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Robert Browning's "Dramatic Lyrics": Contribution to a Genre.

The article attempts an investigation into Robert Browning's collection "Dramatic Lyrics" with the purpose of linking the poet's endeavor to his concept of poetic genre, particularly in relation to the ideas of the lyrical and the dramatic. As it appeared in the Cambridge Edition of 1895, "Dramatic Lyrics" is a much revised volume, which came out as a culmination of a series of additions and deletions, done to the earlier editions and could thus represent the final settlement of the poems under the heading of "Dramatic Lyrics." In addressing the question of why Browning chose to include this particular group of poems under the title "Dramatic Lyrics," the article highlights a few poetic techniques the poet is seen to be employing in the poems. Such techniques give the collection its distinctive character within Browning's poetic output, and reveal the poetic significance in relation to his conception of genre. The article presents the mode of combining the dramatic with the lyrical and how this distinctive combination indicates Browning's conception of literary genres.


In this article, I attempt an examination of Robert Browning's "Dramatic Lyrics" as they appeared in the Cambridge edition of 1895, (1) with the purpose of highlighting the poet's approach to the lyrical phenomenon in the poems. My study aims at demonstrating that the term Dramatic Lyrics, though seemingly paradoxical, was neither a willful subversion of the ideas of literary genre, nor a random choice on the part of the poet. It was, rather, an adequate designation of a poetic endeavour, which involved a variety of techniques and strategies that prove, on closer scrutiny, to be far from haphazard, and foreshadow a development that was to become a mark of literary conceptions of genre a century later. The article will be divided into two sections. The first section discusses the development of the concepts of the dramatic and the lyrical, and the meanings they have come to acquire from Romantic criticism to Postmodernist critical theory, attempting to link them to Browning's literary output. The second section examines "Dramatic Lyrics," with the purpose of highlighting the techniques Browning employed in the final effect of the Dramatic Lyrics as well as assessing Browning's conception of poetic genre.


In 1855, Robert Browning produced an edition of his collected works containing a small section entitled "Dramatic Lyrics," which was already an enlargement on the section included in the Third Number of Bells and Pomegranates of 1842. Commenting on the 1855 collection, Browning wrote to a friend that the section entitled "Dramatic Lyrics" contained
 a number of poems of all sorts and sizes and styles and subjects ... the
 beginning of an expressing of the spirit of all the fruits of the years
 since I last turned the winch of the wine press. (qtd. in Jack 135)

In his 1849 collected works, the small section "Dramatic Lyrics" was combined with the section "Dramatic Romances" appearing in 1845. Thus the 1849 edition has a section entitled "Dramatic Lyrics and Romances" with "Dramatic Lyrics coming first and Dramatic Romances following" (DeVane 103). In his 1863 collection, Browning and his editors regrouped the poems while retaining the old headings. What lay behind the poet's decision to arrange the poems under the different headings remains unclear, though the headings themselves hint at the poet's conception of genre.

By 1855, Browning had won himself the reputation of a dramatic poet, and had produced his most accomplished dramatic monologues. "My Last Duchess" appeared in 1842, "The Bishop Orders his Tomb" in 1845, "Fra Lippo Lippi" and "Andrea del Sarto" in 1855. The dramatic monologue as an intriguing poetic genre has since then gripped the minds of scholars. Though in Browning's time, it was not yet a genre with distinctive characteristics, it has come to acquire definite boundaries and clear-cut attributes in modern criticism.

The dramatic monologue has brought attention to the stress on the persona, which embodies the conflict outside (with the external world) and inside (with its alter ego), as well as to the immediacy of the critical situation out of which the monologue issues. Other presences in the monologue also acquire importance, such as the figure of the silent addressee, who gets blurred at times into the implied listener or reader, and at other times into the speaker's alter ego. (2)

However, modern criticism's stress on the "dramatic" in the dramatic monologue was at the expense of the genre's lyrical characteristics. Browning's dramatic monologues are not unfolding dramas with conventional action and conflict, but skillfully wrought speeches of a mind that could embody a whole drama without requiring a single gesture. They are thus a perfect mixture of traditional lyricism involving the outpouring of emotions and traditional drama, involving confrontation and conflict. Browning's achievement with the dramatic monologue is also important because it throws light on the poet's art as a whole. Whether writing dramatic monologues or not, Browning is well known as a dramatic poet, and the dramatic streak in his poetry is greatly influenced by this very mixture of the dramatic and the lyrical, a feature most prominent in his dramatic monologues.

The 1855 collection "Dramatic Lyrics" presents readers with a literary and critical paradox. To minds brought up on T. S. Eliot's critical writings, specially regarding poetic voice and genre, and the torrent of literary criticism that followed from it, starting from F. R. Leavis, and continuing with momentum through American New Criticism, Russian Formalism and early Structuralism, there could be little place for a merger between the dramatic and the lyrical. Though within the Postmodernist framework, the idea of genre can certainly accommodate such a mixture, the question during Browning's time must have had different implications. The mixture of genres (dramatic and lyrical) in the title of the collection, though not unique to Browning, warrants deeper investigation into his conception of genre.

Browning neither sought to explain his paradoxical title nor to defy prevalent taste. He simply presented his collection with some explanations as to the nature of the poetic endeavour he saw himself undertaking there, and his words reveal how eagerly he sought to be accepted. That he was aware of the relative novelty of such an endeavour is clearly manifest in a comment to Milsand, where he expresses his wish "to be listened to, this time" (qtd. In Jack 135). In the short preface he wrote to the volume, he likewise betrays an inner disturbance as to the nature of his new collection of poems and the "manner" he adopts there:
 Such poems, as the majority in this volume (Dramatic Lyrics) might also
 come properly enough, I suppose, under the head of Dramatic Pieces; being,
 though often Lyric in expression, always Dramatic in principle, ...

(Complete Poetical Works 163)

In another remark to Milsand, he refers to "Dramatic Lyrics" as "Lyrics with more music and painting than before" (qtd. in Jack 174).

