Dramatic Monologue Definition
Dramatic monologue (druh-MAT-ik MON-uh-log) is a literary form where the writer takes on the voice of a character and speaks through them. Although dramatic monologues also occur in theater and prose, the term most frequently refers to a poetic form where the poet creates a character who speaks without interruption. Within the poem’s framework, the speaker reveals surprising information about their character or situation to an implied or explicit audience, often not intended to be the reader.
A dramatic monologue is also called a persona poem, and the character speaking in the poem is referred to as a “persona.” The narrator of a persona poem or dramatic monologue is most frequently a person, but dramatic monologues can also be told by animals, objects, places, or abstract concepts (such as love or destiny).
Poets who write dramatic monologues or persona poems are occasionally referred to as monologists.
History of the Dramatic Monologue
While elements of the dramatic monologues can be seen in the theater of ancient Greece, as well as the work of Romantic poets like William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the form as it is understood today was invented in the Victorian era. Robert Browning, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Christina Rossetti were early pioneers. In their dramatic monologues, a fictional character speaks without interruption to an audience, revealing important information about their personality, situation, actions, or emotional state.
The form remained popular in the 20th century. In the Modernist era, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound wrote persona poems, including Eliot’s famous “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Pound’s Personae, a collection of short poems written in the voice of different characters or “masks.” In the 1950s and 1960s, despite the prevailing trend of confessionalism in poetry, Gwendolyn Brooks, John Berryman, and Sylvia Plath all made notable contributions by writing dramatic monologues that grappled with subjects like the African American urban experience, mental illness, addiction, and suicidal ideation.
While, for the most part, the dramatic monologue was written in the voice of a fictional character, the form sometimes makes use of a character who is already well-known so the poet can explore larger themes. Since the latter half of the 20th century, the form has taken on a political dimension as poets began writing dramatic monologues in the voices of misunderstood historical figures (as in Robert Hayden’s “A Letter from Phillis Wheatley, London, 1773”) or reclaimed racial stock figures (Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imagination).
Types of Dramatic Monologues
Dramatic monologues fall into three main categories.
- Romantic monologues are poems where a character speaks about a romantic relationship, either past, current, or desired. “Dilemma” by Anthony Hecht is an example of a romantic monologue.
- Conversational monologues are poems where the dramatic monologue is presented by the speaker as if it is part of a conversation. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Eolian Harp” is one example.
- Philosophical monologues are poems where the character explicates their personal philosophy or theories about the world. “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Alley” by William Wordsworth is one example of a philosophical monologue.
Why Writers Use Dramatic Monologues
Poets use dramatic monologues because it allows them to write about situations and subject matter that is not taken from their own lives. Readers often assume other writers, like novelists or playwrights, create characters wildly different than the writers themselves. But with poetry, readers tend to believe poems are about the writer’s personal experience. Writing dramatic monologues give poets the same artistic freedom and permission to create outside narratives, characters, and situations that writers in other genres take for granted.
The form is also a powerful way to create narrative tension as the speaker reveals crucial information to the reader in a way that allows the reader to feel as if they are there.
Dramatic Monologues in Other Genres
- A character speaks in an uninterrupted flow
- The audience may be either present or absent
- The speaker reveals something about his or her character or situation through the monologue
Unlike a dramatic monologue poem, the form in theater and fiction is not self-contained. These dramatic monologues occur in the context of a longer narrative where multiple characters interact and speak. While these dramatic monologues can be viewed as excerpts of larger works, they cannot truly stand alone.
Notable Dramatic Monologue Poets
Though they may not have exclusively written dramatic monologues, the following poets have made notable contributions to the form:
- John Berryman, “Dream Song 14”
- Frank Bidart, “Ellen West”
- Gwendolyn Brooks, “A Sunset of the City”
- Robert Browning, “Porphyria’s Lover”
- Cornelius Eady, “The Cab Driver Who Ripped Me Off”
- T. S. Eliot, “Portrait of a Lady”
- Louise Erdrich, “The Butcher’s Wife”
- Louise Gluck, “Daisies”
- Robert Hayden, “Night, Death, Mississippi”
- Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “A Last Confession”
- Christina Rossetti, “The Convent Threshold”
- Sylvia Plath, “The Applicant”
- Ezra Pound, “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”
- Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Ulysses”
Examples of Dramatic Monologue in Literature
1. Robert Browning, “My Last Duchess”
Browning’s famous poem “My Last Duchess” was one of the first dramatic monologues of the Victorian era. The poem’s speaker is presumed to be Alfonso II d’Este, the fifth Duke of Ferrara. Set during the Italian Renaissance, the Duke is giving a tour of his art collection to an emissary from his prospective bride’s family. As part of this tour, the Duke shows a painting of his late wife and retells the story of their marriage.
In this excerpt, the reader becomes aware that the Duke was enraged by his late wife’s friendliness and wanted to make sure she smiled only for him:
[…] Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive.”
At this moment, readers realize that the Duke’s commands led to his wife’s death. Either he directed someone to kill her, or by commanding her to stop smiling, he in some way contributed to her eventual death. Browning himself suggested that the Duke simply sent his first wife away.
2. T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
Eliot began writing his famous dramatic monologue in his early 20s. The titular character narrates the poem; Prufrock is an older man confronting his increasing age, evaluating his unrequited romantic and carnal opportunities, and a life he believes was wasted. Prufrock admits:
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use
In this moment, Prufrock acknowledges he is not the hero of his life. Instead, he is a minor figure on the world stage—useful to other, more important people but not the star of the show.
3. Gwendolyn Brooks, “We Real Cool”
In her well-known poem, Brooks takes on the collective voice of seven young pool players at The Golden Shovel pool parlor. The short poem reads as follows:
THE POOL PLAYERS.
SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
In this brief dramatic monologue, the characters speak in one voice, detailing the fast and dangerous lives they inhabit.
4. Louise Gluck, “The Wild Iris”
Gluck’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book The Wild Iris is written in a series of dramatic monologues from the point of view of different plants, trees, parts of the landscape, and the wind. The titular poem, “The Wild Iris,” presents an iris speaking to humanity. The flower describes its experience as a perennial:
It is terrible to survive
buried in the dark earth.
In this excerpt, the plant is explaining what it feels like to be a bulb buried in the ground every winter, waiting to grow and blossom again each spring.
5. Sylvia Plath, “Lady Lazarus”
In this poem, Plath presents a speaker describing her numerous attempts at suicide:
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.
It’s the theatrical
Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
That knocks me out.
In this excerpt, Plath’s speaker describes how good she has been at “dying” during her multiple suicide attempts. She points out that her real talent is her ability to return to life, to create a theatrical miraculous resurrection.
Further Resources on Dramatic Monologues
The Academy of American Poets has an excellent article detailing the history of persona poems / dramatic monologues.
Billy Mills wrote an excellent article about the Victorian roots of the dramatic monologue for The Guardian.
Poet Camille Rankine penned a useful essay for The Poetry Foundation about the dangers of appropriating the identities of marginalized people in dramatic monologues.
- Persona poem