Evidence of Animosity in Browning’s “My Last Duchess”: A Psycho Analyst's Approach to Poesy - Onyeji Nnaji

Browning’s dramatic poem, “My Last Duchess” reveals to us the callous mind of Alfonso II, the duke of Ferrara.   The poem is based on the incidents in the life of Alfonso II, duke of Ferrara in Italy, whose wife, Lucrezia, a young woman died in 1561 after three years of marriage. Following her death, the duke negotiated through an agent to marry the niece of the court of Tyrol. Browning presented the duke as addressing this agent here. The poem includes such characters as Lucrezia; the duchess, Fra Pandolf; the artist, the niece of the court of Tyrol and the court agent. It was all about the death of Lucrezia whose demise was necessitated by the duke’s personal feelings to eliminate her. The event in the poem reveals the duke’s mind, his neurosis resulting from a long time repressed feelings for the duchess. This feeling was never a good type. He kept repressing the feeling, and suddenly became discharged after he had executed his wish, decapitating the duchess.

Two factors had necessitated the duchess’ death. In the first place, Alfonso was too jealous over her manners. He loved not the way she appeared more jovial to everyday. Yet she grew more accommodating and familiar. To Alfonso, her familiarity and popularity means nothing better than saying that she ingratiates herself with men outside the marital circle. Invariably, she is becoming too promiscuous. Estimating the rate of her beauty as the art of Fra Pandolf reveals; her “mantle laps, her wrist, her countenance.” Of greater is “her breast” which reveals “the dropping of the daylight in the West.” Considering all these and what he thought probably was taking place in his absence, he concludes that Lucrezia had been keeping herself very cheap to “some foolish officious” who “broke in the orchard for her” (lines 27-28). His jealousy is obvious at the beginning of the poem when he discovers the agent’s attention being drawn towards the beautiful picture hung on the wall. Look at what he says:

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall---(1)
Looking as if she were alive-----------------(2)
Will’t please you sit and look at her------(5)

Alfonso is a lover who could not control his temper and feelings. He generalises every opinion and encloses every possible fabrication in some element of truth to make it appear genuine and blameless before people. He believes that the final solution to he being ripped off the more, as he thought, is to eliminate his wife. Perhaps, Lucrezia becomes rather the hearth of the matter. Therefore, “such stuff was courtesy for one who dies along her throat.” In his mind, he has solved the problem; at list, those foolish officials will not break into his orchard again. He, perhaps, may be pleased to lose his wife to death than sharing “the orchard” with another person.     

In the poem, Alfonso pretentiously addresses the duchess image as though he actually loves her, but all his actions indicate his hatred for the duchess. However, he may have loved her when the marriage began new and was still at its flower stage. By that time he saw the duchess an easy-going type. The duchess is addressed here as one who revives people from their harsh situation and thoughts. She spores laughter and smiles on people’s faces through her steady smiling countenance. The duke recounts the reminiscence of the duchess’ youthful stage and points clearly that he loves the way she smiles each time he passes. Of cause, the duchess does the same to other passerby, “--- but who passed without the same smile.” Lucrezia has a heart too made simple, too tolerable to accommodate everyone always in her laughter. 

When Lucrenzia finally comes into the dukedom, Alfonso then realises that her heart is far more different from his own. The duchess has a heart too made simple and she is easy going. But the duke is autocratic in nature. They remain two incompatible beings like the clod and the pebble. Whereas the duke has the intention of chastising his subjects with iron, he gives no opportunity to opposition and objection. He is prepared to pay any objection with death, through which he hopes to set example for others. That is why at the duchess’ death he says, “plainly set her wit to yourself”, addressing his subjects. This intended action has overwhelmed his heart even when the duchess still restrains him from executing them. The duchess becomes rather unbendable in her relentless effort to prevent the duke’s intended mischief. At this contrasting point, everything goes to the back door. The duke now could see her smiles and laugher usurping means and a ridicule of his ignorance, cowardice and lack of learning. Nothing about the duchess appears pleasant to Alfonso again, even her reminiscent pleasant breast. He sees the duchess’ advice as a command instead, and understands it a dictate which he cannot adhere or succumb to. According to Alfonso, “--- you disgust me, here you miss, or there exceed the mark.” These things Alfonso wouldn’t want to listen to, as he could never stoop to any advice, it doesn’t matter from whom it comes. To arrest the situation, the duchess has to be murdered.

Alfonso is very foolish to have understood that listening to advices is simply stooping. Power overgrows his head to see the kind-hearted words of the duchess a command instead. It is apparent, the duke inherited power from his father since the dukedom seemingly is assigned to his linage. As a result, he must have nursed power longer than it was given to him. As an inherited feature, exercise of power also must have been in his blood. Being an inheritor, he doesn’t need any advice. He doesn’t need one who tells him to amend, redress, remove, withhold, add and correct. All he does is fine, correct and must be accepted by the people. He wants to become the biblical Aaron to have inherited tithing from his great grandfather, Abraham. To take advice drastically means his incompetence as an inheritor and lord of his dukedom. So, by the duchess’ advice, the coward thinks she is trying to expose his ignorance and ranks him below herself in a dukedom under the possession of his linage for “over mine hundred years.” To stop her disturbances, the duchess has to die so that he may have the whole world for himself and perhaps, makes for another wife who would not direct him. Not the type that shows to him that she is learned. His words and action prove him a sadist, an oppressor and a haughty duke.

Seeing all these, it becomes allusive the way he addressed the duchess in the framed art of Fra Pandolf. Well, it was so because his repressed feelings to murder the duchess out of jealousy, which had lasted for more than thirty-six months, are evil frown upon by the society. To defend himself over his act of murder, he extols the beauty of the duchess. But like Freud would say, there is nothing like a sleep of tongue, so also would there be no unintended action executed; for all action is an original intention in the mind of the executioner, although, it may be too long repressed. Alfonso was never unintended; he actually intended the murder and finally did it. To show that he wasn’t remorse about the murder, look at his words.

Such stuff was courtesy, she thought--- 
And if she let herself be lessoned so; nor 
Plainly set her wit to yourself.

If Alfonso had not intended the murder he wouldn’t have summoned the courage to mention that her death rather should be a lesson, probably, both for her and the living subjects of his dukedom. Peradventures the duchess resumes the Abiku of her time to reincarnate, she would mind the way she speaks to men like Alfonso whose heart is not prepared to stoop to any advice; especially when it comes from a woman. And it would, of course, be beneficial to her in her reincarnated days to know that when a man like Alfonso issues a decree, all her nagging smiles and suggestions should cease abruptly. “Such stuff was courtesy”, he maintains, proves his intention to murder the duchess a welcome development to his heart.

My Last Duchess 



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.
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; 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. 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. 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 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. 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 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!

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