When Robert Browning published Dramatis Personae, he was beginning to gain a measure of general esteem in the eyes of the public and of the critics. The year before its publication a three-volume collection of his earlier works had sold moderately well. Dramatis Personae added considerably to his popularity, and a second edition was called for before the end of 1864. It is ironic that this volume, the first that can be said to have achieved popular success, contained the first clear signs of the decline of his poetic powers.
It was his first volume of new poems since Men and Women, published in 1855. In the interval the pattern of Browning’s life had undergone complete transformation. On June 29, 1861, his wife, the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, had died. They had made their home in Italy; after her death, Browning returned to England. For years he had been virtually out of touch with the currents of English thought. He plunged into a society that was perplexed by what it had learned and troubled by what it had come to doubt. Browning was soon personally involved in the intellectual and religious controversies of the day.
The changes in his life produced changes in his poetry. His love poems, understandably, became more melancholy. Many of the poems in Men and Women have historical settings; all but a few of those in Dramatis Personae have contemporary settings. Even when he gives his version of an old tale, as in “Gold Hair,” he manages to work in discussion of nineteenth century problems. In general, he was becoming more argumentative, more of a preacher. He still preferred the dramatic mode of utterance but the voice of the poet is often heard behind the dramatic mask.
Two of the important themes in the volume are love and death, frequently juxtaposed. The death of Mrs. Browning may have been an influence on his choice of subjects, but it should not be overestimated; a number of the poems antedate her death. “Prospice,” however, written in the fall of 1861, is clearly Browning speaking in his own voice. It is an open affirmation of belief in immortality. When death ends his life, he says, as it has ended hers, “O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again,/ And with God be the rest!”
In “Too Late” another man grieves over a dead woman, but with a difference. He had never expressed his love for her and now suffers not grief alone but regret at having missed his opportunity. It is a familiar theme in Browning, love unfulfilled through negligence, expressed earlier in “The Statue and the Bust,” and, elsewhere in Dramatis Personae, in “Youth and Art,” and in “Dis Aliter Visum; or Le Byron de Nos Jours.” If “Too Late” has an autobiographical element, it is of an inverse order: Browning, unlike the speaker, had not missed his opportunity for love. The speaker of “Too Late” says it would have been better to
have burst like a thiefAnd borne you away to a rock for us twoIn a moment’s horror, bright, bloody, and brief,Then changed to myself again.
Browning, a sedentary man, had stepped out of character once in his life, when he had spirited a middle-aged poet off to Italy.
Two of the finest poems in Dramatis Personae, also love poems, are “Confessions” and “James Lee’s Wife” (originally called, misleadingly, “James Lee”). One reason why they are perennially satisfying is that, unlike many poems in the volume, they are free from topical controversy. In “Confessions,” one of Browning’s shortest dramatic monologues, a dying man recalls, with satisfaction, a love affair of long ago: “How sad and bad and mad it was—/ But then, how it was sweet!” In “James Lee’s Wife,” the story is that of the death of love. It is a restrained, dignified cry of heartbreak, a skillfully wrought dramatic lyric, the desolate scene and the dying year serving as mute echoes of the speaker’s mood.
(The entire section is 1691 words.)