Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

The Margins of the Dramatic Monologue: Teaching Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point"

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

The Margins of the Dramatic Monologue: Teaching Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point"

Article excerpt

Tricia Lootens has recently described the difficult but rewarding experience f teaching The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim s Point." Her account was occasioned by its inclusion in the "Poems in Process" section of the eighth edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Lootens focuses on the emotional difficulty of discussing the infanticide stanzas in class, and what the raw emotions and disagreements they provoke among students mean for the relation between scholarly study of Victorian literature and the teaching of it. (1) I certainly agree that this poem can be difficult to teach, but in my experience students are unlikely to argue about whether the infanticide is "justified"; they accept it relatively easily as a terrible thing that should be blamed on the condition of slavery rather than on the speaker. The phrase "I couldn't judge her without being in her shoes" recurs frequently in the Women's Literature class in which I usually teach this poem, and infanticide is just the most extreme action my students refuse to judge. In fact, class discussion of this poem usually goes well. Only in papers do I see the problem that is, ironically, the very source of the poem's success: the poetic power of the speaker's language and the intensity of emotion lead students to believe the poem is autobiographical. There is always a danger, of course, that students might believe that the author is the speaker of any first-person poem. We all know how often we repeat the mantra "the author is not the speaker." Generally, students have more trouble keeping this in mind with lyrics than they do with narrative poems. Every semester that I teach "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point," however, I receive at least one paper (and sometimes more than one) that refers to the speaker of the poem as if she were the poet, not merely in the careless confusion of pronouns and referents that can happen with lyric poems, but in an explicit and biographical way. These students are convinced that Elizabeth Barrett Browning was gang-raped and killed her own baby, even after class discussion of the historical context of the poem and being give the information that the author was a prominent white British author. Why do students make this error more frequently and persistently with this poem than with any other that I teach?

I have come to the conclusion that it is a revelation of the nature of the dramatic monologue itself: the students are engaging in a strong misreading. In this poem we see that the formula for a dramatic monologue is not "a supposed person" (to borrow Emily Dickinson's phrasing) (2) but rather, "suppose I were this person?" All dramatic monologues require the author and reader to imagine being the person depicted, and doing so successfully leaves traces that cannot be erased by one's knowledge of the "rules" of poetry. Because "Runaway Slave" is historically contemporaneous with the author rather than set in the dim past, the cues of setting that prevent confusing the author with the speaker are not as apparent in this poem as in other dramatic monologues like "My Last Duchess" or "Ulysses." An even more important factor, however, is the way that Barrett Browning stretches the conventions of the form in this poem. Other dramatic monologues force a reader into a critical attitude toward the speaker-as Robert Langbaum says, "the genius of the dramatic monologue" is "the effect created by the tension between sympathy and moral judgment." (3) In "Runaway Slave," however, the judgment function is assigned to the intradiegetic audience (first pilgrim-ghosts, then slave hunters), and the speaker herself preemptively closes off the possibility of judging her actions in her addresses to these audiences. Thus the irony that is a hallmark of the dramatic monologue is not present in the poem. This is obviously a consequence of Barrett Browning's abolitionist agenda; if we judge the slave, we will not want as passionately to end slavery. …

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