How to read the dramatic monologue: comparing Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poems

Following our discussion of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, I figured that we should look at a less turbulent and more loving union of literary minds: Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning by Thomas Buchanan Read

Any student of literature is likely to have come across both/either husband and wife in poetry anthologies – the Brownings’ dramatic monologues are some of the most widely studied works in English curricula. 

Among the various poetic forms, the dramatic monologue remains popular with schools, as compared to, say, the villanelle – too technical for the standard lit student, or the epic – too long for the average attention span. 

A point to note is that the dramatic monologue isn’t exactly the same as the soliloquy (which is often seen in plays. The soliloquy is a wholly private mode of speech, i.e. whatever’s said isn’t meant to be heard by anyone else (in the diegetic realm), whereas the dramatic monologue presupposes an audience, whether implied or explicit.   

 

What is a ‘dramatic monologue’? 

To understand what a dramatic monologue is, let’s look at two definitions: 

1)   A poem in which an imagined speaker addresses a silent listener, usually not the reader (Poetry Foundation)

2)   A poem written in the form of a speech of an individual character; it compresses into a single vivid scene a narrative sense of the speaker’s history and psychological insight into his character. (Britannica

The Britannica one is probably more helpful, because it shares the important criterion of giving “psychological insight into [the speaker’s] character”. 

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Etymologically, ‘mono-’ is the prefix for one, and ‘-logue’ is the suffix for something said or written. Hence, ‘monologue’ literally means ‘one person’s speech’. 

But what lends the speech its ‘dramatic’ quality is the psychology that lurks behind it, which boils down to understanding the motivation behind a key action in the narrative.

Expect, then, a dramatic monologue to tell an engaging story, in which a major event occurs to convey a broader theme or message. 

If it helps, we can think of this poetic form as a condensed film, but instead of it being a visual enactment, it’s a verbal performance that contains a beginning, a climax and an ending.

 

That just sounds like a cross between a speech and a story – what’s the big deal…? 

The existence of verse monologues goes way back – you can find examples in Anglo-Saxon literature (10th century).

The Wanderer (Old English poem) - Wikipedia
The Wanderer, an Anglo-Saxon dramatic monologue

But the form only really started to gain popular currency in the Victorian era (19th century), when poets such as Robert Browning and Alfred Lord Tennyson made a conscious effort to distinguish between the voices of the real poet and the fictional speaker. 

This bifurcation at once reinvigorated and complicated the form: on the one hand, it allows for exploration into personalities and character types radically different from the poet him/herself, thus freeing the monologue from its naturally didactic inclination (i.e. the poet no longer tells us what he thinks we ‘should’ know). 

However, this also makes the task of interpreting the dramatic monologue more elusive for the reader, who now has to discern if the speaker’s message is, sotto voce, also the poet’s (which can be a somewhat problematic premise if said speaker’s message is criminal or immoral), or if there really is a complete severance between the two. 

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It’s especially interesting to read the Brownings’ dramatic monologues vis-à-vis one another, partly because the married couple were avid readers of each other’s poetry.

Unlike Hughes and Plath’s relationship, the Brownings’ was seemingly more encouraging and symbiotic, with the husband reviewing his wife’s poems, giving constructive feedback, and vice versa. 

Let’s now close read two of their most popular dramatic monologues: the darkly comical ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ by Robert Browning, and the darkly tragic ‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

 

Justifying murder: Reading Robert Browning’s ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ 

‘Porphyria’s Lover’ is a masterpiece in tonal manipulation. 

What is, in fact, a cold, brutal act of murdering a lover is narrated in a tone so blasé, reasonable and matter-of-fact that one could be forgiven for not registering what’s happened at first read. 

