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Robert Browning and the Dramatic Monologue

Updated on June 21, 2016
Julia Margaret Cameron [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Julia Margaret Cameron [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons | Source

Dramatic Monologue


The dramatic monologue is a poetic form that was used by Victorian poets to its fullest, especially by Robert Browning, now considered one of the most talented and prolific dramatic monologists. It worked as a tool to examine issues of the day that may not have been examined otherwise, particularly domestic abuse and religious hypocrisy by allowing the reader to function as an audience member of a dramatic production, making his or her own judgments of the situation being described.

The dramatic monologue found its first true audience and home in the Victorian Era. Poets such as Robert Browning used the form. It hasn’t gone away – it’s been used by new poets, such as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, John Ashbery, John Berryman, and Robery Hayden (American Academy of Poets). Glen Everett, a professor of English at the University of Tennessee, defines three characteristics that distinguish a dramatic monologue from other forms of poetry. The first of these characteristics is a sense of Einfuhlung (imaginative sympathy) that the author explores through the narrator’s point of view. The receiver of this point of view may be another character within the poem, or it may be the reader of the poem. If it is a character, commonly referred to as an “auditor,” the auditor may be “absent…dead…out of earshot…or simply inattentive” (Three Characteristics). The second characteristic is that the speaker in the poem must argue with his or her “second self” (really the speaker him/herself) and rationalize not to the actual listener, but to the speaker him/herself. The third characteristic is that the reader must “complete the dramatic scene from within, by means of inference and imagination” (Three Characteristics). While the author will present clues, the reader must take an active part in creating the scene in which the monologue occurs.

Wagner-Lawlor, in “The Pragmatics of Silence, and the Figuration of the Reader in Browning’s Dramatic Monologues,” argues that another characteristic of the dramatic monologue is the silence of the auditor. “…the silent listener is absolutely crucial; the dramatic situation itself is obviously only created by the presence of the other, and he is necessary for the delineation of the speaker’s self-portrait” (Wagner-Lawlor 288). While the auditor may be silent within the poem for two real reasons – assent or dissent – it is often the case that neither is true, and the silence is merely the reaction of a person put into a situation where any response is unnecessary or unwanted. In these cases, the silence is one of intimidation. The auditor cannot respond to the situation because he or she is unable to break the barrier that is being imposed on him/her due to the position he/she finds him/herself in.

This tension is a central characteristic of the genre – what any dramatic monologue is ‘really about’ – because it clarifies the genre’s ultimate irony: dramatic monologue ends up spotlighting the silent auditor precisely by effacing him/her in shadow. Like a stage whisper intended for all to hear, the shadowy figure who is the auditor cannot help but be seen finally by the figure for whom the auditor is obviously a stand-in – the reader (Wagner-Lawlor 288).

Browning's Use of the Dramatic Monologue


Robert Browning is often considered the master of the form of the dramatic monologue – if not the first to “inaugurate [the first] to perfect this poetic form…” (Lennartz 418) – especially poems in which the speaker silences his auditor through intimidation. Browning’s speakers are often aggressive and threatening. They are normally in a position of superiority, whether socially or intellectually, and because of this, the auditor must listen in silence and the reader must make his or her own assumptions and create the world, fulfilling Everett’s three requirements for dramatic monologues.

Browning’s “company of ruined questers, imperfect poets, self-sabotaged artists, failed lovers, inspired fanatics, charlatans, monomaniacs, and self-deceiving confidence men all have a certain family resemblance, and they outweigh finally the other groups among his creations” (Trilling and Bloom 493-494). This paper will focus on a particular group of these men – those who help the reader examine domestic abuse that results in murder, as in “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover,” and those who help the reader examine religious hypocrisy, as in “The Bishop Orders his Tomb at St. Praxis” and “Bishop Blougram’s Apology.”

According to Melissa Valiska Gregory’s article, “Robert Browning and the Lure of the Violent Lyric Voice: Domestic Violence and the Dramatic Monologue Domestic,” violence occurred with regularity in Victorian homes, regardless of economic or social position, yet other writings, such as novels, included scenes involving sexual violence that were either fleeting, which did not cover the true depth of the issue, or they purposely shunned examining the motives and effects of the violence (492-493). Browning, however, included “acute depictions of sexual conflict within the domestic sphere – from the coarse physical brutality of Porphyria’s lover to the carefully controlled aesthetic and sexual domination of Duke Ferrara” (Gregory 493). There is no question that Browning covered the more violent end of the spectrum within the battle between the sexes – the struggle for sexual dominance and the control within marriage or relationships.

