Robert Browning Dramatic Monologue
The dramatic monologue was cultivated and developed by Robert Browning with tremendous success. As Hugh Walker points out “Browning did not invent the dramatic monologue, but he made it specially his own, and no one else has ever put such rich and varied material into it.” In his monologues, Browning had the chance, as Mrs. Browning hinted in Aurora Leigh :
The simulation of the pointed scene,
Boards, actors, prompters, gaslight and costume,
And take for a noble stage the soul itself
In shifting actions and celestial lights,
With all its grand orchestral silences,
To keep the pauses of the rhythmic sounds.”
After assiduous trials Browning came to realize that his genius was not fitted for the production of stage plays. His dramas could not be successful on the stage because the thought element was more prominent in them than action. Drama may be defined as an articulate story presented in action. The element of action is wanting in the plays of Browning and as such they went flat on the stage. His characters indulged more in introspection, reminiscence and analysis of motives than action. His is not the drama of the outer world of events but the inner world of the soul “where nothing is of importance unless it is transmuted into a form influencing mind and character.”
Though the poet could not succeed in producing and presenting actable plays, yet it cannot be denied that he had been gifted by Nature with a rare kind of dramatic skill. As he peered more and more intently into the half-hidden crevices and shadowy secrecies of the mind, Browning worked out for himself a novel form in which to depict his novel reading of man, namely the dramatic monologue.
W.T. Young says that the dramatic monologue
“is a kind of comprehensive soliloquy, absorbing into substance by the speaker’s keenly observant glance the surrounding scenery and audience; bringing all that is pertinent to the chosen moment by the channels of memory argument, curiosity and association; adding through the deep-graven lines which habit has incised upon character much which the soul would fain, conceal, or is even unconscious of the necessity for concealing the current of self-revealing speech with the product of any other emotion which may have been powerful enough to share in the fashioning of this critical moment.”
Browning could achieve success in Dramatic Monologues because the dramatic speech or monologue essentially imitates action focused in a particular mind, and the poet had the knack of presenting experiences of other characters in a dramatic manner. The chief concern of dramatic poetry, as Browning believed, was the representation of the “incidents in the development of the soul”, and the dramatic monologue appeared to the poet as the ideal form which the soul of a man and the inner feelings of his heart could be represented. Browning’s end was the revelation of character of thoughts, passion, the spirit-life of man and the poet thought these things could best be presented directly in the dramatic poem by catching and representing the character in a sort of confessional monologue indulged at some high critical moment of life.
A.C. Aikat in his admirable study of Browning has pointed out that the poet chose the monologue for subjective, partly objective, partly psychological, or ethical reasons. To defend himself from adverse criticism he chose this form for thoughts expressed in an oblique manner through the monologue were likely to escape criticism.
A dramatic monologue is very much like a soliloquy– one man’s speech:–but there is a difference between the two. In a soliloquy the speaker delivers his own thoughts, without being interrupted or disturbed by objections or propositions of other persons. In the dramatic monologue there is the presence of a second person of whom the thoughts of the speaker are presented, though the second person does not interrupt the main speaker. “Some of the dramatic monologues are in the form of soliloquy,” says Allen Brockington, but the majority are conversational, that is to say, there are listeners and the presence of the listeners affects the talk Often, the remarks of the listeners are indirectly introduced or indicated by the speaker’s answers.”
In My Last Duchess the listener is the envoy who has come to the Duke from another state to negotiate about a second marriage. The Duke’s talk is carefully calculated to impress the messenger. In Andrea Del Sarto the listener is the painter’s beautiful wife Lucrezia who attends to what Andrea says though she is impatient to join a cousin waiting in the street below. In Bishop Blougrams Apology the listener is a journalist named Gigabids, and the ‘apology’ is an answer to him for his objections against the Bishop’s conduct. In Fra Lippo Lippi the listeners are the members of the watch who have brought about Lippo’s arrest while he was engaged in a nocturnal adventure
The earliest glimpses of the dramatic monologue are to be found in Pauline. Here the form is just hinted. It is distinguished in Paracelsus, and developed in a still disguised form in Sordello. The real beginning of this form was made in the dramatic lyrics (1842) Johnnes Agricola and Porphyria’s Lover (originally named Madhouse Cells). The extraordinary little poems reveal not only an imagination of intense fire and heat but an almost finished art, a power of conceiving subtle mental complexities with clearness and of expressing them in a picturesque form and perfect lyric language. Each poem renders a single mood and renders it completely.