What did that mixture mean to Browning then? To answer this question one needs to know what the terms "dramatic" and "lyrical" meant to the poet and his contemporaries. Initially, one should assume that to the mid nineteenth-century poets (and readers) the combination of the two genres was taken with a great deal of goodwill. What the phrase `Dramatic Lyrics' suggests is that "lyrics" is the more fundamental term, since it is the noun designating the poems, while "dramatic" is the modifying adjective. In the quotation above, however, Browning implies the opposite. He sees the poems as "dramatic in principal and lyrical in expression," which implies that he saw the "dramatic" as the more fundamental constituent in his poetic scheme.

The tradition of the lyric was predominant in English literature from the early Elizabethan (Cavalier) poetry up to the Metaphysical poets. The lyric as traditionally known during those times was a short poem, well suited to music, and representing the feelings and experiences of the speaker (usually a Cavalier knight or a courtly lover) in elegant and poised statements. Such basic and general designations of the lyric are opposed to what is "dramatic" and multi-voiced in poetry. Drama is characterized by the lively enactment of incidents, the immediacy of situation, and above all the covert statements. (3)

What the two terms meant to Browning is revealed in the preface he wrote to his collected works of 1855. His comment on the nature of those poems, cited above, implies that he saw the two terms not as representing two different forms of expression, but as referring to two distinct aspects of poetry ("expression" and "principle" being two separate things for the poet). Though what "expression" and "principle" designate exactly is not very clear, what the two terms "dramatic" and "lyrical" meant to the poet can be derived from a sequel he added to his words, which partly explains what he meant by the dramatic "principle:" "so many utterances of so many imaginary persons, not mine" (Complete Poetical Works 163).

It appears then that Browning saw the dramatic "principle" informing his poetry as one mainly derived from the creation of fictional characters to take the role of the speaking voice, originally present in a lyric. The poet, however, sees those fictional characters or "personae" as giving essentially lyrical utterances or "expressions." It becomes clear here that Browning conceived of the difference between what is lyrical and what is dramatic in terms of how close or far the speaker in the poem is from the poet himself. Indeed, the poet seems to have taken this matter very seriously. In a letter to Rev. A. B. Grosart, he comments on the controversy around the central figure in "The Lost Leader." In trying to defend himself against "accusations" that he was using Wordsworth as the main subject of the poem, Browning reveals how literally he thought of what is real and what is fictitious about the figure in the poem:
 I did in my hasty youth presume to use the great and
 venerated personality of Wordsworth as a sort of painter
 model; one from which this or the other particular feature
 may be selected and turned to account; had I intended
 more, above all, such a boldness as portraying the entire
 man, I should not have talked about "handfuls of silver
 and bits of ribbon." (Complete Poetical Works 164)

Apart from betraying the poet's conception of the literary persona as used primarily in his dramatic monologues, Browning's words could be seen to represent the seeds of a wider controversy regarding the lyric in modern times. If for Browning, in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, the lyrical and the dramatic were not much apart, two generations ahead of him saw the matter differently. The "lyrical" and the "dramatic" as part of a larger controversy concerning modes of representation and authority have come to be a mark of modern poetics. Although he might not have been aware, Browning was forcefully contributing to the change of taste towards the dramatic presentation in poetry, which later on became the mark of modern poetry.

In this sense, he was a strong link in a chain that could be traced back to Coleridge. Commending the compelling power of dramatic poetry, Coleridge attributes it mainly to "the alienation, and ... the utter aloofness of the poet's own feeling" required in dramatic utterances. Such power, he adds, could then reveal itself "in the balance or reconciliation of opposites," creating a "more than usual state of emotion with more than usual order" (23-26). Affinities with Eliot's theory of impersonality can hardly be overlooked here. Eliot's groundbreaking essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," appearing in 1919 says it all. For Eliot, the Romantic poet is one who gives himself away too easily because he does not opt for the protective armor of impersonality. What pertains to the present argument is that the theory springs from a clear distinction between what is lyrical and what is dramatic, though it is obvious that Eliot did not think of the former as highly as he thought of the latter:
 A poet can express his feelings as fully through a dramatic, as through a
 lyrical form ... for a poet with dramatic gifts, a situation quite remote
 from his personal experience may release the strongest emotion. (Selected
 Essays 290)

On this was built Eliot's judgment regarding Romantic poets, among whom he ironically saw Browning. This was also the basis of his distinction between the three voices of poetry, where he draws the line between the first and second voices, which are the lyrical and the dramatic respectively (On Poetry and Poets 96).

Well-suited to modernism's reserve and anxiety regarding the subject, Eliot's theory of impersonality continued to acquire vehement supporters. In so far as there could be a distinction between the lyrical and the dramatic, Eliot and his contemporaries established the centrality of the latter. In Revelations (1964), F. R. Leavis voices the taste of the thirties in celebrating the dramatic in poetry. He expresses his preference for the kind of poetry that shows "the presentation of situations, the liveliness of enactment" and, above all, the assumed speaker or persona (34-36).

The New Criticism in Britain and the United States developed such preference by perceiving poetry as fundamentally dramatic. In their influential book Understanding Poetry (1960), Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren approach poems as little dramas where "tension" and "friction" are of key importance. Yet it should be noted that in their preference for the "impersonality" of the dramatic, the New Critics tended to suppress the existence of the lyric rather than account for its presence as a different genre. They thus tended to subsume both lyric and narrative poetry under the dramatic. In the final analysis, what the New Critics say about the three voices of poetry is much more confused than what Eliot has to say.

One of the New Criticism's major contributions to the study of poetry was, however, its stress on the concept of the persona. It was through the persona that the New Critics could talk with less indeterminacy and more ease about the speaker in lyrical and narrative poetry. With the active development of the concept of impersonality, and the question of authority in the latter third of the twentieth century, the persona became a more powerful concept than before. With Postmodernism's endeavour to abolish authorial control, the persona became the main presence in a poem, taking the place of the traditional lyrical voice known to Renaissance and Romantic poets, and widening the gap between the poet and the speaker in the poem.

