Study Guide

My Last Duchess Quotes

  • Power

    (since none puts by
    The curtain I have drawn for you, but I) (9-10)

    The Duke’s first allusion to the great power he wields comes in a parenthetical aside, in which he lets slip, intentionally or unintentionally, that he alone controls access to his late wife’s portrait. Even her image is under his jealous guard. The words "control freak" come to mind.

    She thanked men, – good! but thanked
    Somehow – I know not how – as if she ranked
    My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
    With anybody’s gift. (31-34)

    The Duke’s emphasis on his family history and prestige – his "nine-hundred-years-old name" – is underscored by his choice of the word "ranked" to describe the way people should react to gifts. When was the last time you came up with a hierarchy of your birthday presents?

    – E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
    Never to stoop. (42-43)

    Maintaining his own stiff-upper-lip dignity is more important to the Duke than dropping the Duchess a few hints that, if she doesn’t start being a bit less happy-go-lucky, he’s going to have her killed. "Stooping" would be a more serious threat to his power than her flirtatious nature.

    This grew; I gave commands;
    Then all smiles stopped together. (45-46)

    Not only does the Duke have the power to order someone killed, he doesn’t do his dirty work himself. He only has to give "commands" – he can just pick up the red phone and things get done. This emphasizes how far up the social ladder he is – but it also suggests that he’s dependent on underlings. We’re not sure the snobby Duke has it in him to kill somebody with his own two hands.

    Nay, we’ll go
    Together down, sir. (53-54)

    The Duke is obsessed with power in every relationship – not only in a major relationship like his marriage, but also in the minor relationship between him and his listener, the servant of the Count. When the servant tries to get away from him after hearing the story of the Duchess, the Duke insists that they head back to the party together. Not only does this show how the Duke can control every little move the servant makes, it prevents the servant from telling the Count what he’s heard privately – which might make the Count back out on the marriage between his daughter and the Duke.

  • Language and Communication

    never read
    Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
    The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
    But to myself they turned . . .
    And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
    How such a glance came there (6-9, 11-12)

    There are several different kinds of communication happening here. The Duke is telling the servant a story about the portrait of the Duchess. But he’s also picking up on the nonverbal cues that tell him what question the servant wants to ask. (Although he may be projecting that desire onto the servant; we can’t be sure, because we don’t get any information in the poem about how the servant is actually reacting.) The Duke also inadvertently implies that he’s used to people being afraid of him – they want to ask about the portrait, but they don’t dare.

    all and each
    Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
    Or blush, at least. (29-31)

    The Duke’s big problem with the Duchess is that the way she communicates with people isn’t nuanced enough. She gives the same friendly, flirty reaction to everyone and everything.

    Even had you skill
    In speech – (which I have not) – to make your will
    Quite clear to such an one (35-37)

    The Duke claims that he can’t talk to the Duchess about her behavior because he’s not a good enough speaker to really make his feelings clear to her. But we can tell this is just an excuse, because the language he uses to describe the situation to the Count’s servant is quite skillful.

    This grew; I gave commands;
    Then all smiles stopped together. (45-46)

    Although the Duke doesn’t want to communicate with the Duchess directly about her indiscriminate kindness, he sets up an alternate, indirect line of communication in order to bring about her murder. This other path of communication depends on an underling who will hear and carry out the Duke’s orders. The implied murder of the Duchess turns the Duke’s commands into performative language.

  • Art and Culture

    I call
    That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
    Worked busily a day, and there she stands. (2-4)

    Notice that the first comment the Duke makes about his late wife’s portrait is that it is successful as a piece of art – it’s realistic, lifelike, and shows the painter’s skill. This artistic quality is far more important to him than any sentimental value. (We’re not sure the Duke has sentiment anyway.)

    that pictured countenance,
    The depth and passion of its earnest glance (7-8)

    The portrait of the Duchess seems to have captured her spirit. The Duke doesn’t describe the portrait in terms of its artistic school, colors, shapes, or brushstrokes – he describes its emotional quality.

    Must never hope to reproduce the faint
    Half-flush that dies along her throat:" (17-19)

    The Duke imagines the painter, Frà Pandolf, complimenting the Duchess by telling her that no artistic medium could actually reproduce the complex flushes and tints of her skin. In the Duke’s opinion, there is no greater compliment than the suggestion that a human being could be superior to an art object.

