Susan Tichy
Resources for Students

Robert Browning

These notes are much indebted to Philip Drew's The Poetry of Robert Browning: A Critical
Introduction, Methuen & Co, London, 1970... with digressions into Romanticism, Modernism, Influence, Selfhood, and the Mysterious Dialectics of Poetic History.


Robert Browning is a unique poet, important to poets today not only for his influence on later poets (including Dickinson, Pound, Eliot, Frost & Millay, for starters) but also because his concepts of poetic language and voice, especially in his dramatic monologues, illustrate and embody a fundamental dialectic of English-language poetry since Romanticism. Though an early and lifelong admirer of Shelley and Byron, Browning denigrated Wordsworth, Coleridge, and their set, and declared himself "another sort of poet," who wrote in counterpoint to the Romantic influence, which he characterized as "subsisting... on the shadow of a reality, on sentiments diluted from passions, on the tradition of a fact, the convention of a moral, the straw of last year's harvest." Classifying poets into Subjective and Objective, he believed that poetic movements of one sort or the other were destined to displace each other continuously in literary history.  (Subjective and effusive Elizabethans displaced by objective Augustans, in turn displaced by Romantics.)  For his time, he called for a poetry "for men's outer and not inner sight." Objective poets, he said, provided raw material for poetry, then subjective poets combined and ordered that material until a stage of unreality was reached--into which the next objective poet would inject "new substance." [Note the gender drama of a vigorous male poetry injecting life into a degenerate, passive, unreal, and metaphorically female poetics.]

For it is with this world, as starting point and basis alike, that we shall always
have to concern ourselves: the world is not to be learned and thrown aside, but
reverted to and relearned.  The spiritual comprehension may be infinitely
subtilised, but the raw material it operates upon, must remain.  R. Browning
The Dramatic Monologue

 The ideal of the dramatic monologue has been described by numerous critics,boiled down by Drew to 1) "an absolute impersonality in matter," combined with "a strong and unmistakable individuality in manner;" and 2) depiction of character "without palpable bias" that yet leaves the "moral bearings" self-evident. [Bias & judgment, please note, must be impalpable yet self-evident.] Browning himself characterized his poems as "Lyric in expression...Dramatic in principle...[the] utterances of so many imaginary persons, not mine.” Setting aside for the moment the sometimes quite vivid biographical origins of some of Browning's "imaginary persons" and their utterances, it is worthwhile to explore the implications of these statements about Browning's practice.

Critics have developed various formal schemes for classifying and explaining the d.m., and while one need not be rigid about such points--particularly since few poems conform to all of them--listing them can help define what the genre is and what it is not. Each d.m., then, should display: 1) an identified  speaker, 2) an identified audience, 3) an occasion, 4) interplay between speaker and audience, which takes place in the present, and 5) revelation of character.1

Browning's monologues typically consist of an uninterrupted narrative spoken by a single character to a specific audience. From that narrative we can infer a) the circumstances in which it is spoken, b) the preceding history of the speaker, especially whatever explains the occasion of the narrative, and c) the character and motives of the speaker. Most importantly, those inferences are of two kinds: those which the speaker realizes are apparent and has (presumably) designed, and those which the speaker has not designed and presumably does not realize are present. In other words, we learn things about the speaker and his story which he does not intend we should know, or that
he does not know himself. That is, via dramatic irony we are able to distinguish Browning's point of view from that of his character.

Thus, the first step in reading a d.m. is the drawing of inferences to complete the poem. The reader, thereby, provides or constructs the context of the poem--almost as if the poem were a lyric extracted from a play and the reader had to supply the play from the clues in the lyric.  The particular kinds of dramatic irony Browning employs vary. Where the character appears in a specific historical setting, we are required to compare what is presented as a contemporary account with our own fuller knowledge of events, contexts, and consequences. A more central and compelling characteristic of the monologues is the necessity of comparing what the speaker says is so, what he intends us to know, with other facts and insights derived from his own unintentional revelations. As Drew puts it, Browning "provides in a single poem a man's version of reality and the standards by which that version is to be tested." We are also, of course, called on to compare the speaker's version of reality with our own. 