In a world saturated with Postmodernism's adamant opposition to the notions of the self and the conscious subject, the lyrical "I" came to be conceptualized more and more as an illusion. This was strengthened by Postmodernism's consistent endeavour to abolish notions of authority, and ultimately resulted in the lyrical "I" shrinking into an almost imperceptible presence. In his examination of the poetry of Sylvia Plath, W. R. Johnson refers to "the death of the lyric" as a necessary outcome of the embarrassment of both "its singers and its audience" (21). He maintains that there are three types of lyrics, which he terms: dialogue poems, meditation, and the lyric where the poet is addressing a "symbolic mediator." This latter type comes closer to a reconciliation between the lyrical and the dramatic in a manner that approximates Browning's conception. Johnson also maintains that in this latter type of lyric, the poet addresses the symbolic audience "at a highly dramatic moment in which the essence of their relationship reveals itself in the lyrical discourse" (3). This view represents a movement in its own right. It restores to the lyric its significance and attempts to view it in a new light. The idea of the lyric is thus not dismissed, but is introduced in a manner that, nonetheless, cannot ignore the century of impersonality and death of the author that preceded it.

The death of the lyric Johnson announces is, fortunately, only a symbolic death. Postmodernism's stress on the "death of the author" (Barthes 129 and Foucault 129) does not automatically entail the death of the lyric. More recent views on the lyric introduce reconstructed notions of the genre, where it is not by necessity the poised statements of the poet, but a force operating through the poetic structure, springing primarily from, and focusing attention on, the consciousness of a central figure (Calderwood and Toliver 110). In such assessments, the old dichotomy, clearly perceived by Coleridge, between lyrical and dramatic poetry, and perceived in a more blurred manner by Eliot and his followers, merges the spirit of both genres. (4)

If the persona is a creation of the stress on the dramatic in poetry, then the lyricism of the persona can be seen as the synthesis achieved in "post" Postmodernist times between the lyrical and the dramatic. It took contemporary poetics an age to reach such a happy synthesis, and it is from this point that I wish to view Browning's "Dramatic Lyrics." The development of my argument centres on the assumption that Browning's "Dramatic Lyrics" embodied the spirit of a synthesis that modern poetics achieved more than a century later. The title "Dramatic Lyrics" was thus neither an innocent (though paradoxical) combination, nor a willed defiance of contemporary conventions. It was to a great extent a true expression of the spirit of a few poems that could be seen to carry the stamp of an innovation. It was a title announcing the emergence into the mainstream of a genre that, since then, has had very few practitioners and almost no other masters.

The poems are neither purely dramatic nor purely lyrical, but combine both impulses in a subtle manner, and with great skill of execution. They are lyrical because they are marked by the conventions of the genre. They introduce the thoughts and inner feelings and conflicts of the speaker in what Arthur Symons refers to as the "subtle mental complexity" of Browning's poetry (59). Moreover, Browning could achieve this in a lyric language reminiscent of the older masters of the lyric tradition such as Sir Thomas Wyatt, the Earl of Surrey, and later on, John Donne. The poems are still dramatic because they are spoken by characters, emphasizing a conflict--whether internal or with the outside world--in the utterance of the speaker, and they opt for the invocation of critical situations and, above all, a literary persona. Browning would have been a traditional lyricist but for an inner impulse not to say what he wanted to say in his own person, and what appears to be a skeptical disposition, which stood between him and his own utterances.

The conflict and tension in the poems produce charged moments, yet the words of Browning's speakers in his "Dramatic Lyrics" flow uninterrupted. There is a force behind their speeches that gives them lyrical intensity. Browning always focused on that one character who embodied the action. Roma A. King rightly perceives how Browning's gift was to portray action in character rather than character in action (125). This ability to concentrate the action in one character operates in a direction opposite to drama, where action and conflict are embodied in the characters and the dialogue.

Commenting on the speakers' relative freedom in the Dramatic Lyric, Allen A. Brockington sees that
 in the method of the dramatic lyric their opinions are known through him
 and they are discounted or extenuated because he is the controlling
 influence, and we know how he regards the others, and can make our
 allowances in accordance with our knowledge. (147)

Browning gives the thought and analyses it at the same time. To what extent the speaker in the poem resembles Browning himself will always be a matter of conjecture. Ian Jack sees that "Dramatic Lyrics" are inspired by Browning's love for Elizabeth Barrett (136), and that the lyricism of the poems is more powerful than appears at first sight. Yet, it is true that in most of them Browning chooses to speak through a mask, and to render action and conflict in an indirect manner.

By its mere existence, the persona is not necessarily an indication of the dramatic. The older masters of the lyric did not by necessity speak in their own voices about their own experiences and plights. The Cavalier knight, the courtly lover of the sixteenth century, and even the Troubadour of medieval times were personae in their own right. They were, however, not dramatic, but lyric personae, that is, personae that do not have autonomous existence away from their creator, and are not the creation (and recreation) of conflict. The persona was then a literary pose. In the mid nineteenth century, the persona became something different. A creation at once personal and impersonal, stressing at once closeness and aloofness, absence and presence, it came to stand for that very role of mediator between what is lyrical and what is dramatic. It was one of Browning's basic achievements in "Dramatic Lyrics" to create such personae, and one of the most prominent techniques adopted to achieve the final effect of the Dramatic Lyric. Other techniques used by Browning to create the unique nature of the poems depend on the poet's handling of the mixture of genres, voices and tones.

In discussing the poetry, I will examine Browning's "Dramatic Lyrics" with the aim of clarifying the techniques the poet employed in the poems themselves. Such techniques are varied and create the variety that makes the poems unique. What gives the poems unity in spite of the variety of techniques employed is that Browning appears to be striving to maintain the character of a somewhat "new" genre, which may have been more original than he understood.


