My Last Duchess
by Robert Browning
Section I (Lines 1-13) Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
THAT’S my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive.
- The speaker points out a lifelike portrait of his "last Duchess" that’s painted on the wall.
- This tells us that the speaker is a Duke, that his wife is dead, and that someone is listening to him describe his late wife’s portrait, possibly in his private art gallery.
- It also makes us wonder what makes her his "last" Duchess – for more thoughts on that phrase, check out our comments in the "What’s Up With the Title?" section.
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
- The Duke tells his mysterious listener that the painting of the Duchess is impressively accurate.
- The painter, Frà (or "Friar") Pandolf, worked hard to achieve a realistic effect.
- Notice that the Duke’s comment "there she stands" suggests that this is a full-length portrait of the Duchess showing her entire body, not just a close-up of her face.
Will’t please you sit and look at her?
- The Duke asks his listener politely to sit down and examine the painting.
- But the politeness is somewhat fake, and the question seems more like a command. Could the listener refuse to sit down and look and listen? We don’t think so.
"Frà 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.
- The Duke explains to the listener why he brought up the painter, Frà Pandolf.
- He says that he mentioned Pandolf on purpose, or "by design" (6) because strangers never examine the Duchess's portrait without looking like they want to ask the Duke how the painter put so much "depth and passion" (8) into the expression on the Duchess's face, or "countenance" (7).
- They don’t actually ask, because they don’t dare, but the Duke thinks he can tell that they want to.
- Parenthetically, the Duke mentions that he’s always the one there to answer this question because nobody else is allowed to draw back the curtain that hangs over the portrait.
- Only the Duke is allowed to look at it or show it to anyone else. This is clearly his private gallery, and we’re a little afraid of what might happen to someone who broke the rules there.
Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek:
- Addressing his still-unknown listener as "sir," the Duke goes into more detail about the expression on the Duchess's face in the painting.
- He describes her cheek as having a "spot / Of joy" (14-15) in it, perhaps a slight blush of pleasure.
- It wasn’t just "her husband’s presence" (14) that made her blush in this way, although the Duke seems to believe that it should have been the only thing that would.
- The Duke doesn’t like the idea that anyone else might compliment his wife or do something sweet that would make her blush.