All of these processes, of course, are simultaneous features of attentive reading, not a mechanical procedure. We sense the gaps in what the speaker tells us; we begin asking why those gaps are there; we begin to develop a judgment. This active reading is one of the key points of relationship between Browning’s poems and Modernism.

Browning & Romanticism

Many have commented on the gap between thought (science) and emotion (experience & desire) which developed in the Western literary sensibility after the Enlightenment. (T.S. Eliot is only one example of such a critic.) The alternation of outward-directed thought and inward-directed emotion (objective and subjective poets) is one simple but effective model for describing what happened in literary history following this split. But the dialectic is more complex than that. Romantic poets had as models not only "objective" Augustans, but also the "cult of feeling"--effusive verse expressions of
emotion, whether romantic, pious, or moral.2 (Jane Austen's novels, for example, both express and satirize "sensibility" as a female condition and affectation.) Thus, Romantic nature poets can be read as trying to heal the breach between thought and feeling--specifically, by describing landscape (an objective gesture) in a manner that gives rise to thought and emotion. 

In Wordsworth, this process is further sharpened by moments of revelation of the speaker's sentience and insight. The experience of viewing the landscape is made important merely by the fact of its being dramatized in the poem. The act of viewing and moment of revelation is presented as an event which has taken place, rather than as an idea with which we may agree or disagree. [This has been repeated, almost without alteration, in the genres of post-World War II American poetry that stress an aesthetic of "show don't tell" in a personal voice lyric/narrative.] Whatever statement is made in the Romantic poem (be it a landscape poem, a Keatsian ode, or whatever) is grounded in a kind of minor epiphany. The poem becomes an act of perception, the report of a highly individual experience requiring no conformity to public values or what we nowdays call consensus reality. "The content and meaning of what [the poet] sees has existence and validity only within the limiting conditions of his gaze, which is why any idea we may abstract from the problematical."(Drew) The further the poem hedges its contexts, pinpoints its occasion, the further its experience is thus specially defined. [Hence the perpetual debate about whether Keats himself believes Beauty is Truth and Truth Beauty, or is merely citing the urn.] 

To derive meaning from within, from the poetic material itself rather than from an external standard of judgment, is a (if not the) specifically Romantic contribution to literature. Whatever element of objectivity can be found in Romantic poetry and its descendants derives from the poet "bounc[ing] his poems back from some external object or incident, like a ship finding its position by radar." (Drew) 

All literary methods have their inherent weaknesses. The problem with this one is that the dramatic situation can easily turn into a rhetorical device, the landscape to mere metaphor for an idea.  Some of the Romantic poets resisted this tendency by including autobiographical perspective--a concrete occasion, a concrete location. Nevertheless, the Romantic poem does not exist in order to praise or make vivid the landscape (or other object of attention). Rather, it performs a step on a journey of self-knowledge, wherein the self is identified as an aspect of the Other. That is, the poet having internalized a divided consciousness seeks the Self as if it were another Being. In this quest, meaning is only a moment in the evolution of the soul. Meaning, therefore, is not necessarily Truth (i.e. a 
public value); it is redefined as Experience. --Emphatically someone's experience, but not the poet's, per se; rather, the experience of a dramatic character, a persona, who speaks in the midst of a dramatic situation, a quest for Self. Thus the romantic lyric can be said to be both personal and impersonal--its lyric speech does not arise directly from the poet’s thought, but requires an actor-persona posed in a setting.