One thing, seemingly irrelevant, is worth mentioning about the present collection. Browning's poems here are shot through with a very subtle humor, verging at times on satire. This, at first reading, appears to be incompatible with the subject matter of some poems. Poems like "The Confessional" (169), "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister" (167) and "Evelyn Hope" (171) have grave subject matters, yet display a lightness of tone that is hardly matched anywhere else in Browning's poetry. It is my contention, however, that this very flippancy is at the core of the poet's experiment. The humorous, nonchalant manner, which Arthur Symons describes as "strong and thoughtful humour ... gay and hearty, satirical and incisive in turn" (qtd. in Aboul Magd 59), constitutes a voice in its own right, which might then engage in conflict with other voices in the poem, thus contributing to the multiplicity of voices that cannot be heard in one way. Yet the irony here is not the grave and negative irony of the moderns, but a milder and more relaxed one that appears more like a "pose" assumed by the poet, in accordance with a poetic tradition. The paradoxical presence of humor in poems with a grave subject matter is one of the means by which Browning manages to create his own version of the paradoxical genre of Dramatic Lyrics.

"The Confessional" starts off with the lyrical outburst of, as revealed later on, a woman lamenting her undue trust in the Catholic Church. Having been betrayed by a Catholic priest into giving secret information about her "militant" lover, she makes the poem another "confessional", exposing not her own sin this time but that of the priest. Irony is created by the discrepancy between the speaker's innocence and the priest's scheming mind. However, there is inescapable humor in Browning's portrayal, as the lyricism characteristic of the first stanza moves into an implicit dialogue with an audience in the second:
 You think Priests just and holy men!
 Before they put me in this den
 I was a human creature too,
 With flesh and blood like one of you,
 A girl that laughed in beauty's pride
 Like lilies in your world outside.

(Complete Poetical Works 169)

Later on the poem moves into a dialogue with the priest and the humorous tone starts to predominate. The priest or "father," as the woman refers to him, gets the biggest share of the humorous tone:
 The father's head was long and white,
 With love and truth his brow seemed bright;

(Complete Poetical Works 169)

The "father's" face appears again through an added humorous presentation. When the woman goes to the market place, unaware that she would see her lover being executed, the first thing that catches her eye is "the father's face" out there, up on a pedestal, God-like and impersonal. Though the basis of the humor is the dramatic irony inherent in the situation, Browning never allows the humorous tone to turn into bitter irony or cynicism. He always manages to keep it at the level of the simple and the flippant. Thus, what could have been manipulated to produce dramatic irony by virtue of the discrepancy between the speaker's limited knowledge and what the reader assumes to be real is checked by the conversational nature of the woman's words:
 He told me what he would not tell
 For hope of heaven or fear of hell;
 And I lay listening in such pride!
 And, soon as he had left my side,
 Tripped to the church by morning-light
 To save his soul in his despite.

(Complete Poetical Works 169)

This strategy throws light on the poet's way of handling the tension between the dramatic and the lyrical in the poems.

The humorous presentation in "The Confessional" is subtly mixed with a more sobering irony and a more stinging satire in "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister." Though here the speaker is one from beginning to end, the poem is populated with other presences. The "soliloquy" is very much like a dramatic monologue in that it points towards a conflict within the speaker. This conflict is comically obscure as it seems to spring from the speaker's extreme and childish abhorrence of Brother Laurence. The utterances of the speaker in this poem do not stem from an intensive dramatic situation:
 GR-R-R--there goes my heart's abhorrence!
 Oh, those melons! If he's able
 We're told to have a feast! So nice!
 One goes to the Abbot's table,
 All of us get each a slice.

(Complete Poetical Works 167-8)

This is developed further by the implication that the speaker in the poem could be anybody, or indeed anything in that setting: a fellow priest, a dog, or simply part of the props of the scene.

The humor is intensified by the inclusion within the "soliloquy" of bits of what seem to be parts of the conversation Brother Laurence is having with his friends at dinner, or what could be parts of the internal monologues of some of his guests:
 Not a plenteous cork-crop: scarcely
 Dear we hope oak-galls, I doubt:
 What's the Latin name for "parsley"?

(Complete Poetical Works 167)

The last question, silly as it might sound, is echoed by the persona in a slightly altered manner in the very next line: "What's the Greek name for Swine's Snout?" (167). The humor here is the result of verbal irony rather than dramatic irony. This, together with the inclusion of other voices, weakens the poem's affinity to the dramatic monologue.

"Evelyn Hope" provides by far the strongest example of the humorous/satirical effect Browning achieves in "Dramatic Lyrics." The poem is about a dead young lady, and the speaker throughout is a man "thrice as old" as her. The poet uses an eight-line tetrameter stanza rhyming abab cdcd, a form partaking of the ballad and the ottava rima, though not completely compatible with either. The simplicity of utterance and the humor associated with the ottava rima cast a light tone over Evelyn Hope's untimely death:
 Beautiful Evelyn Hope is dead!
 Sit and watch by her side an hour
 That is her book shelf, this her bed,
 She plucked the piece of geranium-flower,
 Beginning to die too, in the glass;

(Complete Poetical Works 171)

The voice of the persona appears neither in this opening stanza nor in the following one. The withdrawal of the speaking voice in these opening stanzas plays a role in alleviating the gloom that would accompany the words, had they been coming from the mouth of a mourner. The dramatic opening leads, in the third stanza, to the emergence of the voice of the persona. The words of the persona in this stanza still do not carry the expected grief of a mourner. They seem to be carded through from the detached and impersonal first two stanzas:
 Is it too late then, Evelyn Hope?
 What, your soul was pure and true,
 The good stars met in your horoscope,
 Made you of spirit, fire and dew --
 And, just because I was thrice as old
 And our paths in the world diverged so wide,
 Each was naught to each, must I be told?
 We were fellow mortals, naught beside?

