We turn, now, to the so-called dramatic poem. Akin to both
drama and fiction, the dramatic poem consists of the thoughts or
spoken statements (or both) of one or more characters other than
the poet himself in a particular life situation. It is dramatic
rather than narrative since the character is not "written about"
by the poet; rather, the poem consists of the character's own
thoughts or spoken statements. He may be thinking (or talking) to
himself; a poem recording his thoughts or speech to himself is
called a soliloquy. Or a character may be speaking to one or
more other characters in a given situation; a poem recording his
speech is called a dramatic monologue.|
Though a rigid definition might limit the term dramatic poem to poets, certain works of nineteenth and twentieth century poets, in a broader sense, the dramatic poem has had a long history. In the fourteenth century, for example, Geoffrey Chaucer created a whole series of dramatic poems within his great narrative, The Canterbury Tales. One of his greatest character creations, the Wife of Bath, introduces a tale she is about to tell to her fellow pilgrims bound for Canterbury with a prologue of some 800 lines (briefly interrupted once, it's true) in which she discoures with great vivacity and much amusement on the general subject of marriage and the particular subject of her own five marriages. The poet himself never enters into the picture; the situation is typically dramatic as the Wife holds her listeners spellbound with the frank revelation of herself and the story of her married life.
There are other dramatic poems in the range of English literature too numerous to mention. It is true, however, that the form reached perhaps the height of its development in the dramatic poems of Robert Browning in the nineteenth century. Among the most memorable are the Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister, Fra Lippo Lippi, and Andrea del Sarto. In the Soliloquy we realize the passionate hatred felt by a petty and malicious monk for one of his fellows. In Fra Lippo Lippi we come to know - almost intimately - one of the great painters of his of the Renaissance as he is imagined by the poet: we learn escapades, his introduction into a religious order, his ideas on art all of this through what Fra Lippo and beauty and religion. We learn Lippi says to the captain of the guard who has seized him returning Medici (where he was supposed to be painting)to the house of the after a night of revelry. Andrea del Sarto reveals his strengths and weaknesses as man and painter during a "conversation" with his beautiful but faithless wife, Lucrezia. As the Poem unfolds, we learn not only about Andrea but about his wife and the highly complex and fascinating relationship between them. Browning proves himself here a poet with a depth of psychological insight that makes his work rank high as treatment of human'character and personality. Among other poets who have written dramatic poems are Tenny6 son, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, George Meredith, Amy Lowell, Edgar Lee Masters, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Leonard Bacon, Robert Frost, and T. S. Eliot. The form makes an appeal to poets of widely differing interests and backgrounds. The source of the appeal for poet and reader alike is not haxd to find. Through the poem the poet is able to reveal-and the reader to realize-bis conception of a human being in a given situation. Few things are as interesting to most people as people themselves-what they are, what they do, what they think, what they feel. The dramatic poem is a most suitable vehicle for effectively revealing a human personality in action. just as a character in a play may reveal himself thoroughly through what he does and says, alone and in his relationships with others, so a character in a dramatic poem may reveal the very essence of his personality as he soliloquizes or speaks to others. The play is a much longer work with a fully developed plot and perhaps a large number of characters; it is written to be produced on a stage and it can utilize all the resources of the theater for its Purposes. The dramatic poem is much more limited in scope: it normally concentrates on one specific scene or situation in the life of its character. It uses all the resources of poetry, however, to make that character real and understandable to the reader; its very limitations in scope can result -through the concentration and compression so characteristic of poetry -in the tremendous impact for the reader of seeing what Browning called "the incidents in the development of a soul."
The reader of a dramatic poem must determine as specifically as possible the identity of the speaker and the person or persons (if there are any) to whom he is speaking. Sometimes the title of the poem will make clear the identity of the speaker; in some dramatic poems, however, the title will be of little help and the reader must be alert to the clues in the poem itself that will identify the speaker and the situation. In Browning's The Laboratory, for example, the title suggests only the setting but not the identity of the speaker. But as we read the poem, we realize with something of a shock that the speaker is a woman talking to an alchemist from whom she is buying poison with which to commit murder. With the speaker identified, the reader of a dramatic poem can concentrate on the speaker's relationship ssed and finally on the revelation of to the person or persons addre character. Dramatic poems do not use any one set stanza form; the poet is free to use any metrical and rhyme pattern that he feels is suitable to his material.