In a nutshell, the unnamed speaker (alluded to only as ‘Porphyria’s lover’ in the title) decides to kill his lover after she confesses to loving him despite his inferior social standing – a point that’s implied with the reference to her “pride, and vainer ties” – 

She put my arm about her waist,
And made her smooth white shoulder bare,
And all her yellow hair displaced,
[…]
Murmuring how she loved me – she
Too weak, for all her heart’s endeavour,
To set its struggling passion free
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
And give herself to me for ever. 

As the poem reaches its climax, the speaker gains an epiphany which triggers the eventual murder.

Upon Porphyria’s confession – 

Be sure I looked up at her eyes
Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshipped me; surprise
Made my heart swell, and still it grew
While I debated what to do.

A rule of thumb in poetry analysis is to always look for anomalies, be it in style, sound or structure.

So if something sticks out, it’s probably a sign you’ve run across something worth analysing. In the lines above, “Porphyria worshipped me; surprise” contains one extra syllable in what’s otherwise an regular octosyllabic structure. 

What does this imply? This ‘surprise’ marks the emotional pivot of the narrative: it is, somewhat surprisingly, the feeling of ‘surprise’, rather than passion, hate, or any other emotion more conventionally associated with love, which stirs up the speaker’s desire to kill. 

Porphyria's Lover | Illustration, Art inspiration, Drawings
A modern rendition of Porphyria’s Lover by Tarragon Smith

But the word ‘surprise’ here shouldn’t be understood in its conventional meaning – to feel mild shock, because what the speaker goes on to do suggests that he’s not so much surprised as he is overwhelmed and powerless; subconsciously, he doesn’t actually believe he deserves Porphyria’s love – and is afraid of losing it. 

So, what does he do? The lines continue –

That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain felt she,
I am quite sure she felt no pain.

Yep, he strangles her. 

No, not the kind of playful ‘strangle’ that you throw into a saucy tryst – the real, murderous kind. 

The understatement of “I found/A thing to do” is shockingly casual, because this ‘thing’ isn’t any random ‘thing’, but the killing of a loved one. What’s equally remarkable is the mock-care in the statement “she felt no pain”, as if the speaker was delivering a mercy killing. 

The chiasmic placement of the twice-repeated phrase “no pain”, however, belies the reality, as the syntactical criss-cross of “no pain” reinforces in a visual spectre the deep physical marks left behind from the strangling act. 

 

What motivates the lover to murder?  

One possible interpretation is the human desire to immortalise the mortal, to eternalise the transient.

Anyone who’s been in love knows that romantic love is fleeting, relationships are always at risk of collapsing, and lovers – being human – will ultimately die and as such, separate. 

ex girlfriend love GIF by Jacqueline Jing Lin

So if the loss of love and lover is cause for great sadness, then perhaps the only way to prevent this sadness is to pre-empt this loss. 

The speaker, thus, chooses to ‘lock in’ this moment of impassioned confession by removing, once and for all, the future possibility of Porphyria ever not loving him as deeply as she does at the very moment she professes her love.

And because human emotions are constantly in flux, death can be the only ‘solution’. 

Absurd as such ‘logic’ may seem, that’s perhaps a main point of the poem, as it exposes the Romanticist belief in “forever” love to be absurd, illogical – and potentially dangerous. 

While there’s no denying that this poem is a rather macabre affair, it’s also hilariously irreverent – or irreverently hilarious, perspective depending.

This is especially apparent in the way it ends. 

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With Porphyria now dead, there’s no fear of the social stigma that she had previously raised as an obstacle to their love – 

The smiling rosy little head,
So glad it has its utmost will,
That all it scorned at once is fled,
And I, its love, am gained instead!
Porphyria’s love: she guessed not how
Her darling one wish would be heard.
And thus we sit together now,
And all night long we have not stirred,
And yet God has not said a word!

The synecdoche of “smiling rosy little head” drips with eerie, vindictive sarcasm (“head” is a stand-in for the dead person. This “head” is also personified as something that’s “so glad it has its utmost will”, having once “scorned” his inferior status. 

