3.6 “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”

“Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” was published in Browning’s collection titled Men and Women in 1855. According to Abrams et al., the poem, relating an apparently aimless quest set in a nightmare-like landscape, was composed three years earlier (2:1373). One of the most important features of the poem which sets it apart from many other dramatic monologues of Browning is that the past tense is used throughout. At first sight, the past tense might be regarded as a consequence of the intention to integrate a quotation from Shakespeare’s King Lear into the poem, which is set in simple past. The two occurrences of this line in Browning’s poem—one is the title, the other is a part of the very last line—, however, are direct quotations, therefore, their presence do not require a similar tense in the body of the text. I think, however, that the fact that this line is extracted from an extract in Shakespeare’s play from a ballad-like song did influence the Author who then was, in a sense, compelled to write the very ballad the line is taken from—a task that, on the level of form, requires the conventions of story-telling, thus the use of the past tense. In my reading, I also attempt to investigate the effect of this choice.

A. Reading

Similarly to its tense, the title and the subtitle of the poem also differ from those of many other dramatic monologues of the same Author. The title is a quotation, to be uttered by the Speaker. The subtitle sets a reference (similarly to the subtitle of My Last Duchess, for example), but reference here is not to a historical person, but to an extract from a literary work. The Speaker is defined in neither; he is not even named, as Arnold Saphiro points out (94). The imperative of the subtitle, however, makes it apparent that it is addressed by an entity above the Speaker, the Inscriber or the Author. Despite the lack of a direct reference to a personage, the subtitle does contain an indirect one: to Edgar in Shakespeare’s play. Indeed, parallels can be established between the environment around the Speaker, and the past adventures of “Poor Tom” as related by Edgar.

My suggestion that the poem follows the conventions of storytelling is problematized by the fact that there is no Auditor defined. Still, many textual elements can be found which support the conclusion that the poem is addressed to an audience. “For mark!” appears in line 49 before relating an incidence belonging to the realm of miracles. The “so” in “So, on I went” (l. 55) and “You’d think” (l. 60) could also be cited as techniques usually employed by storytellers to maintain the connection with their audience. The most direct address, however, is the one in line 167: “How thus they had surprised me—solve it, you!” (emphasis added). In my reading, it sounds like a jovial storyteller posing a riddle to an audience of children. The absence of an Auditor, and the in medias res beginning, however, questions these conclusions. The contradiction might be resolved by suggesting that the above addresses, in the absence of an Auditor, address directly the Reader. Please note that in the theory of embedded communications I have argued that all addressees might be mutually identified with each other. The reduced nature of embedded communicative schemes also makes it possible to conceive a message addressed by an embedded Speaker to an (intratextual?) Reader situated on an upper level.

Direct quotations in “Childe Roland,” similarly to other dramatic monologues, can be regarded as uttered by the Speaker himself.[12] Therefore, their presence introduces no other addresser entities. While the Speaker does name the speaker of lines 62–66 (it is “Nature”), it can be argued that these words originate from the Speaker himself. As I shall attempt to show, at least half of the abomination of the landscape is generated by the Speaker by relating his thoughts triggered by the sight. Shapiro goes as far as suggesting that the Speaker attributes malicious intent to the landscape, to Nature. He also cites several sources suggesting the same (89–90). If this is so, then
personifying these intents in the openly allegorical figures of Nature and the hills (speaking as the audience of a circus in Roman times, see line 192) does not introduce addressers distinct from the Speaker.

As the only more or less directly defined entities of “Childe Roland” are the Speaker and the Author, it comes as no surprise that it is often attempted to relate the two, as readings cited in the next section show. Such a connection, in my reading, is suggested by the text at several points, as the Speaker’s contemplation can be related to Browning’s literary career. Lines 19–24 describe the joy of success not even sought for anymore:

For, what with my whole word-wide wandering,

What with my search drawn out through years, my hope

Dwindled into a ghost not fit to cope

With that obstreperous joy success would bring,

I hardly tried now to rebuke the spring

My heart made, finding failure in its scope. (ll. 19–24)

Starting at line 37, one finds

This, I had so long suffered in this quest,

Heard failure prophesied so oft, been writ

So many times among “The Band”—to wit,

The knights who to the Dark Tower’s search addressed

Their steps—that just to fail as they, seemed best,

And all the doubt was now—should I be fit? (ll. 37–42)

Intratextually, these portions are signalled by the lack of visual elements and the abundance of nouns general in meaning. The text generates meaning on the level of notions; layer II here is nonexistent, layer III can be directly generated from layer I, and, in my reading, it is supposed by readers that during the process of composition, layer III was directly rendered into layer I. In other words, what one hears here is taken more to be the voice of the Author, especially as elsewhere, as I shall show, the Speaker uses language rendered via images, via layer II.

Extratextually, the laments of these extracts can be related to Browning’s literary career. He had received a great amount of negative criticism, and was generally held uninterpretable—hence the lines 37–38. Probably as a consequence of this alienation, he expressed many times that he is not seeking success: “A poet’s affair is with God” (qtd. in Litzinger and Smalley 1); similar ideas appear to be expressed in lines 19–24. In Litzinger and Smalley the poet is described in 1850 as a man whose popularity lagged behind that of his wife, and who, unlike Elizabeth, was not even considered for the Poet Laurateship (ultimately given to Tennyson). In 1852, the year of composing “Childe Roland,” Browning’s essay to be prefaced to a volume of Shelley’s letters was withdrawn along with the book as the letters “were shown to be spurious” (Litzinger and Smalley 12–13).[13] The last thing Browning had published was Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day in 1850, and Men and Women was not to appear until 1855. As far as a person’s ‘state of mind’ can be inferred from these biographemes, it might not be meaningless to suggest that in the passages quoted above, a self-image of the extratextual Author is represented.

Continuing this line of reasoning, the hills could be interpreted as hostile critics, while the “lost adventurers my peers” (l. 195) standing “ranged along the hillsides, met / To view the last of me” (ll. 199–200) may represent literary predecessors Browning might have regarded great but unacknowledged. Shunning ‘earthly’ success might also be expressed in the Speaker’s goal to “fail as they” (l. 41), and blowing the “slug-horn” may refer to the continuation of writing, to the re-starting of writing, to starting writing—the very poem that has ended. This interpretation, however, is weakened by the suggestion that the Speaker is already considered to be part of “The Band” of the knights gone to the “Dark Tower” (ll. 38–40), and, seemingly, his very reward at the end is to be part of their group. Still, I think, the suggestion can be maintained that the intratextual features of the passages quoted above may compel the Reader to search for an interpretation of “Childe Roland” considering its Author.

