Update 20-Jan-2024: The RSS for this post went a bit haywire halfway through, and apparently stopped recognizing the angle brackets in html tags. I don’t know why this happened but it seems to have something to do with the fact that I used em spaces to indent the lines of poetry. Sorry for the inconvenience. The email and web versions seem to be OK.

In 1936, Louis S Friedland claimed to identify the historical figures portrayed by Robert Browning in “My Last Duchess” (1842). According to Friedland, the poem’s speaker, the Duke, is Alfonso d’Este, fifth Duke of Ferrara, and the person he is addressing is Nikolaus Madruz, an emissary representing Ferdinand, Count of Tyrol. The count is one of the sons of Ferdinand I, Emperor of Austria. Before his death, Ferdinand I had almost concluded negotiations — the amount of the dowry had been agreed — for the marriage of his daugheter, Barbara, to Alfonso. In due course the marriage went ahead and Barbara became Alfonso’s second Duchess.

If Friedland is right about this, the negotiations which form the background of the poem were successful. The Duke achieved his “object” (l. 53), both in terms of an acceptable dowry and marriage to the Count’s fair sister’s self. There is, it would seem, some confusion as to the relationship between the Count, Madruz’s “master”, and the proposed bride. Friedland suggests that the mix-up is imputed by Browning to the Duke:

We may suppose that Alfonso had not yet paid his visit to Vienna; the confusion as to the royal authority consequent upon Emperor Ferdinand's death, and the nunmber of male heirs, necessitating a division of the empire, may well have confounded the best informed person. (Friedland, p. 682)

Of course it’s also possible that the confusion was Browning’s own. Friedland acknowledges that he doesn’t know what the poet’s “immediate sources” (Friedland, p. 684) were, while maintaining that Browning was evidently familiar with the history. But it’s a little surprising that, if he knew that the young woman’s father had been Emperor of Austria, he should have had his Duke refer to her as the daughter of a count.

Friedland’s essay takes issue with an earlier argument by John D Rea which purported to identify the poem’s Duke as Vespasiano Gonzaga, Duke of Sabbioneta. I don’t intend to try to make a case that Rea was right after all. I take the word, “Ferrara”, which appears under the poem’s title, to be an indication of place — though I’ve seen it described as a speech label. The Duke is clearly at home in that place: the painting of his last duchess is “on the wall” (l. 1) and covered by a curtain that “none puts by” (l. 9) but he. So we can be reasonably sure that the speaker is not the Duke of Sabbioneta, and that he lives in Ferrara.

I mention Rea’s hypothesis because, in arguing against it, Friedland reveals some assumptions that may not be warranted. Friedland points out that the second wife of the thrice-married Vespasiano Gonzaga cannot be the Count’s daughter who features in Browning’s poem: Vespasiano met and married her in Spain, and there was no emissary (Friedland, p, 662). But this assumes that the “last” Duchess in the poem was also the Duke’s first, that the Duke is negotiating to marry for only the second time not, say, for the fourth. But if the poem includes any indication that the Duke had been married just once before, it’s very subtle and I’ve missed it.

I repeat that I’m not trying to argue in support of Rea’s candidate. But if we consider the possibility that the “last” Duchess in the portrait is Vespasiano’s third (and last) wife, we see that Friedland’s argument rests on another doubtful assumption: that the negotiations were concluded successfully and that his last Duchess was not, after all, his very last. That’s an assumption that, were it not for Friedland’s essay, I’d have been reluctant to make.

The Duke is pursuing two incompatible aims. I’ll come to them in a moment, but first I’d like to suggest that this may be his habitual way of proceeding. He keeps the painting of his deceased wife behind a curtain, as if solely for his own private viewing, yet has several times in the past shown it to “Strangers” (l. 7), like the emissary himself. It’s as if he wants to conceal and reveal at the same time. And, come to think of it, the same could be said of his address to the emissary.

The Duke has rigid requirements when it comes to the behaviour of his wife, but he isn’t willing to “stoop” to telling her what they are, and what in her conduct he objects to.

empty-spaceWho’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech — (which I have not) — to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark” — and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
— E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. (ll. 34–43)

Instead of expressing his disgust directly to her in words, he “gave commands”. It’s perfectly clear, to the presumably worldly-wise representative no less than to the reader, that the commands resulted in her death:

Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. (ll. 46–7)

The commands lead to the cessation of smiles, followed immediately by “There she stands | As if alive”. “As if alive” implies “not alive”. The phrase repeats and combines two from the first few lines of the poem: “Looking as if she were alive” (l. 2), “and there she stands” (l. 4).

