best known poem of Robert Browning –no relation–is his short dramatic monologue, “My Last Duchess.” In this brilliant span of 56 lines, Browning creates a singularly cold-hearted character in the Duke of Ferrara.
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
The Duke, showing off the painting of his “last” duchess is speaking with the representative of the the count whose daughter the Duke intends to make his next duchess, discloses his own view on love and marriage in this brief span. Does the Duke intend to send warning messages to the Count, ensuring that this new wife will be not err in the way that the old wife did. Did the last duchess stray in some grievous way? If so, there’s no mention of it. We don’t hear the Duke imply that his former wife was unfaithful. Instead, her offense was quite simple:
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.
The Duke intends that his wife–she cannot be called his beloved–be a possession, a walking inhabitant of the art gallery in which he tours with the Count’s representative. The painting before which the two men stand through most of the poem captures the woman almost as perfectly as the living version, and, covered by a curtain that no one else moves aside, the painting will not look on anyone the Duke does not approve.
Long before the term “trophy wife” entered the English language, Browning understood the idea. He also understood the tendency of powerful and wealthy people to allow a desire for control and a love of possessions to overwhelm more humane relationships. As I read this poem, I find myself carried to another expression of marital relations in the Song of Songs.
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—
for your love is more delightful than wine.
Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes;
your name is like perfume poured out.
Readers of the Song disagree on whether the male figure in the poem is King Solomon or simply a male lover. In the end, this doesn’t matter. In the relationship explored throughout the Song, the lovers’ greatest wealth is achieved not in paintings or bronzes but in each other.
In this poem, Robert Browning seems to be offering a commentary on the paths down which the humanism of Renaissance Italy might travel, a vision that contrasts significantly with the more Medieval outlook presented in “Count Gismond,” which appeared the same year, paired in Dramatic Lyrics (1842) as “Italy” and “France” respectively. To take this poem as an utter indictment of the Renaissance, Italy, or humanism, however, would be incorrect, since the Brownings spent their married years, 1849 until Elizabeth’s death in 1861, in Florence, the epicenter of the Duke’s attitudes.
Rather than an utter indictment of humanism, “My Last Duchess” should be viewed as a testimony to the corrosive effects of wealth and power upon human relationship.