In “The Bishop Orders His Tomb,” it is difficult to believe that the Bishop’s children are listening attentively to all that he says, especially as he launches onto flights of vain visionary greed. At times, the Bishop is his own audience; or at least it is plausible that he is—and the plausibility that he might be speaking to himself only, an expression of his Vanity, grants Browning the space to extend and expand the monologue. The dramatic monologue is conditioned by the plausibility of attention of others, by their imposed silences, and yet it also can generate a great deal of its power from those occasions when there is silence without attention, when we become aware that a speaker is not addressing another, where he once was, or believes himself or herself to be doing so, or where he or she no longer cares whether she is—when the speaker is no longer attending to whether another is attending. Hence “Andrea del Sarto” cannot long hold—even in the course of the poem, let alone life—the attention of his wife, and yet he speaks relentlessly in desperation that he might do so. And in “Porphyria’s Lover,” the lover cannot attend–and yet there is the fiction that she does, that she will forever, dead beside him.
Browning is a great love poet, love being, as Auden said, “an intensity of attention.” And the movement of so many of the monologues is towards a sustained attention–towards not only an intensity of attention, but a permanence, or duration, of attention–the desire for such permanence is felt keenly by Browning, but the poems register more often the horror of how such permanence might be attained: through murder, through death–and often through art that captivates and captures. Browning’s speakers cannot concentrate their attention–they cannot maintain permanently, or even for long, the attention of others–and they cannot fix their own attention either.
Scrupulous attention is essential to art: Ruskin believed it, Wordsworth believe it, and even Byron, in his strange performance of distraction, intended to brilliantly undermine his poem, believed it…but did Browning? He thought instead that there was something to be said for inattention in art, for fleetingness and distraction—hence the number of speakers who do not attend or cannot attend for long, and the expansiveness that this grants the poetry—that when inattention is dramatized not only, as in Byron, to flaunt the expectations of readers, to upset an ideal of unity that Byron did not accept, but as a means of establishing connections that need not be justified beyond an appeal to the sheer randomness of attention. Browning takes advantage of the temperament of people speaking and thinking in the current of time to show that such randomness of attention can be given reign, and made productive, rather than subordinated in poetry.
The pressure of inattention is a creative pressure in his dramatic monologues. Behind him stands Wordsworth, who was similarly fascinated by the creative potential of inattention, in “Resolution and Independence” for example; Tristram Shandy too. For contrast, set Tennyson’s dramatic monologues; but Tennyson does not set his speakers beyond the unpredictable movements of the world in time’s flux any more than Browning does; nor can we say that Tennyson’s speakers maintain a curious focus because of monomania…Browning’s speakers are often desperately attentive upon one object, aim or desire—and that is often itself an object, aim or desire having to do with holding or gaining attention (not always, of course)—but within their desire, they squirm, their attention flits and fades. Tennyson’s speakers maintain a greater possession over themselves, a greater capacity to will their attention; in Browning, the attention evades the will; it is largely susceptible to the world surrounding the speaker, a world that makes demands upon it as the world does not make demands upon the speakers of Tennyson’s monologues—-and it is also, in Browning’s monologues, curiously liberated from that world, as the attention may likewise be distracted by visions of the future, by memories, by the lawless life of the mind. Once more, Tennyson provides a helpful contrast: the attention is felt to be directed to memory, to the future, rather than seized by these things. The lexicon is shaking now; questions of psychological agency, of will, of consciousness are gaping. But rather than leap in and adjudicate, I think it suffices to say that Tennyson and Browning were obviously preoccupied with these matters too, in relation to attention especially, which is why the poems lead to them.