"My Last Duchess"


“My Last Duchess,” often considered the preeminent dramatic monologue of the Victorian era, is the tale of a man, the Duke of Ferrara, who determined that his wife did not meet his standards and did not offer him the correct level of respect. In the ultimate show of power and domestic abuse, he has her murdered. The Duke is authoritarian, to say the least (Hayward 27). He expected absolute obedience from his Duchess: “…if she let/Herself be lessoned…” and when he was disappointed, he ordered her death. “I gave commands;/Then all smiled stopped together.” He also expected a high level of respect to be accorded for the name he bestowed upon her, yet he felt she “ranked/My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name/With anybody’s gift.” The dangerous combination made the Duke feel slighted, and as the husband and the one with power within the relationship, his displeasure in her was made clear through her death. It has been suggested that another reason for the Duke’s murder of his young wife was that he was “somehow daunted by his wife’s freedom of spirit, and [disguised] this fact with exaggerated severity” (Hayward 29). This is shown in the text through his obsessive need to be in control of her smiles and happiness – he is the only one who is allowed to make her happy, although he does not seem to care about doing so.

The auditor in “My Last Duchess” may be shocked or horrified, but none of that shows within the poem. It is up to the reader to determine why the auditor (an envoy from the Count of Tyrol who was negotiating a potential marriage to Count’s niece) does not respond. It may be a case of intimidation, as is common in Browning’s dramatic monologues, or it may be consent to the situation. The envoy may be fully accepting of the Duke’s ability to make and carry out such decisions and actions, as it would have been expected that a man in that position would wield his power whenever he wished to.

“Porphyria’s Lover”


“Porphyria’s Lover” is another example of domestic violence told within dramatic monologue. It tells the tale of a woman, Porphyria, who visits her lover. They are not married; however, she still takes the role of a submissive wife, calling to her lover, and, when he does not respond, making herself ready for him: “She put my arm about her waist,/And made her smooth white shoulder bare,/And all her yellow hair displaced/…Murmuring how she loved me…” The lover, swelled with pride and happiness, determines there is only one way for him to keep her in this way, submissive and obedient – death. He chooses to murder her: “I found/A thing to do, and all her hair/In one long yellow string I wound/Three times her little throat around/And strangled her.” He justifies his murder but explaining to the auditor that she felt no pain – “No pain felt she;/I am quite sure she felt no pain” – and that she now is happy – “Her head, which droops upon it still:/The smiling rosy little head/ So glad it has its utmost will.”

The lover is convinced in the rightness of his choice of actions. His dominance of her is complete, and the murder has been “perpetrated for the lady’s well-being rather than for the man’s. Porphyria’s lover knows that she is frail and impure …” (Pearsall 50). Her surrender to him was a signal to him that he was able to take this step and arrest the relationship at this stage, keeping her forever in the perfect moment.

The reader is not sure who the auditor is in this case, but it is clear that the lover is speaking to someone, stating “And thus we sit together now,/And all night long we have not stirred.” The question as to who this auditor is and why he/she is silent is not answered, but, as was stated earlier, the auditor may not be physically present.

Domestic Violence


In both “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover,” Browning has shown that the male in the relationship has the power to silence his lover. The act may be either the result of “the act of ultimate devotion or the result of disappointed expectations” (Burns-Davies v). In “My Last Duchess,” it appears to be disappointed expectation, but “Porphyria’s Lover” appears to be more in line with saving the moment of ultimate devotion. In both cases, though, “the distinguishing quality of [Browning’s] villains is not the conscious diabolism of an Iago, but rather a meanness of spirit which finds expression in a censorious attitude toward life” (Hayward 26). Both the Duke and the lover feel that their interpretation of their women is correct, and that they are the ones who should be allowed to determine if the women live or die. The women are not given a say – their attitudes towards their own lives are immaterial.

The poems create in their audience a demand that the “reader identify with the morally monstrous ‘I’…[and] sympathize with speakers whose actions pose a threat to conventional domesticity and whose pleasures and satisfactions violate accepted norms of domestic behavior, was identified as the ultimate ‘perversity’” (Gregory 497). Victorian readers did not willingly accept the concept of domestic violence, and their inability to ignore what occurred in the poems made them unpopular when they were first published.

Religious Hypocrisy


Browning did not only discuss domestic violence in his controversial dramatic monologues. He also attacked religious hypocrisy, much to the dismay of reviewers of his time. As quoted by Heather Morton in “A Church of Himself,” one reviewer, Richard Simpson, stated that:

It is scandalous in Mr. Browning first to show so plainly whom he means, when he describes an English Catholic bishop, once bishop in partibus, now a member of ‘our novel hierarchy,’ one who ‘plays the part of Pandulph,’ one too, who through an Englishman, was born in foreign lands; and then to go on sketching a fancy portrait which is abominably untrue, and to draw this person not only as an arch-hypocrite, but also as the frankest of fools (33).