(Complete Poetical Works 171)

When in the last stanza the speaker confesses his love for the dead girl, the reader finds it hard to reconcile what was said in the last two lines of this third stanza with the speaker's fresh confession of love for Evelyn Hope. A latent flippancy shows itself at work here. When, a few lines later, the speaker merges the poignant "Yet one thing, one, in my soul's full scope,/Either I missed or itself missed me:/And I want and find you, Evelyn Hope" with the casual, business-like "What is the issue? Let us see!" (171), the resultant humorous/satirical effect cannot be overlooked. Browning appears to be employing the persona not as an instance of the dramatic, but as a mediator between two types of presentation. He utilizes this strategy for producing the humorous/satirical effect marking the whole collection.

Another aspect of Browning's experiment with genre in this collection appears in the subtle infiltration of a faint lyrical voice within a predominantly dramatic poem. The strongly "dramatic" character of some of the poems in this collection, much commented on by critics, (5) seems on closer scrutiny to be shot through with an unobtrusive lyrical voice. "Meeting at Night" and "Parting at Morning," outstanding examples of Browning's dramatic verse, still reveal the lyricism of the speaking voice, thereby highlighting the manner in which Browning dealt with the two genres in this book. "Meeting at Night" starts off with a dramatic scene, where nature is physically active:
 The gray sea and the long black land;
 And the yellow half-moon large and low;
 And the startled little waves that leap
 In fiery ringlets from their sleep,

(Complete Poetical Works 170)

This scene is given with no interference from a persona or speaking voice, and the whole journey is presented with an objective cinematic technique.

The second stanza is remarkable for its dramatically economic presentation of an intimate scene:
 Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
 Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
 A tap on the pane, the quick sharp scratch
 And blue spurt of a lighted match,
 And a voice less loud, through its joys and fears,
 Than the two hearts beating each to each!

(Complete Poetical Works 170)

The six lines have only one finite verb: "appears" in the second line of the stanza, and it is set among several instances of nominal, verbial and adverbial constructions. Linguistically, such structures tend more towards the presentation of inaction, but Browning enlivens his poem with the careful choice of words and the quickening of the rhythm.

Set against this masterful dramatic presentation in both stanzas, the appearance of the speaking voice in the last two lines of the first stanza tends to be weakly observed. This only instance introduces an element of lyricism that not only influences the tone of the whole poem, but is essential in creating another level of meaning in it. The actions seen as performed by the speaker and given in his own voice: "As I gain the cove with pushing prow,/And quench its speed i' the slushy sand" (170) turn the description of a natural scene in the first four lines and that of a romantic lovers' union in the second stanza toward a sexually laden context in the second stanza, thus creating a parallel line of meaning. The words of the persona are strongly indicative of an intense physical encounter. This brief instance of the appearance of the speaker of the lyrical utterance is thus of key significance to the creation of meaning.

The same strategy is adopted in the sequel "Parting at Morning," where the seemingly unexpected break of day is rendered with a vivid dramatic description:
 ROUND the cape of a sudden came the sea,
 And the sun looked over the mountain's rim:
 And straight was a path of gold for him,

(Complete Poetical Works 170)

The objective presentation of physically active reality, however, concludes with subjective perceptions: "And the need of a world of men for me." (170) Here again, the introduction of the speaking voice comes as a revelation of an added dimension in the poem. The voice of the speaker, coming in the last line, once more plays a vital role in changing the tone of the preceding lines and creating a new level of meaning by re-directing the reader's attention towards new perceptions of reality. Love proves to be insufficient for the emotionally and sexually abated lover!

There is no place for the persona in such short poems, and in neither of the two instances of first-person speaker interference in the poems does the poet attempt the creation of a mask or dramatic persona. What is relevant to the argument of this paper is the subtle mixture of the lyrical and the dramatic, and the task the poet appears to be assigning to both in the creation of meaning in the poems. In "A Serenade at the Villa," the opening scene is again dramatic:
 That was I, you heard last night,
 When there rose no moon at all,
 Nor, to pierce the strained and fight
 Tent of heaven, a planet small:
 Life was dead and so was light.

(Complete Poetical Works 189)

However, here a strong lyricism characterizes the words of the persona, weakening the character of what could have been a dramatic monologue. Thus the dramatic opening, where the speaker addresses an imaginary listener, turns into a lover's lyric prayer in the fourth stanza:
 What they could my words expressed,
 O my love, my all, my one!
 Singing helped the verses best,
 And when singing's best was done,
 To my lute I left the rest.

(Complete Poetical Works 189)

Echoes of courtly love poetry, Shakespearean drama and troubadour songs intermingle in the first four stanzas, and they set the scene at length for what will follow, where the conversational character of the lyric intensifies, with the introduction of another voice. Throughout the poem, the two impulses (lyrical and conversational) run side-by-side. The dramatic presentation of events, evident from the very beginning of the poem, and the lyrical utterances reminiscent of Sir Thomas Wyatt (Jack 146) create the overall effect of the poem. This mixture of voices, however, is not achieved without some disturbance in the musical scheme of the poem. The sixth and the seventh stanzas, where another voice is introduced, betray this disturbance most obviously, when the seven-syllable sequence is broken by the insertion of pauses and the run-on lines. This tension is not resolved until the last stanza of the poem, where the lyrical voice reigns supreme once more, and offers a finale, which is not devoid of echoes of the humorous touch characteristic of the whole collection:
 Oh, how dark your villa was,
 Windows fast and obdurate!
 How the garden grudged me grass
 Where I stood -- the iron gate
 Ground its teeth to let me pass!

(Complete Poetical Works 190)

This lyrical voice takes the place of what could have turned into the voice of a persona in the opening stanzas, which could be seen to have given way to it. "A Serenade" strongly highlights the role the persona plays in Browning's scheme, for it is by virtue of its ability to withdraw and be incorporated within other voices (here the lyrical voice) that the persona of the dramatic monologue survives in the Dramatic Lyric. This strategy is consolidated in the poem with the technique of mixing different poetic voices (the purely lyrical and the conversational) in a manner making the poem constantly defy classification within the boundaries of poetic genres.