Having suggested both that layer II and thus metathesis is at work in the poem generally, and that instances of the Author do appear directly in the text, thus there is no metathesis at specific points, let me turn to investigate metathesis itself, its existence and extent in “Childe Roland.”

The are more similes and metaphors in this poem than what would be expected on the basis of, for example, Andrea del Sarto or My Last Duchess. As such figures connect two elements in a descriptive relationship, they are miniature images. Indeed, generally, I have found that an abundance of such figures (together with symbols) signal a heavy use of images, and therefore suggest the existence of layer II and metathesis. Before partly refuting this conclusion, let me point out that it is via these figures that the Speaker appears to create a Nature even more frightening. It is the Speaker who introduces leprosy in the simile “As for the grass, it grew as scant as hair / In leprosy” (ll. 73–74), successfully evoking a revolting visual image. He likens the river to a serpent (ll. 109–110), evoking the image of the reptile, while it is not seen, in the strict sense, in his environment. Likewise, he introduces the image of a tortured baby when describing the cry of a small animal he unintentionally killed (ll. 125–126): “ugh! it sounded like a baby’s shriek” (l. 126). It is he who introduces images of cruel social hierarchy and medieval pogroms in the simile “Mad brewage set to work / Their brains, no doubt, like galley slaves the Turk / Pits for his pastime, Christians against Jews” (ll. 136–138), and it is he who attributes evil motives to still hills “Crouched like two bulls locked horn in horn in fight” (l. 177).

But the Speaker can be heard creating his own environment outside rhetorical figures. He imagines the “skull-like laugh” (l. 10) of the cripple only; it is only his description of the cirque which includes “Toads in a poisoned tank, / Or wild cats in a red-hot iron cage” (ll. 131–132). Seeing a strange machine, he immediately asks: “What bad use was that engine for […] that harrow fit to reel / Men’s bodies out like silk?” (ll. 140–142, emphasis added). Inherent malice is hinted doubly, by the general adjective “bad” and the quite visual description of a merely supposed use. It is based on this technique, it appears, that many readings regard the landscape a projection of the Speaker’s mind.

Let me, however, return to the question of metathesis. The reason why the frequency of figures does not immediately result in a wide metathesis in the case of this poem is the fact that the Speaker often recurs to contemplation without images, without metathesis. This is not restricted to the two stanzas quoted above; even rhetorical figures can be found in which an element is likened to a general notion devoid of any visual content. From the cripple, the Speaker turns “quiet as despair” (l. 43)—here, despite the use of a simile, the nouns hardly enrich layer II, both of them being too general to trigger specific associations or visual images. Only the overall negativity is enhanced; the structures on layer II, in my reading, are left intact. Similarly, the description of the mouth, itself used to describe another element, hardly contributes to layer II in “Then came some palsied oak, a cleft in him / Like a distorted mouth that splits its rim / Gaping at death, and dies while it recoils” (ll. 154–156, emphasis added). Descriptions in “Childe Roland” can often be seen as being replaced by relations of action involving elements too general to contribute to the landscape. The Speaker can again be heard generating the landscape by suggesting that “’tis a brute must walk / Pashing their life out, with a brute’s intents” (ll. 71–72), but the noun “brute” is too universal, even too common (and repeated) to describe anything than negativity in its widest sense. In these cases my reading suggests that the Speaker must appear as talking ‘out of’ the description. His contribution to the landscape appears so alien to description that it is, rather, interpreted as a kind of contemplation.

This effect is most apparent at the description of the horse (ll. 76–84). The few adjectives and colours describing the animal are intermingled with the Speaker’s remarks. The horse is taken to have been “Thrust out past service from the devil’s stud” (l. 78); the Speaker is not sure whether it is “Alive? he might be dead for aught I know” (l. 79), and finally concludes that “I never saw a brute I hated so; / He must be wicked to deserve such pain” (ll. 83–84). Based on other, more successful ‘asides’ of the Speaker, these remarks are, in my reading, taken as intended to enhance the effect of the vision. But they are not successful in this respect. “Browning is not in proper control of the tone here” (333) concludes C. C. Clarke analysing the same passage, although on slightly different grounds.

Taking into consideration that the text continues with a commonplace-like line (“I shut my eyes and turned them on my heart” [l. 85]) and with a contemplation of knights once friends to the Speaker, but later facing disgrace, the horse-episode might get an alternative interpretation. It successfully introduces a contemplative tone that is continued for four stanzas, until the Speaker encounters the river. Here, it is expressed directly that the new sight bounces the tone back—to descriptive: “when something on the dismal flat / Came to arrest my thoughts and change their train” (ll. 107–108).

This alternative analysis, while provides a reason for it, still leaves this and other portions of “Childe Roland” interpretable only as non-descriptive, as lacking metathesis. The extended simile of the Speaker likening himself to an old man fearing not to die and thus offend his loved ones (ll. 25–36) presents itself as an ironical, even humorous, anecdote. As such, it hardly contributes to the visuality of the poem (apart from the nouns banners, scarves and staves it includes). The decisive moment for the Speaker, first thinking that his progress came to a halt, then feeling that he was trapped, and then realizing that he had achieved his goal, is also rendered in the contemplative tone (ll. 163–176). This portion even contains the direct address “solve it, you!” (l. 167) quoted above.

Overall, the extent of metathesis seems to be extremely varied in “Childe Roland.” While parts with a supposedly lesser degree of alienation do not suggest a general interpretation of the poem, but merely provide localized remarks and possible ties to the Author, this varied nature of the metathesis may well lead Readers to regard portions with wide metathesis to be without real metathesis—to represent the author via a badly disguised allegory.

In this respect, that the Speaker of “Childe Roland” is often regarded to be close to the Author, this poem differs from most dramatic monologues of Browning. In my opinion, the contemplative tone that mostly triggers this interpretation (although not always) is (was) made possible by the use of the past tense. The suggestion might be risked that, although it is not at all clear whether the narration happens simultaneously with or after the events related, the use of past tense, in the composition process, alienated the Speaker from the events of the narration—thereby creating a “cleft” through which contemplative, even—arguably—biographical elements could percolate into the poem. Langbaum also suggests that alienation is apparent in the poem based on the tense used in a remark quoted at the analysis of his views (198).

