ENG 2653: My Last Duchess

So this week in my Eng. Lit. class we read four poets from the Victorian era: Robert Browning, Elisabeth Barrett Browning, Matthew Arnold, and Lord Alfred Tennyson. Of the four, the one that got me most was Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess.” It wasn’t the poem itself at first. It was after reading my classmates’ interpretations of the poem that it started to get to me.

To start, here’s a link to the poem: My Last Duchess.

Pretty much everyone in my class is convinced that the poet either killed his wife or had her killed. I am completely convinced that this isn’t so. It’s a deceptively simple poem. Deceptive because it isn’t simple at all. At first glance, it’s easy to go, “Yes, he definitely killed his wife and is kind of bragging about it.” However, I think that opinion is straight up wrong.

(I’d like to add a caveat here: poetry, unlike prose, it often intentionally cloudy for readers to draw their own interpretations, so I could be spouting totally untrue crap right now.)

The Duke’s visitor is presumably the liaison between the Duke and a Count whose daughter he wishes to marry: “the count your master’s…fair daughter’s self, as I avowed/at starting, is my object” (49-52). While showing the portrait, the Duke rants a lot about his late wife. There seems to be an edge of guilt in his ramblings, as though he is trying to convince himself that she deserved to die. Still, I don’t think this guilt is present because he killed her or even had her killed. I believe that either his treatment of her drove her to commit suicide or that she became ill from the stress of his jealousy and expired that way (not unheard of in writings from the time period).

What evidence is there? Well, it’s mostly my interpretation of a few lines, which are probably deliberately ambiguous. For instance, one bit most people from my class used to support the murder theory: “This grew; I gave commands;/Then all smiles stopped together” (45-46). I interpret this differently; I think that as the Duke continued harping on imagined slights (either against him as her husband or his prestigious “nine-hundred-years-old name” 33), the duchess began to sink into depression and withdraw until she died by her own hand or through illness.

Admittedly, there’s not much to go on. But I also believe that was part of Browning’s aim with this poem. I don’t believe he was trying to write a confession of a murderer. I think he wanted to prompt his readers to consider the human psyche and draw their own conclusions. Are the Duke’s guilty ramblings because he’s a murderer? And if so, is it directly or indirectly? (Indirectly here meaning he drove her to her death, not that he had her killed.) I have my opinions, which I’ve already expounded, but like I said it could all be total crap.

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