The infiltration of an unobtrusive, yet strong, lyrical voice within a seemingly dramatic poem is one of Browning's achievements. A great number of poems, however, are strongly lyrical with little or no interference of the dramatic element, though still invested with tension that informs the lyrical utterance and brings it closer to the dramatic monologue. Such poems have in common the love stories that lie behind them. In "By the Fireside," a Wordsworthian meditation on love and old age, the speaker begins in a melancholic present, "life's November:"
 How well I know what I mean to do
 When the long dark autumn evenings come;
 And where, my soul, is thy pleasant hue?
 With the music of all thy voices, dumb
 In life' s November too!

(Complete Poetical Works 185)

The long poem unfolds a meditation. Unlike in Wordsworth, however, this meditation does not take the speaker back to recollections of the past. (6) The poem takes us from the present moment into an imaginary future, where the speaker undertakes a journey through a homeland, "wooed not wed." Once in the future, the speaker takes the journey back to the past, which is, ironically, the present moment of speaking:
 My perfect wife, my Leoner,
 Oh heart, my own, oh eyes, mine too,
 Whom else could I dare look backward for,
 With whom beside should I dare pursue
 The path gray heads abhor?

(Complete Poetical Works 186)

This long poem continues in its subtle shifts from present to imaginary future and reminiscences from the past until at the end it is brought back to the present moment of speaking. The speaker confirms his initial meditation:
 And to watch you sink by the fireside now
 Back again, as you mutely sit
 Musing by fire-light, that great brow
 And the spirit-small hand propping it,
 Yonder, my heart knows how!

 So, earth has gained by one man the more,
 And the gain of earth must be heaven's gain too;
 And the whole is well worth thinking o'er
 When autumn comes: which I mean to do
 One day, as I said before.

(Complete Poetical Works 187)

Once more, Browning refuses to rest content with lyrical outbursts, but invests his poem with a conflict that overshadows its underlying lyricism. Though the subject of the meditation is the speaker's love for his wife Leonor, the speaker diverges too often from the main story into recollections of the past, and attempts a journey into the future, which makes the principal lyrical streak appear as only a means of tying together the loose ends of something much more complex than an outburst of love.

Browning continues to use the persona as a mediator between the lyrical and the dramatic in another group of poems, where he employs the technique of introducing the tension-laden voice of a quasi-dramatic persona. In these poems, the initial lyricism is strongly qualified by the adoption of the voice of the persona of a woman who speaks throughout the poem. Though the words of the personae exhibit various degrees of dramatization, the initial lyricism is there and never allows the dramatic to overshadow it. Thus, in "Any Wife to any Husband," Browning manages to overshadow the crisis that informs the utterance by foregrounding the speaker and playing down the conflict, so that the speech does not ultimately constitute a dramatic monologue.

The utterance of the persona (the wife -- any wife) starts off in a lyrical vein, very much reminiscent of John Donne. The first two stanzas hint at a crisis that is not made explicit:
 My love, this is the bitterest, that thou --
 Who art all truth, and who dost love me now
 As thine eyes say, as thy voice breaks to say --
 Shouldst love so truly, and couldst love me still
 A whole long life through, had but love its will,
 Would death that leads me from thee brook delay.

 I have but to be by thee, and thy hand
 Will never let mine go, not heart withstand
 The beating of my heart to reach its place.
 When shall I look for thee and feel thee gone?
 When cry for the old comfort and find none?
 Never, I know! Thy soul is in thy face.

(Complete Poetical Works 187)

This initial lyricism proceeds to different directions as the twenty-one stanza poem unfolds. Though the utterance of the persona is characterized by intense questioning (stanzas five, six and twelve), the tone does not rise to the level of the conflict that seems to lie in the background. Thus, even when the speaker ponders upon her husband's "assumed" infidelity, the language does not betray the turbulence that must lie beneath the utterance. Imagining her husband's infidelity, the speaker deals with it in the most matter-of-fact manner:
 And if a man would press his lips to lips
 Fresh as the wilding hedge-rose-cup there slips
 The dewdrop out of, must it be by stealth?

(Complete Poetical Works 188)

It is through the way Browning employs the speech acts in the poem that he manages to play down the dramatic potential of such an internal conflict, thereby maintaining the placid tone with which the poem begins. The imperatives in stanzas fifteen and sixteen are given with as much serenity as the opening statements, and the use of a woman's persona encompasses the dramatic tension together with the lyrical ease of the words.

In "A Woman's Last Words," the underlying lyricism in a woman's simple yet eloquent "prayer" to her lover is channeled into an implicit dialogue. The woman, addressing her lover, invests her words with action or implications of action (mostly sexual action), so that it becomes difficult to view the poem as purely lyrical:
 Let's contend no more, Love,
 Strive nor weep:
 All be as before, Love,
 -- Only sleep!

 What so wild as words are?
 I and thou
 In debate, as birds are,
 Hawk on bough!

(Complete Poetical Works 171)

The strong kinetic verbs, the imperatives opening the lines, and creating a predominantly trochaic and anapestic rhythm, play their part in transforming what could have otherwise remained a lyrical outburst into an almost dramatic one. Though the poem is based on the conflict between the two lovers, and ends with the resolution of that conflict, this whole process is carded out on the verbal level, and, as in "Any Wife," ends in the matter-of-fact resignation of a "sensible" woman:
 -- Must a little weep, Love,
 (Foolish me!)
 And so fall asleep, Love,
 Loved by thee.

(Complete Poetical Works 171)

"The Confessional" is another instance of lyrical utterances qualified by the creation of a persona and presented in a subtly dramatic language, which Ian Jack terms "the shorthand of feelings and of passion" (138). In this poem, however, Browning's experiment with the Dramatic Lyric moves a step further. The words of the persona (also a woman) are seen here as moving further towards the dramatic monologue. In addition to the unfolding narrative, the words of the persona reveal a very limited, almost naive perception, which contrasts with the wickedness of the scheming father at the confession chair. However, as has been mentioned before, Browning does very little to highlight that contrast. The dramatic irony that could have lent the persona's speech a highly dramatic character remains at the level of verbal irony:
 But when I falter Beltran's name,
 "Ha!" quoth the father; "much I blame
 The sin; yet wherefore idly grieve?
 Despair not -- strenuously retrieve!
 Nay, I will turn this love of thine
 To lawful love, almost divine;
 (Complete Poetical Works 169)

Moreover, the fact that the persona begins to tell us her story with the concluding episode weakens the dramatic potential of the poem, and the voice heard in such poems defies classification.