Having established the extent of metathesis, let me attempt to determine the imaged of “Childe Roland.” This task is made all the more difficult by the fact that nothing appears to be known of the Speaker. It is clear that directly, not him, but elements of the Nature are described, but even visual centres (imageds) such as the horse, the river, the machine–wheel, the cirque, are not described enough to occupy the position of the one central imaged of the poem. In my view, either it is to be concluded that layer II of “Childe Roland” does not have a centre, or one is compelled to suggest that although the landscape appears to be described in general, nothing is described in it in particular—at least to the extent to become the centre of the representation. In this latter case, the one element present at every description can be regarded as the imaged—the Speaker.

This conclusion is also supported by the suggestion that many elements in the landscape actually originate from the Speaker. If this statement is pushed to the extreme, and it is suggested, as above, that the landscape is a projection of the Speaker’s mind, then the conclusion that the Speaker is the imaged is straightforward. Thus, even “Childe Roland” appears to conform to this “rule.”

Finally, let me consider another extratextual source of “Childe Roland”—Shakespeare’s King Lear. As suggested above, Edgar’s monologues about Tom’s way of life do contain elements that reappear in the landscape of “Childe Roland.” In his speech starting with “Who gives anything to poor Tom?” we find “whom [Tom] the foul fiend hath led through fire and through flame, through ford and whirlpool, o’er bog and quagmire” (1:1153; ll. 3.4.51–53, emphasis added)—in Browning’s poem, sheet of flame (l. 201), mud kneaded up with blood (ll. 74–75), fording a river (l. 121) can all be found. Even a horse is present in Edgar’s monologue. There, the horse appears in a row of incidents tempting Tom to commit suicide, but the context of all other above listed elements do match that of the elements in Browning’s poem. Toad and rat, used in “Childe Roland” by the Speaker to describe the landscape (ll. 131 and 125) also appear in King Lear, in another monologue of Edgar describing Tom’s usual meal (1:1155; ll. 3.4.124–127). Apart from these elements, a thematic parallel may also be established, as the plot of King Lear appears to revolve around sight, seeing as knowledge; likewise, in Browning’s poem, the Speaker begins to see what was invisible to him up to the end of his journey, “After a life spent training for the sight” (l. 180, emphasis added).

I do not think, however, that these literary parallels (like the intertextual connections of My Last Duchess, for example) enhance the presence of the Author, especially as the parallel is stated in the subtitle. A strong Authorial presence—either felt or even created by the Reader—, because of the varying degree of metathesis, still characterizes the poem.

B. Reading Reading

B.1 Assessments of the Contemporary Audience

This Authorial presence, it seems, can be traced in contemporary reactions. The two reviews of “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” cited here assess the literary value of the poem in opposite ways. G. Brimley and T. C. C. (whom has not been identified) think it an uninterpretable allegory:

The poem consists of thirty-four stanzas of six lines each, and is, we suppose, allegorical; but from beginning to end we can discover no hint as to what the allegory means […] This seems to us very much like making a fool of the public […] (169–170)

While there is no direct reference to the Author (apart from the fact that “fooling the public” is most probably attributed to him), reading “Childe Roland” as an allegory agrees with my reading and my assessment of the effect of its varying degree of metathesis. In this sense, supposing that “Childe Roland” is an allegory is to seek for clues for interpretation outside the poem, in the realm of the Author (as happens in, to a lesser degree, in My Last Duchess). David Masson, while holds “Childe Roland” a valuable piece, can find no meaning, either. His reference to the Author is more direct, and is emphasized by his italics:

[T]his poem deserves all in all to be regarded as the greatest thing in the volumes. The notion of the poem […] is that of expanding one of those snatches of old ballad and allusion which have such a mystic effect in Shakespeare. […] Mr. Browning offers us his imaginative rendering of these gloomy hieroglyphic words. […] How it holds the imagination, and is felt to be coherent and significant in meaning, though no one will venture to explain what the meaning is! (181)

While in these readings a certain recurrence to the Author can be seen, it is in later analyses that the Speaker in “Childe Roland” is considered to be extremely close to the Author; even to the degree of regarding the poem as an allegory of Browning’s quest for literary power.

B.2 Later Readings

It is Mike Tierce who sets out to analyse “Childe Roland” on the basis that

One of the accepted allegorical readings of Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” is that the ominous landscape is the outward manifestation of Browning’s recognition of his own poetic failure. From this point of view, Roland’s quest becomes an attempt to reestablish Browning’s own, seemingly inadequate, artistic powers. (10)

While this reading agrees mine in paralleling elements in the poem to Browning’s literary career, there are several differences. First of all, my reading does not allow to regard the whole poem as a consistent allegory; only specific portions could be interpreted as such. And second, I paralleled Browning’s career to the Speaker’s contemplations, not a supposed attempt on the Author’s part to regain literary power.

Tierce, however, does not seem to be able to support his thesis, as his reading often appears far-fetched. From the appearance of the “distorted mouth” (l. 155) he concludes that “[t]he implication is again that the poet produces only distortion” (11). With a strange logical leap, he suggests that “[b]ecause Browning believed that ‘a poet’s affair is with God,’ he associates his own failed poetry with Satan” (11)—merely in order to be able to fit the “devil’s stud” (l. 78) and the “fiend’s glowing hoof” (l. 113) into his reading. He does suggest, however, an intriguing interpretation of Cuthbert and Giles, the comrades the Speaker contemplates about, inasmuch as he relates Cuthbert to Shelley and Giles to Wordsworth. The latter parallel is drawn mainly on the basis of Browning’s The Lost Leader (11–12).

Tierce’s reading is important in the view of my argument as it provides an example of how a poem with an often narrow metathesis is—expectedly—attempted to be treated as a direct allegory of its Author.

Shapiro, on the other hand, appears to provide a counterexample, as he strictly maintains that the Speaker is a character independent of the Author. In his paper analysing parallels between “Childe Roland” and King Lear, he suggests the following about Authorial intention: “Browning means to reveal in ‘»Childe Roland«’ a certain type of human being and to determine what sort of mind sees things as the speaker in this poem” (91). As this sentence, and the focus on Shakespeare’s play show, however, Saphiro also seeks “meaning” outside Browning’s poem—in this respect, he appears to follow Mike Tierce.

C. Conclusion

A rather strong and varied Authorial presence appears to characterise “Childe Roland,” which poem, in this respect, differs from those analysed so far. As in Andrea del Sarto, the constructed Author could be linked to the extratextual one, although these links were rather vague. Authorial presence as signalled by the characteristics of the poem determined using the suggestions of the representational framework apparently has surfaced in other readings. In my view, it is the exceptional amount of features in the text that narrows the metathesis and draws the Authorial entity (or entities) closer to the Speaker that welcomes an allegorical reading, searching, now almost exclusively, for meaning in an extratextual realm.