Robert Langbaum (whose book The Poetry of Experience sets forth the above argument in detail) has tried to use this argument to classify Browning's monologues as only a special case of the Romantic lyric, one in which the identification of the speaker as a dramatic character has been carried to its logical conclusion. In other words, it is argued that the apparent objectivity of the dramatis personae is a lyric illusion; that the poems are dramatic only in the special sense of the word employed to label the Romantic lyric "dramatic." Yet other traits of the monologues seem scarcely related to Romanticism at all--their diction, for example. And in any case, taxonomy is a science best practiced on dead specimens, not living traditions. The real point is that Browning, like virtually all poets of the last 150 years, wrote in dialogue with Romanticism. He declared his purposes to be counteractive to the Romantic impulse, yet he shared some of its characteristics. He had to; both he and his audience had been conditioned by it. One of the most striking qualities of his monologues is their intensity--an intensity that can only be described as lyric, no matter how "objective" one may find his characters. Thus, Drew and other critics have argued that the genius of the poems lies in Browning having found a way to fuse the lyric intensity of Romanticism--and of Romantic speakers--into a dramatic (i.e. more "objective") form.

Browning & Satire

The other perpetual debate about the monologues is how one reads them morally. Langbaum argues that judgment is "psychologized and historicized," that we judge Browning's characters according to their conditions--"an appropriate form for an empiricist and a relativist age." But Drew points out that Langbaum also observes that "the d.m. relies on the tension between sympathy and moral judgment," which implies that we do judge these characters according to our own values; that the consciousness of Browning, as distinct from his characters, which is often so palpable in the poems, leads us to do so. If this is the case, the reading experience, no matter how intense, lyrical, and active, has definitely lead beyond the realm of the Romantic “poem of experience.” If we are actively induced to distinguish between "a truth" (that of the speaker) and "the truth" then we have
passed beyond the realm of Romantic lyric.

Whatever this difference is (between a truth & the truth) it is present in the poem only by inference, and this characteristic, as Drew points out, links it to the methods of satire. Where the satirist assumes the voice of the one satirized, he or she is, in effect, writing a d.m. in which the persona is manipulated to expose himself as a fool. (Burns' "Holy Willie's Prayer," for example.) Where the poet narrates, that voice too will frequently pose at telling the story straight, as if there be no humor in it, while the reader howls at double-entendres, puns, and other foolishness or wit. (Byron’s Don Juan, e.g.) Thus, the basic skill is the ability to manipulate for ironic ends the reader's attitude toward the arguments or narrative put forward by the speaker. 

Browning & Alienation

As mentioned above, Browning was an influence on both Eliot and Pound, two poets who valued "objectivity" and manipulation for ironic ends. Both, at different stages of their work, were masters of the assumed voice, the dramatic speaker. The genius of Prufrock, The Waste Land, and the Cantos could (if one liked to simplify) be examined as a collision between Browning's voices, Symbolism's self-sufficient interiority, and Futurism's fragmentation and collage of texts and experience. One of the essential paradoxes in the work of both Pound and Eliot is the fusion of Romantic-Symbolist "moments of experience" or revelatory perception (a poetic method associated with a distinct lack of moral judgment or didacticism) with large cultural judgments rooted in the various faltering traditions of the patriarchy--Classical history and philosophy, Christian assurance, the role of the Man of Letters. While their contemporaries found in Symbolism, Futurism (and its simulacra) and Modernism in general a great liberation, a path to beauty and honesty (think of Stein,
Moore, cummings, Stevens, Williams) Pound and Eliot used its methods to embody and express a collapse into despair, a frustrated inability to reassamble the imagined wholeness of pre-modern consciousness and culture.

...Which is not to say other Modernists did not feel alienated. Only that these two were least able to accept alienation and run with it. Compare what they wanted to build, in their poems, with what Williams wanted to build. H.D., another great mourner for the imagined past, reached back even farther than Pound and Eliot, trying to re-vivify a pre-patriarchal consciousness.

