Pretending To Be Ourselves: The Contemporary Dramatic Monologue

Phillip Sterling | May/Summer 1998

Phillip Sterling


"—it was, through him,
an ancient voice speaking, or a voice from
a previous life
jerking the words out
of a body which it had
nothing to do with. Take one from the lot,
they are all the same, though like no one else"

—Richard Howard, "1915"

We should begin with Robert Browning. After all, Browning is the poet most often touted as the geneticist of the dramatic monologue as we know it. His oft-anthologized verse portraits of psychological miscreants—like "My Last Duchess," "Fra Lippo Lippi," and "Soliloquy in a Spanish Cloister"—exemplify the form. But to suggest that Browning is the sole or primary progenitor of the contemporary dramatic monologue oversimplifies the tradition, much in the way we would oversimplify the evolution of modern American poetry by describing Walt Whitman as our monogenetic "Father."

Certain qualities of the dramatic monologue are pre-scriptural, passed to us through oral and performance traditions. And the characteristics of its genus—which include the poet speaking through a persona about a situation involving conflict or tension (and by doing so revealing as much about the speaker as the situation)—can be readily identified throughout English literary history, from "The Wife's Lament" and other texts of the Exeter Book, through John Skelton's "Colin Clout" and Geoffery Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, through Marlowe and Shakespeare, to Dickinson and Masters, and so forth. Browning's adaptations in the mid-19th century, then, may simply have been the consequence of an intergenerational tiff—that is, reactionary. In any event, by exposing the limitations of the Wordsworthian Self to a demanding and rapidly expanding literate public, the author of The Ring & The Book became the dramatic monologue's most vocal publicist.

I will not begin with Robert Browning. Instead, since my focus is on the resurgence of interest in the form in the late 20th century—what we could call a kind of Browning Renaissance—it seems more appropriate to begin with one of the two poets that M.L. Rosenthal calls the "sons of Browning" (162), and the one who may have been even more influential than Browning in the advancement of the dramatic monologue as a exceptionally suitable mode for expressing the schizophrenic dissolution of traditional beliefs and epistemologies.1 T.S. Eliot, as both poet and critic, has been the sounding board through which many contemporary poets have mixed their songs.

In particular, we should examine Eliot's essay "The Three Voices," in which Eliot himself delineates three postures of voice to reveal what he calls "the problem of the difference between dramatic, quasi-dramatic, and non-dramatic verse" (96).

Eliot begins abruptly:

The first voice is the voice of the poet talking to himself—or to nobody. The second voice is the voice of the poet addressing an audience, whether large or small. The third voice is the voice of the poet when he attempts to create a dramatic character speaking in verse; when he is saying, not what he would say in his own person, but only what he can say within the limits of one imaginary character addressing another imaginary character. (96)

The first part of Eliot's essay deals with the complexities of the third voice, presented in drama, and especially how the poet should not speak "through" a single character but must present equally to all characters "language at those dramatic moments when it reaches intensity," giving each speaker lines appropriate to each individual voice (100). To do so requires that the poet understand the motivation behind each character. "I can't see, myself, any way to make a character live," writes Eliot, "except to have a profound sympathy with that character" (101). Eliot concludes, "the author imparts something of himself to his characters, but (also)... is influenced by the characters he creates" (102).

"Sympathy" is a key concept in distinguishing between Eliot's dramatic third voice and the quasi-dramatic second voice which, surprisingly, he recognizes as the voice of the dramatic monologue. And for good reason. While the poet in the third voice can be somewhat objective by creating characters who may be "in no way sympathetic to each other," in the second voice "the author is just as likely to identify the character with himself" (103).

"What we normally hear, in fact," writes Eliot, "is the voice of the poet, who has put on the costume and make-up either of some historical character, or one out of fiction" (103). The significance of this distinction is that "the second voice, the voice of the poet talking to other people... implies the presence of an audience" (104).