Well, aren’t you happy now Porphyria, the speaker says, with you dead, we can now “sit together” – and be together – forever. 

The rather snickering final reference to theodicy – “And yet God has not said a word!”, not punished him for committing the murder – elevates the poem from a purely narrative level to a more philosophical one, and gets us thinking if human evil isn’t often as strictly ‘regulated’ by higher powers as the pious would have us believe. 

Robert Browning Porphyria's Lover quote

 

Justifiable murder: Reading Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point’ 

For all the posthumous fame her husband gained, Barrett Browning was, in fact, the more celebrated and widely read poet at the time. 

Such was her eminence that she was even considered for the Poet Laureate post after Wordsworth’s death (which eventually went to Tennyson). 

Barrett Browning’s poetry is bold and audacious, often doubling as social commentary on topics that span from feminism to child labour to slavery.

‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point’ is a good example of her strong moral bent, which she wrote in support of the Abolitionist cause

Slave-owner shooting a fugitive slave. (1853) - Creator: Mason, Walter George, 1820-1866 -- Engraver - Source: Five hundred thousand strokes for freedom ; a series of anti-slavery tracts, of which half a million are now first issued by the friends of the Negro.
Slave-Owner Shooting a Fugitive Slave by Walter George Mason

Unlike ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, which doesn’t explicitly state an addressee, ‘The Runaway Slave’ makes it clear early on that the unnamed titular speaker is crying out to the “pilgrim-souls” of America – 

O pilgrim-souls, I speak to you!
I see you come proud and slow
From the land of the spirits pale as dew
And round me and round me ye go.
O pilgrims, I have gasped and run
All night long from the whips of one
Who in your names works sin and woe! 

(Verse 2 of 36) 

The speaker is on the run, having escaped from the violent abuse of her white master. Because she sees her misfortune as a continuation of historical sins, rather than the isolated incident of an unlucky individual, she directs her message not to her oppressor, but to the first European settlers in America – the pilgrims, whose legacy and “name” she sees sullied by the white slave owners, who also happen to be the pilgrim’s descendants.

The central question of this poem, however, isn’t why the whites treat the blacks so poorly, but why God – who’s supposed to be this all-merciful figure – would create black people in the first place only to subject them to lifelong pain and abuse

Why design this cruel, deterministic lottery in which the colour of your skin defines the quality of treatment you’ll receive for the rest of your life? 

While this theodical point doesn’t come up in ‘Porphyria’ until the last line (and only remains a passing, cliff-hanging remark in Browning’s poem), it is dealt with head-on, in a string of bold, caustic remarks in ‘The Runaway Slave’ – 

I am black, I am black,
And yet God made me, they say:
But if He did so, smiling back
He must have cast His work away
Under the feet of His white creatures,
With a look of scorn, that the dusky features
Might be trodden again to clay. 

(Verse 4) 

The phrase “His white creatures” seems to imply that God’s white men are less humans than beasts. After all, the primary meaning of the word ‘creature’ is ‘an animal, as distinct from human beings’. 

It goes on – 

And yet He has made dark things
To be glad and merry as light:
There’s a little dark bird sits and sings,
There’s a dark stream ripples out of sight,
And the dark frogs chant in the safe morass,
And the sweetest stars are made to pass
O’er the face of the darkest night.

But we who are dark, we are dark!
Ah God, we have no stars!
About our souls in care and cark
Our blackness shuts like prison-bars:
The poor souls crouch so far behind
That never a comfort can they find
By reaching through the prison-bars. 

(Verses 5 and 6) 

Here, the speaker poses a brilliant, if not philosophically vexing, question: 

If dark birds are beautiful and the night sky lovely, then surely that means darkness isn’t inherently associated with all things evil and lowly. Why, then, should dark people be singled out and persecuted for being dark – their “blackness shut[ting them in] like prison-bars”? 

There’s neither logic nor justice, nor rhyme nor reason to such discrimination, and yet, God seems to have turned a blind eye to the plight of the dark-skinned. 