In such poems, the mixture of lyricism and a degree of dramatic potential is achieved in a manner that puts them in a state of constant flux. The dramatic character of the speech is weakened by Browning's refusal to develop the situation into a fully dramatic one, while the lyricism is checked by the attempts at creating a speaker and the conflict-laden language, marking the utterance of the persona. Moreover, the poems are seen to retain a strong narrative streak that takes the place of the dramatic rendering of events in a dramatic monologue.

In other instances, Browning approaches the realization of a dramatic monologue more closely. "In a Year" introduces the persona of a woman, who, like the speaker in "The Confessional," is little aware of the reality around her. What makes the former more dramatic in quality, however, is the fact that the conflict unfolds gradually with the speech of the persona. Not until we get to the middle of the poem do we realize part of the truth. The woman at the beginning of the poem appears to be bewildered by her lover's change of heart. She asks herself:
 Was it something said,
 Something done,
 Vexed him? Was it touch of hand,
 Turn of head?
 Strange! That very way
 Love begun:
 I as little understand
 Love' s decay.

(Complete Poetical Works 192)

Towards the middle of the poem, this change appears to have valid causes, only that the woman is not fully aware of them. The resultant dramatic irony enhances the dramatic character of the words of the persona:
 Why should all the giving prove
 His alone?
 I had wealth and ease,
 Beauty, youth:
 Since my lover gave me love
 I gave these.

(Complete Poetical Works 192)

In keeping with the spirit of the whole collection, Browning does not let the dramatic reign supreme. Towards the end of the poem, the dramatic potential of such a scheme is checked by the introduction of another voice (that of a man), whose speech is an instance of meditation. The man's words reveal in a starkly funny, straightforward manner, the dramatic irony inherent in the woman's previous words:
 "What she felt the while,
 Must I think?
 Love's so different with us men!"

(Complete Poetical Works 193)

The brief withdrawal of the voice of the woman is intensified here, until, in the following and last stanza of the poem, the words of the persona introduce the synthesis the speaker achieved-one not much different from the resigned closures of "Any Wife" and "A Woman's Last Words:"
 Dear, the pang is brief,
 Do thy part,
 Have thy pleasures! How perplexed
 Grows belief!
 Well, this cold clay clod
 Was man's heart:
 Crumble it, and what comes next?
 Is it God?

(Complete Poetical Works 193)

Monitoring Browning's refusal to commit himself to one method of presentation, and his handling of the potentially dramatic persona is vital in understanding his approach to those Dramatic Lyrics. In other instances, the lyricism is qualified not by the introduction of a (quasi) persona, but by the mixture of different genres side-by-side the basic lyrical utterance. Description and narration are among the primary presences within such lyrics. Browning usually effects this merger through the gradual introduction of those other elements, so that the poems stealthily move from lyricism into description or narration or both. "Nationality in Drink" is a light-hearted poem that deals with wine and national heroes in a starkly Chaucerian fashion. The poem is made up of three sections of which the first is lyrical in character, while the voice we hear is still mixed with a pseudo-importance that lends it its humorous character:
 Our laughing little flask, compelled
 Through depth to depth more bleak and shady;
 As when, both arms beside her hold,
 Feet straightened out, some gray French lady
 Is caught up from life's light and motion,
 And dropped into death's silent ocean!

(Complete Poetical Works 166)

In sections I and II of the poem, the humorous tone is obtrusive, while a perceptible change towards narration and description appears in section II. A little detail of the scene is highlighted. The descriptive passage is vivid with details of movement, sound, and color:
 Up jumped Tokay on our table,
 And fierce he looked North, then, wheeling South,
 Blew with his bugle a challenge to Drouth,

(Complete Poetical Works 166)

The persona presides over section III, which opens with a theatrical voice delivering a toast: "-- Here's to Nelson's memory!" (166). The boldness of the voice strongly contrasts with the one we hear in the opening section. Is it a persona then? It could be, but for the fact that Browning chooses to conceal it under the mask of laughter and to close his poem too abruptly.

The fact that the poem was not composed all at once is telling. Browning first composed sections I and II, and they were published in 1844, then later on added the third, which was composed on a voyage to Italy. That the poet chose to put the three sections together as one poem highlights one of my basic claims about "Dramatic Lyrics." The mixture of commonly conflicting voices is at the core of Browning's conception of the Dramatic Lyric genre (if one could call it thus), while the persona is a vital element in demonstrating the change that occurs from one poem to the other.

The short poem "After" is another instance of the mixture of different voices in a pastiche whole. The poem, a sequel to the longer "Before," introduces the aftermath of a duel between two "friends." Browning uses a humorously glib tone in commenting on a grave situation. At the funeral of the friend/enemy killed in the duel, the persona speaks about the dead man with a mixture of guilt, awe, nostalgia, grief and glibness:
 Take the cloak from his face, and at first
 Let the corpse do its worst!
 How he lies in his rights of man!
 Death has done all death can.

(Complete Poetical Works 194)

These opening lines show, on a different level, how the poem from its outset achieves a mixture of genres by making the lyrical and the meditative (slightly humorous) second couplet issue forth from the dramatic (even theatrical yet still humorous) opening. Still, the unity of tone in both instances ensures the smooth continuity from one mode to the other, while in the second stanza there is a gradual introduction of a poignant tone conveying the speaker's grief. However, the rhythm and rhyme continue in their curious scheme, and the poem ends with a mixture of the lyrical, the conversational and the dramatic once more:
 I stand here now, he lies in his place:
 Cover the face!