Thus designed to communicate more than simply the action of a drama, the quasi-dramatic monologue is, according to Eliot, "the voice most often and most clearly heard in poetry that is not of the theatre, in all poetry, certainly, that has a conscious social purpose" (104).

Of course, the idea that poetry has an implicit "conscious social purpose"—something along the lines of teaching and/or delighting—is not a new one, having been introduced to English poetics by Sir Philip Sidney, who likely cribbed it from Horace. What is perhaps remarkable, however, is Eliot's attempt to delineate and examine "voice" as a poetic device distinct from meter, stanza, metaphor, or rhyme—an element of its own, in accord with creative potential that may influence any "objective correlative." Even more remarkable is the fact that when a poet presents in a dramatic monologue what Eliot calls an "assumed voice," he does so with the intent of subjectivity, and is therefore manifesting a kind of what I've come to call the "subjective correlative" instead.

I don't mean to suggest—as others have—that the contemporary dramatic monologue is no more than a foster child of modernism.2 Nor is it grounded solely in the Imagist manifesto, which calls for "direct treatment of the thing whether subjective or objective" (my italics). On the contrary, the dramatic monologue has no registry in any one country; rather, it transcends doctrine, style, movement, and critical theory. Fraternizing with both structure and stammer, both freedom and form, the dramatic monologue is a double agent, reconciling the disparity between printed and oral modes, between page and performance.

Consequently, the one quality that distinguishes the dramatic monologue from lyrics or verse drama is the same quality that it has in common with them: what I've been calling (out of convenience) "voice."3 Unlike the other forms of poetry, however, the dramatic monologue retains "voice" not as a method of expression, but as expression itself, engendering it with meaning and demanding our consideration of posture, tone, diction, ego, allusion, and other possibly quasi-poetic qualities. After all, the one aspect of poetry that Browning is critically acclaimed for is not meter or stanza form, not syllabics or rhymes, not the shocking or banal treatment of a plum or wheelbarrow—rather, it is the presentation and subtlety of a clearly distinguishable "voice."

A survey of the dramatic monologue in the last half-century reveals three basic types. First, there are voices of fantastic or imaginary worlds: animals (like dog persona poems), machines, mythological creatures, voices from the grave, Death him/herself, even AIDS.4 Examples include Elizabeth Bishop's "Giant Toad" and "Giant Snail" (Complete Poems), Susan Mitchell's "From the Journals of the Frog Prince," (The Water Inside the Water) or Margaret Atwood's "Songs of the Transformed" (Selected Poems). These stanzas from Atwood's "Rat Song" are typical:

When you hear me singing
you get the rifle down
and the flashlight, aiming for my brain,
but you always miss
and when you set out the poison
I piss on it
to warn the others.
You think: That one's too clever,
she's dangerous, because
I don't stick around to be slaughtered
and you think I'm ugly too
despite my fur and pretty teeth
and my six nipples and snake tail.
All I want is love, you stupid
humanist. See if you can.

The second type is the most familiar—poems in the voices of historical figures. The most well-known practitioner of this type, of course, is Richard Howard, whose Untitled Subjects (which includes poems in the voices of Thackery, Tennyson, and Mrs. William Morris, among others) received the Pulitzer Prize in 1970. Other poets who have distinguished themselves with poems in historical voices include W.D. Snodgrass (The Führer Bunker), Norman Dubie, Richard O'Connell, Leonard Kress, and Lucie Brock-Broido, among others. Several poems in W.S. Merwin's collection Travels are dramatic monologues of the historical type, including "The Blind Seer of Ambon," a poem in the purported voice of Georg Eberhard Rumpf (1627–1702), author of The Ambonese Herbal.