The poem is also unlike the previously investigated ones that it included no Auditor in the level of the narration. This fact may also have contributed to the perceived proximity of the Speaker and the Author, as both entities appear to address the Reader.

“Childe Roland,” in my view, is an example for a poem which can hardly be, and, based on the cited readings, it seems, is not read without the creation of an Author, whether knowledge about the biographical Author is used in the construction or not. If this suggestion is not too far-fetched, then it problematizes, to a certain extent, the requirements of the methodological death of the Author and renders other arguments calling for the eradication of all Authorial entities fallacious. However, I think that the generation of an Author (whether it is held to be equivalent to the biographical Author or not), if done while upholding the separation of addressers and limiting its control to an addresser entity, does not close the potential and the polysemy of the text read. Thus, in this sense, the critical methods criticised by, among others, Barthes and Eliot can, theoretically, still be avoided.

3.7 Caliban upon Setebos

Caliban upon Setebos: Or Natural Theology in the Island was composed around 1860 (Abrams et al. 2:1409) and was published in Dramatis Personae in 1864. Strictly speaking, it is a contemplation on the ways of the god of Caliban’s mother, but the poem can also be (and is) read as a contribution to the contemporary debate on the role of religion in society.

A. Reading

A.1 The Text

The title of the poem defines its Speaker and the subject of Caliban’s monologue. As in the case of My Last Duchess, because of the continuous presence of Setebos and because he appears to be mostly described by Caliban, the question again arises whether Speaker is the imaged of the poem, as I generally supposed, or Setebos. Let me return to this problem later.

Continuing the investigation of texts surrounding the main part of the poem, one is faced with the subtitle: “Or Natural Theology in the Island.” “Natural” here may well signify a theology of nature or from nature, that is, a theology induced from observations (deism, in a sense) as opposed to a theology based on revelation. And indeed, the Speaker throughout the poem likens his god, Setebos, to himself by attributing the same qualities and motives to the god as the ones he finds in himself. The motto (“Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such a one as thyself”) clearly condemns this type of theology. It is from Psalms 50.21; the sentence is spoken by God, and, most importantly, it is addressed to the wicked. This kind of foreshadowing an interpretation of a dramatic monologue is unusual in Browning’s oeuvre (excepting, naturally, The Ring and the Book); the inclusion of the motto, as it clearly refers to an extratextual, authoritative source, and as the monologue proper has not started yet, signals, in my reading, strong authorial presence for the readers.

How the monologue starts is likewise unusual (while, arguably, a similar device can be found at the end of Bishop Blougram’s Apology). The first paragraph of the poem is enclosed in square brackets, it constantly refers to the Speaker in the third person, and the identity of its addressee is unclear. Based on the typographical notation and that the Reader does not yet know that Caliban will indeed refer to himself in the third person, this section may be taken as a kind of instruction in a theatrical script. As such, it is spoken by an entity above the Speaker: the Inscriber, or even the Author. There are numerous textual differences between this section and the body of the monologue which support this suggestion. Here, Caliban is only talked about in the third person, while in the body, the first person is also often used. In fact, it is not only until 98th line that the reader is forced to accept that third person verbs may refer to Caliban. Up to that point, in my reading, the interpretation of the words “Thinketh” starting every paragraph remains unclear. Also, Caliban often makes use of the archaic -th third person ending (a possible pun on the style of the Bible), while such a device is missing from the first paragraph. And finally, this part describes Caliban’s actual state from an outside point of view. Not only such (self-)descriptions are missing from the body of the poem, but almost all actions of Caliban related in it (with the possible exception of wine-making in lines 68–74) are hypothetical.

There can be found, however, one ellipsis and an interjection in the first part: “Because to talk about Him vexes—ha, / Could He but know!” (ll. 17–18). This fact supports the opposite conclusion that even this part is uttered, presumably by the Speaker.

This, latter, conclusion is, in my reading, further supported by the last paragraph of the poem similarly enclosed by square brackets and even segregated from the rest typographically, by a line. In this section, -th endings and interjections are abundant, suggesting that its addresser is indeed Caliban. This last paragraph, I think, forces the Reader to reinterpret the first one; a conclusion can be that these sections represent silent thoughts of Caliban. However, the features of the first paragraph listed above may still lead to an ambiguous (non-)interpretation of it. These sections, it seems, provide a frame to the poem via which the Reader is led from the Author of the motto to the Caliban of the natural theology—and back. They are, in a sense, twilight zones between Author and Speaker.

Unlike many other characters of Browning, Caliban is not furnished with an Auditor (unless, as it turns out in the end, Setebos’ raven, overhearing his speech, is considered one). This fact, in my reading, does not problematize the status of the poem as a dramatic monologue; rather, it makes it more apparent that what Caliban expresses is more an argument than a state of mind. As an argument, a theology, it is almost directly applicable to the Victorian debate over the reinterpretation of religion in the light of a somewhat differently structured society and scientific and technological results (see Abrams et al. 2:1402–1403). This referentiality, in my view, supports an interpretation which perceives an entity behind Caliban, an entity which, situated outside the layer of Caliban’s island, is capable of wilfully hinting these connections—the Author.

With an argument similar to the one in which I suggest that the imaged of My Last Duchess is not the Duchess but the Duke, it can be shown that the imaged of Caliban upon Setebos is not Setebos but Caliban. The subtitle and the motto not only furnish the poem with an interpretation, they also direct attention to the Speaker from the entity the monologue is about. The subtitle speaks of a “theology,” not a ‘theos,’ thus directing attention to how the theology in question is evolving and to the subject of the theology from its object. In the motto, again a special theology and its makers (the “wicked”) are put into the focus; the “I,” the object of that theology and the addresser of the sentence, is taken for granted.

The poem itself is structured in a way that Caliban describes Setebos by describing himself first, and then suggesting that Setebos does alike: “As it likes me each time, I do: so He” (l. 108), “Would I not smash it with my foot? So He” (l. 126), “[Caliban] Shall some day knock it down again: so He” (l. 199). Caliban and Setebos are mutually described by each other, and therefore, Caliban is described on two levels. First, he describes himself in hypothetical situations likening himself to a god over figures of clay, crabs, and small animals. Second, he describes himself by describing a god likened to himself. The focus, in my view, remains on Caliban. This suggestion is supported by the fact that the first paragraph, whose addresser can be regarded to be ‘above’ Caliban, describes almost exclusively the Speaker, not the one the Speaker describes.