The poem being reviewed was “Bishop Blougram’s Apology,” one of the two poems that will be used to show the ability of the dramatic monologue to deal with the topic of religious hypocrisy.

At the age of fourteen, Browning’s mother purchased for him a copy of Shelley’s atheistical poem “Queen Mab.” After reading the poem, Browning “promptly became, like Shelley, a vegetarian and an atheist. Although it is pretty clear from his poetry that he did not remain an atheist, whether he ever completely shed his [skeptical] views is still an open question” (Browning’s Religious Views). In fact,

[Browning’s] pattern of discrediting the extremists may partially explain Browning's fondness for the dramatic monologue: by allowing his speaker to express views with which neither the poet nor the reader would be in sympathy…he is able to undercut positions which he opposes without exposing his own beliefs (Browning’s Religious Views).

Poems such as “The Bishop Orders his Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church” and “Bishop Blougram’s Apology” help to add to the ambiguity of Browning’s religious stance.

Within “The Bishop Orders his Tomb at St. Praxed’s Chuch,” the bishop is giving his final sermon, one addressed to those who have gathered around his deathbed. Unlike a sermon that he may speak in front of the congregation, however, this sermon is one in which he admits his faults. “The bishop has obviously broken almost every rule of conduct imposed by the Church on the clergy; yet…he deludes himself that he has earned the right to a magnificent tomb in a choice spot in his own church” (Ryals 39). The bishop admits to his own vanity in the first line of the poem, yet that is the least of his sins. He has fathered children out of wedlock: “Nephews – sons mine…ah, God, I know not! Well -/…Old Gandalf envied me, so fair she was!”, covets what others have: “Old Gandolf cozened me, despite my care;/ Shrewd was that snatch from out the corner South/He graced his carrion with, God curse the same!”, and is greedy, bragging of his “lump, ah God, of lapis lazuli/Big as a Jew’s head cut off at the nape” and the villas he owns in Frascati. He asks for his sons to provide him with a basalt slab with a bas-relief frieze and vase so that he is properly marked as superior to Gandalf, who has predeceased him. The bishop is a “liar, thief, arsonist, fornicator, and simoniac” (Pearsall 58), who has rejected the scriptural teachings of Paradise and instead embraces his own notion or Paradise, which is “’to lie through the centuries’ in the church he has filled with beautiful objects” (Pearsall 58).

The auditor in this case is clear to the audience reading the poem – the sons of the bishop. Their silence may mean consent, or it may instead be a more negative type of silence. It is obvious that the sons have not lived as well as their father, the bishop, has, and he worries that they will not treat him the way he wishes to be. “Ah, ye hope/To revel down my villas while I gasp/Bricked o’er with beggar’s mouldy travertine.” He resorts to threats as the monologue continues: “All lapis, all, sons! Else I give the Pope/My villas!”

The audience can only have one true response to such a scene – they must be disgusted with the bishop. The question is whether or not they consider him an aberration or a typical man of the cloth.

“Bishop Blougram’s Apology” is a speech given by a possibly fictitious (or not so fictitious, according to the review by Simpson which was included earlier) bishop who “speaking in the presence of a hostile agnostic journalist intent on exposing him as a hypocrite” (Loucks 158).

The most notable aspect of the Bishop’s monologue, besides its length, is its uniform foundation in rational self-interest. Blougram’s goal is not to prove the depth or sincerity of his religious belief, but rather to justify his profession of faith as a rational choice that procures him luxury and power (Morton 34).

Instead of denying his lack of faith and belief, the bishop argues that there is no need to have true belief in order to profit from it. “All we have gained then by our unbelief/Is a life of doubt diversified by faith,/For one of faith diversified by doubt; We called the chess-board white, - we call it black.” He goes further, admitting that “I know the special kind of life I like,/What suits the most my idiosyncrasy,/Brings out the best of me and bears my fruit/In power, peace, pleasantness and length of days./I find that positive belief does this/For me, and unbelief, no whit of this.” Thus, according to the bishop, his belief is founded not on actual religious background, but merely on the belief that he knows what he will most enjoy in life. Knowing this, he uses his “belief” in order to fulfill himself. The bishop condemns himself while speaking because he is a “

complacent opportunist” (Richards 225).

Towards the end of his monologue, he attacks the conception of faith as absolute and positive, and argues for doubt as faith’s enabling other. Against the charge that he is hypocritically professing belief, Blougram simply deconstructs the foundational status of faith: ‘With me, faith means perpetual unbelief’ (Morton 34).

As in “The Bishop Orders his Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church,” the auditor in this case is clear to the audience reading the poem. Bishop Blougram makes multiple references to his companion, even going so far as to seemingly keep him from speaking – “So you despise me, Mr. Gigadibs./No deprecation, - nay, I beg you, sir!”, “No, friend, you do not beat me: hearken why!” and “Now wait, my friend.” All show clear signs that the auditor in the poem has the urge to speak, yet is being held from speaking. Why is this possible? It is possible that the bishop, while he is not a true “man of the Church,” is still in a position of superiority over the journalist.

