Thursday, 22 December 2016

The Reader-Speaker Relationship in Robert Browning's Dramatic Monologues

It was the criticism that Robert Browning’s early poems received, particularly Mill’s harsh remarks on Pauline, that encouraged Browning towards the form for which he is most famous, the so-called dramatic monologue. His early poems were largely denounced for being too confessional and revealing, and so he strove towards a form that would distance his personality from his verse – hence the disclaimer that his dramatic monologues were “so many utterances of so many imaginary persons, not mine.” This style that Browning adopted, which stood in opposition to the Romantic lyric so prevalent in the early 19th Century, shifted the focus of the reader’s interaction with the poem. Because Browning dissociates himself from so many of his speakers, the reader’s relationship with the poet becomes less important than the reader’s relationship with the speaker – the same can be said of Chaucer’s Tales. Though Browning is present in the dramatic monologues as creator, it is not so much his own mind that we interact with or judge – it is that of the ‘imaginary person’ his mind has conjured up. Indeed, our judgement of the speaker is central to the reading of a dramatic monologue, partly because of the repugnance of many of Browning’s speakers, and partly because of Browning’s use of dramatic irony (a central part of the post-Romantic movement). This irony stems not only from the differences between the speaker’s understanding and the reader’s understanding, but also from the recurrence of revelation, ignorance of the self, and casuistry, all of which make the reader-speaker relationship particularly worthy of note.

In Browning’s dramatic monologues, it is often the reader who seems to have the upper-hand in the reader-speaker relationship. To some extent, the reader understands the speaker more than the speaker understands themselves. This is most obvious in “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister”, the title of which is in itself ironic – just as we might mistakenly expect a love song from Prufrock, so here we might expect a religious soliloquy of some sort, when really we get neither. Indeed, the supposedly religious speaker of Browning’s poem is so consumed by hatred that he seems to forget himself, cursing Brother Lawrence (“Hell dry you up with its flames!”) and calculating methods of securing his enemy’s damnation: he imagines he could “trip him just a-dying” to “send him flying / Off to hell…” The speaker even considers making a Faustian pact with Satan in order to damn Brother Lawrence. These curses and manipulative plans exemplify the poem’s central irony: that the speaker’s criticism of Brother Lawrence’s supposed flaws does nothing other than reveal the flaws of the speaker himself. He appeals to the minutiae of religious observance, attacking his enemy for drinking his “watered orange pulp… at one gulp” and for not crossing his knife and fork after dinner. But as the poem develops, we realise that though Brother Lawrence might not be as ostensibly formal in his piety, he is probably infinitely more pious than the speaker, who makes use of pagan curses (“Hy, Zy, Hine”) and who mixes up his prayer to Mary (“Plena gratia / Ave, Virgo!”), perhaps suggestive of his twisted mind state. Moreover, the speaker’s anger is in itself ironic, since one of the central tenets of his religion (which he does not seem to care about except on a superficial level) is that of Matthew, “Love your enemies”. Thus, the reader’s understanding of the speaker exceeds the speaker’s own – we see that it is he, not Brother Lawrence, who is worthy of criticism. In attempting to discredit his adversary, the speaker unknowingly damns himself.

“The Bishop Orders His Tomb” is another poem in which the reader sees what the speaker fails to see in himself. The Bishop is blind to his flaws, all of which are obvious to the reader. The Bishop’s most palpable weakness is his materialism (typical of the Renaissance, as Ruskin pointed out), particularly ironic for a religious man, whose focus should be on the spiritual. This materialism is evident in his wish for an elaborate tomb (he wants “nine columns” round him and a lump of lapis lazuli “Big as a jew’s head”), and also in his obsession with the sensual trappings of religion. His description of mass exemplifies this:

 “And hear the blessed murmur of the mass,
And see God made and eaten all day long,
And feel the steady candle-flame, and taste
Good strong thick stupefying incense-smoke.”

Almost all of the senses are mentioned in this quotation, demonstrating the sensuality of the Bishop, amplified by the vividness of the final line, the first two spondaic feet reflecting the incense’s thickness. But the overt materialism of the speaker is not the central irony of the poem. Rather, it is the Bishop’s failure to realise his own powerlessness that most illuminates the reader-speaker relationship. As King argues, the irony comes from the juxtaposition of “his pride in the exercise of authority” and “the ineffectualness of his ‘order’.” Just as we know that the monk in the Spanish cloister is inevitably powerless to harm Brother Lawrence, so we know that the Bishop’s orders will never be fulfilled (something he realises in a moment of revelation towards the poem’s end – “Gritstone, a-crumble!”). We know, too, that his sons do not really love him, despite the Bishop’s self-deceptive claims (“Nay, boys, ye love me…”) In fact, it is clear to us that he is incapable of love – he is so egotistical that the words he uses most are “I” and “mine”, and the only reason he prizes his wife is that she made Gandolf envious. He can only exhibit love on a superficial level, by bequeathing wealth to his sons. What he does not realise, though, is that this is not real love, and that their refusal to build his elaborate tomb is not “ingratitude” at all.

