Do I dare to read a poem?
Dramatic monologue. It might be a fancy term, but it describes something pretty simple: a dude or lady showing their true colors in a poem.
You could spend years studying dramatic monologues, but in this short course, we'll worm our way through intros, readings, and Common Core-aligned activities to get to the bottom of the Greatest Hits.
- Learn how to recognize the dramatic monologue and differentiate it from its close friend, the dramatic lyric (we think they're still on speaking terms).
- Understand how poets use their speakers to poke fun at human behavior and/or societal values.
- Learn how poetic form can reveal a speaker's character.
- Improve as close readers while understanding how dramatic monologues reflect their historical context.
Now find a good hiding spot and get ready to eavesdrop.
Unit 1. Dramatic Monologue
There are more dramatic monologues out there than you can shake a stick at, but in this course, we'll zero in on some of the big hitting poets: Robert Browning, Shakespeare, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, T.S. Eliot, and plenty more of the gang.
Sample Lesson - Introduction
Lesson 1: Robert Browning's Madmen
Before we turn to Victorian poet Robert Browning—originator of the dramatic monologue as a self-contained genre—let's look at how this genre developed, mutated, and...coagulated.
Sorry, we got a new thesaurus this morning.
The origins of the theatrical monologue date as far back as the dramas of ancient Greece, which featured characters pouring out their feelings through orations—whether to the audience, to themselves, or to nearby characters. It's not all that different from soap operas where characters named Rock Boulder or Deborah Rose seem all too willing to openly discuss their personal feelings.
Moving through history, many Old English poems can also be seen as early precursors to the dramatic monologue. "The Seafarer"—we're looking at you. This 125-line poem written by an unknown author appears in a 10th-century manuscript and features an old Seafarer traveling in exile while thinking about his home and the nature of existence. Just the light stuff, you know. The Seafarer presents his personal feelings in the form of a speech, and his performance reflects his inner emotions. This combination of the theatrical and the personal formed the basis for what would become the dramatic monologue in 19th-century Britain.
Next stop: the Romantic Era, a movement from approximately the beginning of the 19th century to its mid-point. Romantic poets, from Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) to William Wordsworth (1770-1850), typically wrote highly personal lyric poems that involved in-depth self-analysis. These poets looked deep within their souls and put their feelings into words. We did that once in our high school poetry book, but it's probably not worth reading.
Let's look at one example of Romantic poetry: in Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" (1798), the speaker reflects on his memory of rural surroundings, describing how they make him feel as he discusses the nuances of his emotional state. This type of poetry, which encapsulated the Romantic movement, depended on an expression of feeling rather than on tradition—Romantic poets brought in the age of individual expression as a goal in itself.
These kinds of ideals gave later poets, like Robert Browning, the freedom to explore the mind in all its psychological complexity—rather than trying to just write according to established rules for poetry form, genre, or style.
And that, folks, was a revolution.
Head on over to the readings to see how Mr. Browning changed the game.
Sample Lesson - Reading
Reading 1.1a: Brass Tacks
Now onto our main squeeze, Robert Browning.
Following the influence of the Romantics, this guy was all about exploring human psychology through his works. But wait a second—there's a big difference.
Where Wordsworth's speakers often seemed like stand-ins for the poet himself, Browning's speakers are totally their own people. What Browning's doing is creating characters—usually deranged ones. Like-sleep-with-a-night-light-after-you're-done reading deranged.
So the dramatic monologue as Browning perfected it combines the performance aspects of classical drama with the psychological complexity of the Romantic Age to create something entirely new. Browning gives us a stranger to meet—one who will describe his or her life in order to reveal his or her character.
Okay, let's cap this off with a review/explanation of dramatic monologue as we know it today. Most folks agree that this genre of poetry depends on three main features:
- There's a speaker who does not represent the poet (translation: Robert Browning isn't a lunatic).
- This speaker speaks to an implied or explicit audience (e.g., the reader or someone else in their fictional world).
- This speaker reveals his or her character during a crucial moment.
Ta-da! (Need some more review? Take a read through poets.org's quick 'n' dirty rundown of the dramatic monologue.)
P.S. Dramatic monologues can be found within plays or even novels, but in its purest form, it's a self-contained genre of poetry that stands alone the way Browning first envisioned it.
Sample Lesson - Reading
Reading 1.1b: Mr. Browning, We Presume?
Before we get to reading the monologues themselves, let's dig into some context.
Back in Browning's day, gender inequality was all the rage. For example, the English middle class of the 1850s was all about "separate spheres" based on the stipulation that men should work while women stayed in the home to tend to their young, clean, and make endless amounts of English scones.
In the two poems you're about to read, Browning considers how class can influence love, particularly in societies in which men have far more rights and power than women.
"My Last Duchess" and "Porphyria's Lover" are about two very different times:
- "My Last Duchess" centers on a 16th-century Duke of Ferrara.
- "Porphyria's Lover" seems to belong to Browning's present society in the 19th century.
But both poems address the gender and class concerns of mid-Victorian England, specifically the male oppression of women.
Bottom line: neither of these speakers belong in a romantic comedy of any kind; their deranged obsession with their standing in society directly influences how they treat (or more accurately, "mistreat") their "loved ones."
Click on over to the next reading to get into the texts themselves.
Sample Lesson - Reading
Reading 1.1c: "My Last Duchess" and "Porhyria's Lover"
Time to wrap our minds around some Browning.
Give them each a couple solid read-throughs.
When you're finished, your head might hurt. Don't worry—that just means it's working and you're appreciating the complexities of these works. All the same, we've got some help for that literary migraine: have a look at Shmoop's line-by-line summaries to get a better handle on both the narrative and the form.