In most lyric poems of the nineteenth century, the pressure exerted on the language derive from the intense self-consciousness of the speaker: self-accusation, self-awareness, self-doubt, self-affirmation, but almost always occurring with the assumption that the speaker is alone with his or her words, and a solitary encounter with language. Even in the conversation poems of Wordsworth and Coleridge, though another is present, it is not clear that the other person is listening; whatever audience a poet may or may not have, we often feel that their hearing alone strains against their words.
In one species of Browning’s dramatic monologues, the case is otherwise; the silence of another listening, or reading, the words of the poem sustains a different pressure on the language. They have a specific audience, an addressee who not only shares the world of the poem, but to whom the poem is addressed, whose specific attention the poem is intended to hold and captivate; the pressure on the language is first and foremost the pressure of a specific situation in which another person attends to the words. The words, therefore, still plead, argue, affirm, accuse, deny, but the arc of their duration depends on another’s not having interrupted.
In another species of the dramatic monologues, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” or “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” for instance, the effect is similar to Tennyson; the speaker is in a situation that suggests he could not be a contemporary of his immediate readers, and the situation is defined by a landscape and a setting; but in that landscape and setting, the pressure of a specific listener’s attention is not felt to be always almost breaking off; instead, the speaker might as well be speaking to himself, his addressee as permanent, immovable, and unpersuadable as the features of the surroundings (Aurora in Tennyson’s “Tithonus” is an example; Brother Lawrence in “Soliloquy” another; it may be that Childe Roland is nearer to Coleridge’s “Rime” and ballad narrative than to the dramatic monologue).
The difference between the two species of dramatic monologue is not only a matter of historical classification. The first type of monologue, the type that is probably Browning’s alone–exemplified in “My Last Duchess,” “Andrea del Sarto,” “Bishop Blougram’s Apology,” “An Epistle”–is a special challenge for criticism: granting that the pressure exerted on the language is exercised from the attention of a specific hearer in a specific situation, what makes the pressure sufficient to generate a poem?
The question assumes that a poem depends on some intensity, of thought, feeling, and judgment, that the formal choices are justified ultimately in relation to these. The answer, given the circumstances of the dramatic monologue, seems easy enough: the expectations and judgment of a listener colliding with the judgment and thought of the speaker charge the lines of the monologue. One of Browning’s dramatic monologues “happens” when the force of judgment on the speaker induces a sufficiently forceful response. That is well and fine, but it seems that these are the ideal conditions for lies, wheedlings, and cheats, and we are left in the position of asking whether the poems are to be valued for their exemplary equivocations and beautiful deceptions.
No–and two defenses come to their rescue. They are not entirely new, so I will restate these, and then add a third, which I suspect is original. The first is that the poems, like those of Donne, proceed from base motives and argue for short-sighted or selfish ends, but do so by similes, metaphors, and lines of reasoning that ascend to touch upon unintended and unexpected insights; the baser mind graced by an exercise of its powers in excess of the situation.
The second is that the poems are exquisite in their suggestion of subtleties of judgment and feeling in both the speaker and the listener; the pressure sustains the words of the monologue from both directions, but it could also be said that, at their most successful, the words press out in both directions, towards self and towards other, neither entirely belonging to one or the other.
The third is the pressure on the words in the poem shifts, sometimes evenly, sometimes abruptly, from speaker and from listener; the centers of gravity in the poetry are located on a spectrum, therefore, sometimes crystallizing at a point when the speaker appeals with greatest intensity to the listener’s attention, sometimes when the speaker appeals with perfect balance to both, and sometimes–and here they have they resemble lyrics–when, after all of the talking, the speaker seems to have shed awareness of his listener, as if the stream of words has eclipsed the immediate situation that has provoked them, leaving the speaker confronted with his words and himself. They are not more honest or truer as a consequence, but the spectacle has shifted; the situation has become, temporarily, akin to lyric, with the sense that the hearer is probably overhearing; the speaker’s language is disclosing himself to himself. On this third account, the drama of the poem is not only in the moments of self-reflexie disclosure, but in the relation of those moments to the others, when the pressure on the language emanates chiefly from without or equally from without and within.
At their best–“Bishop Blougram’s Apology” is the most impressive example because of how long it is–the dramatic monologues do not flag or turn to flab; the verbosity is variously directed, variously sustained.