"My Last Duchess" is a poem by Robert Browning. It is used for an example of Verse Fluctuation Declaration in The Grim Grotto.

The Poem

My Last Duchess
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.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek; perhaps
Fra Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat.” Such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
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.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. 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. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—which I have not—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse—
E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. 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. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretense
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

Poetic Form

The poem is composed as what the author, Browning, called a dramatic lyric- considered a combination of a play and poem. It is composed in iambic pentameter, with a couplet pattern for twenty-eight lines. A line written in iambic pentameter will have ten syllables in an unstressed/stressed pattern while spoken, making five "feet" in the line.


  ×     /  ×    /  ×    /  ×    /  ×   /
That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,

  ×  /  ×   /  ×   /   ×  /   ×  /
Looking as if she were alive. I call


Robert Browning (7 May 1912-12 December 1889) was an English poet and playwright. He is considered a famous Victorian poet for his use of the dramatic monologue. Browning composed "My Last Duchess" as part of his collection, Dramatic Lyrics, in 1842.

The poem is generally believed to be based on the marriage of Alfonso II d'Este, Duke of Ferrara and Lucrezia de' Medici, Duchess of Ferrara. Alfonso married Lucrezia when he was twenty-five and she was only fourteen, and though her family was considered beneath his on the social ladder, she came with a "sizeable dowry." Lucrezia was then abandoned, and died two years later at the age of sixteen. While the true circumstances of her illness and death are officially unknown, it is strongly suspected and extremely likely that she was poisoned by her husband.

The poem plays on this, with the speaker of the poem (presumably Alfonso) showing the portrait of his wife to a guest. (In historical context, the guest is likely Nikolaus Madruz, the courier of the Count of Tyrol, the father of the woman Alfonso was courting, Archduchess Barbara of Austria.) The portrait had been hidden behind a curtain, so that none but those the speaker chose could see it.

He explains that his wife was happy, but very flirtatious. He disliked this, and then says, "I gave commands; then all smiles stopped together." Browning later confirmed that this line means that the Duchess was put to death, or perhaps shut up in a convent.[1] The Duke then hid her painting, so that only he, and no other man, could see her smile.

Usage in A Series of Unfortunate Events

While hiding in the Gorgonian Grotto and waiting out the Medusoid Mycelium, Klaus Baudelaire finds a book on VFD-coded poetry. He explains that the book used "My Last Duchess" as an example of Verse Fluctuation Declaration, as if a Volunteer used the name of the poem in a coded communication, they may say "'My Last Wife' by Obert Browning." The missing letters would then communicate Duchess R-[2] who, unbeknownst to the children in the cave, is an active Volunteer.[3]

When Klaus mentions the poem Fiona says that she's read it, and that she considered it "a very creepy story about a man who murders his wife."[2]

Fan speculation is that the specific Verse Fluctuation Declaration was actually left behind as a message, and that Duchess R was the one to retrieve the Sugar Bowl from the Gorgonian Grotto before the Queequeg arrived.[4] This, however, is only speculation and has not been confirmed.


External Links


  1. Harmon, William, and C. Hugh Holman. A Handbook to Literature. 8th edn. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999.
  2. 2.0 2.1 PROSE: The Grim Grotto
  3. PROSE: Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography
  4. Full Theory - "Who Was the swimming woman from 'The Grim Grotto'?"
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