In ancient times poetry was sung rather than spoken. The Greeks chanted the stately choruses as they moved rhythmically to the lines of the great dramas of Sophocles and Euripides. The Vikings took their singers on their most dangerous explorations; the Norse gleemen celebrated the sea-fights and land conquests in lusty songs. The French troubadours brought their ballads from the market place to the castle. In the time of Queen Elizabeth verse was constantly sung; many of the English poets were also musicians and composers.
Today,however, poetry is rarely sung; most of it is not even spoken. It exists chiefly on the printed page-and, for the most part, it is read silently. This is a pity, for poetry is written not so much for the eye as for the ear. The combination of rhyme and rhythm, of vowels and consonants, of melody and percussion is not effective until it is heard. The voice is needed to bring the poem to life. The poets, therefore, have paid particular attention to the sound of words; they have been careful in their selection of words which not only carry ideas and emotions but also create music.
It is this music which we re-create when we read a poem aloud. The balanced rhythms and the ringing rhymes make stories more exciting than when they are told in prose. Ballad-singers of the past held audiences breathless with halfsung, half-spoken narratives of wild adventures, daring outlaws, passionate deeds, savage love and hate. We know the dramatic stories of such heroes as Robin Hood and Sir Patrick Spens through the ballads written about them.
THE STORY POEMModern poets know that the effectiveness of a story is increased by the gathering momentum of rhythm, by the bells of rhyme, by the sharpening of sounds, of echo, and repetition. If we were to tell the story of "Danny Deever" in prose, we would present two soldiers talking over a crime that has just happened. A fellow-soldier, Danny Deever, quarreled with his comrade and shot him while he slept. One of the speakers, nicknamed "Files-on-Parade" (a term which shows he is an ordinary private) is timid and sympathetic; the other, the Color-Sergeant," who has charge of the flags, is older, more experienced and "hard-boiled." The two soldiers watch the regiment form ceremonially ("in 'ollow square") while the disgraced Danny Deever is stripped of his insignia - "they've taken of his buttons off an' cut his stripes away." Then, after the slow roll of the drums, the band strikes up a lively air the quickstep ") and the hanging is over.
The story is immediately keyed up. The accent of the verse sharpens the narrative and gives it a sudden sense of tension. The dramatic note is increased by the device of repetition, by the short questions and grim answers, by the insistent beat of rhythm. The suspense is heightened as the color-sergeant's tough humor, and the clipped phrases give us the story little by little. It becomes plain that the story has been told more vividly and more swiftly because of the condensation, the clearly measured speech, the "economy of words" which so fundamentally makes poetry differ from prose. Thus two different characters - two different types of humanity - have been revealed against a tragic background.
The same power of condensation and economy, the same strong rhythms and forceful phrasing, distinguish Kipling's other poems, notably "Gunga Din," "The Return," "Tommy," and "Recessional." It is interesting to determine which poem says the most in the least space, which is the most powerful, and which character is the most unforgettable.
With these effects in mind, other story poems contain expressive details, especially in William Rose Benet's "Jesse James," which the author has subtitled "A Design in Red and Yellow for a Nickel Library." This poem is a remarkable contrast to the same poet's "Merchants from Cathay," John Hay's "Jim Bludso," Bret Harte's "Jim," Elizabeth Coatsworth's "A Lady Comes to an Inn," Walter de la Mare's "The Listeners," Siegfried Sassoon's "The Rear-Guard," W. W. Gibson's "The Stone," and Roy Helton's "Old Christmas Morning."
The first thing about these poems that must strike the reader is their great variety of subjects. Some of the stories are simple, some elaborate; some are realistic and some are fanciful. John Hay's "Jim Bludso," for example, is highly dramatic, even melodramatic, while Bret Harte's "Jim" is broadly humorous; yet both are character narratives, stories of the American frontier. "Jesse James" is another story Poem based on a native American subject; the story is told in the manner of a folk-ballad (simple rhymes, repetition, and choruses), but it is developed with the bold exaggeration of tall tales and it ends in sheer fantasy. On the other hand Walter de la Mare's "The Listeners" is definitely a fantastic Poem: its atmosphere is mystery. There is a "Plot," but we have to supply the details. Are the listeners behind the door real people or ghosts - or merely creatures of the imagination? Is the whole poem symbolic? The rider who came and "kept his word" is a brave and challenging spirit. Does he, Perhaps, represent Man ("the lonely Traveler ) facing the darkness, riding against the great Unknown? There are no right or wrong answers to such questions. The poet wants to stimulate our imagination - he prompts the questions but does not reply to them. The meaning is left open; the poem is, in fact, so rich with meanings that the answer is whatever the reader wants it to be.
