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: Mad Men Monologuing
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, themselves, or 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 the speaker's 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.
For example 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'll describe his or her life in order to reveal his or her character.
Most folks agree that the dramatic monologue, as we know it today, depends on three main features:
- There's a speaker who does not represent the poet (translation: Robert Browning isn't a lunatic—his speaker is).
- 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.
Boom. 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 actual monologues, 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.
Both poems, however, address the gender and class concerns of mid-Victorian England, and most 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: Porphyria Ain't Loving This
Time to wrap our minds around some Browning:
My Last Duchess
THAT'S my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will't please you sit and look at her? I said
"Frà Pandolf" by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not
Her husband's presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say, "Her mantle laps
Over my lady's wrist too much," or "Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat": such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart – how shall I say? – too soon made glad.
Too easily impressed: she liked whate'er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, 'twas all one! My favor at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace – all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men, – good! but thanked
Somehow – I know not how – as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech – (which I have not) – to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, "Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark" – and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
– E'en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will't please you rise? We'll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master's known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we'll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!
The rain set early in to-night,
The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
And did its worst to vex the lake:
I listened with heart fit to break.
When glided in Porphyria; straight
She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneeled and made the cheerless grate
Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;
Which done, she rose, and from her form
Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,
And laid her soiled gloves by, untied
Her hat and let the damp hair fall,
And, last, she sat down by my side
And called me. When no voice replied,
She put my arm about her waist,
And made her smooth white shoulder bare,
And all her yellow hair displaced,
And, stooping, made my cheek lie there,
And spread, o'er all, her yellow hair,
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.
But passion sometimes would prevail,
Nor could to-night's gay feast restrain
A sudden thought of one so pale
For love of her, and all in vain:
So, she was come through wind and rain.
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.
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.
As a shut bud that holds a bee,
I warily oped her lids: again
Laughed the blue eyes without a stain.
And I untightened next the tress
About her neck; her cheek once more
Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss:
I propped her head up as before,
Only, this time my shoulder bore
Her head, which droops upon it still:
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!
Give them each a couple solid read-throughs. Trust us—even the most skilled poetry readers can miss important deets on the first read.
When you're finished, your head might hurt but 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 of these poems:
Sample Lesson - Activity
Activity 1.1: Quite the Pair
- Course Length: 3 weeks
- Grade Levels: 11, 12
- Course Type: Short Course
- High School
Just what the heck is a Shmoop Online Course?
Common Core Standards
The following Common Core Standards are covered in this course:CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.1