Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess: A Specimen Of Victorian Poetry

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In its value neutral use, “Victorian” simply identifies the historical era in England roughly coincident with the reign of Queen Victoria, 1837-1901. It was a time of rapid and wrenching economic and social changes that had no parallel in earlier history- changes that made small-scale England, in the course of the nineteenth century, the leading industrial power, with an empire that occupied more than a quarter of the earth’s surface. The pace and depth of such developments, while they fostered a mood of nationalist pride and optimism about future progress, also produced social stresses, class conflicts and widespread anxiety about the ability of the nation and the individual to cope, socially, politically and psychologically with the cumulative problems of the age. England was the first nation to exploit the technological possibilities of steam power and steel, but its unregulated industrialization, while it produced great wealth for an expanding middle class, led also to the deteriotation of rural England, a mushroom growth of often shoddy urbanization and massive poverty concentration in slum neighborhoods.

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According to William J. Long, Historically the age is remarkable for the growth of democracy following the Reform Bill of 1832; for the spread of education among all classes; for the rapid development of the art and sciences; for important mechanical inventions; and for the enormous extension of the bounds of human knowledge by the discoveries of science. Though the Victorian Age produce two great poets, Tennyson and Browning, the Age, as a whole, is remarkable for the variety and excellence of its Prose. So, this is an “Age of Prose”. It is the age of Newspaper, magazine and the modern novel due to increased the no. of readers and spreading of education. The Victorian Age is emphatically an age of realism rather than of romance…a deeper realism which strives to tell the whole truth, showing moral and physical diseases as they are, but holding up health and hope as the normal condition of humanity. This age as an age of doubt and pessimism, following the new conception of man and of the universe which was formulated by science under the name of Evolution. It is spoken of also as a Prosaic age, lacking in great ideals.

The historian T.B Macaulay praised the age’s spirit of progress. Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin prophesied against the age, as sometimes did Dickens. Tennyson periodically tried to make sense of it; Mathew Arnold criticized it; Mrs Gaskell reflected it and reflected on it. Antony Trollope represented it.

“Robert Browning (1813-89) is a Victorian poet who was born in Camber well, a London suburb, and belonged to a middle-class family. His father was a bank clerk. And his mother was a kindly, religious woman whom he loved and respected as she imprinted in him the devotion to religion, music, flowers, and animals”.

“Browning once dreamt to be a dramatist, writing plays Stratford (1835) and Colembe’s Birthday (1844; acted in 1853). These plays were not successful. And yet, Browning’s failure in writing drama inspired him, by availing from the poetic dialogues written for characters, to coin a brilliant poetic technique that is the dramatic monologue”.

Robert Browning lacks Tennyson’s beauty of verse and language, but the poets apply the Romantic legacy in ways that can be compared. He had read much out-of-the-way Renaissance history, as demonstrated in the romance Sordello. He perfected the monologue in ‘My Last Duchess’: The Duke, who speaks, has had his last wife killed because she smiled at everyone,

His field was the individual soul, never exactly alike in any two men, and he sought to express the hidden motives and principles which govern individual action. The reason for Browning’s obscrunity is, …that browning shows himself capable, at times, of writing directly, melodiously, and with noble simplicity…. He feels his mission of faith and courage in a world of doubt and timidity…Browning is the most stimulating poet in our language. His influence upon our life is positive and tremendous.

My Last Duchess

This poem, published in 1842, exemplifies Browning’s use of the dramatic monologue that is ‘A poem in which an imaginative speaker addresses a silent audience, usually takes place at a critical moment in the speaker’s life and offers an indirect and unconscious revelation of his or her temperament and character’. Browning employs such a technique to discuss the women status in the early troublesome Victorian Age (1830-47) which is marked by lack of love, ugly materialism and patriarchal autocracy are to be shed light on.

The persona of this poem is a duke of Ferrara, a city in northern Italy, who addresses an envoy whose master’s daughter’s marriage to the duke is to be arranged. The poem begins with the duke’s portraying of his dead wife’s painting hanged on the wall of his gallery before the envoy. As if the duke tries to prove his kindness towards his passing wife to the listener in having a portrait of her. ‘That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall / Looking as if she were alive’.

However, the duke, then, turns to complain to the envoy about his last wife with whom he was discontented. The dead wife is kind to what is surrounding her. She favours all people, servants and her husband so evenly that makes the duke irritated. The husband thinks that she must treat him distinctively as he is noble and deserves her joy only and essentially for him. And that can be vivid in ‘My Last Duchess’, as Browning says:

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 what’er

She looked on, and her looks went ever where

Sir,’t was all one! My favour at her breast (lines, 20-5)

Moreover, Browning, in another extract of the poem, shows us that the wife seems not to be noble because she doesn’t know the traditions of the royal nobility to which her husband belongs. Her simplicity, savagery in the duke’s perspective, leads to her ignorance of the duke’s nobility that dates back to hundreds of years:

Somehow-I know not how-as if she ranked

My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name

With any body’s gift (lines, 32-4)

Accordingly, the wife can’t grasp the egoism [thinking too highly of oneself] (Hornby, 1995, 371) of her husband, instead she continues her innocence and courtesy to the ones surrounding her. And the more kind to others she is, the more furious the husband becomes. Hence, the duke unconsciously reveals to the envoy the former’s murderous deed while complaining about the dead wife. He gives orders to his gallants to kill her, and her death is assured by:

Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt

When’re 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 (lines, 43-7)

The poem ends with the duke’s insistence on having the envoy’s master’s daughter as the inevitable wife since the envoy’s master’s munificence, regarding the bride’s [his daughter’s] dowry, is out of question:

Then I repeat

The count your master’s known munificence

Is ample warrant that no just pretense

Of mine for dowry will be disallowed (lines, 48-51).