Similarly, we must fill out the rest of the suggested story in Elizabeth Coatsworth's "A Lady Comes to an Inn." What would a lovely lady be doing in such an odd place accompanied by such queer companions? All the details arouse our curiosity and provoke our questions. Why was her breast tattooed? And what was the meaning of the design? What was the business of the three men? Can you supply the "story behind the story"?
"The Rear-Guard" actually happened to Siegfried Sassoon. His experiences as a soldier help to give the poem its complete realism. What are the details which afford the reader a feeling of horror and a sense of weariness? Does the climax come as a shock? Is it plain that the scene is an underground trench? How does the speaker " unload hell behind him step by step"?
"Richard Cory" is another example of a story heightened by poetry. Had this story been told in prose, it would have been rather commonplace. But the short lines and the abrupt rhymes give the story an extra feature, a sharpness that could not be achieved by prose. The short biography is intensified by the terse rhythm, and the ending comes with a particular surprise as a result of the stanza form.
W. W. Gibson's "The Stone" is a story which is fully told by the speaker. It gets its effect, partly from the story itself, but chiefly from the deliberate way in which it is told: by the repetitions, the insistently repeated words, the hammering rhymes, the slow summing up of details. The tension is increased as we sense the outcome; we are half-prepared for the ending and yet startled by it.
Roy Helton's "Old Christmas Morning" is a ghost story, a fantastic tale founded on reality. Told like an old ballad, it is enacted against a modern background. The time is now; the place is the Kentucky hills. Its central theme is a bloody feud, and the grim drama is played out in an atmosphere of pervading terror. As a newspaper item this would be little more than another account of a killing. But it becomes a remarkable tale when it is transformed into poetry. The atmosphere changes as the brusque dialog reveals the facts; it mounts from casual talk between two mountain women to cold horror. Although the period and setting are today, the tone is ancient; the spirit is that of faraway, of a legend from some other country, even from another world.
Other similarities and differences may be found by cormparing the story poems in this book with those of an older time. They may be contrasted with " Edward, Edward, "Lord Randall," "Johnnie Armstrong," and other early English and Scottish ballads of unknown origin, as well as with such favorites as Longfellow's "Paul Revere's Ride," Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade," Thomas Hood's "The Bridge of Sighs."
THE MONOLOGA monolog is a speech or a story or a poem uttered by one person - it can even be a one-sided conversation. In poetry, it is a tale or meditation told in the first person singular. Sometimes the poet is the speaker, sometimes it is a character in the poem that speaks. The monolog, therefore, is a soliloquy: thinking out loud.
Often the monolog recounts the story of an action, a stirring deed, or a noteworthy event. It is then known as a "dramatic monolog." Many older as well as modern poems are in this form. Browning's "Incident of the French Camp" is such a poem. One of Napoleon's aides tells an incident which occurred during an attack on a town vital to the Emperor's success. The speaker sets the stage, builds a situation, and creates a mood in a few lines. What is more, he creates two living people: Napoleon and the young boy who, wounded to death, brings the news of victory.
A quieter dramatic monolog is presented in Robert Frost's "The Death of the Hired Man". Here the poet is the speaker although much of the poem is in dialog. He tells the story and he reveals the lives of three people: a country man, his wife, and the old hired man. The hired man never speaks, yet he is the central figure; the poet shows him more fully than either of the other two characters. Little side-lights - like the contrasting definitions of "home" - make us see the two speakers with great understanding. Although nothing happens until the very end of the poem, the homely talk sustains the pitch of deep feeling and the atmosphere of suspense.
W. W. Gibson's "The Stone," is another tense and vividly dramatic monolog.
A monolog need not be long. It can be a brief meditation, a flashing thought. Meditative monologs, as well as dramatic, may be found in poems by Robert Frost, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Vachel Lindsay, Thomas Hardy, William Butler Yeats, Rudyard Kipling, and Walter de la Marc. These monologs make their effect because they center about a person and bring him to life in the living words of the poet.