"The Third Person Possessed Me": Robert Lowell's Monologues

By Wortman, Stefanie | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

"The Third Person Possessed Me": Robert Lowell's Monologues


Wortman, Stefanie, Papers on Language & Literature


In a 1948 letter to George Santayana, Lowell writes about Robert Browning, the most prominent writer of the English dramatic monologue:

I think Browning had all the right ideas about what the poetry of his time should take in--people and time. But (this is presumptuous) how he muffed it all! The ingenious, terrific metrics, shaking the heart out of what he was saying; the invented language; the short-cuts, the hurry; and (one must say it) the horrible self-indulgence--the attitudes, the cheapness! (Letters 81-82)

As he wrote, Lowell was at work on the dramatic monologues that would form his third book, Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951). His comments on Browning are noticeable for the similarity of his complaints to the charges critics would level against Kavanaughs--that Lowell's idiosyncrasies were getting the better of him, that his promising career was stalled by his baroque sense of form and allusion. More significantly, the letter suggests his belief that "people and time" or, put differently, psychological depth and historical scope, were the proper goals of poetry and the particular province of the dramatic monologue.

Renewed attention to the dramatic monologues in Kavanaughs and Lowell's next book, Life Studies (1959), reveals how writing in this form helped Lowell develop the personal voice that made the latter volume a poetic landmark. Though relatively obscure among Lowell's books, Kavanaughs is important for its experiments with the dramatic first person, leading to the more autobiographical first person poems of Life Studies. The personae Lowell creates for Kavanaughs are, like Lowell himself, deeply implicated in the history of their surroundings, and they provide a bridge from the epic sweep of the early books to the more intimate view of Life Studies. In addition to the little-discussed dramatic monologue in the voice of Hart Crane, Life Studies contains poems like "Man and Wife" and "To Speak of the Woe That Is in Marriage" that combine dramatic voice with Lowell's new, more personal approach. Kavanaughs, then, fills in a critical step in Lowell's development of a character and setting that allowed him to treat public history from the perspective of private experience.

This reading of Kavanaughs and its place in Lowell's development relies on a definition of the dramatic monologue and an account of its conventions, which Lowell liberally alters. Critics have paid much attention to how the forms of confession--both in the religious and the psychoanalytical sense--shape Lowell's poems. (1) Elisa New, for example, argues that Lowell's typical gestures, "the solicitation of a hearing ear, the discovery of a conveyancing image or voice," involve the solitary speaker looking to an interlocutor for "absolution" (16). (2) The speaker's calling out to an auditor is key to the dramatic monologue as well, and the monologue form presents possibilities for Lowell's exploration of how the self interacts with the public world. In its most exemplary form, the dramatic monologue indicates both a speaker and an auditor. It responds to a dramatic occasion, encompasses some action, and reveals the qualities of the speaker as a character. Often the speaker is differentiated from the writer by name or by other details in the poem. Glynnis Byron's history of the dramatic monologue shows that when the form was developing in the Victorian era, critics saw its emergence as closely tied to new psychological methods for understanding the mind (4). For modernist poets, this tendency toward exploration of a singular mind made the dramatic monologue a form in which to examine fragmented consciousness. In doing so, modernists de-emphasized the relation between speaker and auditor to focus more on the individual's faceted personality. (3)

Lowell extends fragmentation in his monologues, further breaking down the distinctions between author, speaker, and auditor. The speakers in Lowell's dramatic poems, though differentiated from the author by their names and biographical details, often bear marks of Lowell's experience. …

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