Study Guide

My Last Duchess Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

By Robert Browning

Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.

Frà Pandolf’s Painting of the Duchess

The most obvious symbol in "My Last Duchess" is the one that the Duke spends most of his time talking about – the portrait of the Duchess painted by Frà Pandolf on the wall of his private gallery. Intriguingly, the Duke doesn’t say much about the painting itself, except that it’s lifelike and that it seems to capture the Duchess’s emotional state. We don’t get any sense of what pose the Duchess is in, what she’s wearing, or what the color scheme or brushstrokes. What we do learn about the painting is that it’s painted directly on the gallery wall, and so the Duke has to keep it covered by a curtain so that he can control who views it.

  • Lines 1-2: The Duke points toward the portrait of the duchess using the language of this first sentence – "that" and "painted on the wall" start setting the scene for the reader.
  • Lines 3-4: When the Duke describes the hard work that went into the painting of the Duchess, he uses a synecdoche, making Frà Pandolf’s hands, not Frà Pandolf himself, the subject of the sentence. By reducing the painter to the part of his body that does the work, he dehumanizes Frà Pandolf, turning him into a tool instead of a person.
  • Line 8: It’s a tough call on this one, but you could think of the painting of the Duchess as personified. After all, paintings themselves are just paint on a surface, but this painting is looking at the viewer – it has an "earnest glance" – and it almost seems like it has feelings – "depth and passion." However, because the painting is an image of a person, you could also interpret the Duke’s comments as being about the subject of the painting, instead of the painting itself – in which case this wouldn’t be personification.
  • Lines 17-19: Imagining the way the painter might have complimented the Duchess, the Duke uses elaborate imagery.

That Spot of Joy

When the Duchess is happy about something – and we really mean anything, her marriage, her dinner, the weather, anything at all – she smiles and blushes, and the Duke describes her blush s a "spot of joy" (21) that appears in her cheek. The spot of joy is an involuntary signal of the Duchess's pleasure, something that she can’t control, that betrays her inner feelings to the world. The Duke thinks of it as a "spot" – a stain, a symbol of her tainted nature.

  • Lines 13-15: The Duke uses a tongue-in-cheek understatement to emphasize how many things cause the "spot of joy" to appear in the Duchess's cheek.
  • The phrase "spot of joy" itself is a startling juxtaposition of images that makes the reader think differently about the kind of blush that crosses the face of the Duchess. The fact that her blushing is referred to as a "spot" makes it sound blameworthy.
  • Lines 21-22: In order to convey that he perceives the Duchess as flirtatious, the Duke comes up with a euphemism – "too soon made glad," which is a roundabout way of saying "easily pleased" – or maybe just "easy."
  • Of course, that may not be an accurate characterization of the Duchess – but that’s how the Duke perceives her. Since the Duchess isn’t here to defend herself, all we have to go on is the Duke’s claim.

Smiles

Along with blushes, the Duchess bestows pleased smiles on anyone and anything that brings a little bit of joy into her life. The Duke thinks of these smiles almost the way you might think of collector’s items – they’re worth less (maybe even worthless) because she gives out so many of them. In fact, it seems like the Duke thinks that the Duchess should only smile for him. Taking pleasure in your life, let alone in its subtle details, just doesn’t fit with his prestige-and-power philosophy.

  • Lines 23-24: The Duke continues to use indirect language and figures of speech to imply that the Duchess is too flirtatious without saying so directly.
  • In these lines, he uses innuendo together with metonymy – "her looks went everywhere" – to suggest that she herself "goes everywhere" too. (An innuendo is a seemingly innocent statement that implies something bawdy, sexy, or racy. Basically, anything you could follow with "nudge, nudge" or "that’s what she said" counts as an innuendo.)
  • Lines 31-34: The Duchess isn’t the only one reduced to an intangible thing associated with her – the Duke describes his marriage to her using metonymy, calling it the "gift" of his "nine-hundred-years-old name."
  • Lines 43-45: The Duke asks a rhetorical question, implying that the Duchess bestows the same smile on everyone around her.
  • Line 46: The Duke uses synecdoche when he admits to his murder of the Duchess; instead of saying that he killed her, he mentions that all of her smiles have stopped.

Stooping

It’s important to notice that when the Duke describes something that he thinks of as inappropriate or base for him to do, he does so by calling it "stooping." He considers himself to be on a high social pedestal, with his "nine-hundred-years-old name" and his wealth. He can’t "lower" himself, even to tell someone that he’s angry with them. Normal communication and behavior are out of the question for him, because they fall into the category of "stooping."

  • Lines 34-35: The Duke uses a rhetorical question to force his listener to agree with him that it would be "stooping" to talk to the Duchess directly about her inappropriate behavior.
  • Line 36: A paradox: the Duke claims that he doesn’t have "skill in speech," even though he’s speaking skillfully in order to say so!
  • Lines 42-43: In these lines, as the Duke repeats his belief that communicating with the Duchess would be "stooping," Browning uses assonance, or the repetition of vowel sounds, to bring emphasis to the lines.

Neptune Taming a Seahorse

The final art object that the Duke points out to the Count’s servant as they leave his gallery is a bronze statue of Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, taming a seahorse. The Duke emphasizes that this statue was cast for him specifically and names the sculptor, Claus of Innsbruck – which presumably means that this sculptor is well-known. As readers, we have to consider this statue as a foil to the only other art object that we see in the gallery – the portrait of the Duchess.

  • Lines 54-56: Browning uses alliteration and consonance to unify and structure the lines describing the statue of Neptune.

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...