    Too easily impressed: she liked whate’er
    She looked on, and her looks went everywhere. (23-24)

    The Duke’s assessment of the Duchess is that she likes everything in the same way indiscriminately. As a connoisseur and collector, he values the ability to make fine distinctions between the quality of different objects or acts. The Duchess's general appreciation of everything – and everyone – in the same way frustrates him to no end. It’s important to notice that part of his objection to her behavior is that she isn’t critical or analytic about things the way he is.

    There she stands
    As if alive. (46-47)

    This is a simple but deceptive statement, which emphasizes several things including: the lifelike quality of the painting, the fact that the Duchess is no longer alive, and the idea that Frà Pandolf’s painting might replace the real-life Duchess for the Duke.

    Notice Neptune, though,
    Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
    Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me! (54-56)

    At the end of the poem, the Duke concludes his monologue by pointing out one more art object in his gallery – a statue of Neptune, the god of the sea, taming a seahorse. It’s important to him to emphasize the name of the artist and that the piece was commissioned especially for him. (Notice his use of the exclamation point, a rare occurrence in the poem.)We suspect it might also be important to him that the subject of the piece is taming – he seems to enjoy domesticating and dominating other people.

  • Madness

    THAT’S my last Duchess painted on the wall,
    Looking as if she were alive. (1-2)

    The Duke knows the difference between the living Duchess and her painting – but he doesn’t see it as much of a difference. It’s startling that he brings up the unusual circumstances of his previous wife’s death at the beginning of this conversation with a servant of the family he wants to marry into next. He’s a little bit obsessive to say the least.

    as if she ranked
    My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
    With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
    This sort of trifling? (32-35)

    The Duke can’t believe that anyone would fail to understand that the most important thing in the universe is having an old family name. Again, this isn’t exactly insanity, but it is an extremely narrow-minded attitude toward values.

    "Just this
    Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
    Or there exceed the mark" (37-39)

    OK, at this point, we’re really starting to wonder about the Duke’s sanity. "Disgust" is a bizarrely strong and inappropriate word to use to describe your reaction to someone smiling when they ride their white mule. If the Duke is this inappropriate with his word choice, we have to wonder about the other ways in which he is inappropriate.

    This grew; I gave commands;
    Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
    As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
    The company below, then. (45-48)

    This is the point where we become pretty sure that the Duke is a little unhinged. Admitting that you had your wife murdered is one thing – politely asking your guest to walk downstairs in the very next sentence is psychotic.

  • Jealousy

    Sir, ’twas not
    Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
    Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek (13-15)

    The Duke is offended that the Duchess would take pleasure in anything other than him. Notice that the way she shows her pleasure is involuntary, (i.e., a blush counts as showing pleasure), but the Duke describes it as though it were a stain or taint, a "spot of joy."

    Frà Pandolf chanced to say, "Her mantle laps
    Over my lady’s wrist too much," or "Paint
    Must never hope to reproduce the faint
    Half-flush that dies along her throat" (15-19)

    The Duke’s jealous fantasies are very elaborate – he’s imagined in detail the kind of compliments that the painter might have paid to the Duchess, and the coy way that she might have responded. It’s important to remember that, as far as we know, this could all be in his head. There’s no evidence in the poem that the painter said these things or that the Duchess blushed in response.

    such stuff
    Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
    For calling up that spot of joy. (19-21)

    The Duke seems to believe that the Duchess chooses to blush or react to compliments and gifts. He describes her as "calling up" her blushes, instead of experiencing them as an involuntary reaction. As readers, we know that she probably isn’t blushing intentionally, and the Duke’s jealousy is illogical.

    She had
    A heart – how shall I say? – too soon made glad.
    Too easily impressed: she liked whate’er
    She looked on, and her looks went everywhere. (21-24)

    When was the last time you heard someone complain because their spouse found joy and pleasure in too many things? "Man, I can’t stand my wife, she’s happy all the time," you might imagine the Duke saying. The Duke fantasizes that this pleasure in the world implies that his wife is promiscuous – a stretch, to say the least.

    Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
    Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
    Much the same smile? (43-5)

    The Duke thinks of kindness as less valuable if it isn’t selective. As he portrays her, the Duchess is a kind and attentive wife to him, but that means less, in his mind, because she’s kind and attentive to everyone. He wants her to save all her affection for him alone – classic controlling abusive husband stuff.