When thinking of horror in terms of poetry, it’s natural to recount the works of Edgar Allan Poe. But other poems fall into this genre as well. A personal favorite is My Last Duchess by Robert Browning.
At first glance, it seems like a straightforward ekphrasis: a rich nobleman describes a newly painted portrait of his deceased wife. It’s written in rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter, with only one long stanza that serves as a sort of monologue. The narrator (presumably a Duke) speaks directly to the reader and refers to them as “sir”, showing that the Duke assumes the reader to be a male of similar status.
Upon closer inspection, a more sinister plot surfaces within the murky subtext. The language is eloquent so the poem’s true meaning takes a bit of digging, but once you learn the truth, the poem takes a turn. This poem is the Duke’s sly confession to the reader that the Duchess was murdered, possibly by the Duke’s own hand.
The Duke’s narcissism and jealousy lead to the Duchess’ death. Throughout the poem, the Duke laments at how his wife was a flirt and easily pleased by the gifts and glances of other men. He states, “She thanked men—good! but thanked/Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked/My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name/With anybody’s gift” (31-34). Essentially, in the Duke’s eyes, the Duchess treats every gift with the same excitement as she did upon the consummation of their marriage.
The Duke also finds his wife’s habit of smiling at everyone with the same kindness rather annoying. He says, “Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,/Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without/Much the same smile?” (43-45). Since this poem is narrated entirely by the Duke, we can assume everything he says maintains his personal bias. Obviously, the Duke is quite possessive, and takes offense to behavior that can only be called natural, so we can conclude that the Duke’s own insecurities about losing his wife are taking hold.
Eventually, the Duke grows fed up with his wife’s idiosyncrasies, and the Duchess dies: “This grew; I gave commands;/Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands/As if alive” (45-47). Whether the Duke killed her himself or ordered a servant to do the deed for him, we don’t know. But the outcome is terrifying nevertheless.
The Duchess was simply living out her life, and the Duke could not handle his inability to hold his wife’s attention for her every waking moment. Because he cannot control her body and mind, he kills her, and objectifies her (in the literal sense of the word) by memorializing her in a painting. He even keeps the painting hidden behind a curtain so that he can control when people see her: “since none puts by/The curtain I have drawn for you, but I” (9-10). The Duke repeatedly refers to his painted wife as an “it”. At the end of the poem, he treats the painting as just another part of his collection, moving on to the next piece in his gallery with the same casual tone.
The poem is about the male gaze and female ownership. There’s a certain horror knowing that autonomy can get one killed, and Browning manages to instill it through a depiction of a narcissistic killer.
is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Graduating in May 2020 with a degree in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis, Ian writes comics, poetry, and scripts. He is currently an intern for The Brain Health Magazine and aims to work in the comic publishing industry. In his spare time, Ian plays Dungeons & Dragons, board games, and bass guitar.