Consider, as an example, these lines from "Pocahontas To Her English Husband, John Rolfe," by Paula Gunn Allen:

Had I not set you tasks
your masters far across the sea
would have abandoned you—
did abandon you, as many times they
left you to reap the harvest of their lies;
still you survived oh my fair husband
and brought them gold
wrung from a harvest I taught you
to plant: Tobacco.
When I was young and miserable and pretty
And poor, I'd wish
What all girls wish: to have a husband,
A house and children. Now that I'm old, my wish
Is womanish:
That the boy putting groceries in my car
See me. It bewilders me he doesn't see me.
For so many years
I was good enough to eat: the world looked at me
And its mouth watered. How often they have
undressed me,
The eyes of strangers!
And, holding their flesh within my flesh, their vile
Imaginings within my imagining,
I too have taken
The chance of life. Now the boy pats my dog
And we start home. Now I am good.

Recently, I've heard the argument that all poems have what I've been calling "voice" and that, by the nature of the genre, "even the poet writing or trying to write in his or her own voice is always creating a self..." (Wallace 155). Robert Wallace and Marie Boisseau in Writing Poems go so far as to propose that "every poem is a dramatic monologue in a sense, an utterance with an 'utterer,' a speaker, and at least implicit circumstance in which the utterance is uttered" (155).

But to suggest that all poems are dramatic monologues implies that all poems are merely different dummies of the same ventriloquist; on the contrary, while each voice does tend to speak from our common humanity, each also speaks from a subjectivity that we recognize and can recognize in part because it is not ours. This inherent subjectivity, presented as it is in the voice of an "other," is likely to be one of the reasons for the broad interest in the dramatic monologue today. For if it may be oversimplification to argue that all poems are dramatic monologues, it must nevertheless be acknowledged that all poems "rendered" in a voice are, by the same odd dialectic, dramatic. The conflict lies in trying to objectify a voice that inherently is subjective since, as Ottone Riccio writes, "True objectivity is an impossibility... the facts of selection and arrangement reveal a subjective bias, however much the writer may strive for objectivity" (54).

At the same time, any attempt to infuse a poetic object with subjective intimacy confirms Charles Olson's declaration that "man is himself an object," and we encounter what may be the poetic paradox of our times-the inherent unity of self and other in language used poetically. As Robert Langbaum notes in his seminal study of the modern dramatic monologue: "As in all poetry of experience, the final perception is a fusion of subject and object, an instant when the speaker sees and understands the object because seeing it through his own perspective, he sees and understands himself in it" (209).

Consequently, a successful poem would be one in which the subject and object meld effortlessly in a single expression. According to David St. John, that's one reason for admiring Norman Dubie's poems. "Even when his poems clothe autobiographical urges and urgencies in the voices of history and in the concept of the 'other,"' writes St. John, "Dubie still treats every voice and every speaker as if it were himself; he speaks with the urgency of that self and so makes each narrative monologue in some part autobiographical" (28).

Unfortunately, many attempts at such fusion or unity have failed or have been neglected by postmodern experimentalists, so that now, after forty years of disturbed and flashy solipsism, of redefining traditional poetic concerns, we are encountering a commonplace "I" that is less than successful, less than intimate, empty of any individuality, and no longer as much a good ethnic restaurant as a homogeneous franchise.

By taking to other voices as one mode of poetic expression, we are formulating a critical reaction to the typical "I'm-unhappier-than-you-are" self-demotion where the poet is the primary content, where the uniqueness of the expression depends more upon the uniqueness of the individual, more upon the excessive or extreme or masochistic details of the poet's sordid emotional state than upon the craft of the poem itself—where poetics yield to personality.

We are reacting—much in the way Browning and Tennyson reacted to the egocentric contrivances of Romanticism—to the type of poem that can succeed only if we can assume that any experience is sufficient cause for poetry—that anyone who has had unconventional experience, been on TV, held public office, had alien sexual contact, been abused as a child—or is a child abuser him/herself—is also a poet by default.

