Celebratons honoring the bi-centennial of Robert Browning’s birth are taking place on each side of the Atlantic. In late June, a conference sponsored by the Browning Society of London focused on a particular aspect of Browning’s work–the dramatic monologue. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, the following definition is offered.
M. H. Abrams, one of the general editors of the Norton Anthology of English Literature and a respected American critic known especially for work on Romanticism, lists three features of the dramatic monologue as it applies to poetry:
1. A single person, who is clearly not the poet, utters the speech that makes up the whole of the poem, in a specific situation at a critical moment.
2. This person addresses and interacts with one or more people; but we know of the auditors’ presence, and what they say or do, only from clues in the discourse of the single speaker.
3. The main principle controlling the poet’s choice and formulation of what the lyric speaker says is to reveal to the reader, in a way that enhances its interest, the speaker’s temperament and chararcter
Robert Browning is considered to be the perfecter of the dramatic monologue, which had its heyday in the Victorian Period. Other Victorian poets to produce one or more dramatic monologues include Alfred Lord Tennyson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Matthew Arnold, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, and Algernon Charles Swinburne. None, however, produced as many, or as striking, dramatic monologues as Robert Browning. A famous example is Browning’s “My Last Duchess.“ Notice how the Duke’s character is revealed by what he says:
“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