The mutual description is also strengthened by links which almost equate, in a sense, Caliban with Setebos. The use of the third person in self-reference, in my reading, not only signals that Caliban uses the language not according to accepted norms, but also makes Caliban and Setebos less and less separable. Their motives and actions are regarded to be similar, and even the element of the moon, the very first element used to describe Setebos (“ ’Thinketh, He dwelleth i’ the cold o’ the moon. // ’Thinketh He made it, with the sun to match” [ll. 25–26]) is re-introduced later as the creation of Caliban: “And, with a fish–­tooth, scratched a moon on each” (l. 194). If Caliban and Setebos, therefore, in a special sense, equalled, then Setebos cannot occupy the position of the main described, the imaged, without Caliban being at least as described as him.

But the conclusion that Caliban occupies the central position in the poem can also be reached by considering visual elements in the text. Mire, slush, pompion (pumpkin), sea, fish, otter, leech, auk, badger, [mag]pie, ant, seed, gourd, honeycomb, finch, maggot, thyme, bird, clay, to list a few from lines 1–76, are all from the immediate environment of the Speaker. They, therefore, are related to and describe the Speaker more than a supposedly transcendent figure, Setebos, which fact further supports that Caliban is indeed the imaged of Caliban upon Setebos.

It can be concluded, therefore, that this poem conforms to the imaged = Speaker suggestion generally made about dramatic monologues.

If Caliban is the imaged of the poem, that is, he is the centre of a representation containing a strange island with meteors and hurricanes, then, in my view, for the modern reader (and I would risk the suggestion that even for the Victorian one) the transliteration from layer III, the Author and the theme, to this representation is wide enough not to perceive directly an Authorial standpoint. One may even suggest, turning the assertions of my representational framework on themselves, that it is so wide that it signals that the text is to be read almost allegorically—which may also be supported by Browning’s use of intertextuality, of a literary, not historical source. In this case, despite the wide metathesis, the Author returns—but not at specific points, not in the layers I set out to investigate with the tools of the representational framework, but on the level of ‘content,’ of ‘interpretation.’ This recurrence of the Author, apart from the points described above, could also be described by exploring Browning’s use of the Caliban found in The Tempest.

A.2 Shakespeare’s Caliban

Interestingly, Shakespeare’s Caliban mentions Setebos only twice, but it seems that the two references, one at the beginning, the other at the end of the play, span more or less the same change of attitude than the one experienced in Browning’s poem. The first reference is in act 1, scene 2:

caliban. [aside] I must obey—his art is of such power,

It would control my dam’s god Setebos,

and make a vassal of him. (16; ll. 1.2.373–375)

This time Caliban appears to situate Setebos as someone other’s god, not his—making himself capable of arguing, debating with him, or even of disregarding him. Yet, at the end, when with Stephano and Trinculo he is driven to Prospero’s presence, he exclaims: “O Setebos, these be brave spirits, indeed: / How fine my master is! I am afraid / He will chastise me” (31; ll. 5.1.263–265)—as if he turned to Setebos for protection from Prospero. In Browning’s poem, similarly, Caliban turns and worships Setebos at the end, faced with danger.

Caliban’s search for a god and his mistake in it are also hinted in Shakespeare’s text; it is likely that these hints formed the basis of the argument of Browning’s poem. Caliban asks Stephano “I prithee be my god” (22; l. 2.2.153)—at the end, he utters the moral:

caliban. […] and I’ll be wise hereafter,

And seek for grace. What a thrice-double ass

Was I, to take this drunkard for a god!

And worship this dull fool! (31; ll. 5.1.297–300)

These two poles express an interpretation of Browning’s poem as precise as the motto prefixed to it. The similarities between the poem and the play continue even on the level of words. Many elements of Caliban’s environment, it seems, were taken from The Tempest, although from the very opposite contexts. “Honeycomb” is uttered by Prospero when threatening Caliban in line 1.2.330 (16); it is used in the poem when Caliban makes wine (l. 69). “Raven” is used by Caliban in The Tempest when cursing Prospero with his mother’s curses in line 1.2.323 (16); it appears in the poem as Setebos’ spy (l. 286). “Crab” and “jay,” used in the poem in Caliban’s illustrations of his god-like actions (see lines 100 and 118) appear in the play when Caliban promises to lead the drunkards to the riches of the island and make Stephano his god (22; ll. 2.2.173–175). The element of moon is also of special importance in the play: Stephano constantly addresses Caliban as “moon-calf” (21, l. 2.2.111; 22, 2.2.140; 23, 3.2.22–23), and he claims to have dropped from the moon immediately before Caliban asks him to be his god (22; ll. 2.2.141–143). Stephano thus echoes Setebos’ placement in the “cold o’ the moon.” Equating the moon and Setebos, however, is problematized by Prospero’s remark, according to which Caliban’s mother, Sycorax, was “a witch, and one so strong / That could control the moon” (31; ll. 5.1.271–272)—that is, according to the equation, Sycorax could have controlled Setebos, while the opposite is suggested in Browning’s poem. While this symbolism could not be carried far, the frequent mentions of the moon in Shakespeare’s play may well have provided the basis of the astrological start of Caliban’s monologue.

Despite these similarities, however, on the level of the narration, numerous differences can be found between the play and the poem. Important episodes of the play involving Caliban are left out, including Stephano, Trinculo, the plotting and the robes-masque. The main adversary of Caliban in the poem appears to be Setebos, while in the play, Prospero. Maltreatment by Prospero does appear in the poem, but now it includes blinding Caliban: “Also a sea beast, lumpish, which he [Prospero] snared, / Blinded the eyes of, and brought somewhat tame” (ll. 163–164); “This blinded beast / Loves whoso places flesh-meat on his nose, / But, had he eyes, would want no help” (ll. 181–183), while no trace of such an action can be found in Shakespeare’s play.

The element of violating Miranda in Shakespeare’s work is not wholly missing from Browning’s poem, but, in my view, is treated ambiguously. In a lengthy description of Prospero, 19 lines after the last, and 8 lines before the first self-reference by Caliban (both in the third person), one finds line 160, of which let me also quote the surrounding lines:

A four-legged serpent he [Prospero] makes cower and couch,

Now snarl, now hold its breath and mind his eye,

And saith she is Miranda and my wife:

’Keeps for his Ariel a tall pouch-bill crane

He bids go wade for fish and straight disgorge;

(ll. 158–162, emphasis added)

In my reading, “my” in line 160, despite the fact related above that Caliban uses the third person to refer to himself in this portion of the poem, does not refer to Prospero. Lacking other alternatives, I am thus forced to read the line in a way that “my” refers to Caliban, although the reason why Prospero would declare Miranda to be Caliban’s wife, and in what sense, remains unclear. Still, it can be suggested that the element of violation does appear in the poem.