Browning’s view of the clergy – as shown in these two dramatic monologues – is that the clergy, regardless of the belief they shown to their congregations, really have no belief in the true ideals of the church. When the bishop is ordering his tomb, he does not deny that he believes in the chuch – indeed, the fact that he wishes to be buried there may be taken as a sign that he does believe and worship. However, the fact that he is not concerned with the church, but about his position within it and the money and possession that he leaves behind show that any belief he may have confessed is hypocritical. His actions speak far louder than his words – he does not believe. Bishop Blougram does not even attempt to hide his true feelings. He boldly admits that his belief is simply in himself and what he feels is right. In this case, he feels that receiving the treatment he is “due” should be given to him, and the church is a means to that end.

Conclusion


Browning’s views of domestic violence and religious hypocrisy can be shown through dramatic monologue while they could not be shown in other forms. The ability of Browning to create a narrator and a silent auditor allow him to let the narrators to metaphorically hang themselves. What they say to the auditor they may not say to any other member of an audience. The auditor does not judge, cannot judge. The audience is allowed that privilege any may make their own assumptions as to the reason for the auditor’s silence. Browning has separated himself from his narrator, just as the audience has been separated from the auditor.

Works Cited


Academy of American Poets. “Poetic Technique: Dramatic Monologue.” Poets.org. (2008). 19 May 2008. <http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5776>

Burns-Davies, Erin "And yet God has not said a word!": Robert Browning and the romantic killer in literature. Diss. Florida Atlantic University, 2004. ProQuest Digital Dissertations. ProQuest. 29 Mar. 2008 <http://www.proquest.com.proxy1.ncu.edu/>

Everett, Glen. “Browning’s Religious Views.” Victorian Web. (12 Dec 2006). 19 May 2008. <http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/rb/rbrelge.html>

Everett, Glen. “Three Defining Characteristics of Browning's Dramatic Monologues.” Victorian Web. (18 Dec 2003). 19 May 2008. <http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/rb/dm4.html>

Gregory, Melissa Valiska. “Robert Browning and the Lure of the Violent Lyric Voice: Domestic Violence and the Dramatic Monologue.” Victorian Poetry. 3, 4. 2000. 491-510.

Hayward, John M. The liberal aesthetic in Browning's dramatic monologues. Diss. University of Wyoming, 1980. ProQuest Digital Dissertations. ProQuest. 29 Mar. 2008 <http://www.proquest.com.proxy1.ncu.edu/>

Landow, George P. “Robert Browning's Use of Biblical Typology in The Bishop Orders His Tomb.” Victorian Web. (2 Feb 2008). 19 May 2008. <http://www.victorianweb.org/religion/type/typ23.html>

Landow, George P. “Robert Browning's Use of Biblical Typology in The Ring and the Book.” Victorian Web. (1998). 19 May 2008. <http://www.victorianweb.org/religion/type/typ22.html>

Lennartz, Nobert. “Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Sphinx’ – A Dramatic Monologue of the Dandy as a Young Man?” Philological Quarterly. 83, 4. Fall 2004. 415 – 429.

Morton, Heather. “’A Church of Himself’: Liberal Skepticism and Consistent Character in ‘Bishop Blougram’s Apology.’” Victorian Poetry. 45, 1. Spring 2007. 29-47.

Richards, Bernand. English Poetry of the Victorian Period 1830 – 1890. London and New York: Longman, 1988. Ryals, Clyde de L. “Browning’s Irony.” The Victorian Experience: The Poets. Ed. Richard A. Levine. Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1982. 23-46.

Smith, Paul Douglas "This book's fruits": Truth and text in Robert Browning's biblical monologues. Diss. The University of Alabama, 2004. ProQuest Digital Dissertations. ProQuest. 29 Mar. 2008 <http://www.proquest.com.proxy1.ncu.edu/>

Trilling, Lionel and Harold Bloom, ed. Victorian Prose and Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Wagner-Lawlor, Jennifer A. “The Pragmatics of Silence, and the Figuration of the Reader in Browning’s Dramatic Monologues.” Victorian Poetry. 35, 3. 1997. 287 – 302.

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    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 3 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Hi Kat,

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    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 4 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Lots of work here!! I enjoyed reading this detailed and well sourced paper on this neglected poetic form. I love the Bishop at Saint Praxed's when he's ordering his tomb stones -

      Did I say basalt for my slab sons? Black -

      Twas ever antique black I meant! How else

      Shall ye contrast my frieze to come beneath?

      As a drama teacher I relate strongly to Browning's talent for creating character and comedy out of content, despite the seriousness of the subject.