Character and Voice in the Poetry of Browning

Simon Petch


In a lecture delivered in 1953, "The Three Voices of Poetry", T. S. Eliot said that "dramatic monologue cannot create a character". As his title implies, Eliot distinguishes between three voices of poetry. The first voice is that "of the poet talking to himself-or to nobody". The second voice is that "of the poet addressing an audience", and the third "is the voice of the poet when he attempts to create a dramatic character speaking in verse". Eliot thus denies proper dramatic status to the dramatic monologue, on the grounds that the poet is likely to identify too strongly with his chosen character, whereas in stage drama the poet must invest his sympathies more prudently among a multiplicity of characters. Eliot's lecture is a highly polemical performance, which must be read in the context of his own attempt to write for the stage (an attempt which was beginning to falter in 1953), and it has some of the ironic archness we associate with the dramatic monologue: "It may be, as I have read, that there is a dramatic element in much of my early work." The lecture should also be seen as part of Eliot's systematic attempt to exorcize from his poetry the ghosts of the great Victorians, Tennyson and Browning, to silence their echoes in his own poetic voices. Nevertheless, his distinction between character and voice is worth examining for its bearing on Browning's poetry.

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