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DOROTHY M. MERMIN Speaker and Auditor in Browning's Dramatic Monologues When the auditor in a dramatic monologue by Browning is human, adult, alive, awake, physically present, and able to hear and respond, and when the speaker and the reader are more or less continuously aware of him, the poem is a representation of speech. The auditor's silent presence calls attention to what we do not normally expect to find in poetry, and take for granted in drama and dialogue: the fact that the speaker is speaking aloud to another person. We acknowledge this distinctive characteristic of such poems by the question we usually ask about them: why does the speaker speak? Browning's other dramatic monologues may lead us to wonder if the speaker is right or wrong, good or bad, self-aware or self-deceiving in what he says, but it never occurs to us to ask why he says it at all. If we read the poems only as studies of character or presentations of doctrine, or both, this question is often very hard to answer, and so Robert Langbaum has persuasively argued that the speaker in a dramatic monologue is really speaking to himself. 1 But in every poem before The Ring and the Book that contains an aud.itor Browning is also exploring the nature and significance of audible utterance. More often than not, this is what the speakers actually talk about, and they all use language selfconsciously , deliberately, and purposefully. The poems focus successively on three aspects of speech, as shown in the relation of the speaker to his auditor: first the power implied by the speaker's very freedom to speak as he does, then his attempts to communicate thoughts and feelings , and finally the problem of assessing the sincerity of what he says. Browning wrote the poems in the first group ('My Last Duchess/ 'Count Gismond,' 'The Laboratory/ and 'The Bishop Orders His Tomb') in the 1840s, when his literary energies were going mostly into drama. These poems tum to an advantage the essential weakness of his plays: the self-consciousness about the verbal medium of the action displayed not just by the poet (the usual weakness of poetic drama then and since) but by his characters themselves. Their obsessive concern with what they have or haven't said, will or won't say, generally retards the action and is often the centre of the plot; the most extreme, but characteristic, example is A Blot in the 'Scutcheon, in which the idiotic, exasperating UTQ, Volume XLV, Number 2, Winter 1976 140 DOROTHY M. MERMIN silence of the young lovers brings general ruin. Almost invariably, moreover, the hardest and most dangerous thing to say is the truth. In 1845 and 1846 Browning was courting Elizabeth Barrett, and the same concern runs from beginning to end of their voluminous correspondence . In the early letters they discuss his reluctance to speak out in his poetry, in the later ones her insistence on concealing their meetings, engagement, and marriage. Browning always says he wants to speak out, but he usually doesn't. It is understood between them, of course, that what is unspoken is wholly compounded of wisdom and love, but Browning is by no means sure that others would agree. His second letter is playful but typical: 'You speak out ... I am going to try ... yet I don't think I shall let you hear, after all, the savage things about Popes and imaginative religions that I must say.'2 Twice he was incautiously outspoken - when he first declared his love and when he defended duelling - and retracted his words with ignominious promptitude as soon as he realized that she was upset. (He literally retracted the declaration of love: she returned his letter and he destroyed it.) But in the dramatic monologues with auditors that Browning published in the 1840S, people speak out. 'My Last Duchess' appeared in 1842; it derives from Browning's essay on Tasso and Chatterton, written in the same year, referring to the same Duke, and explaining how poets are driven to silence and lies. In the essay Browning is passionately concerned to make two points: that Tasso usually told...


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