A dramatic monologue is a poem written in the voice of a specific, definite character who is not the poet: the speaker is a persona, a mask. It’s a monologue because it has only one speaker, though there is sometimes (as in Browning’s “My Last Duchess”) a silent interlocutor whose unheard (or unread) responses help shape the speaker’s discourse and the meaning of the poem. (In such poems addressed to a specific listener, though only one person speaks, both the speaker’s and the listener’s point of view are inscribed into the poem.) It’s dramatic because it’s as if spoken by a character in a play, “a poem which seems to be a speech taken from some dramatic encounter between an imagined character and someone he or she addresses” (who may, as in a soliloquy, be him or herself, or even no one) (Shira Wolosky, The Art of Poetry: How to Read a Poem). By revealing a character in the context of a dramatic situation (a “soul in action”), a dramatic monologue provides knowledge not just about the speaker’s personality, but about the time, the setting, key events, and other characters involved in the situation at hand, even if they are not present.
The modern dramatic monologue, in the manner of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” or “Tithonus,” is often as much about the varying emotions of a single mind as about a specific dramatic situation—that is to say, it overlaps a great deal with the personal lyric, except that the person in question is a persona, explicitly not the poet. One critic has called many modern dramatic monologues “mask lyrics” (“persona” means “mask” in Latin), as they often involve the poet assuming another identity in order to more powerfully or directly express his or her own emotions through the safety of dramatic distance. As Browning (who called his poems in this form “dramatic lyrics,” emphasizing the blurring of genre boundaries) wrote, “I’ll tell my state as though ’twere none of mine.” Expressing one’s own emotions or experience through the medium of another character can be a way to produce a larger context for personal material, so that it doesn’t remain purely idiosyncratic; it can also be a way to gain the necessary shaping and controlling perspective of art, by projecting oneself outward from oneself.
Shira Wolosky writes that “The complexity of poetic voice is most obvious in poems that are quite explicitly structured through a speaker who is not the poet. In such a poem, the speaker is specifically defined or presented as [a distinct] character and is often presented as if speaking to (a silent) addressee….[The] dramatic monologue is one case where the question of poetic voice becomes central and is specifically dramatized. The fact that the ‘speaker’ is a dramatic character clearly distinguishes him or her from the poet, whose voice, however, is no less represented in some manner through the speech-act of the invented character” (The Art of Poetry).
The dramatic monologue highlights the question of voice as something made, not found: the speaker of any poem, however personal, is always a mask, a persona, a production of the act of writing. In this sense, the dramatic monologue highlights the verbal foregrounding that is central to all poetry, in which the language is not meant to be seen through, as in much prose, but to be experienced in its own right. In a dramatic monologue, the writer has nothing but the voice, the what and way of saying, to produce the character for the reader, without the props of setting, description, interaction with other characters (except implicitly). The character must come alive purely through his or her way of speaking, through the words that conjure him or her into being while producing the illusion that he or she precedes and produces those very words.
One of the things that literature can do for us is to show us how it feels to be someone else, to be in another place, another time, or simply in another person’s skin. The dramatic monologue is the perfect exemplification of this attempt to become, if only momentarily and contingently, another, the other. Reading Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” we get a sense of what it’s like to be an aging king whose adventures are behind him, but who seeks (perhaps in vain) to go out in a final blaze of glory, rather than sitting at home waiting for death. Reading Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” we see a man clearly revealing more than he intends to reveal about himself (indeed, he reveals more than he seems to know about himself); we see the distance between his self-image and the person others see, but we also understand how he sees himself.
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 make 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 pretense
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!
Alfred, Lord Tennnyson
It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an agèd wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel; I will drink
Life to the lees. All times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea. I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known,—cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honored of them all,—
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch where-through
Gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains; but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the scepter and the isle—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfill
This labor, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centered in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail;
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me—
That even with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil;
Death closes all. But something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.