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 skeptical 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 postromantic poetry" (Preminger and Brogan 799). The dramatic monologue as we understand it today "is a lyric poem in which the speaker addresses a silent listener, revealing himself in the context of a dramatic situation" (Murfin 97). "The character is speaking to an identifiable but silent listener at a dramatic moment in the speaker's life. The circumstances surrounding the conversation, one side which we "hear" as the dramatic monologue, are made by clear implication, and an insight into the character of the speaker may result" (Holman and Harmon 152).
Although Browning wrote numerous dramatic monologues his contemporaries often criticized his works as being too emotional. The dramatic monologues of Browning are characterized by certain identifiable traits. The three requirements of a Browning dramatic monologue are "The reader takes the part of the silent listener; The speaker uses a case-making argumentative tone; We complete the dramatic scene from within, by means of inference and imagination" (Landow). Critics have interpreted the third requirement, the reader's interpretation and conclusions, as a suspension of the reader/listener between sympathy and judgment. The reader has a choice regarding the intent of the speaker, but he/she must remain removed until the speaker is done making his argument. Glenn Everett believes the role of the listener is one of discovery which engages the imagination, but the listener must remain detached and abstain from passing judgment until the work is known as a whole (Everett). The role of the listener is passive. He/she "cannot help but hear" because the position of the listener is exactly "a passive receptor of a verbal tour de force that leaves him no opportunity for response" (Wagner-Lawlor 287). On the other hand the typical Browning speaker is an "eloquent rhetorician" whose "dramatic situation itself is obviously only created by the presence of the other"(Wagner-Lawlor 288), the other is identified as the silent listener. The speaker characteristically uses "strongly rhetorical language which distinguishes the dramatic monologue from the soliloquy" (Everett). The elements of the dramatic monologue are each a topic for further analysis. Both "Caliban Upon Setebos" and "A Grammarian's Funeral" are dramatic monologues. The agenda of each speaker is quite different, as is the tone. Applying the three principles that characterize a Browning dramatic monologue can help the modern reader understand the unique intent of each poem more fully.
Caliban Upon Setebos
"Caliban Upon Setebos" is a dramatic monologue whose speaker is a literary figure. To understand the poem fully the listener should be acquainted with the character of Caliban as the deformed slave of Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest. In this poem Caliban is explaining his concept of religion. Defining his belief in and understanding of his God Setebos as he is able to see and experience Him in nature. The poem becomes a doctrine for Caliban's "natural theology"; one that has no books but evolves from Caliban's own observations and experience. Caliban "reads nature as a text with a hidden author, and ceaselessly endeavors to fix within an elaborative interpretative scheme himself and everything he encounters" (Shaviro 140). The listener is introduced to Caliban's. When Caliban says, "Setebos, Setebos, and Setebos!/ Thinketh, He dwelleth i' the cold o' the moon./ Thinketh He made it, with the sun to match,/ But not the stars; the stars came otherwise;" (24-27). He is giving an account of his concept of creation. Caliban spends the entire poem talking about the nature of his God and the listener is given a glimpse into the psyche of the speaker. It is a powerful dramatic monologue and theological explanation. "What is most striking is the way in which the poem itself dramatizes an interpretive dilemma" (Shaviro 139). The dramatic monologue is an excellent vehicle for the intention of Robert Browning. The dynamic of speaker and listener, the choice of Caliban as speaker and the content of the poem (natural theology) all work together to serve the purposes of the poet (which could be manifold) by presenting the listener with an "argument" and a choice to be made at completion of the poem.
A Grammarian's Funeral
"A Grammarian's Funeral" is another example of a Browning dramatic monologue, but it is different from "Caliban upon Setebos". The tone of the speaker is less forwardly argumentative the poem because it is a eulogy given by a scholar's student. The suggestion to the reader/listener by the speaker is to sympathize with the speaker and respect the greatness of his teacher. The speaker wants the listener to know the attributes of his deceased teacher. There is a movement in the poem to higher ground that can be interpreted on many levels. The corpse of the teacher moves to higher ground as it is taken to the city on the hill as well as the students who have been enlightened by his teachings, and the listener may be moved to higher ground as well if he/she sympathizes with the speaker's view of education or enlightenment. The listener is invited into the poem/eulogy right at the beginning, "Let us begin and carry up this corpse,/Singing together" (1-2). From here the speaker has the attention of the listener and will continue on to speak of his teacher. The dramatic elements of this particular poem are rooted in the fact that it is a eulogy, which is in itself a type of monologue. The eulogy expresses a dramatic moment and asks the listener to pay respect. In "A Grammarian's Funeral" the speaker is clearly making an argument, but it is not direct. The argument inferred by the language used in discussion of his teacher can be seen in lines such as,
Yea this in him was the peculiar graceThis quote is evidence of the speaker's own ideas. As he exalts his teacher he expresses his own argument in favor of a meditative life of learning. There is a moral judgement being presented by the speaker to the listener who is in turn being asked to make a judgement. The argument of the speaker in this dramatic dialogue is carried out through the praise and discussion of the deceased grammarian. We not only get to know what made the teacher great, but we also get an inside look, a portrait, of the student's mind.
Dramatic Monologue and Modern Literary Criticism
As a reader can see, the dramatic monologue is a powerful form of poetry with the potential to be quite persuasive. The form well suits poets who have something to express. It is poetic propaganda. The dramatic elements and psychological implications make it a fascinating form to read. Modern literary critics with regard to the role of speaker, silent listener and the poet have extensively examined the form of dramatic monologue as well. It is such an expressive form of poetry that the listener (reader) follows the designs of the speaker (poet) almost automatically. The perspective of critic Robert Langbaum finds the dramatic monologue a combination of "lyric and dramatic elements" that represent a "poetic innovation whose influence could be traced in the work of all the great modernist poets" (O'Neill 82) He states "We understand the speaker of the dramatic monologue by sympathizing with him and yet remaining aware of the moral judgment we have suspended for the sake of understanding" (Langbaum 34).
Browning, Robert. "Caliban Upon Setebos." The Complete Poetic and Dramatic Works of Robert Browning. N.Y.: Houghton Mifflin, 1895.
Browning, Robert. "A Grammarian's Funeral." The Complete Poetic and Dramatic Works of Robert Browning. N.Y.: Houghton Mifflin, 1895.
Everett, Glenn. "Three Defining Characteristics of Browning's Dramatic Monologues." Victorian Web. http://landow.stg.brown.edu/victorian/rb/dm1.html.
Holman, C. Hugh and William Harmonm eds. A Handbook to Literature 6th Edition. N.Y.: Macmillan, 1992.
Landow, George P. "Dramatic Monologues: An Introduction." Victorian Web. http://landow.stg.brown.edu/victorian/rb/dm1.html.
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. Ed. Harold Bloom, N.Y.: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985. 23-44.
Murfin, Roy and Supryia M. Ray, eds. The Bedford Glossary of Critical Literary Terms. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1998.
O’Neill, Patricia. Robert Browning and Twentieth-Century Criticism. Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1995.
Preminger, Alex and T.V. Brogan eds. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton: PUP, 1993.
Shaviro, Steven. "Browning upon Caliban upon Setebos." Browning Society Notes 12 (1983). Rpt. in Robert Browning: Modern Critical Views. Ed. Harold Bloom, N.Y.: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985. 139-150.
Wagner-Lawlor, Jennifer. "The Pragmatics of Silence, and the Figuration of the Reader in Browning's Dramatic Monologues." Victorian Poetry 35.3 (Fall 1997) : 287-302.
Woolford, John. Browning the Revisionary. N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1988.