Much of Browning’s finest writing was done during his thirties, years which comprise most of the poems in the volumes Dramatic Lyrics, Dramatic Lyrics AND ROMANCES, and Men and Women. The intentions and procedures of these three volumes are similar, so that most often one’s comments on the first two hold good for the third as well. In fact, Browning himself in a later collected edition reshuffled many of these poems, breaking down the divisions between individual books but preserving always the dominating premise that the poems should be, as he said, “though often Lyric in expression, always Dramatic in principle, and so many utterances of so many imaginary persons, not mine.” During his middle years we see Browning striving to write poems at once less sentimental and more objective than those of his early hero, Shelley: he develops his own form of the dramatic monologue in the attempt to overcome subjectivity and vagueness, and his success here is in the nature of an overcompensation. The poems in these volumes, “always Dramatic in principle,” are brilliant but somehow chilly.
Browning’s verse-play, PIPPA PASSES, published in 1841, immediately precedes Dramatic Lyrics and by its superb rendering of the spirit of Italy—a country which is for Browning always the dialectical counterpart of England, a kind of anti-England—the play foreshadows the skeptical attitude conveyed by the poems. In “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church,” in “My Last Duchess,” and in the immense narrative poem THE RING AND THE BOOK the poet was later to draw implicit and explicit contrasts between contemporary England and Renaissance Italy. His habitual approach is in this way argumentative and skeptical, the counterbalancing of opposing countries, times, sexes, and beliefs which is suggested even by many of the titles in these volumes: “Meeting at Night” against “Parting at Morning,” “Love in a Life” against “Life in a Love,” “The Italian in England” against “The Englishman in Italy.” The method permits Browning to end an elegant dialogue between two Venetian lovers, “In a Gondola,” with a vicious stabbing. Alternately, he can present the interior monologue of a warped person, allowing the character to condemn himself by his or her words: as is the case of the female poisoner, crossed in love, in “The Laboratory,” or the deranged murderer who speaks in “Porphyria’s Lover.” Perhaps the best of these interior monologues is the “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” in which a splenetic monk grumbles against his abbot:
GR-R-R—there go, my heart’s abhorrence!Water your damn flower-pots, do!If hate killed men, Brother Lawrence,God’s blood, would not mine kill you!What? your myrtle-bush wants trimming?Oh, that rose has prior claims—Needs its leaden vase filled brimming?Hell dry you up with its flames!
The lines are characteristic: not only does the voice contradict the speaker’s appearance and vocation, but the very exclamations and dashes render the punctuation histrionic and serve to define a particular habit of mind.
The monologues which imply a listener are psychologically more complex. “My Last Duchess” and “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church,” appeared in 1842 and 1845, respectively, and are models, in these earlier volumes, of the kind of irony and immediacy which the dramatic method at its best is capable of generating:
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,Looking as if she were alive, I callThat piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf’s handsWorked busily a day, and there she stands.
Browning consciously follows Donne in beginning poems with arresting first lines. Here, much of the Duke’s ruthlessness is conveyed at the very outset by his exquisitely casual reference, with the possessive “my", to his dead wife, by his evident pleasure at being able now to consider her as an art object, not as an intractable life-study:
She had A heart—how shall I...
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