The Duke has succeeded in conveying to the emissary and therefore to the Count that strict compliance with the Duke’s rigid idea of decorum will be required of the young bride — and (by obliquely admitting to a murder) has threatened her with death if she should fall short. Has he simultaneously succeeded in his other aim of securing her hand in marriage and the dowry that should come with it?

Only, I’d suggest, if the Count values the acquisition of a “nine-hundred-years-old name” (l. 33) for his daughter, and/or an advantageous political alliance, more than he does her continued life and wellbeing. Browning hasn’t given us a sense of the Count’s character or objectives on the basis of which we could judge this question, but he certainly hasn’t closed off the possibility that the Count is too attached to his daughter to wish to sacrifice her to the Duke’s notion of what is due to him.

I’ve long felt that there’s a hint of the emissary’s response when the Duke says “Nay, we’ll go | Together down, sir” (ll. 53–4). Years ago, I read somewhere (of course, I don’t remember where), that the Count’s representative is stepping back, deferentially allowing his host to precede him, but whenever I read the line I imagine him striding off in anger and contempt, with the Duke attempting to call him back. Admittedly, that would not be a very diplomatic way for an emissary to behave, but if he has concluded that there is no remaining point in pursuing the negotiations, he may think that further dipolmacy would be a waste of time.

Perhaps the Duke’s “Will’t please you rise?” (l. 47) is merely a straightforward suggestion that they rejoin “The company below” (l. 48), but it would also make sense as an expression of surprise if the other man has unexpectedly stood up without prompting. The Duke’s next utterance immediately precedes his “Nay, we’ll go | Together down, sir”:

The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting is my object. (ll. 49–53)

This naked expression of material interest and entitlement may be the immediate occasion for the emissary’s sudden abandonment of the negotiations (if I’m right in thinking that’s what has happened).

I can’t help wondering if, by threatening — even conditionally and hypothetically — the life of the Count’s daughter, the Duke has put his own life at risk. The Count may well be the kind of parent who doesn’t take kindly to having menaces directed at members of his family.

The poem first appeared in a volume titled Dramatic Lyrics (1842). It strikes me that it is more effective as drama if the reader is watching a failed negotiation (so far as the speaker is concerned) than if we see the Duke succeed in imposing his will on the Count, his representative and ultimately on the Count’s daughter. If this is right, then the woman in the picture is probably the Duke’s very last duchess, not merely his previous one.

What did the unfortunate woman do to draw on herself the the Duke’s “disgust”? That’s not a word to be used between spouses unless the marriage is in dire trouble, and it’s surely out of place in the middle of the Duke’s attempt at delicate, precise judgments: “Just this | Or that in you … here you miss, | Or there exceed the mark” (ll. 37–9). What did she do that disgusted him? She was too generally agreeable. She liked and blushed and thanked indiscriminately — one might say promiscuously:

empty-spaceShe 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. (ll. 21–4)

The Duke falters when he tries explain why he believes himself wronged by her inclination towards gratitude:

empty-spaceShe 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. (ll. 31–4)

The Duke senses, without being able to put his finger on exactly why, that her thanks to him are no more fervent or deeply felt than her thanks to the officious fool who brought her a bough of cherries, or to Frà Pandolf for his compliment. On what basis can he make an assessment like that? Is he, perhaps, a bit paranoid? And, if he is, has that led him to suspect her of a more serious fault than the ones he is articulating? Of, perhaps, having been too intimate with the artist, Pandolf?

I suspect that here, again, the Duke is pursuing conflicting objectives. On the one hand, he is keen to justify himself. He’s admitting to having ordered a murder and he wants to suggest that any proud and passionate man would have done the same in the circumstances; but on the other hand he does not wish to be too specific about what he believes those circumstances to have been. To do so would be to besmirch his late wife’s reputation and to admit to having been (as he thinks) betrayed and made a fool of.

So, he relies on his authority, power and pedigree rather than on his “skill in speech” to carry off the negotiations. Whether he gets his way is not clear but the poem at least leaves open the possibility that he does not.

References

The poem is in The New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse, ed. Chrisopher Ricks (OUP, 1987) pp. 117–8)

Louis S Friedland, “Ferrara and ‘My Last Duchess’”, Studies in Philology, 33, 4 (1936), 656–684