It, however, is given an additional twist by the mention of Caliban’s offsprings in line 272, when he describes what he would do if he was caught by Setebos thinking aloud, immediately after offering to cut a finger off: “Or of my three kid yearlings burn the best.” In Shakespeare’s play, although Caliban had wanted to “people[…] the isle with Calibans” (16; ll. 1.2.351–352), no hints can be found suggesting that there were more Calibans. Interestingly, even Browning’s poem appears to fail to suggest the existence of a mate.

These differences suggest that Browning, unlike in Andrea del Sarto, for example, treated his source quite liberally. If this is so, then the main differences (not necessarily the omissions, but the additions) might be attempted to explain away on the basis of a meaning abstracted from the poem or of a reconstructed authorial intention. Blindness, for example, might suit an impotent thinker at the mercy of the elements and grasshoppers. It might also symbolize Caliban’s blindness to a ‘true’ theology. The sacrifice of children might have been introduced to further ridicule Caliban’s submission contrasted to his thinking about Setebos; it may also recall elements from pagan rituals, which are then connected to Caliban’s “Natural Theology.”

If the poem is read ‘against’ Shakespeare’s character, then these differences, in my reading, signal an interpretation, a judgment on Caliban’s theology strongly hinted by the Author. These differences, in other words, may support a feeling of Authorial presence in readers.

B. Reading Reading

Reactions to Caliban upon Setebos in Browning’s lifetime, based on Litzinger and Smalley’s collection, appear to have been varied. The majority do not fail to perceive references to contemporary theologies—and, as I have suggested in my reading, they generally attribute it to the Author.

In an unsigned, untitled review from The Athenaeum one finds:

This revelation of what ‘Caliban’ ‘thinketh’ would have delighted Shakespeare himself, who could have been the first to have acknowledged that it faithfully represented the inner man of his original creation. Only a great dramatic poet could have written this poem. […] [T]he reader will hardly fail to make out a good deal of the satire which Caliban’s theology reflects upon ours. (220)

This reading agrees with mine in putting Caliban in the focus and in attributing the “revelation,” and possibly the irony, to the Author. Edward Dowden appears to sound the same suggestions, complementing them with a remark on the love of God:

In his ‘Caliban upon Setebos’ the poet has, with singular and almost terrible force, represented what must be the natural theology of one who is merely an intellectual animal, devoid of spiritual cravings, sensibilities, and checks. It is these which discover to us not only the power of God but the love of God everywhere around us, and which enable us to perceive that there is a supreme instance or manifestation of God’s love, which is very Christ. (428)

His reading matches Langbaum’s suggestion, who argued that dramatic monologues and examples of poetry of experience “reinvalidate moral judgment” (4) in Readers. According to Dowden, this effect is achieved by a contrast between Caliban’s and our theology, by a contrast between Caliban and Author—as also suggested by Langbaum. It is not sure, however, whether dramatic monologues without such a clear reference to contemporary issues can achieve the same effect.

Robert Bell’s remark also refers to Christian love—but in his case, it is turned against the Author himself:

But clever as ‘Caliban’ is, it is a mistake. The subject is exceedingly repulsive, and almost unfit for separate artistic treatment. As part of the strange machinery of a play brimful of characters, Caliban is invaluable; and while his character is abundantly conveyed in the strong touches of the great master, he is always kept studiously in the background. More than once Mr. Browning, in his desire to say the best he can of things, has affirmed that mere beauty is something; but what plea can he set up for mere ugliness—ugliness so extreme as to fill the gazer with instinctive detestation and loathing? […] The poem is a mistake; yet we value it highly, as a true index to the character of the poet’s mind. In the excess of his Christian love and sympathy, we have no doubt that he sees some points of sympathy between himself and the whelp of Sycorax. But his error lies there; though the point of sympathy is discernible, it is swamped in the solitary full-length figure of the monster. In Shakespeare, Caliban is far more likeable than in Mr. Browning’s poem. (226–227)

In an unfavourable comparison to Shakespeare, Bell reaches the conclusion that Browning must have sympathised with Caliban if he wrote a poem about (on) him. He is apparently reluctant to temporarily accept the point of view of Caliban; and he appears to be unable to read the poem as an index to contemporary thinking. Please note that recurring to the Author when faced with inability to interpret also happened in the case of My Last Duchess, where the Author was cited to point out or to explain away the seeming improbability of the Duke’s speech.

C. Conclusion

While in my reading I predicted that Caliban upon Setebos will be read as an allegory, or even as a satire, based on the apparently and exceptionally wide metathesis and the use of intertextuality, Bell’s review, notably, does not treat is as such. In my view, this might be a consequence of the fact that in this poem, unlike in “Childe Roland,” the metathesis is wide throughout; no portions apparently rendered directly from layer III to I can be found in this poem that might trigger such an interpretation more forcibly.

This fact is also related to my suggestion that Authorial presence in Caliban upon Setebos can be linked less to specific points in the text than to a general interpretation. In this respect, this poem appears to differ slightly from those analysed so far, as it is unlike the other ones in that it has closer ties to contemporary issues. If this is so, then an Author or its hypostasis, the Age (a historical situatedness) is, in my view, irreducible in an analysis of this poem, and even if a reading is attempted without one, an Authorial standpoint, hinting a judgment on Caliban, will remain in the text.

3.8 Rabbi Ben Ezra

Browning’s Rabbi Ben Ezra also appeared in Dramatis Personae in 1864, and it was probably composed two years earlier (Abrams et al. 1418). It apparently contains a speech of the 12th-century scholar.

