Answer: Robert Browning is better known as a major Victorian poet and, in particular, as one who perfected the influential verse form called dramatic monologue. His achievement in poetry, for which he forsook the theater altogether in 1846, was unquestionably much greater than what he accomplished as a writer of stage plays, yet it is difficult and unwise to distinguish the subject matter and techniques of Browning’s “failed” dramas from those of his successful poems. Although he was by nature and inclination a dramatic writer, it became apparent that his peculiar interests and talent in that line were more suited to the finer medium of poetry than to the practical exigencies of stagecraft. The verse confirms his acknowledged preoccupation with interior drama (“Action in character, not character in action”). Browning’s verse masterpieces in this mode include “Porphyria’s Lover,” “My Last Duchess,” “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church,” “Andrea del Sarto,” “Love Among the Ruins,” “The Last Ride Together,” and The Ring and the Book (1868-1869). A dramatic monologue by Browning typically features an incandescent moment of crisis or of self-realization in the mental life of some unusual, often morally or psychologically flawed, character. Rather like a soliloquy except in being addressed to a present but silent listener, this type of poem enabled Browning to let his speakers’ personalities, motives, obsessions, and delusions be revealed—inadvertently or otherwise—in speech and implied gesture. This preoccupation with inward, psychological drama—with the springs of action rather than with action itself—is the origin of Browning’s greatness as a poet and of his limitations as a stage worthy playwright.
1. Multiple Perspectives on Single Events
The dramatic monologue verse form allowed Browning to explore and probe the minds of specific characters in specific places struggling with specific sets of circumstances. In The Ring and the Book, Browning tells a suspenseful story of murder using multiple voices, which give multiple perspectives and multiple versions of the same story. Dramatic monologues allow readers to enter into the minds of various characters and to see an event from that character’s perspective. Understanding the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of a character not only gives readers a sense of sympathy for the characters but also helps readers understand the multiplicity of perspectives that make up the truth. In effect, Browning’s work reminds readers that the nature of truth or reality fluctuates, depending on one’s perspective or view of the situation. Multiple perspectives illustrate the idea that no one sensibility or perspective sees the whole story and no two people see the same events in the same way. Browning further illustrated this idea by writing poems that work together as companion pieces, such as “Fra Lippo Lippi” and “Andrea del Sarto.” Poems such as these show how people with different characters respond differently to similar situations, as well as depict how a time, place, and scenario can cause people with similar personalities to develop or change quite dramatically.
2. The Purposes of Art
Browning wrote many poems about artists and poets, including such dramatic monologues as “Pictor Ignotus” (1855) and “Fra Lippo Lippi.” Frequently, Browning would begin by thinking about an artist, an artwork, or a type of art that he admired or disliked. Then he would speculate on the character or artistic philosophy that would lead to such a success or failure. His dramatic monologues about artists attempt to capture some of this philosophizing because his characters speculate on the purposes of art. For instance, the speaker of “Fra Lippo Lippi” proposes that art heightens our powers of observation and helps us notice things about our own lives. According to some of these characters and poems, painting idealizes the beauty found in the real world, such as the radiance of a beloved’s smile. Sculpture and architecture can memorialize famous or important people, as in “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church” (1845) and “The Statue and the Bust” (1855). But art also helps its creators to make a living, and it thus has a purpose as pecuniary as creative, an idea explored in “Andrea del Sarto.”
3. The Relationship Between Art and Morality
Throughout his work, Browning tried to answer questions about an artist’s responsibilities and to describe the relationship between art and morality. He questioned whether artists had an obligation to be moral and whether artists should pass judgment on their characters and creations. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Browning populated his poems with evil people, who commit crimes and sins ranging from hatred to murder. The dramatic monologue format allowed Browning to maintain a great distance between himself and his creations: by channeling the voice of a character, Browning could explore evil without actually being evil himself. His characters served as personae that let him adopt different traits and tell stories about horrible situations. In “My Last Duchess,” the speaker gets away with his wife’s murder since neither his audience (in the poem) nor his creator judges or criticizes him. Instead, the responsibility of judging the character’s morality is left to readers, who find the duke of Ferrara a vicious, repugnant person even as he takes us on a tour of his art gallery.
Overall, what one can take from Browning’s work is that the poet himself lived according to one of his more prevalent themes: the quest. A mercurial and intellectually adventurous man who sought to document his ever-changing attitudes and beliefs into art, Robert Browning saw the human struggle as a noble quest towards an impossible goal of perfection, and luckily thought to immortalize that struggle as best he could.