In Browning’s Porphyria’s Lover and My Last Duchess poems, love and violence are revealed to have an intimate relationship with one another. The speakers of both poems dominate their lovers and exhibit a consuming jealousy which ultimately leads to the murder of their respective lovers.
The speaker in My Last Duchess best exemplifies the possessive, aggressive and arrogant lover. The title My Last Duchess has strong connotations of a person claiming ownership over an object rather than a person, a viewpoint that the speaker likely has towards his lover: he views her as an object that is rightfully his. The speaker is addressing an unnamed companion in the poem and, while showing him a painting of his last Duchess, reveals the reason behind her demise. It is important to note that the speaker willfully chooses to impart his secret to his companion, as implied in the following lines: “(since none puts by / The curtain I have drawn for you, but I).” During the course of the poem, the speaker portrays exhibitionist-like behavior and seems callously indifferent, even proud, that he had killed his duchess.
The speaker explains that his last Duchess was too free in displaying affection, and it “was not / Her husband’s presence only, called that spot / Of joy into [her] cheek.” The speaker imagines that perhaps the painter Frà Pandolf had touched her wrists with the intention to adjust her sleeve while he painted her – such a gesture as this would “[call] up that spot of joy.” The speaker disapproves of her too-easily-impressed heart, unrestrained bestowing of affections: “she liked whate’er / She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.” And here lies the main reason of his discontent: he was not the exclusive recipient of her attentions. His “favour at her breast,” “the dropping daylight in the West, / the bough of cherries some [fool got for her]” – even the mule she rode on – all were the same to her, at least, in the speaker’s perspective. The speaker is indignant that his “gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name,” his gift of a prestigious lineage is placed on the same level as the rest.
And yet, instead of vocalizing his discontent, the speaker explains that it was beneath him and that he would never choose to stoop. In other words, he was too arrogant. Eventually his jealousy overcomes him that he “gave commands” and then “all [of her] smiles stopped together.” This detail, while it is a murder confession, is only a succinct two lines. The speaker does not seem remorseful nor disturbed by his actions and instead the tone is nonchalant. His smooth transition from “I killed my wife” to “Will ‘t you please rise? We’ll meet / The company below then,” from murderer to host, further underscores his nonchalance. The irony is that his companion’s master, “the Count,” is the father of the woman he is planning to marry. The last couple of lines establishes again the speaker’s possessive behavior. “Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed / At starting, is my object” (italics added). As the speaker and his companion go down to the company below, the speaker draws attention to a bronze statue of Neptune masterfully taming a sea-horse. This last image is reminiscent of the last duchess’ painting, paralleling the sea god Neptune with the speaker and the sea-horse with the duchess. And if readers were not yet convinced of the speaker’s selfishness, his last declaration that the statue was cast by Claus of Innsbruck specifically for him leaves no doubt.
In placing love and violence side by side, Browning suggests that they are equally passionate emotions that have the potential to also produce selfishness and egotism, and perhaps the line between love and violence is closer than we are comfortable to admit.