[Adapted from Glenn Everett, "You'll Not Let Me Speak": Engagement and Detachment in Browning's Monologues"]

The distinguishing characteristic of Browning's dramatic monologues is that they make new demands of the reader, and those extra-textual demands are signalled within the text by the figure of the auditor. That listening figure and the tone which the speaker adopts in order to make his or her case are the most important new ingredients in the Browningesque dramatic monologue. Because the listener is not always physically present, most critical assessments have misunderstood its signifi cance. In fact, the presence of the auditor determines how the reader must react to the speaker, and thus the proper questions about the poem are not those which ask about the relationship between the speaker's ideas and the poet's; instead we must ask about the speaker's effect upon his listener. From this rhetori cal effect we can infer the dramatic situation, and it is the interplay among the characters in these scenes which Browning wishes us to imagine. Observing the speakers as their listeners do, we find we have to piece together scraps of information to complete a picture of the speaker, and even, sometimes, simply to figure out what is going on. Thus, in each re-reading we must relive the process of discovery which the listener experiences. Rather than a balance of sympathy and judgment, a better descrip tion of this process of discovery is engagement, then detachment: we readers must become engaged in the game of imagination which the poem asks us to play before we can attain a detached, critical view of the whole work.


Victorian Overview R. Browning

Modified 18 December 2003