I hope we can agree that is a false assumption. Indeed, some poets suggest that the opposite may be true, that "truth" must be "rendered." Richard Howard, in discussing his predilection for the dramatic monologue, has said, "I have discovered that my own experience can be represented much better than it can presented" ("Richard Howard"). And Laurence Lieberman, in reviewing Howard's collection Findings, has written that "Howard is cultivating in the act of the dramatic monologue... the reality of grasped wholeness of self rarely supposed by the groping self-willed consciousness" (119).

It must be noted here that I teach the writing of poetry to undergraduates at what is primarily an applied technological or pre-professional university. Creative writing is an elective course, one that at best satisfies a "cultural enrichment" component of our general education core. The majority of my students have not had much experience with poetry; and yet, many bring to class a "groping self-willed consciousness," an understanding that "experience is poetry," even though most have not had, or are not aware of, any substantive experiences in their lives. They come empty-handed, so to speak; their poems are often self-indulgent attempts to give shape to feelings that have not yet taken shape, and they quickly and easily become frustrated by their inabilities—often confessing even before they begin that they "have never been any good at poetry." (The kind of student who introduces every reading with "This is stupid but...") While such a course typically begins by examining traditional poetic techniques and practicing them, and may well end with a collection of carefully and skillfully crafted exercises, it has in the past afforded no great insights to establishing a convincing poetic voice. To these students, I have begun to assign dramatic monologues.

The exercise of creating a poem which tests the subjectivity of a voice by objectifying it can be successful in providing practicing poets methods for creating not the self, but a self, one who must come to terms with and temper his/her relationship to the audience ("others"), which is, ironically, the same group to which the poet belongs. The poet assumes a rendered voice in order to reveal truths or depths of experience that may be so subjective as to be inexpressible. The inherent "drama," furthermore, may be the simple recognition of such an "other," one who we can identify with, sympathize with, or empathize with-a "humanness" we can recognize as our own-despite the fact that the voice may not be readily acceptable to our own way of thinking, may even be morally or ethically deviant. It focuses where other focuses have failed.

At the same time, for those few students who have had substantial experience—and there are some from inner-city Detroit—the dramatic monologue takes the bite off what could be perceived by others as unbelievable subjectivity, lessening the risk of being judged.

As a result, poetry surfaces in the potentiality of voice.

I am not alone in suggesting the pedagogical value of the dramatic monologue. David St. John, in discussing the progression of his books—which move from lyrical, through "I-centered monologues," and back to lyrical—says:

I hope that what I've learned along the way is how to establish a much stronger first person voice so that I can use that strength to engage in what will be an even fiercer dialogue. (179)

Herbert Tucker concurs. In his essay "Dramatic Monologue and the Overhearing of Lyric," Tucker writes: "An exemplary teaching genre, the dramatic monologue can teach us, among other things, that while texts do not absolutely lack speakers, they do not simply have them either; they invent them instead as they go" (33).

Poems as invented voices fool us into collaboration with a speaker who would not normally speak in such a voice—it being the ours and not-ours together, the putative voice—and, as such, take on the shape of a new "self," what even Wordsworth referred to as a "poetic self"—distinct from the poet's self—who is "introduced as a dramatic personage... a veil of assumed habits and pretended qualities" (quoted in Perkins, 229). Wordsworth was referring to the speaker of his sonnet "With Ships the Sea Was Sprinkled Far and Nigh," which he also admits is himself. The poetic self transcends the poet's self, transcends even the poem; for the poetic self involves the physicality of a voice, the posturing of a voice in a form that does not exist but for the poem. The poetic self is a voice becoming its own identity.

Widespread experimentation with the various and overexpanding voices available to us in the late 20th-century may well offer poets the most significant direction for poetry in the next few decades. For, as Roberta Berke admits: "the 'persona,' not new verse forms and techniques, has become a central problem for Post-modernist poets" (87). Such a problem may well be resolved by the poetic self, where the Romantic meets the New Critic, where the voice of the us and not-us speak simultaneously, and where the voice moves us to poetry by giving shape to the language of human identity in a way that is both reflective and expansive at the same time. It is not merely the self projected through language in the shape of a poem, as lyricists and confessionalists would lead us to believe—rather, it's the shape of an entirely new self, a poetic soul, if you will, demanding that we recognize it as such. But be warned (to paraphrase Eliot): only those who have such souls would wish to seek them in others.


