Much of Robert Browning's legacy to poets writing after him in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries comes from his vitalization of the dramatic monologue. Victorian and modern poets have found it liberating to assume other personae (often quite alien to their own values and beliefs) and by looking through those characters' eyes, allow them to speak for themselves. It follows logically that an author who has taken so much trouble to assume a role and keep it consistent is much less likely to step into the text in his own person and point the reader down the "right" interpretive path. But this puts a greater burden on the reader, and may be the source of the idea that literature, especially poetry, is not a popular form, and is really only to be enjoyed by specialists.

It is also possible to argue that the withdrawal of the author from the text constitutes a secularization of literature. If the author refuses to give you moral guidance after placing difficult questions before you, he must believe one of three things: (1) that no guidance is needed, because the case is obvious; (2) that no guidance is possible, because you must see the truth for yourself; or (3) that it doesn't really matter if you come up with the same answer he does. This last alternative, assuming that the author cares about his fellow human beings and acknowledges his responsibility as an author, must mean that he does not believe in the possibility of salvation or damnation.

Study questions

Does Browning really leave us as unguided as I have suggested, or are there really subtle clues indicating the "right" interpretation of his poems?

What connections can you make between Browning's technique in the dramatic monologue and modern novelistic technique, for instance in James Joyce? Who else comes to mind?

Victorian Overview R. Browning

Last modified 12 March 2003