Camille Guthrie at Poetry Magazine:
Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue “My Last Duchess,” first published in Dramatic Lyrics (1842), is also an ekphrastic poem: one that engages with a work of art and in this case dramatizes viewers’ responses to the artwork. In the poem, Browning plays with the genre of ekphrasis to reveal the violence underlying representation. An obsessive Duke shows a visitor, and readers, a painting of his last wife. The Duke tries to distract us with courtesy but even as he controls the story of his wife and her image, his emotion exceeds his control and exposes his crimes. Using conversational couplets and telling punctuation, Browning gives us a study of violence, a test of the rivalry between words and images, and a battle between the male and female gaze.
The poem begins with the Duke of Ferrara, a historical figure from the Italian Renaissance, pulling back a curtain to reveal the painting of his wife to the emissary of a Count:
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive.
Such a casual beginning is full of wicked dramatic irony. Browning’s initial trickery appears in the ambiguity of the first words, seemingly functional and innocuous yet implying some curious notions. With “that’s,” the Duke conflates the painting and his wife into an object of “wonder” to be possessed and shown off; with “last,” he hints that he plans for a series of wives, and it’s soon made clear that he’s in talks with the emissary to marry the Count’s daughter. Even the off-hand conjunctive “as if” at first appears to compliment the talent of the painter, Fra Pandolf, but the painting’s splendid lifelikeness quickly summons the presence of death in the past tense “were.” The Duke conjures shadows in the eerie phrase “there she stands,” as if the Duchess herself or her ghost has appeared in the room, startling unsuspecting viewers and putting us on alert.