(Complete Poetical Works 194)

The scheme appears again in "Saul," a longer poem likewise showing the mixture of the dramatic, the narrative, the lyrical and the humorous voice of the persona. It is the latter, however, that ensures the integrity of the poem through its manipulation of the other voices, thereby drawing attention once more to Browning's skill in combining different voices and genres.

In the course of one and a half centuries Robert Browning's dramatic gifts have ensured him a growing reputation. The taste for the dramatic, prevalent with Modernism, performs an essential role in Browning's early poetry. Collections such as Dramatic Pieces, Dramatic Personae and The Ring and the Book could provide multiple instances of the poet's experiment with the dramatic, in addition to revealing a steady movement in that direction. Yet, for several reasons, the small collection, "Dramatic Lyrics" cannot be placed within that sequence. It stands apart, not only by virtue of its title, but because of the very nature of the poems it contains.

Rather than showing its author as striving towards developing and perfecting his dramatic tools, "Dramatic Lyrics" shows Browning as sidetracking towards a brief redeployment of the genre's unique possibilities. His approach was one involving a subversion of prevalent poetic traditions and dominant categories, in a bold integration of tones, voices and genres, producing a very special outcome. This was also highlighted by Browning's use of the persona in various manners to serve his aims. The outcome was ultimately a very special mixture of impulses, providing a considerable, though experimental, scope for introducing his principal preoccupations: a multiplicity of points of view, and a deep psychological interest (Brockington 135-44).

In linking the development of the idea of poetic genre and the concept of the persona from Romantic to Postmodern critical theory with Browning's investment in "Dramatic Lyrics," I have aimed at demonstrating that the poet has introduced a remarkable contribution. The radical ideas concerning the dramatic persona, as well as concepts like the mixture of voices and genre, were to become landmarks in contemporary criticism. (7)

As a result of its radical subversion of the concept of genre, and the radical (though unobtrusive) integration of impulses, the experiment deserves to be viewed as a brave undertaking. Though Browning does not abandon the experiment in his later poetry, "Dramatic Lyrics" represents his most integrated achievement in that respect. The poet's use of tone, voice, and genre, as well as his handling of the persona remain essential to the understanding of his experiment with lyricism in "Dramatic Lyrics."


(1) The Cambridge 1895 edition on which this article depends contains the final arrangements of Browning's poems under various headings. This edition comprises the ten volumes previously included in the Riverside Edition of 1887, and is reviewed in the light of the 1888 English Edition.

(2) For a fuller discussion of aspects of the dramatic monologue, see Robert Langbaum and Elizabeth A. Howe.

(3) For further discussion of features of dramatic poetry, see Dawson S. W. and Roger Fowler.

(4) For further discussion of the continuity of the lyrical impulse in modern poetry, see George T. Wright and James L. Calderwood.

(5) See for example Brooks and Penn Warren, 42-43 and Laurence Perrine, 46-48.

(6) As Wordsworth does, for instance, in The Prelude and "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintem Abbey."

(7) Some of these ideas, such as those of Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes were outlined in the first section of the paper, while others, notably Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of polyphony and the idea of carnival, are too elaborate to be adequately summarized in such an overview. For a fuller account, see Bakhtin, Kirckhop and Shepherd.

Works Cited

Aboul Magd, Nadia O. M. The Humanism of Robert Browning. Cairo: The Anglo Egyptian Bookshop, 1971.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. C. Emerson and M. Holoquist, eds. V. W. McGee, trans. Austin: U of Texas P, 1986.

Barthes, Roland. "The Death of the Author." Authorship: from Plato to the Post-Modern, A Reader. Scan Burke, ed. Edinburgh: Edinburgh U P, 1995.

Brockington, A. Allen. Browning and the Twentieth Century: A Study of Robert Browning's Influence and Reputation. New York: Russel and Russel, 1963.

Brooks, Cleanth and Robert Penn Warren. Understanding Poetry. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976.

Browning, Robert. The Complete Poetical Works of Robert Browning. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1895.

Calderwood, James L. and Harold E. Toliver, eds. Perspectives on Poetry. New York: Oxford U P, 1968.

Coleridge, S. T. Biographia Literaria. G. Watson, ed. London: Dent, 1965.

Dawson, S. W. Drama and the Dramatic (The Critical Idiom). London: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1970.

DeVane, William Clyde. A Browning Handbook. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1955

Eliot, T. S. On Poetry and Poets. London: The Noonday Press, 1937.

--. Selected Essays. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1960.

Foucault, Michel. Language, Counter-Memory Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, trans. Donald F. Bouchard, ed. New York: Cornell U P, 1979.

Fowler, Roger, ed. A Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987.

Howe, Elizabeth A. The Dramatic Monologue. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.

Jack, Ian. Robert Browning's Major Poetry. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1973.

Johnson, W. R. The Idea of the Lyric: Lyric Modes in Ancient and Modern Poetry. Berkeley: U of California P, 1990.

Kirckhop, Ken. and David Shepherd. Bakhtin and Cultural Theory. Manchester: Manchester U P, 1989.

King, Roma A., Jr. The Art of Robert Browning. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1957.

Langbaum, Robert. The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1957.

Leavis, F. R. Revelations. London: Hammondsworth, 1964.

Perrine, Laurence. Sound and Sense. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1956.

Symons, Arthur. An Introduction to the Study of Robert Browning. London: J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd., 1923.

Wordsworth, William. The Complete Poetical Works of William Wordsworth. A. J. George, ed. New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1904.

Wright, George T. The Poet in the Poem: The Personae of Eliot, Yeats and Pound (Perspectives in Criticism). Berkeley: U of California P, 1960.

Randa Abou-Bakr is Lecturer in Poetry and Translation at the English Department of Cairo University. She did her M.A. dissertation in modern British poetry and her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature. Her research interests include: comparative poetics, translation, cultural studies, and Egyptian colloquial poetry.
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Author:Abou-Bakr, Randa
Publication:Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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