A. Reading

The very first thing that presents itself as notable regarding the text of the poem is the lack of a subtitle. In the cases of many other dramatic monologues, the title and the subtitle define the Speaker together, usually from different points of view. In “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came:” (See Edgar’s Song in “Lear”) and in My Last Duchess: Ferrara the title appears to originate from the Speaker, while the subtitle from the Author, defining the Speaker either in relation to extratextual history or an extratextual literary source. In Caliban upon Setebos: Or Natural Theology in the Island and in Andrea del Sarto: (called “The Faultless Painter”) the title defines the Speaker while the subtitle passes judgment over him, either a contemporary one or one more closely related to the Author. Many other dramatic monologues are also furnished with several titles: How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix: (16—); Bishop Blougram’s Apology: [A Bishop addresses his Critic]; Saul: [David tells how he loosed Saul from his madness] (Abrams et al. 2:1356, Gollanz 114, 208, respectively), to cite just a few. Even dramatic monologues without subtitles appear to define more than the Speaker: Porphyria’s Lover defines the Speaker in social relations; A Toccata of Galuppi’s refers to a piece listened to by the Speaker; Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister defines at the same time the place and the genre of the ensuing poem (Abrams et al. 2:1349, 1363, 1350, respectively). With Fra Lippo Lippi (Abrams et al. 2:1373) as one of the very few exceptions, it can be suggested that generally, in dramatic monologues, Browning aimed at situating the Speaker in a well-definable context even before the monologue proper begins. This is not the case in Rabbi Ben Ezra. As I shall attempt to show, this non-situatedness is reflected in the poem itself inasmuch as the Speaker, for intratextual reasons, is read to be extremely close to the Author—in the extreme, the Speaker may even be regarded as a mere mouthpiece of the extratextual Author.

Despite the fact that many sentences in the poem can be read as addressing someone directly, no Auditor is defined in the course of the poem. Its lack is made all the more apparent by the fact that the one the Speaker appears to address varies.

The addressee of the first line, “Grow old along with me!,” is most probably not God, the addressee of lines 181 and onwards: “But I need, now as then, / Thee, God, who moldest men” (ll. 181–182). To complicate matters further, it is noted in Abrams et al. that the addressee of lines 154–156 may be Omar Khayyám, whose The Rubáiyát was available in English in 1859 (Abrams et al. 2:1417 n. 9):

Thou, to whom fools propound

When the wine makes its round,

“Since life fleets, all is change; the Past gone, seize today!”

(ll. 154–156)

This abundance of addressees makes it impossible to define an Auditor (either a single person or an audience of a group); indeed, the very lack of one is a prerequisite of the fluctuation experienced in the poem. This fact, paired with the non-situatedness of the Speaker, makes the poem appear as if its Speaker employed the first or the second “voice of poetry” in T. S. Eliot’s sense; a fact that may cause readers not to regard the poem as a dramatic monologue.

The non-situatedness, in my reading, is further enhanced by the frequent references to “us.” While this technique characterizes the first part of the poem only, and although most instances of “our,” “we” and “us” can be interpreted as general subjects and pronouns, in my reading, they further disperse the Speaker’s identity by enlarging the applicability of his statements to generality and by linking the Auditor–Reader with the Speaker himself: “Rejoice we are allied […];” “Be our joys three parts pain!” (ll. 25, 34, respectively, emphasis added), to cite a few examples.

The list of entities so far consisting of an Author and a Speaker closely linked might be lengthened by addressers introduced by direct quotations. While they do appear to introduce further characters, they turn out to support the generality, the non-situatedness of the monologue. The embedded addressers thus introduced, like “Nature” in “Childe Roland,” are all allegorical:

Youth sighed, “Which rose make ours,

Which lily leave and then as best recall?” (ll. 8–9, emphasis added)


Should not the heart beat once, “How good to live and learn”?


Not once beat, “Praise be Thine! […]”

(ll. 54–55, emphasis added)


A whisper from the west

Shoots—“Add this to the rest,

Take it and try its worth: here dies another day.”

(ll. 94–96, emphasis added)

They, like the Speaker, are not rooted in a constructed or reconstructed ‘reality’ based on history or literary works, like Frà Pandolf in My Last Duchess or Agnolo in Andrea del Sarto—who, in turn, as I argued, are heavily dependent on the Speaker in each case. Here, this dependency is stated outright as figures like “youth,” “heart” and “a whisper” are, in my reading, immediately interpreted as mouthpieces for arguments set forward by the Speaker. This relation, interestingly, appears to mirror that between the Speaker and the Author.

Based on the above arguments, the extent of metathesis in Rabbi Ben Ezra is expected to be narrow. It may be still worthwhile to investigate it more directly.

Nouns and adjectives used in the poem are all—with a few exceptions—general in meaning. Words like life, time, hand, youth, flower, star, year and doubt, according to the postulates of the representational framework, are hardly capable of triggering associations with which to enrich layer II. In Potebnja’s terms, they are words the internal form of which has (had) been worn out. The inclusion of rose and lily may contribute more to layer II (with their possibly symbolic interpretations), but, in my view, these elements are also so frequently employed that they fail to generate a concrete, possibly visualizable meaning potent with associations. Describing a star with flame (l. 12) is, similarly, an expected metaphor, as is the description of “low kinds” without doubt as “Finished and finite clods, untroubled by a spark” (l. 18, emphasis added). With this quotation, all nouns in the first three stanzas of the poem have been listed.

It seems that in Rabbi Ben Ezra, Browning deploys a technique opposite to what the unsigned, untitled review in The Athenaeum appears to prize in his previous poems:

The ‘Golden’ he thinks has been almost worn out in poetry; it has become so familiar that ‘gold’ is no longer a precious metal. He [Browning] thinks it will be good to try ‘brass’ for a change; or iron might prove a tonic, and steel give our poetry something of sterner stuff. ‘Roses’, again, have run riot to such an extent, and been used for sole comparison so long, that he thinks it were well if poppies had their turn. (219)

In my reading, with the use of such general elements, the poem’s structure inevitably lacks a well-defined layer II. In other words, metathesis is either nonexistent, or extremely narrow.

Still, the conclusion that Rabbi Ben Ezra is (almost) without metathesis is not so straightforward, as there are more metaphors (even symbols) to be found in the poem. These, however, as it turns out, fail to enrich layer II to the extent they do in, for example, “Childe Roland.” The figure in line 18 has already been quoted. Interestingly, its very words are repeated in line 28, talking now not of them, the low kinds, but of us: “A spark disturbs our clod” (emphasis added). The repetition, in my reading, further diminishes any effect the figure could have. Line 24 could have had the capability to provide a visual parallel to the already stated judgment over the low kinds: “Irks care the crop-full bird? Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast?”, were not the general “bird” and “beast” used here. “Maw” is specific enough, but the image thus introduced is not developed further. There are, however, some more successful figures in Rabbi Ben Ezra. Body is described as a “rose-mesh” (l. 62); things apparently escaping the attention of the masses are referred to in a double personification as “all the world’s coarse thumb / And fingers failed to plumb” (ll. 139–140). However, in my reading, these figures are less unexpected than, for example, the sentence of one urging the Grammarian of A Grammarian’s Funeral to leave books aside: “ ‘Time to taste life,’ another would have said, / ‘Up with the curtain!’ ” (ll. 55–56). The element of the curtain is specific enough to trigger, in this context, the image of the half-darkened room, and with it, the smell of age-old books—or even the start of a / the performance, both in the theatrical sense and in the sense of ‘action.’ A Grammarian’s Funeral, describing a problem (theme) in certain points similar to that of Rabbi Ben Ezra,[14] makes use of elements more concrete, more visualizable. Compare, for example, the list of nouns from the first three stanzas of Rabbi Ben Ezra related above to the nouns of the first eight lines of A Grammarian’s Funeral:

Let us begin and carry up this corpse,

Singing together.

