Voices of Dramatic Monologues - A Poetry Comparison
Nearly all of Rita Dove’s poetry deals with aspects of history. Shakespeare, Boccaccio, and Dove’s grandparents are topics of her poetry. Dove puts a light on the small truths of life that have more meaning than the actual historical facts. In a time when African-American poetry has been criticized for too much introspection, Rita Dove has taken an approach to emotion and the person as human. Dove’s poetry is not about being black, but about being alive. In Rita Dove autobiography she mention she was born in Akron, Ohio in 1952. She was a Presidential Scholar in 1970. She attended Miami University of Ohio, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts degree; she continued her education by earning a Master of Fine Arts at the University of Iowa. She is a poet, novelist, short story author, essayist, playwright, newspaper columnist and editor. She also created a song cycle for soprano and orchestra music. Despite the diversity, her literary excellence is honored over and over. The four poems this essay will investigate are all dramatic monologues that have a historical basis and employ the power and immediacy of direct speech. The poems to be examined will be “The House Slave,” “Requiem for the Croppies,” “The Czar’s Last Christmas Letter: A Barn in the Urals” and “A Letter from Phillis Wheatley.” Although each poem exhibits a unique voice and topic, the poems share some characteristics, particularly the use of history, form, voice and diction. This essay will begin with an examination of each poem individually, with specific attention to the voices of the characters. It will then turn to a comparison of the four poems. The first poem to be discussed is Rita Dove’s “The House Slave.” In this five-stanza poem, the speaker, a house slave, conveys an immeasurable sense of loneliness and despair.
Dove uses simple lines and common diction (including the slang “Massa” [Dove, 7]) to bestow realism to her character. There is a sympathetic and sensitive, but ultimately helpless quality to the speaker’s voice. She observes field slaves begin their day, as “the first horn lifts its arm over dew-lit grass” (Dove, 1). The personification transforms the horn into far more than a benign wake-up call - it is a reaching arm to force them awake from the safety of sleep and into the beginnings of another laborious day. The phrase “I watch them driven into the vague before dawn” (Dove, 5) brings forth images of the slaves being treated like livestock, and suggests the speaker’s frustration and lack of power over the dehumanizing treatment the slaves received from their masters. The reader is left with the impression that this speaker feels the injustice of slavery two-fold, as she not only suffers her own burdens as a house slave, but also shares in the suffering of the field slaves: ”the whip curls across the backs of the laggards-
sometimes my sister’s voice, unmistaken, among them. ”Oh! Pray,” she cries, “Oh! Pray!” Those days I lie on my cot, shivering in the early heat” (Dove, 9-12). The tragedy of this poem and the despair of the speaker culminate in the last line of the poem, “I weep. It is not yet daylight” (Dove, 15), as all this anguish is what she must endure before daylight.
Turning now to the next poem, Seamus Heaney’s “Requiem for the Croppies,”the speaker is a “Croppie’ (a rebel of the Irish resistance of 1798 [Heaney]). Heaney uses simple speech that would have been a common parlance to that region of Ireland, which makes the speaker’s voice a realistic one suited to the poem’s time frame. The speaker has a lost and rather tragic voice, as emphasized in the lines, “No kitchens on the run, no striking camp - / we moved quick and sudden in our own country” (Heaney). These lines contribute a sense of loss and displacement, even within the croppies own country, and the use of words such as “run,” “quick,” and...
Cited: Dove, R. (2004). American Smooth Poems. New York:
Richard Ellmann and Robert O’Clair. 1989. 861 - 862
“A Letter from Phillis Wheatley.” Modern Poems: A Norton Introduction,
Richard Ellmann and Robert O?Clair. 1989. 489 - 490.
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