Phillip Sterling is a professor of English at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan. He has published prose and poetry widely, in such periodicals as The Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, The Georgia Review, and AWP Chronicle. His awards include a NEA Fellowship, a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, and Fulbright Lectureships in Belgium and Poland.


  1. See Karl Malkoff, Escape From the Self (New York: Columbia Univ., 1977): "The loss of faith in the coherent, consistent personality, leads to the adoption of the mask as a legitimate means of self-expression" (33).
  2. See Robert Pinsky, The Situation of Poetry (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1976): ".the use of a borrowed voice or alter-identity, as speaker or central character partly distinct from the poet, constitutes one of the most widely noted, perhaps overemphasized, critically chewed, and fundamental aspects of modernism" (14).
  3. The dramatic monologue is a slippery fish in one regard: our inability to settle on consistent terminology for discussing its primary device. For Pound, it was "persona"; for Eliot, "character" or "voice"; for Yeats, "mask"; for David St. John, "perceiver"; for others, it is a presence, a self, an ego. While we should no longer assume in these neo-Romantic, post-Confessional times that the speaker is the poet, we also can't disavow the voice by treating the poem as mere language or signifier, for the object in the dramatic monologue manifests subjectivity. And although the "ego" or "I" of a poem may represent a certain identifiable character, the character may just as easily be manipulating the truth of his/her/its identity by manipulating the voice-using irony, ambiguity, tone, or figures of speech that may be metaphysical, metaphorical, or surreal. So the embodiment of a voice rising out of language may be intentionally misrepresenting itself. See also Perkins, "Romantic Lyric Voice: What Shall We Call the 'I'?"
  4. See Bob Holman's essay "What Poetry Can Teach Us About AIDS," in the Spring 1996 issue of the Newsletter of the Poetry Society of America (pp. 24-25, 31).
  1. Allen, Paula Gunn. Skins and Bones. Albuquerque: West End Press, 1988.
  2. Atwood, Margaret. Selected Poems. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976.
  3. Berke, Roberta. Bounds Out of Bounds. New York: Oxford Univ., 1981.
  4. Eliot, T.S. On Poetry and Poets. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1957.
  5. Jarrell, Randall. The Lost World. New York: Macmillan, 1965.
  6. Langbaum, Robert. The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition. New York: Norton, 1963. (rev. 1971)
  7. Lieberman, Laurence. Unassigned Frequencies. Urbana, IL: Univ. of Illinois, 1977.
  8. Merwin, W. S. Travels. New York: Knopf, 1994.
  9. Olson, Charles. "Projective Verse." In The Poetics of the New American Poetry. Ed. Donald Allen and Warren Tallman. New York: Grove, 1973. 147-158.
  10. Perkins, David. "Romantic Lyric Voice: What Shall We Call the 'I'?" The Southern Review 29.2 (April 1993): 225-238.
  11. Riccio, Ottone. The Intimate Art of Writing Poetry. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1980.
  12. "Richard Howard." In Contemporary Authors 25 (New Revision Series). Detroit: Gale, 1989. 216.
  13. Rosenthal, M. L., and Sally Gall. The Modern Poetic Sequence. New York: Oxford Univ., 1983.
  14. St. John, David. Where the Angels Come Toward Us. Fredonia, NY: White Pine, 1995.
  15. Tucker, Herbert F. "Dramatic Monologue and the Overhearing of Lyric." In Critical Essays on Robert Browning. Ed. Mary Ellis Gibson. New York: G.K. Hall, 1992.
  16. Wallace, Robert, and Marie Boisseau. Writing Poems. 4th ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.

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