From the madhouse to the unreal city: the dramatic monologue, polyvocality, and agency in Robert Browning, Sarah Piatt, and T. S. Eliot

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Cheryl R. Marsh (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Karen Kilcup

Abstract: This project examines the dramatic monologue and its subsequent variations in order to address philosophical questions about agency that implicitly derive from the genre itself. The intentional displacement of the Romantic lyric "I" into other personas questions the existence of an essential "speaking self." Without a unified speaking self, the boundaries of agency become indeterminate. Where does the "self" begin and where does it end? What about the "self" is essentially esoteric in nature and, alternatively, how does the "self" intervene in material reality? The poetic genre of the dramatic monologue and its subsequent polyvocal variations explores this set of questions inherently. Early Victorian dramatic monologues dramatized the poem through personas mediated by masks, which necessarily comprises at least two influences within the speaking persona. Critics such as Robert Langbaum, Herbert Tucker, Isobel Armstrong, and Glynnis Byron contend that 1830s and 1840s dramatic monologues must be read as a reaction against the intensely confessional Romantic lyrics of the early nineteenth century, where the poet and persona are generally viewed as unified. Because the dramatic monologues' content creates a definitive break between the poet and the persona, the form operates in the mode of what Isobel Armstrong calls the "double poem." Hence, a consideration of irony is paramount when interpreting this genre. Because there are always at least two (and often more) guiding influences within the construction of the dramatic monologue, this form inherently questions the idea of an essential "self." Though we can argue that all poetic personas are constructed, the dramatic monologue calls attention to that construction through its experimentation with multiple "speaking" influences within the unified persona. Consequently, I consider polyvocal poems, with multiple and distinct speakers, the next variation or evolution of the dramatic monologue genre. With every addition of a new "voice" within a poem, the idea of the essential "self" becomes more tenuous. Tangential to this discussion on an evolving definition of selfhood through aesthetic methods, my project also explores the ramifications of personal agency within the divided self. I focus this study on three key poets: Robert Browning, Sarah Piatt, and T. S. Eliot. In the chapter on Browning, I demonstrate that his dramatic monologues explore a divided sense of self through a kind of communion with the divine. For these dual characters, Browning consistently questions their boundaries of personal agency and, ultimately, culpability for their actions. The chapter on Sarah Piatt examines her polyvocal call and response lyrics, focusing on how a divided sense of self lacks the agency to grieve within American consolation culture. The chapter on T. S. Eliot pairs his complex polyvocal aesthetic with some thematic figures in his early poetry, suggesting that such a fractured sense of self renders a person impotent, lacking in any agency. For these three poets, the dramatic monologue and its subsequent polyvocal variations offer a means to explore the connections between a divided sense of self and personal agency through both the form and content.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2014
Monologue, Early Victorian
Dramatic monologues $x History and criticism
English poetry $y 19th century $x History and criticism
Browning, Robert, $d 1812-1889. $x Criticism and interpretation
Eliot, T. S. $q (Thomas Stearns), $d 1888-1965. $x Criticism and interpretation
Piatt, Sarah M. B. $q (Sarah Morgan Bryan), $d 1836-1919. $x Criticism and interpretation

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