’ My Last Duchess Essay, Research Paper
Robert Browning (1812-1889); “My Last Duchess”
Many poems must be read more than once to be fully understood. It is often that one may notice something that wasn’t noticed the first time around. It is also possible for a poem to be read once, and have received the full meaning. Sometimes poems leave one thinking because the poem doesn’t provide enough information for an affirmative conclusion. “My Last Duchess” provides examples of leaving readers unclear of the full meaning, and unclear of affirmative conclusions. By using reader-response criticism and new historicism, one may fully understand, (or understand as much as possible), the meanings of Browning’s work.
Before women held jobs outside of the home, before men became less dominate than women, before intense science fiction devastated the minds of disbelieving alien followers, and possibly before women started to perform acceptable grooming – there was poetry. When “My Last Duchess” was written in 1842, women held a different place in society than they do today. Women were objects. Men ruled the world. Only Mother Nature and Mother Mary had any say in anything. Times have changed. Women have positions in government and have as much power as men . When this poem was created, women were merely the trophy of men. Much like they have become augmented trophies of men today, women of the past had no say in anything. When people read this poem, they may think “why does the woman put up with the duke, why doesn’t she leave him?” Back then, women listened to the man they belonged to; he was their master. Today, a woman with even the slightest bit of common sense does not put up with the attitude of any man.
“Too easily impressed: she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.”
To an understanding human being of today, this means she was friendly and smiled frequently to show shewas an easy going person, rather than displaying the attitude of a unfriendly type. However, men of today probably resemble the men of earlier days; when a woman smiles at someone else, some men become jealous, enraged and even murderous; just ask Mr. Harry Haynes of Queens who killed his wife Debra on August eighth of 1999, because of marital problems (http://ehostweb7.epnet.com).
In many movies and TV programs, jealousy often leads to murder. Then again, it isn’t clear why the last duchess was the last duchess. It’s unclear what her whereabouts have become. Is she dead? Is she alive and just out of the Dukes life? Where is she? The readers’ imagination helps create a conclusion that was not fully provided with the text. But, when thinking of the time period, was it not custom of a person holding royalty to behead those who violated him. And, if they weren’t beheaded, weren’t they somehow punished? If the presidents wife were to smile at the Pope, that doesn’t mean she wants to have sex with him. She is only being polite. Although, being polite in 1842 meant one wanted to have sex with whoever one smiles at. What does that say for a society today of people who smile all the time? What does it say for the hippies of the ’60’s who smiled even while they were sleeping?
It’s great to see how society has changed throughout the years. It seems as though the role of men hasn’t changed as much as the women’s.
“… 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…”
Besides smiling a lot, she was also someone who may have easily blushed. Blushing occurs when people become flattered or embarrassed. Yet, it is not apparent why the duchess was blushing, for her blushing was captured in time on the painting by Fra Pandolf. There have been famous actors who have made mistakes and a slight blush appears upon their cheek. Some TV shows include behind-the-scenes acts at the end of the main program. What is usually shown is a humorous mistake made by actors while they were filming.
“My Last Duchess” can take strong standings in either opposition: the duchess was completely innocent, or the woman was a complete whore who had unprotected sex with multiple men at once. Coming from a different angle, and not accusing the duke of being wrong for getting rid of her (in whatever way he did), who’s to say the duchess wasn’t sneaking around behind the Dukes’ back. What if her smiles to various men were really a slight chuckle symbolic of multiple orgasms she recieved from other men? Therefore, whenever she chuckled like so, thoughts raced through her mind reminding her about the orgasmic pleasure that strange man, who is not the Duke, has given to her, and how the Duke will never find out. Those incarnation pink blushes upon her cheek and throat that appeared while Fra Pandolf painted her, may have been blushes of her exerting energy into a sexual encounter with the artist. Even in 1842, it is completely possible that the duchess was a whore.
It can be understood why a woman of that time would be promiscuous. She was only a token of status to her husband. He loved her beauty but not her personality. Her sneaking around gave her the freedom, companionship and satisfaction she needed from a real man or men.
It is known that many marriages do not last. Be it marital problems or distrust, they seem to end with the deceitful woman taking everything from the male, who at times is more innocent than the woman. Having read a poem from the 1800’s, it is hard to know how relationships really were back then. People really never know until they have lived it. Complete understanding comes with experience.
While reading “My Last Duchess”, I came to several conclusions from both men’s and women’s angles:
1. The Duke was a distrusting, insecure, nervous wreck, unproud of his beautiful wife, and got rid of her in whatever way he did.
2. The Duchess was a whore and hopefully was killed by the Duke for her actions. In 1842, the time the poem was written, the Duke could have probably gotten away with murder.
3. The Duchess was completely innocent. She happened to be a very happy girl who easily blushed, and lived with an insecure jerk, who thought she should never smile, unless she’s smiling at him.
4. The Duke was actually sick of having the same girl around. He used her innocence/promiscuousness to push her away, and possibly off a cliff since her whereabouts remain unknown.
“It is a truism that a great body of Browning’s poetry is deeply involved in history: for it’s setting he drew on a wide and often out-of the-way knowledge of historians, biographers and memorialists; the characters of his dramatic monologues, ancient, medieval or modern, are either real personages, or credible imaginary ones who behave plausibly in situations that might have existed” (Armstrong 77). While creating realistic characters, Browning also created a poem that allows the audience to participate with the ending. Each reader can have his/her own understanding to the end of “My Last Duchess”. With new historicism, it is easier to critique a poem of yesteryears, because the current times are available to compare it to. Combining criticism and theoretical endings provide grounds for something more entertaining. Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” has endings that vary from person to person, and from societies of the past to those of today.
2. Milford, Sir Humphrey. Robert Browning: Poetry and Prose. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1956. p XIV-XV.
3. Armstrong, Isobel. Writers and their Background: Robert Browning. Ohio University
Press, 1975. p 77-80.
4. Pearsall, Robert Brainard. Robert Browning. Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1974. p Inside cover.