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.
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.”
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.
Browning set many of his poems in medieval and Renaissance Europe, most often in Italy. He drew on his extensive knowledge of art, architecture, and history to fictionalize actual events, including a seventeenth-century murder in The Ring and the Book, and to channel the voices of actual historical figures, including a biblical scholar in medieval Spain in “Rabbi Ben Ezra” (1864) and the Renaissance painter in the eponymous “Andrea del Sarto.” The remoteness of the time period and location allowed Browning to critique and explore contemporary issues without fear of alienating his readers. Directly invoking contemporary issues might seem didactic and moralizing in a way that poems set in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries would not. For instance, the speaker of “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church” is an Italian bishop during the late Renaissance. Through the speaker’s pompous, vain musings about monuments, Browning indirectly criticizes organized religion, including the Church of England, which was in a state of disarray at the time of the poem’s composition in the mid-nineteenth century.
Dramatic monologues feature a solitary speaker addressing at least one silent, usually unnamed person, and they provide interesting snapshots of the speakers and their personalities. Unlike soliloquies, in dramatic monologues the characters are always speaking directly to listeners. Browning’s characters are usually crafty, intelligent, argumentative, and capable of lying. Indeed, they often leave out more of a story than they actually tell. In order to fully understand the speakers and their psychologies, readers must carefully pay attention to word choice, to logical progression, and to the use of figures of speech, including any metaphors or analogies. For instance, the speaker of “My Last Duchess” essentially confesses to murdering his wife, even though he never expresses his guilt outright. Similarly, the speaker of “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” inadvertently betrays his madness by confusing Latin prayers and by expressing his hate for a fellow friar with such vituperation and passion. Rather than state the speaker’s madness, Browning conveys it through both what the speaker says and how the speaker speaks.
Unlike other Victorian poets, Browning filled his poetry with images of ugliness, violence, and the bizarre. His contemporaries, such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, in contrast, mined the natural world for lovely images of beauty. Browning’s use of the grotesque links him to novelist Charles Dickens, who filled his fiction with people from all strata of society, including the aristocracy and the very poor. Like Dickens, Browning created characters who were capable of great evil. The early poem “Porphyria’s Lover” (1836) begins with the lover describing the arrival of Porphyria, then it quickly descends into a depiction of her murder at his hands. To make the image even more grotesque, the speaker strangles Porphyria with her own blond hair. Although “Fra Lippo Lippi” takes place during the Renaissance in Florence, at the height of its wealth and power, Browning sets the poem in a back alley beside a brothel, not in a palace or a garden. Browning was instrumental in helping readers and writers understand that poetry as an art form could handle subjects both lofty, such as religious splendor and idealized passion, and base, such as murder, hatred, and madness, subjects that had previously only been explored in novels.
Browning’s interest in culture, including art and architecture, appears throughout his work in depictions of his characters’ aesthetic tastes. His characters’ preferences in art, music, and literature reveal important clues about their natures and moral worth. For instance, the duke of Ferrara, the speaker of “My Last Duchess,” concludes the poem by pointing out a statue he commissioned of Neptune taming a sea monster. The duke’s preference for this sculpture directly corresponds to the type of man he is—that is, the type of man who would have his wife killed but still stare lovingly and longingly at her portrait. Like Neptune, the duke wants to subdue and command all aspects of life, including his wife. Characters also express their tastes by the manner in which they describe art, people, or landscapes. Andrea del Sarto, the Renaissance artist who speaks the poem “Andrea del Sarto,” repeatedly uses the adjectives gold and silver in his descriptions of paintings. His choice of words reinforces one of the major themes of the poem: the way he sold himself out. Listening to his monologue, we learn that he now makes commercial paintings to earn a commission, but he no longer creates what he considers to be real art. His desire for money has affected his aesthetic judgment, causing him to use monetary vocabulary to describe art objects.
Synonyms for, images of, and symbols of evil and violence abound in Browning’s poetry. “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” for example, begins with the speaker trying to articulate the sounds of his “heart’s abhorrence” (1) for a fellow friar. Later in the poem, the speaker invokes images of evil pirates and a man being banished to hell. The diction and images used by the speakers expresses their evil thoughts, as well as indicate their evil natures. “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” (1855) portrays a nightmarish world of dead horses and war-torn landscapes. Yet another example of evil and violence comes in “Porphyria’s Lover,” in which the speaker sits contentedly alongside the corpse of Porphyria, whom he murdered by strangling her with her hair. Symbols of evil and violence allowed Browning to explore all aspects of human psychology, including the base and evil aspects that don’t normally appear in poetry.