My Last Duchess'
In ‘My Last Duchess’ and ‘Ozymandias’, both poets present weakness as an intrinsic, unjustifiable trait all humans have. Robert Browning portrays weakness in the wide, controversial context of social and gender inequality. Percy Bysshe Shelley, on the other hand, focuses on hubristic pride and power, with the emphasized idea of temporality.
In ‘Ozymandias’, the poet illustrates the ‘shattered visage’ of a once powerful pharaoh, ‘Ramses II’. The poet illustrates his statue as unrecognisable through the adjective ‘shattered’, therefore suggesting purposelessness and weakness. This is ironic, as the self proclamation as ‘king of kings’ suggest he is omnipotent and immortal, through the religious connotation it carries. This is shown by the synaesthesia ‘Cold command, sneer’, which portrays Ozymandias as a powerful and arrogant character that is full of pride. The strong and authoritative tone, indicated by the exclamation in line 11, is also an irony, as now there is nobody to listen. The metaphor ‘colossal’ represents his ego rather than the size of the statue, but the ‘lone and level sands’, which juxtapose the power and ego of the statue, convey the consistent idea of the power of time. Percy Bysshe Shelley suggests through these that Ozymandias is undergoing a worthless battle to survive, where no person is around to care. This message sets off a train of thought in readers by giving off a very strong, but subtle moral lesson which implies that nobody is,was or will ever be more powerful than time itself, and any human who previously thought that is now just another piece of evidence that this is true. Similarly, in ‘My Last Duchess’, Robert Browning presents the Duke as possessive and controlling of women, in accordance with the time period’s view of women, who were not encouraged to obtain an education or pursue a professional career. Did not have the right to vote or have their own property, keep their own wages or sign contracts. Through the use of the possessive pronoun ‘my’ (last Duchess), the Duke is claiming her as a possession, that is used to better showcase his power, and control. The use of the noun ‘commands’ reinforces the mindset the Duke has, of having the Duchess or any other wife he may have at his bidding and/or disposal. The verb ‘taming’ represents, arguably, anthropomorphism, suggesting the Duchess needed taming and therefore, comparing her to a savage animal. The Duke, in consequence, is not a loving, caring man but rather weak and in need of praise to make himself feel better, as shown through the use of brackets in the 9-10th line, implying that he is giving the listener a rare privilege to see the Duchess in this way, exercising his control and using the Duchess to show off his power and control even after she is dead. Through the introduction of the ‘nine-hundred-years-old name’ he supposedly ‘gifted’ to the Duchess, the poet mocks how vain the Duke is. He cares more about his heritage and cannot understand that she did not see that as important. The Duke’s ignorance and arrogance is also shown through the allusion to ‘Fra Pandolf’, a famous artist at the time, suggesting the artist is more important than the Duchess in the painting. The escalation of the jealousy and anger from the politeness-which he uses in hope of controlling his inner conflict-shown by the rhetorical question ‘how shall I say?’- to the use of caesura emphasizes the control he has over his instincts being slowly lost. The enjambment may also represent a build-up of frustration. The Duke is therefore portrayed as a arrogant and ignorant person who doesn’t care about women and rather cares about how he is seen based on the women he ‘owns’. The reader is left with a very strong message about the social and gender inequality at the time and how weak people abide to it because it was easier than going against everybody’s beliefs at the time.
Furthermore, the intrinsic weakness of mankind that does not permit human beings to acknowledge and appreciate the power of time is emphasized in ‘Ozymandias’. This is done through the irregular rhyme pattern which relates to the ‘decay’ left by the statue of Ozymandias. It implies to the reader that all things change with time and nobody can reverse the changes time makes. The statue itself is a symbol of the ignorance certain humans have while thinking that achievements, statues, and statuses make them immortal and help them defeat time itself. The ‘decay’ destroys this belief and leaves the humans powerless as they, in fact, are. On another tone, ‘My Last Duchess’ is a dramatic monologue that uses caesura (which shows that the Duke is trying to manipulate the listeners by controlling what he says and what the listener hears) and enjambment (which allows the text to flow and be interrupted while mimicking natural speech and could represent a build-up of frustration), capture the tone of the speaker talking away to the messenger and adding in tangents. The poem uses rhyming couplets and iambic pentameter which reflects the style of romantic poets at the time, despite how this poem is much more sinister and dark. It is another ‘’color’’ in which the Duke of Ferrera’s character is painted. Browning has given a controlled and restrained tone to the poem that denotes the self-obsessive, controlling and dominant personality of the Duke. All of these portray the weakness that is human reputation and pride. Initially, Browning uses an allusion to ‘Fra Randolf’ in order to show off his wealth and power. It is used to show how he rapidly forgets about his deceased wife who he was admittedly incredibly devoted to. This is ironic, as he has just also been talking about how devoted he will be to his new wife. This gives the poem a circular structure and catches the reader’s attention by implying that the social and gender inequality which is consistently portrayed in the poem will never disappear because of the intrinsic weakness humans detain which keeps them from going against it. It is a constant loophole humanity will never get out of.
“My last Duchess’ ends with a very relevant metaphor that paints an image of ‘ Neptune’ ‘taming a sea-horse’. Through the word ‘Neptune’, the Duke is presented as an all-powerful and invincible God and the ‘seahorse’ represents the next possible wife which he is also ready to kill if disobeyed, as we can infer from the use of the verb ‘(I) repeat’. The act of ‘taming’ refers to anything which stands in his power that he can use to control his wife if he thinks his ‘name’ is not represented well enough. The poem is based on historical events; ‘’Duke Alfonso II of Modena and Ferrara”. Duke Alfonso II married his first wife Lucrezia de Doctors which is believed to be ‘The Last Duchess’ of the poem in 1558. He was married 2 times after that and while the 2nd wife died-maybe the girl the Duke is prepared to meet in the poem, the girl whose murder he possibly foreshadows through the use of ‘repeat’-the third got to outlive him. Comparably, ‘Ozymandias is based on historical events, as well. Shelley disapproved of the monarchial government and sympathized with the French Revolution’s principles. The poem is believed to be a condemnation of tyrannical/undemocratic government, portraying Shelley’s revolutionary views.
In my opinion, the idea of psychological egoism is present throughout the two poems. What makes humans weak is the constant thirst for self-satisfaction even in acts of altruism. This allows the reader to stop and think for a moment and realize that power is not everything and even the smallest amount of power should be put to good use. The Duke is trying to control everything around and inside himself just to keep up his image of an all-powerful Duke-even if this meant treating women like trophies and dolls in his game of dominance. Just like in ‘Ozymandias’. Pharaoh Ramses the II, had amazing achievements in buildings: Abydos, the Ramesseum at Thebes and the great rock-cut temple at Abu Simbel in Nubia. He wasn’t just pleased with being a good leader and making his people live better, he wanted recognition and he wanted immortality. Whether this meant statues or physical life.
To conclude, Robert Browning and Percy Bysshe Shelley share much of the same beliefs about human weakness. The two poets represent them in different ways-by using language and structure-specific techniques. They also direct them to different topics while also getting across a similar message which is that of ‘psychological egoism’ which contributes to the innate weakness humans already have from the inclination to do bad things; emphasized with the religious connotations leading back to the bible, causing a constant loop of ignorance and the destruction which follows.