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Controlling Purpose: to analyze selected works of Robert Browning.
I. Brief overview of Browning
A. Greatest Poet
B. Family Life
II. Brief overview of "My Last Duchess"
A. Descriptive adjectives
B. Cause for death
C. Description of his wife
III. Definition of Dramatic Monologue
IV. Comments by Glenn Everett
A. Point of View
C. Audience Imagination
V. Comments by Terry Bohannon
A. No Christianity
B. Evil Characters
Robert Browning and the Dramatic Monologue
Robert Browning, one of the greatest poets of his literary period, was born on May 7, 1812, in Camberwell, London. He was the first child of Robert and Sarah Anna Browning ("Robert Browning's Bibliography" 1). His father was a clerk at the Bank of England and his mother was a zealous Evangelist. By 1846, Browning got married to Elizabeth Barrett. From this marriage his wife conceived a son, Robert Barrett-Browning. At about the same time, he began to discover that his real talents lay in taking a single character and allowing him to discover himself to us by revealing more of himself in his speeches than he suspects In doing so, he wrote a great dramatic monologue called "My Last Duchess" (Everett 1).
Murder, mystery, and intrigue all describe Robert Browning's poem "My Last Duchess" (Oliver 1). From the speaker's meandering insinuation, the death of his wife in the reader's point of view may seem like a crime committed because of jealousy. In this monologue, the duke has attempted to justify himself, and to portray his wife as silly and ungrateful. But in fact he does the opposite, and the duchess is revealed as the innocent victim of the duke's outraged pride. There is also the suggestion that other suitors have mad a fool of the duke. But he cannot fully recognize that his wife might love another, and simply calls her "too easily impressed." By the end of his monologue, the duke is already hinting at his next conquestthe count's daughter ("My Last Duchess" 1).
The style and structure of this poem play a significant role in the effect of the poem. The dramatic monologue fits this favorably because the speaker, who is the Duke of Ferrara, comes across as being very controlling, especially in conversation. Browning also exercises many techniques, including a simple rhyme scheme, enjambment, and caesura to convey various characteristics and qualities about the speaker and the situation. He uses an AA BB rhyme scheme, which is very common to ballads and songs. The enjambed lines indicate the control that the speaker is exerting on the conversation and give the feeling that the speaker is rushing through parts of the poem.
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Much of the dramatic tension in Browning's monologues lies in the contrast between the "truth" that the character tries to create and the real truth that is gradually revealed in the telling of his story. Often the language is evasive, suggesting the character's reluctance to face reality. But although the poetry can sometimes be difficult, Browning proved himself to be a master at impersonating a wide range of characters through verse. In doing so, he demonstrated that the poet and the speaker of the poem do not need to be the same person ("My Last Duchess" 1).
A dramatic monologue is a poem in which only one person speaks (Algeo). When discussing the poetic form of dramatic monologue, it is rare that it is not associated with its usage attributed to the poet Robert Browning (Sorce 1). He 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 (Sorce 1). 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 of the 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 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 listener; the speaker uses a case-making argumentative tone: we complete the dramatic scene from within, by means of inference and imagination" (Landow 1). Critics have interpreted the third requirement, the readers 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 a discovery that engages the imagination, but the listener must remain detached and abstain from passing judgment until the work is known as a whole (Everett 1).
The first distinguishing characteristic of Browning's dramatic monologues is the point of entry, which, is not through an empathetic relationship with the speaker. In both cases, the poet's subject is the psychology of the speaker, and in both cases the author explores the speaker's point of view by means of imaginative sympathy. Second, whether this auditor is present does not matter so long as we find the speaker using the same kind of case-making, argumentative tone that marks "My Last Duchess" and which is the second definitive characteristic of the type. In all these instances, the real listener (that is, the target of the argument) is the speaker's "second self"; and it becomes clear that in many monologues that putative auditor within the poem is less important that this other. As is third important distinction, the form requires that we complete the dramatic scene from within, by means of inference and imagination, and, thus, these texts are rules by which the reader plays an imagined drama. The clues that Browning's speaker provides to their obsessions are observable only if we imagine ourselves within the dramatic situation, with the speaker there before us (Everett 1).
Robert Browning was one of the best poets from the Victorian Age. In the introductions, the editor, James Loucks, perhaps to be "objective," fails to even make the slightest mention of Browning's Christianity. He also fails to mention how that could have affected the themes of his poems. In Browning's earlier dramatic monologues such as "My Last Duchess," his characters are wholly villainous or otherwise two-dimensional. They don't have any redemptive qualities about them at all. However, in Browning's mature dramatic monologues, his characters have specks of redemptive qualities, and this makes them real, and even makes the character human (Loucks 2).
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Murfin, Roy and Supryla M. Ray, eds. The Bedford Glossary of Critical Literary Terms.
Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1998.
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