AQA's most dangerous poet? Robert Browning's My Last Duchess!
I remember reading this for the first time at Liverpool University in my final undergraduate year when I was lucky enough to be taught by Vince Newey. After George Eliot who everyone loved passionately except me, this poet was a liberation!
This poem has always excited students and is as disturbing and twisted as anything by Val McDermid or John Connollly!
Just a few thoughts:
1) Consider the setting of the poem and the audience. How is this relationship concerned with power and how far does this dynamic mirror the predicament of the ‘ever-imprisoned’ Duchess of the poem? Is the setting deliberately 'exotic' and historically distant? Think about how this contrasts with Duffy's and Armitage's use of the dramatic monologue where setting is commonplace....
2) Consider the ‘gestural’ aspect of the opening. ‘That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,’ and the retrospective irony of this opening. Can the reader ever see this opening in the same way again? Is it proprietorial? Is there any suggestion of a terrible continuum? How far do we come to pathologise the Duke's hierachical speech register??
3) If the Duchess has become incarcerated within a work of Art, does this suggest that Art may be cold, clinical and frequently a symbol of material and worldly power? Is Browning ironizing Art itself( and his own practice) in the poem?
4) If we as readers are gazing upon the Duchess through the brief reanimation of the poem’s ‘story’ and length then as a 'speech act', is the poet playing with the idea of voyeurism or spectatorship?
5) Think of the death of the Duchess as violation and then the ‘unveiling’ and exposing of the Duchess by the Duke and THEN of our role as spectators in gazing upon this woman-as-spectacle? ‘The curtain I have drawn for you..’ How far is this erotically violating? Who or what is being fetishised?
6) Mounting annoyance of the Duke during the course of the poem. As he speaks the story, he reactivates his jealousy and ‘reasons’ for her death by his murderous hand! This highlights the pathology of the Duke, his love of power and his terrible and dangerous temper. He plays God: ‘Sir, ‘twas not her husband’s presence only, called that spot of joy..’ Does he re-arouse himself to 'murder' once again through the reanimating act of retelling the 'story' of the 'last Duchess'?
7) Consider the gradual separation of the Duke’s perspective and outlook form that of the reader. When do we start to view his outlook as suspect? After this rupturing of the initial relationship between teller and audience what would you say is the interest or fascination of the poem? Does this render the Duke a psychological specimen?
8) What lines in particular reinforce the Dukes wealth and power? Is his pride his downfall morally?
9) ‘This grew; I gave commands; Then all smiles stopped together.’ What effects are generated through the use of the hiatus (pause) in the middle of the line? How far do we regard the murderous rage of the Duke as sexually motivated? Do we concur with the woman’s ostensible 'guilt' or is this poem an indictment of patriarchal power?
10) The poem ends with the shock that another young Duchess is about to be 'bought' for her dowry. Do we regard her situation as unenviable? Is she his next victim-in-waiting? Does Browning make it clear that the old Duchess like the new is just an economic acquisition? An artefact? Again this raises questions about the morality of art?look how the poem ends with another gesture towards an art object.