In this sense, the reader has an advantage over the Bishop, not only because we recognise his flaws, but also because we can understand his sons’ reactions to their father’s vain request. The final irony, though, is even more poignant. Even though the poem ends with a supposed victory for the Bishop over Gandolf (“As still he envied me, so fair she was!”), the reader knows that Gandolf is now nothing more than dust, as the Bishop will soon become. Elaborate tombs cannot prevent the inevitability of death and, for the religious speaker, the imminence of God’s judgement. So, again, we seem to have the advantage over the speaker in this poem – we understand the meaning of the poem’s first line (“Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity!”), the meaning of which the Bishop ironically fails to grasp. It’s interesting to note the frequency of religious hypocrisy in Browning’s speakers – Johannes Agricola is similarly vain. Browning was a Protestant, and he would have witnessed the 1830s Oxford Movement’s gravitation towards the more ritualized and sensuous worship of the Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps this is what these poems are criticising by mocking the speakers’ materialism.

But there are also instances in Browning’s work where the speaker seems to have the upper hand on the reader. Though it might not be immediately apparent, “My Last Duchess” is a possible example of this. The common critical opinion of this poem is that the Duke accidentally reveals his flaws to the reader, and to some extent this is true – the reader gradually discovers the Duke’s delusional jealousy and his mercilessness to his last duchess. But, as Rader argues, these revelations actually seem calculated. After all, he has drawn back the curtain of the portrait specifically to show it to the envoy. Perhaps the Duke’s description of how his last Duchess was “too soon made glad” is a warning to the new Duchess that she must respect his “gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name”. But in warning the envoy rather than the new Duchess, the proud Duke has not had to “stoop” – it is a subtle warning. The subtlety is accentuated at the end of the poem when the Duke stops to show the envoy “Neptune… / Taming a sea horse”, suggesting that he has simply been exhibiting art rather than making threats. But the image of the strong God taming a sea horse also reinforces this idea of power – another warning, perhaps. Thus, though the elusive and yet threatening words, “I gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together,” may seem like an accidental revelation of his evil deeds and of his jealousy, it is more likely that the Duke is in control – he knows exactly what he is doing. Thus, the reader-speaker relationship seems to have been reversed here so that, unlike in the two aforementioned poems, the reader must come to understand the speaker.

The same could be argued for “Porphyria’s Lover”. The words “And strangled her” come as a complete shock to the reader, made even more surprising by the contrastingly jolly rhymes of “wound” and “around”. Once we learn that the speaker has killed Porphyria, we are eager to understand his motive for doing so. Like the Duke, he killed her to overcome his jealousy and to preserve her love not just for “That moment”, but forever. He is clearly delusional: it is unlikely that Porphyria really was “Too weak” to overcome her pride (she went “through wind and rain” to him), and it is doubtful that she really “felt no pain”. And yet, despite this, the speaker’s words carry so much conviction (her “smiling rosy little head” is “So glad it has its utmost will,” he tells us) that we almost believe him. But then again his delusion prevents us from completely adopting his perspective, and so we are caught between understanding and judgement. Still, he knows exactly what his motives were in killing Porphyria, and as Langbaum argues, just as we are intrigued by the Duke’s conviction of superiority, so we are interested in the lover’s logic, even if it is pure casuistry. Thus, “Porphyria’s Lover” introduces the reader to another interesting dynamic of understanding. We know his jealousy is probably unfounded, and we know that he is ‘mad’ to some extent (though he is not mad in the sense of ‘other’, since we have all felt his emotions at some point). And yet, in the moment of the poem, the balance of power seems to be in the lover’s hands – he understands himself, while we do not, at least until he has revealed his motives. Both the lover and the Duke have got what they want, killing their lovers whilst preserving their beauty, and neither of them show any remorse. The difference between the Duke and Porphyria’s lover is that the Duke is probably aware of his sinfulness, whereas the lover is not – he thinks God condones his actions.

Thus, the role of revelation in the poems is always changing. In “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister”, the monk only comes to realise his powerlessness at the end of the poem, a realisation perhaps suggested by his final futile outburst, “Gr-r-r – you swine!”. This is something the reader could guess before, but that the speaker gradually acknowledges. Conversely, it is the reader that must gradually acknowledge and understand the motives of the Duke and Porphyria’s lover – the speakers are aware of them all along. Arguably, this is what makes the Duke and Porphyria’s lover more interesting characters, not only because they are more threatening and less comic, but because, as Langbaum argues, we yearn to understand them, despite their flaws. Though we do not quite empathise with them, we enter the poem from their point of view, and so the form necessitates a will to apprehend in the reader. And so, it is clear that these ideas of knowledge and understanding, and indeed the fluctuation of understanding in those moments of revelation, are central to the development of Browning’s dramatic monologues. 

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