It is in My Last Duchess that the first experiment in dramatic monologue is made. The poem is a subtle study in the jealousy of egoism, and is a typical study of Renaissance man, the Duke of Ferrara, with his serene self-composure of selfishness, quiet in compromising cruelty and genuine devotion to art. The scene and the actors in this little drama stand out before us with the most natural clearness, there is some telling touch in every line, an infinitude of cunning careless details, instinct with suggestion, and an appearance through it all of simple artless ease, such as only the finest art can give.
Browning’s next more elaborate dramatic monologue is Pictor Ignotos which was included in Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845). It reveals a painter’s soul as clearly as possible and is a sort of foreshadowing of Andrea Del Sarto.
Two more important dramatic monologues included in the same volume are —The Bishop Orders, His Tomb at St. Praxed Church and The Laboratory. Later on in Men and Women (1855), the dramatic monologue was developed with great skill and it almost attained perfection. Or this volume, the significant monologues are – Andrea Del Sarto, Karshish – An Epistle, Fra Lippo Lippi, Cleon and The Last Ride Together.
The largest portion of Browning’s next volume of poems Dramatic Personae (1864) consists of dramatic monologues, the chief of them being A Death in the Desert. The monologues of this volume are elaborate and extended. In these later monologues Browning started afresh to probe men’s minds, to follow up their traits of thoughts, to track their prejudices and obsessions. Hence his later monologues became not obscure but tortuous and labyrinthine. Occasionally they are difficult because he sometimes found his most promising material among archaic characters whose thoughts were complicated by a jumble of old notions quite foreign to the modern mind. The Ring and the Book is itself a collection of monologues presented in the mouth of different characters recounting the murder of Pompilia.
In these dramatic monologues Browning portrays a wide variety of characters-crooks, cowards, scholars, poets, musicians, painters, dukes, murderers, cheats, etc. The souls of these characters are brought out in varied forms in the monologues. They are soul reflectors. Cazamian calls these monologues “Studies in practical psychology”, for they reveal a wide variety of characters and provide us a peep into inner working of their minds.
The monologues of Browning are highly suggestive. The speeches of the main actors can be interpreted in more ways than one.
The characters in these monologues believe in God and justify their deeds and actions by attributing them to God’s will. Sludge the Medium is certain that his life of lies and conjuring trick has been conducted in a deep and subtle obedience to God’s commands. Bishop Blougram is certain that his life of panic stricken and tottering compromise has been really justified by God’s will. Andrea Del Sarto says to his wife :
“At the end
God, I conclude, compensates, punishes,
All is as God overrules.”
Browning’s monologues are mixture of half truths and falsehoods. They are not truthful records, but defences represented in a tricky and subtle style.
In the opinion of some critics the dramatic monologues are satires upon their characters. They appear to be an exposition of their follies. But this is not a just criticism. “The great sophistical monologues which Browning wrote in later years” says G.K. Chesterton, “are not satires upon their subjects. They are not even harsh or unfeeling exposure of them. They are defences. They say or are intended to say the best that can be said for the persons with whom they deal“. The Last Ride Together is a defence of the lover who failed in his love, and so is Andrea Del Sarto a defence of the character of the painter.
It is remarked that the language of Browning in these monologues is coarse and brutal. This is only a partial truth for there are fine passages of beauty couched in a poetical language. In Bishop Blougram’s Aplopgy there is a charming passage:
“Just when we are safest, there is a sunset touch
A fancy from a flower bell, some one’s death
A chorus ending from Euripides.”
The Last Ride Together is rich with passages of great beauty and charm of linguistic excellence
Browning’s philosophy of life is best set forth in dramatic monologues. In Andrea Del Sarto the poet lays stress on the need of cultivating higher hopes and cherishing noble aspiration:
“Ah, a man’s reach should exceed his grasp
Or what’s a heaven for?”
These collections of monologues form together one of the most precious and profoundly original contributions to the poetic literature of the nineteenth century. The defects which prevented his complete success in the regular drama are not apparent in this cognate form. He takes just what interests him, and consequently he is nearly always inspired, nearly always at his best.