevant

  24. Top Analysis Mr. Bruff. Thank you. Is there any free pdf available of your 'The Great Gatsby '?

  25. you've helped me so much using this poem in the power and conflict cluster and my teacher has only done 5 poems so far and I'm using your videos to do my own analysis and they're helping so much you make it easy to understand and make it enjoyable instead dreading the exam. I'm actually hoping I get this poem in my exam because you've made it easy to understand.

  26. Also the fact that the poem starts with my and ends with me could also show how he is controlling and everything is about him.

  27. Mr bruff, thank you so much for doing this. I really, really appreciate it. I'll do well for you

  28. Where's the link you talked about at the start of this video of the 4000 words?

  29. Can you please breakdown the quotes in chronological order so that I can make notes in a more organised and less haphazard manner?

  30. This poem is disgusting I absolutely hate it yuck. Its just the Duke creeps me out like hell and the language is, while I am accustomed to older English syntax its just perturbing and I loathe it. I wish I didn't even have to read it but I have to ;(

  31. Watch in *2 speed and u can get through this in under 20 min if u skip bits

  32. Bro super useful content. Thank you. Really starting to feel like an intellect.

  33. when you have a test with Christmas carol and poetry and then a geography paper and a physics paper next week and still need enough time to breathe and live .

  34. In my opinion this goes into too much detail for a GCSE level, seems more like A level. Im trying to revise from this but I don't know what parts from a 40 minute video are most important and what I should memorise. I think instead of going into so much contextual detail that may not be used in the exam, you should focus mainly on quotes and analysis and some context that would actually be valid in the exam. Most people watch your videos in order to get quick revision a few days before the exam and are not able to absorb so much information and these is also not enough time to watch a 40 minute video as last minute revision. Still a very good video and appreciate the work.

  35. In my poetry anthology, for my last duchess from lines 3-22 there are no annotations whatsoever
    Please help

  36. Great and interesting analysis, Mr Bruff. One question though: can I ask which source you identified regards Browning's clarification that 'Then all smiles stopped together' literally meant the murder of the wife?

  37. Thank you soooo much! It is so interesting and everything is clear! I like it.

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