|My Last Duchess
This poem is about a duke showing a painting of his former wife to
an envoy, who came on account of the duke's second marriage to a Count's
daughter. In showing the painting, he carried on to express her conduct
which displeases him to serve as a warning to the second wife what he expects
from her. In reality he is addressing to the envoy, but he makes this clear
only very late in the poem, thus we get the illusion that he is addressing
directly to us as the silent listener. Thus the envoy serves to create
such illusion and curiosity to the reader which form a surprise in the
ending, when the implied listener is revealed, of his (the Duke's) intention
and purpose of making the speech.
The reason the duke is displeased with his duchess is because she is
"too easily impressed" by a small compliment or favor from some unimportant
people of lower rank. She thanks everything and appreciate everything,
and such obsession of love is an insult to the duke because he thinks that
she should feel honored in the high social rank he gives her. By wanting
her to derive pleasure only from himself, he is, in a way, wanting to possess
her, and he thinks such want of possession is also a gift to her.
Sometimes you meet someone of a bad moral character, and if they offended
you, you do not care to argue with them, because by arguing with such a
person, you seem to bring yourself as low as them. I think this is somewhat
like the duke's attitude to his duchess. To him, it is as if high rank
goes together with his moral character, and he is too proud to condensend
himself to communicate his dissatisfaction with someone who lower herself
to that below her actual status. And even if she did not lower herself,
he didn't really respect her as a duchess and does not treat her like one,
since he display his authority and dominance over her by "commanding" her
to death. Then she "stands" in the portrait, "as if alive", as if he had
triumph in gaining control and possession of her, since she can only stand
in his presence (unless he choose to draw the curtain to someone), and
can smile to no one else but he.
The ending mentioning of dowry not only passively reinforce the duke's
lack of feelings (eg. calling his wife's portrait "a piece of wonder" as
if the duchess is a mere object), but it also shows how materialistic and
mercenary he is. And in mentioning the statue of Neptune taming a sea horse,
first of all, it shows his lack of sentiments for his first wife, as he
treats her painting as another of his collections and property, it also
implies that he wants his second wife to be as "tamed" and behave herself.
Although the speaker tells the story in a calm and steady tone, we
can actually sense that he had gone insane when he said "that moment" when
he strangled her, "she was mine...perfectly pure and good." This is a distorted
vision of the speaker that the only way to capture Porphyria's love forever
is to take her life. Such insight is irrational and radical to the extreme,
as although he might always remember the moment she is most in love with
him if such remembrance stand the test of timne, such love will never grow
and blossom. And yet he bears the illogical notion that destruction is
We can also see his insanity when he think her rosy little murdered
head is "smiling... so glad, it has its utmost will", and only an insane
person would think that Porphyria would be pleased to gain the love of
her lover at the price of her own life.
It is a psychopathic behaviour that, after he strangled her, he still
kisses her and sit with the corpse without stirring thinking that she still
blushes and smile for him. It kind of remind me of "A Rose for Emily" where
Emily sleeps with the corpse of the person she killed out of love.
In the end it is quite controversial whether it is insanity when he
thinks that "God has not said a word", or whether religion also supports
male dominance and suppression of female passion.
If Porphyria were to tell the story, she might said it was because she
really loves him and is keen to see him that she came in such a bad weather,
so late at night. Yet in making this rough trip, all soaked wet, her lover
made no response. Thinking that he is more shy and restrained in showing
his feeling, she, true to her own sentiments and heedless of social conventions,
decide to take the initiative and try to seduce him to response through
actions and words. Yet he strangles her. And in astonishment, she die in
confusion and physical suffocation, never knowing why he want to kill her.
In the beginning of the poem, Ulysses' attitude toward his present
life is reflected in the choice of words such as "idle" king, "still" hearth,
"barren" crags which shows his boredom, discontentment and lack of fulfillment
in life. The repetition of "and" in "hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know
not me" suggest the monotony of such existence, and that such existence
is of "little profits". We see, in contrast, that his past experience is
the fulness of life, in the crowding of words without the earlier repetition
of "and", when he describe what he had seen and known (cities, manners,
climates etc.) And such arrangement of the words and the fact that he had
a "hungry" heart is the exact opposite of his Ithacan people's lack of
hunger in that they only "sleep and feed".
For him, lif is "gleamed" by never ending experience and "shine" in
the challenges ("the bringer of new things") it has to offer, and to "pause"
from such is considered "dull". The reason why he compare himself to a
"gray spirit" is because he is old, and yet "spirit" conveys his enthusiasm.
Likewise "a sinking star" conveys that his life is at its setting point
and yet he still wants to make the last effort towards the end of his life.
In paying attention to the rhythm and sounds, the monosyllables of
"that hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not..." and the iambic pantameter
of "to pause, to make an end, to rust..." suggest the dullness and monotony
of life which I have mentioned earlier. Yet the iambic pantameter of "to
strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield" intend for us to draw a parelle
comparison in its similarity in rhythm and sentence structure (to the two
above), yet with totally contrasting meaning.
In addition, the shifting between the explosives and short vowel with
the mellifluous consonants and long vowels in the second stanza about Telemachus,
shows on the one hand his adoration and appreciatin of his son, and also
his differentiation from him and his contempt for his "rugged people" on
the other, with reference to his words "He works his work, I mine". Telemachus
is seen by him as a serious, responsible, moralistic administrator, while
he himself is viewed as a free thinking, quest searching and "noble" person
who is above dealing with common duty.