Consequently, ugly materialism and lack of love, as some of the Victorians values, are apparently discussed. The word ‘dowry’ indicates materialism, since the former is a financial settlement given to the bride by the bride’s father as an Italian custom (Kearns, 1984, 24). The duke properly knows how to seize the opportunity. He accepts to get married to a lady, whom he hasn’t been familiar with, only for her richness and nobility. Thus, the duke doesn’t pay attention to love; caring for money and rank, as the word ‘count’ suggests.

The Victorian Age lacks love as it glorifies materialism, assured by the fact that half-a-million Victorian women were unmarried due to the Victorian greed. Matter opposes emotion and love. Thus, you can’t find someone who is greedy and lover simultaneously since seeking chance and utility entails making heart out of emotion and senseless as a stone… As well, the percentage of poor Victorian women exceeds the rich’s, and so the poor were left without marriage as a result of the absence of love and the pursuit of money and position (Abrams, 2000, 1056). Moreover, the duke’s preparation, for a new marriage, denies his love to his passing wife as he doesn’t express his sorrow for losing her. On the contrary, he talks about her shortcomings that lead him to kill her, instead of mentioning her pros. It’s obvious, then, that the duke neglects his dead wife’s emotions and identity, depicting and criticizing her in accordance with his anti-feminist point of wife. This attitude towards women is strongly refuted by the second-wave feminist criticism refutes since women are no longer trapped inside a male truth, but women are able to express themselves better than man do.

The Victorian Age is known for its patriarchal superiority to women. And the paternal autocracy can be figured out in this poem. ‘Who’d stoop to blame / this sort of trifling?..And I choose / Never to stoop’ (lines, 34-5, 42-3). The duke doesn’t bother himself to tell his partner that her kindness to the lower-class people, parallel to her courtesy to him, severely irritates him. Thus, the duke prefers not to ‘stoop’, to lower himself to his wife as a result of being not noble or, simply, a woman. The duke, who symbolizes the tyrannical Victorian men, thinks that it humiliates his manliness if he discusses with his wife her mistaken behaviour .As a result, he selects the direct cruel punishment, and what can be sought for more cruel punishment than death as if she commits a sin.

The duke also represents the god-like figure while the wife stands for the submission and powerlessness. His injustice, wrought to his wife, is apparent when he gets benefit and utility from his wife even after her death. The husband exhibits his dead wife as a bad model not to be followed by the new wife; otherwise the latter will face her counterpart’s similar fatal end.

The idea of the arranged marriage is another instance of the Victorian paternal oppression the Victorian women undergo as they are imprisoned in the golden, fundamental holy-like family. The Victorian women cannot decide their inevitable decisions. 

The final trait of the Victorian masculine dominion over the Victorian women is the duke’s painting of ‘Neptune.’ ‘Notice Neptune / taming a sea-horse.’. Neptune’ is the Roman god of sea, identified with the Greek ‘Poseidon’, who is Herculean and responsible for sending storms and earthquakes. Neptune, then, shows us a trait of the Victorian domineering men over women; ‘sea-horse’ is a signifier of the weak Victorian women since ‘sea-horse’ is female and notice that their kinship is like the master-servant affinity. Browning’s use of the word ‘tame’ underlines, again, the severe Victorian treatment of women.

Works Cited

  • Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Cengage Learning India, 2015
  • J. Long, William. English Literature: Its History and Its Significance for the Life of the English Speaking World. AITBS Publishers, India. 2018
  • Daiches, David. (8ED). A Critical History of English Literature. Vol. II., Supernova Publishers. 2018
  • Kearns, George, et al. English and Western Literature. California: Macmillan, 1984
  • Coyle, Martine. (1984). Literary Terms and Criticism. London: Macmillan
  • Abrams, M.H. (Ed). (2000). the Norton Anthology of English Literature. 2Vols. New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Kennedy, X.J. (1995). Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. New York: Harper
  • Keach, William, et al. (1996). Adventures in English literature. Orlando: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
  • Lurker, Manfred. (1987). Dictionary of Gods and Goddesses, Devils and Demons. Trans. G.L. Campell. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  • Al Khayed, Murad. The dominance of the Victorian man over woman in Robert Browning’s “My Last Dutches”. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science .International Journal of Research in Humanities, Arts and Literature.Vol. 3, Issue 7, Jul 2015,75-80
25 October 2021

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