Browning's most celebrated contribution to the poetic langue is the dramatic monologue, and his development of this form constitutes a literary sub-genre in its own right. It implicitly acknowledges the uneasy relation between the two competing discourses of the novel and the poem. Each first person account differs from the metaphysical or Romantic lyric in its meticulous foregrounding of deictic references, and it would be useful to compare the effects created by these versified short stories with those of a contemporary first person prose narrative—Dickens's Great Expectations, for example.
In 'My Last Duchess' and 'The Bishop Orders His Tomb' the speakers are figures from the Italian Renaissance, and in each the reader is drawn into the spatio-temporal conditions of the speech act. Compare these poems with those of Donne and Marvell (Chapter 2). In Browning's pieces the poet cautiously avoids any conflict between the poetic-textual function and the imagined situation of the utterance. 'My Last Duchess' consists of enjambed couplets, and there is certainly a tension between the metrical pattern of each pentameter (verse design), the interlineal syntax and rhythm (verse instance) and rhyme, but it is a controlled and orchestrated tension.
Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt, Whene'er I past 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.
The syntax reproduces a pattern of unforced, coordinated speech: his point of reference is the painting of the duchess and the entire grammatical structure of shifts in tense, pronouns and verbal inflections is anchored in the situation of the utterance. In one sense the pattern resembles the so-called free indirect style of the modern novel (see Traugott and Pratt, 301-2), except that the entire poem is cautiously sown with cohesive deictic references that allow us to identify a real extra-textual relationship between the 'she' and the 'I'. At another level the contrapuntal tension between syntax, line structure and rhyme is brilliantly balanced so that the poetic devices (such as run-on lines and rhymes occurring within grammatical clauses) cooperate rather than interfere with the speech pattern. In the closed couplets of Pope the referential function is effectively determined by its poetic counterpart; here the double pattern becomes far more flexible and responsive to context. We are aware that the rhyme scheme and the pentameter distances the text from non-poetic forms of speech and writing but this distancing does not create conflicts between the textual and referential functions.
'The Bishop Orders His Tomb' is in blank verse, and again there is not the same sense of interference between the materiality and the signifying function of the text that we have encountered in the blank verse of Milton and Wordsworth.
Browning's monologues are attempts to rescue the poetic function from the distancing effects of high Romantic form, to maintain the devices of poetry while reconciling these to the naturalistic contexture of prose, both fictional and non-fictional. Consider again the metaphor-metonym columns and you will find in Browning a continuous pattern of checks and balances: Romanticism and Realism, Paradigm and Syntagm, Text and Context. In monologues such as 'Johannes Agricola in Meditation' and 'Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister' he tests this balancing procedure against very complex stanzaic and metrical patterns, and it is as though he is, perhaps like George Herbert, continuously exploring the relationship between the functional and structural conditions of poetry. If this is his programme we might be prompted to ask why none of these meticulously detailed situations are set in the mid-nineteenth century. Ruskin said of The Bishop' (Modern Painters, 1856, IV, 380) that 'I know of no other piece of modern English, prose or poetry, in which there is so much told, as in these lines, of the Renaissance spirit', and he generously praised it as a social, cultural and historical study more penetrative than his own The Stones of Venice. Why then did Browning not employ these resources to 'tell as much' about, in Pater's phrase, 'the chaotic variety and complexity of the modern world'?
In 1880 William Morris delivered a lecture called The Beauty of Life' (in Collected Works, 1966) in which he compared contemporary social and cultural conditions with those of earlier periods, descending to such particulars as the public parks and suburban developments of Birmingham. He begins, 'I stand before you this evening weighted with a disadvantage that I did not feel last year—I have little fresh to tell you'. Could not such a direct address to the immediate concerns of the audience be versified in the manner of Browning's monologues? The picture of the duchess or the Bishop's tomb, with all their social, emotional and aesthetic associations could be substituted by Morris's 'the huge chimney there [in Bradford] which serves the acres of weaving and spinning sheds of Sir Titus Salt and his brothers'. Consider the result of changing a few of the nouns and adverbs at the beginning of Browning's 'My Last Duchess' (original in brackets).
[my last duchess] [wall]
That's the huge chimney painted on the sky [she] [call]
Looking as if it were alive. I cry [Fra Pandolf's]
That piece a wonder now, Sir Titus's hand's [she]
Worked busily a day, and there it stands [her]
Will't please you sit and look at it?
This seems to work well enough, but you will search in vain for an example of the Victorian poet anchoring deictic and referential patterns to those subjects, such as the Smoke Act and industrial development, that occupied the attention of prose essayists. To address the question 'why not?' we should return to Arnold's essay. Poetry is 'a criticism of life', but it must address itself to the atemporal ahistoric conditions of life that mid-nineteenth-century man shares with figures from myth, classical literature and the past. Browning's monologues are 'realistic' in the sense that they subdue the textual function to the immediate and conditional circumstances of the speech act, but to have allowed these circumstances some interface with the minutiae and complexity of contemporary existence would have reduced the mysterious nature of the poetic (signalled by the double pattern) to the status of an incongruously decorative means of addressing practical issues.
The adaptation of the dramatic monologue to the terms and conditions of contemporary experience would have to wait until Eliot's 'The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock' (discussed in Chapter 6). You will need to judge for yourself whether modernist formal innovation significantly altered the nineteenth-century perception and practice of poetry as enclosed within a universalised-ahistoric function.
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