As the poem continues, we find out that the speaker, like Porphyria’s Lover, has also committed a murder – speicfically, an infanticide. 

But unlike Browning’s psychopathic persona, the runaway slave is arguably more justifiable and deserving of sympathy in her action. She’s been driven to insanity by her oppressors, and as a result, is forced to murder her bastard child out of absolute despair. 

Having been raped by her white master, she fell pregnant and gave birth to a child that was, alas, “far too white, too white for me”.

In the speaker’s view, then, being black isn’t the worst – being both black and white as a product of brutal and accidental miscegenation, is. 

Eva and Topsy from Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in 1852. Color lithograph by Louisa Corbaux for Stannard & Dixon, London, 1852(?). Slavery in the United States (see notes, quote from book at bottom of print)
Topsy (left) and Little Eva, characters from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851–52) – lithograph by Louisa Corbaux (1852)

Such is the tragic irony that compels her to kill off this unwanted child, who, notwithstanding his innocence, nonetheless serves as a painful reminder of the “Washington-race’s” (Verse 32) historical sin – 

My own, own child! I could not bear
To look in his face, it was so white;
I covered him up with a kerchief there,
I covered his face in close and tight:
And he moaned and struggled, as well might be,
For the white child wanted his liberty –
Ha, ha! He wanted the master-right. 

(Verse 18) 

If white people find dark skin so disgusting, the speaker shows here that she is capable of the same kind of disgust – if not more – towards a “face… so white”.

And her cause would seem justified, too: it’s not the ‘whiteness’ of her illegitimate child that she objects to, but rather, who (her rapist) and what (racial injustice) this ‘whiteness’ symbolises and reminds her of. 

Despite being a victim, the runaway slave recognises that she is no saint, and indeed, does not purport to be one. She scorns at the idea that this “white child” should “want his liberty” – “the master-right” – which she, his biological mother, is biologically doomed to never have. 

Yet, her motivation for killing this child isn’t entirely out of bitterness or hatred; it is “to save it from my curse” (note the curious use of the “it” pronoun) – the curse of being ‘tainted’ with black blood. 

Why, in that single glance I had
Of my child’s face,… I tell you all,
I saw a look that made me mad!
The master’s look, that used to fall
On my soul like his lash… or worse!
And so, to save it from my curse,
I twisted it round in my shawl. 

And he moaned and trembled from foot to head,
He shivered from head to foot;
Till after a time, he lay instead
Too suddenly still and mute.
I felt, beside, a stiffening cold:
I dared to lift up just a fold,
As in lifting a leaf of the mango-fruit.

(Verses 21 and 22) 

It’s worth pointing out that the metaphor of the child as “mango-fruit” draws on the Latin meaning of the word “mango” as “a dealer of slaves”, and not the tropical fruit as we commonly understand it today. 

The manner with which the speaker kills her child bears echoes of the way Browning’s persona strangles his lover: “I twisted it round in my shawl”.

The act of twisting serves to mind that similar criss-cross – ‘X’ – pattern, which is immediately reinforced by the chiasmic structure in “And he moaned and trembled from foot to head/He shivered from head to foot” (Interestingly, you will recall that Browning also uses chiasmus to mirror the moment of strangling in ‘Porphyria’). 

In terms of diction, the word “twisted” also hints at the impression that the child is the product of a ‘twisted’, forced, and corrupted union. 

Liz Barrett Browning Runaway Slave quote

What makes this poem so tragic and remarkable is the depth of empathy it achieves. The speaker may be a black slave, but the poem was written by a white woman, and one of considerable social standing, too. 

Ostensibly, the distance between subject and author couldn’t be wider, but by crafting an authentic voice that inspires both pathos and reflection, Barrett Browning shows that racial divides – however vast – can be crossed in writing, and by extension, also in life. 


What are your thoughts on the poems? Comment below and let me know!

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