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

Why indeed do the listeners never speak; or, if they do, why do we hear their words only as rephrased by the monologist? Although we might expect them to be very similar, the dynamics of dialogue differ quite markedly from those of monologue. All dramatic monologues tend toward dialogue because we continue to expect the auditor to interrupt the speaker (see Nichols 31-32), but when the auditor actually becomes a second speaker, we lose our entry into the poem; he or she no longer serves as a proxy for us. It seems odd that the presence of a second speaker should force a change in genre until we realize that unless the inscribed listener remains silent, we cannot see the action through the Other's eyes. As Woolford explains:

The fact that . . . the second-consciousness never speaks. . . points, in the most radical fashion possible, to meaning as being or including absence or silence. To complete the construal of the dramatic monologue's meaning, we require access to the response of the person to whom it is addressed, and for whom its rhetorical manoeuvres are intended. In withholding that response Browning forces the reader himself to provide it, and thus compels him to hypostasise a meaning beyond the periphery of the persona's intention. [74]

The listener must be left blank so that we can create him or her, within the parameters Browning has left us--our very own color-by-numbers character. That Other, wholly passive presence gives us a place to stand within the narrative and respond. Much of the experience of reading is the creating of that other side of the picture from the poem's hints and implications. This is why those monologues by Tennyson in which we are supplied information in a prefatory note belong to a different poetic genre. If the work has been done for us, we do not have to become so involved. Other seemingly similar poems like Yeats's "Michael Robartes and the Dancer" or "Dialogue of Self and Soul," where both personalities are parts of the poet's self, leave no room for us to stand; when the second character also speaks, we are no longer able to impose ourselves upon that character and take its role in the poem.

When the speaker restates the listener's stated or anticipated question, giving the suggestion of a dialogue, as in "Fra Lippo Lippi," "Bishop Blougram's Apology," and "Mr. Sludge, the Medium," the other side of the conversation must, if the poet wishes to employ the dynamics of the dramatic monologue, be relayed to us by the speaker's restatement of what the auditor has said or might say. We are left uncertain whether the questions to which the monologist appears to respond have actually been voiced. On the contrary, the Duke actually states that he is answering questions which his guests have seemed to want to ask, "if they durst"; and the questions asked in "Mr. Sludge" and "Bishop Blougram" may be not just restated but rephrased. Bishop Blougram, David Ewbank observes, "often puts words in Gigadibs' mouth" (259). These words are unvoiced, hypothetical objections that Gigadibs would raise — Ewbank calls it the "illusion of dialogue" (260). To take it a step further: the Bishop uses Gigadibs to create an idealized critic, who raises the most cogent objections that he himself can anticipate, and charges himself with responding to them — as if Gigadibs had raised them. The test is that the questions teach us nothing about the character of Gigadibs, but much about the Bishop. With St. Praxed's Bishop, there are only the barest suggestions that his "nephews" intend to rob him; he assumes that they want to, and we have no other source of information about them, but his view of them (and of Gandolf) is certainly tainted by his own obsessions — as is the lover's judgment about what Porphyria really wants (to put it mildly).


Victorian Overview R. Browning

Modified 18 December 2003