Tone in My Last Duchess
“My Last Duchess,” by Robert Browning is renowned for being an ideal model of a dramatic monologue. He employs the primary elements of a dramatic monologue to produce a poem that compels his readers to interpret the poem from a psychological perspective, and thus form opinions or conclusions about the poem’s subjects. Furthermore, Browning utilizes the speaker’s tone in unison with a dramatic monologue’s primary features in order to enhance the portrayal of the speaker, whom in this case is the Duke of Farrara. Throughout the poem the Duke’s tone bounces around like a volatile electron searching for stability.
He speaks with the intention of creating an image of his former Duchess, but instead does more to reveal his true self. These consistent fluctuations augment the reader’s psychological interpretations of the Duke himself, and in doing so render the Duke as a self-obsessed and cruel being. The Duke’s tone within “My Last Duchess” doesn’t stay in any one place for long. In the early lines of the poem he speaks to his guest in a calm manner, portraying himself as someone merely interested in chatting with the agent who is to be the means to acquiring his new Duchess.
He intrigues his guest with minor facts about his previous Duchess: “Fra Pandolf’s hands/ Worked busily a day, and there she stands(. ),” (lines 3 & 4) along with asking his guest: “Will’t please you sit and look at her? ” (line 5) The Duke’s tone at the stage in the poem causes no alarm for the reader; however, it lays a foundation of implicit details that act as catalysts to a what becomes feverish and unfiltered explosion of genuine feelings. A significant and crucial transition takes place in line 22 of the poem.
Prior to this point the Duke has been describing the painting to the agent; climbing steadily to reach pinnacle from which he can descend rapidly without control. This descent begins with his words: “Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er / She looked on, and her looks went everywhere. / Sir, ‘twas all one! ” (lines23-25). The Duke proceeds to list off all the aspects of royal life that made her smile, but in the Duke’s eyes are petty and unworthy of jubilation. His tone goes calmly descriptive to pitifully maniacal.
His rate of speech increases with each word. The reader can see at this point that the Duke was not revealing his true feelings about his last Duchess while discussing the painting. He is deeply bothered by how easily she is made happy and is looking for his guest to confirm that she was indeed abnormal for being so easily pleased. These lines mark the first explicit examples of Duke’s unstable psyche. The reader continues to delve into the Duke’s psychological following his initial explosion.
He asks his guest how she could possibly be equally as pleased with these insignificant benefits as she is with the ultimate gift, “My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name / ,” (line 33). The Duke believes his guest sees the former Duchess through the same lens of the Duke himself. Being that they are all on the same page the Duke continues with his monologue. He composes himself again, remembering he is respected royalty and professes to the agent that he could not go stooping to her level in order to explain her wrongdoings.
For the Duke it is common knowledge that her behavior was unacceptable and she must reform or be punished. Punishment turns out to be the solution as the Duke goes on to explain the outcome of her misbehaving. His tone does not become feverish or pity seeking like his prior unintentional confession, but instead it is coldly calm. “Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt, / Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without / Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together(. ),” (lines 43-46). His tone in this sadistic confession is one of cold pride.
It projects his prowess and satisfaction with his authority that enables him to right what is wrong. There is no remorse from the Duke, only portrayal of his own ego and a subtle warning to the agent of his soon to be Duchess. The poem concludes with yet another transition in tone as the Duke requests that his guest join him to meet the company below. His tone here is light and matter of fact except for a single line in which he says, “Notice Neptune, though, / Taming a sea horse, thought a rarity, /” (lines 54 & 55). His tone is that of an interjection; a comment that is out of place.
It is seemingly unnecessary on the whole, but for the Duke it is his last warning to the agent: this is no rarity for me, I tame the things in my life that need taming. Browning’s, “My Last Duchess” is a masterpiece of dramatic monologue. He employs tone within the work to portray the genuine psyche of his primary subject. The tone fluctuates up and down, and back and forth to implicitly reveal his maniacal state. These consistent fluctuations augment the reader’s psychological interpretations of the Duke himself, and in doing so render the Duke as a self-obsessed and cruel being.