Saturday, April 19, 2008

Robert Browning and Dramatic Monologue

Critics have nominated Robert Browning's “My Last Duchess” and “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church” as 'perfect' dramatic monologues. I would agree that each is a stellar example of the genre on its own terms. Both draw the reader in from the first line or two:

That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. [Duchess]

Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity!
Draw round my bed: is Anselm keeping back? [Bishop]

So, too, does “Fra Lippo Lippi”:

I am poor brother Lippo, by your leave!
You need not clap your torches to my face.

Browning begins these poems in the midst of implied action – the Duke pointing out the Duchess' portrait to the unwary envoy; the Bishop speaking to his 'sons/nephews' gathered at the foot of his death bed; Fra Lippo, apologizing to, then remonstrating gendarmes questioning him on the street. He also offers immediate details about each speaker or situation: the Duchess is dead, the Bishop is paranoid or delusional, and Lippi isn't just any poor schmuck caught out after curfew. This is a masterful and visceral poetic technique for ensnaring readers, particularly well suited to dramatic monologues, where a single voice is trying to suck them into a whirlpool of subjectivity. We know this isn't Browning speaking as Browning, but as a character, each with an apparent agenda demonstrated within their first utterances. In all three poems, we're hooked from the get go and primed for more.

Cornelia Pearsall argues in her essay on the subject that the essence of the dramatic monologue is the speaker's desire to achieve some purpose or goal. Even if that goal is simply bending our ear, that's true enough. “My Last Duchess” and “The Bishop Orders His Tomb” are tidy little packages achieving that essence, “Duchess” tidiest at a mere 56 lines. (“The Bishop” doubles that.) However, by definition, a monologue is a prolonged talk or discourse by a single speaker, especially one dominating or monopolizing a conversation. While not improved merely by lengthening, a more loquacious monologue provides time for the character to define him or herself by their thoughts, actions and deeds. “Fra Lippo Lippi,” at 392 lines, is three times as long as “The Bishop,” compelling readers by virtue of its sureness of voice and complexity of character and theme; likewise, it is never flat or prosaic. “Fra Lippo Lippi”'s ambitions as a monologue are grander, its stakes higher; it achieves its ends magnificently, almost transparently as we become like eavesdroppers on Lippi's conversation. The ego takes the wheel; the trip begins.

Another element that elevates “Fra Lippo Lippi” to, if not perfection, than a higher state of accomplishment than the other poems, is that of the unguarded moment. When the Duke begins his monologue, he is ostensibly in control of the situation. So, too, is the Bishop, who apparently has requested this gathering. Lippi is accosted by the guards, wrests control away from them, and begins pontificating on a variety of issues on his mind – the nature of art, freedom of choice, fate, and circumstance. This sounds today like real and, even considering its antiquated terms, modern speech and ideas. The portrait Lippi paints in words is as vivid as the art he is famous for, and as human – ironically, also at odds with the rarefied painting endorsed by the church that “makes [people] forget there's such a thing as flesh.” Yet he wouldn't have engaged in this philosophical diatribe if not for being accosted after midnight “at an alley's end / Where sportive ladies leave their doors ajar.” Less likely embarrassed or merely guilty, Lippi is surprised by the intrusion, but quickly regains his composure:

Aha, you know your betters! Then, you'll take
Your hand away that's fiddling on my throat.
And please to know me likewise. Who am I?
Why, one, sir, who is lodging with a friend
Three streets off – he's a certain...how d'ye call?
Master – a...Cosimo of the Medici.

It doesn't take Lippi long to drop Medici's name, further elevating his station in the guard's eyes. From there, his story unfolds at a breathless clip – the orphanage, his natural artistic talent discovered and exploited, the church's admonishment of the liberties he takes painting “the beauty and the wonder and the power” of the world. While he has asserted a dominant role in the poem, his monologue has an air of the confessional to it. Sometimes we will be painfully honest about ourselves or our situations to complete strangers, whereas we cannot always trust the confidence of our best friends and family. It is that schism that also lends “Fra Lippo Lippi” its rare poignancy and power.

These three poems are each brilliant, in their own way. “Duchess” and “Bishop” are earlier works – 1842 and 1845, respectively – whereas “Lippi” was written in 1855, the same year Browning wrote “Love Among the Ruins,” “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” “The Statue and the Bust,” and more. Would he go on to write a more fully realized dramatic monologue than “Lippi?” No. Despite the pleasures inherent in much of his work, it remains a masterpiece of tone, control and character unique among his poems, if not perfect than the nearest thing to it.

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