How does the dramatic monologue achieve self expression through concealment? Discuss with reference to any three Browning poems. When discussing the poetic form of dramatic monologue it is rare that it is not associated with and its usage attributed to the poet Robert Browning. Robert Browning has been considered the master of the dramatic monologue. Although some critics are sceptical of his invention of the form, for dramatic monologue is evidenced in poetry preceding Browning, it is believed that his extensive and varied use of the dramatic monologue has significantly contributed to the form and has had an enormous impact on modern poetry. "The dramatic monologues of Robert Browning represent the most significant use of the form in post romantic poetry." (Preminger and Brogan 799). When Browning chose to experiment with this new poetic form, he was moving away from the ‘expressive’ moment contained in lyric poetry to the ‘eloquence’ that lay at the heart of drama. As a critic points out, in choosing to adopt the dramatic style Browning was experimenting with a middle class, democratic style of writing; a kind of poetry that was ‘dramatic in principle’. Increasingly he felt the need to separate a man’s poetry from his inner, personal life. The three poems that I will be referring to here are: Porphyria’s Lover (1836); My Last Duchess (1842); and Fra Lippo Lippi (1855). In 1836 Browning wrote Porphyria’s Lover, an objective study in morbid psychology. The poem is set in a cottage, the lover’s house- probably somewhere in a forest. The weather is stormy and in an uproar. In the poem, the lover describes in horrifying detail his act of murdering Porphyria. Browning was experimenting with characters wholly unlike himself, allowing them to reveal the intricate movement of their minds directly to the reader. In the preface to a stage play that he wrote shortly after, Browning described the play that he wrote as ‘one of Action in Character, rather than Character in Action’. Browning was never a successful playwright but this phrase remains an accurate description of the dramatic monologue, a poetic style that he was to perfect. In the dramatic monologue a single speaker who is clearly not the poet, is made to communicate to the reader a setting, a present action, and a sense of who was listening to the speaker. The act of speech itself conveyed the speaker’s character. The ‘action’ in a dramatic monologue was mental, psychological and verbal. The dramatic form allowed the poet to indulge in his fondness for eccentric characters (sometimes Browning tried his hand at portraying morally reprehensible characters like the duke in My Last Duchess). As Robert Langbaum points out, the dramatic monologue asks the reader to suspend his judgement even as it plays on the reader’s sympathy. Such poetry was not written in solitude and took the reader very much into account. Like drama it objectified the self and its conflict and threw open the poem for analysis. My Last Duchess was written in 1842 and like most of Browning’s dramatic monologue it tells a story- of how a man killed a woman, told in his own words. The speaker is the Duke, and the silent auditor is in this case, the messenger of a Count- bringing a proposal of marriage for the Duke. As move further in the poem, we get a sense as if the Duke is almost confessing before the listener, as there’s a need for it. The duke is in constant conflict wit himself- with no one to resolve it. The speaker will be intent on concealment, whereas the poet will strive to reveal. Porphyria’s Lover is closer to a soliloquy than a dramatic monologue because the silent listener is missing. In My last Duchess, the setting is more detailed, the Duke’s motive is clearer and the person to whom the Duke addresses himself is more openly etched. In fact, the presence of the listener accounts for the greater sense of reality in the poem. The important thing about a dramatic monologue is that it is written...
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Langbaum, Robert. "The Dramatic Monologue: Sympathy versus Judgement." The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition. 1957. Rpt. in Robert Browning: Modern Critical Views.
Langbaum, Robert. “The Dramatic Element: Truth as Perspective.” From ‘A Collection of Critical Essays’. Edited by Philip Drew.
Preminger, Alex and T.V. Brogan eds. The New Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton: PUP, 1993
Wagner-Lawlor, Jennifer. "The Pragmatics of Silence, and the Figuration of the Reader in Browning 's Dramatic Monologues." Victorian Poetry 35.3 (Fall 1997)
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