Where is this digression leading? to the fact that the tension between Romantic "experience" and a classical reference to external values and judgments is a key ingredient in Browning. This attracted his 20th c. admirers every bit as much as his use of spoken language and his brilliantly ambivalent relations with iambic pentameter. In fact, it is hard to see what, in Browning, would not attract those fellows: 1) an active reader, who must help construct the meaning of the poem; 2) a range of personae available, and thus a range of diction; 3) an unrivalled opportunity for psychological exploration; 4) a satirist's weapons of oblique statement and irony.

Imagine a triangle formed by Browning / Pound & Eliot / Robert Frost. What are the sensibilities they share?

Now feature this. This poet, Robert Browning, whom I have portrayed in a complex but closed system of relationships within the male tradition, was one of Emily Dickinson's figures of influence. You begin at this point to see the real nature of literary history, the poverty of linear narrative. And try this on: Gerard Manley Hopkins, who tried to re-fuse the Romantic experience of the Sublime back into the Christian Godhead, had read Walt Whitman. Both were sexually conflicted, omniverous powers, trying to invent a language to both reveal and protect themselves. --As Browning also did, in the subtle tensions and ironies of his monologues.  --As Eliot, Moore, and untold others would do in the threatening and exhilerating early years of Modernism. The very need to protect while revealing may be born in what Eliot called the dissociated sensibility of modern culture. Only when a meaningful gap is percieved between individual experience and outer reality can the question of "revealing" (as opposed to merely expressing) that self arise. In fact, the very existence of the Self is challenged by the methods of Modernist collage, in which the speaking voice invades or is invaded by, composes or is composed of other voices, other texts.

Or might we put it this way: that before the Enlightenment sharpened and made public the distinction between interior, private experience and objective realities, it was possible for a tradition to flourish in which that distinction was unacknowledged, unperceived; in which poets who spoke from and for the consensus reality could do so as if their private truths and Truth were, if not identical, at least wittily interchangable. If we see in women poets, and in homosexual or sexually conflicted poets, a foreshadowing of the consciousness we will later call dissociation, we also see them speaking through the masks and counters of convention in their time. Their otherness is presented in terms controlled by the hegemony--as in the so-called Lady's Complaint, for example, or the formal control and creation of subtext in Shakespeare's sonnets.

With Romanticism, the intensity and uniqueness of individual experience becomes itself almost a dramatic character.  Every poet is thereby isolated, cut off from the comforts of easy consensus -- religious, political, or social -- and this Great Experiencer becomes a poetic hero. The erosion of this heroic isolation, the softening of the perceiving self, willing to suffer for selfhood, into a timid conveyer of public values, for whom suffering is a social role, is what we call Late Romanticism when we mean the term perjoratively. This, precisely, is why most Victorians, and the infamous Lady Poets with Three Names of the 19th century, are so valueless to us today. They retain the subjectivity but not the courage of High Romanticism. Their attention to the gap between surface and depth in human experience is, in Romantic terms, a defeated act. It commemorates the inevitable.

Of course, there are--even in the most dilute, contained, or mournful--crosscurrents and subtexts, coded messages and desires. Emily Bronte and Christina Rossetti are great exemplars. But, like most of the post-Romantic 19th c. poets still read by other poets today, they were not exemplars of their age, but exceptions to it. We value Dickinson and Whitman, ultimate embodiments of created Self; Hardy and Robert Browning for their hard edges; Hopkins for his eccentric persistence in unparalleled diction; and Elizabeth Barrett Browning for emerging from the limbo of protected womanhood into public responsibility.  Though our century has seen attempts at demystifying the poet and debunking the Valiant Self, it yet persists. Ironically, the most extreme attempts to assassinate the idea of selfhood can lead to an even greater valorization of the poet, as in the extreme personae of performance poets from Futurism down to the present. Only another god can overthrow god; only a persona even more dramatized than the original can overthrow the Romantic speaker. Ironically, of course. As Browning overthrew the "truths" of his speakers with greater Truth.


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