Leave we the common crofts, the vulgar thorpes

Each in its tether

Sleeping safe on the bosom of the plain,

Cared for till cock-crow:

Look out if yonder be not day again

Rimming the rock-row! (1–8, emphasis added)

All the nouns, with the exception of day, appear to be more concrete, more visualizable than the ones in Rabbi Ben Ezra. If the situatedness of the Speakers of the former poem, as given by its subtitle (Shortly after the Revival of Learning in Europe), is also considered, what can be concluded is that A Grammarian’s Funeral provides an example for a poem in which a similar theme undergoes a wider metathesis.

Almost directly expressed ideas and self-reference, in my reading, also make it apparent that the metathesis is narrow in Rabbi Ben Ezra; moreover, they may even more closely link the Speaker to the extratextual Author. While it may be the case that Browning disagrees with the Speaker,[15] commonplace-like statements, as in Andrea del Sarto, may create a feeling that the extratextual Author generated during reception agrees with them. One of the most striking examples for this is the partly already quoted “Rather I prize the doubt / Low kinds exist without / Finished and finite clods, untroubled by a spark” (ll. 16–18). Also, the self-awareness shown by naming explicitly the rhetorical figures used—“a paradox / Which comforts while it mocks” (ll. 37–38) and “Aye, note that Potter’s wheel, / That metaphor!” (ll. 151–152)—is likewise unparalleled in the dramatic monologues I analysed, and, in my reading, as it throws light on an imagined composition process, makes the Speaker even less separable from the Author.

Based on these observations, it can be concluded that there is little (or no) metathesis in Rabbi Ben Ezra, which implies, according to the representational framework, that the Author generated in the act of reception is extremely close, or identical to the Speaker (as, in the absence of metathesis, alienation could not have taken place, either). Indeed, readings of the poem I shall discuss in the next section appear to support this conclusion.

If the conclusion is upheld that the poem lacks metathesis, then an imaged cannot be searched for, as it exists only if a representation on layer II is generated according to the structures defined in the representational framework. The Speaker of Rabbi Ben Ezra, therefore, cannot be the imaged—which conclusion is in accordance with the suggestion based on the non-situatedness of the Speaker that Rabbi Ben Ezra is not a dramatic monologue in the proper sense. Indeed, this is the usual judgment passed over this piece.

B. Reading Reading

The editors of the Norton Anthology of English Literature also exclude Rabbi Ben Ezra from the genre of the dramatic monologue. “Browning makes little attempt to present [the Speaker] as a distinct individual or to relate him to the age in which he lived. Unlike the more characteristic monologues, Rabbi Ben Ezra is not dramatic but declamatory” (Abrams et al. 2:1413 n. 1). Langbaum does the same, but on the basis of a lack of splits he considers so characteristic of dramatic monologues in general:

Browning’s Rabbi Ben Ezra is a dramatic monologue by virtue of its title only; otherwise it is a direct statement of a philosophical idea, because there is no characterization or setting. Because the statement is not conditioned by a speaker and a situation, there is no way of apprehending it other than intellectually; there is no split between its validity as somebody’s apprehension and its objective validity as an idea. (105–106)

Langbaum repeats most of this statement word by word on page 140. The use of the adjective “direct” may reflect that Langbaum’s reading agrees mine—besides considering the poem not a dramatic monologue—in seeing the Speaker as not far removed from the (reconstructed) Author.

C. Conclusion

The case of Rabbi Ben Ezra tested, in my view, whether the tools and concepts based on the model of embedded communications and the representational framework used in my analyses are capable of registering a difference between a poem which is held to be a dramatic monologue only apparently and other dramatic monologues. In this respect my reading seems to be successful; it not only pointed out the presence of an Authorial entity, it suggests that the (generated or generator) Author is directly present in the poem. Such a strong presence appears to be unique to this poem of Browning considering his other dramatic monologues I referred to or analysed.

Let me point out that it is not the fact that in Rabbi Ben Ezra metathesis is not in operation that excludes the poem from the category of dramatic monologues—it is this fact paired with the suggestion that in dramatic monologues the Speaker occupies the position of the imaged.

4 Conclusion

The readings of the six dramatic monologues of Robert Browning show that it is possible to trace the Author in these texts. In the cases of Andrea del Sarto and “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” even direct and close links could be found to the biographemes of Robert Browning. Moreover, other readings and reviews I cited attest to the fact that it is not only possible, but it is actually done by both contemporary and more modern readers to recur to an extratextual entity especially when one is faced with difficulties during interpretation. In readings of My Last Duchess and of “Childe Roland” Authorial intention and the biographical Author were cited for this reason, as happened in the case of Andrea del Sarto, where, if not the Author, then another generated extratextual psychologized entity, the “nature” of the Speaker was cited to aid the process of interpretation.

Based on these observations it, I think, is possible to suggest that during the reading of these poems an Authorial entity (intratextual or extratextual) above the Speaker is inevitably created. This fact, in my view, is reflected in some arguments reviewed by Glennis Byron and in some of Robert Langbaum’s theses, where it is suggested that a double voice, and therefore, an Authorial sub-voice is actually a characteristic of dramatic monologues. It appears that an addresser entity above the Speaker is always created whenever a textual sign or discrepancy is found hinting the existence of an entity superordinated to the lyrical I. The fact that such textual signs could be pinpointed in dramatic monologues, in a genre where it was, at times, supposed that it is not possible to “get face to face with the poet himself, and hear his own voice speaking his own thoughts” (Furnivall, qtd. in Hesse 83) shows that it might be also possible to extend this suggestion and claim that all texts are furnished with an addresser above the textual ‘I.’

If this is true, then the applicability of anti-authorial arguments appears to be restricted. The existence of the Author thus created, an addresser entity, which is not intertextual, and therefore, cannot unify oeuvres or discourses, and appears not to control the message to the extent metanarratives like “psyché”, “God” or “reason” would in modernist thinking, appears not to contradict the death of the transcendental Author in the Barthesian or the Foucaultian sense. It does, however, question whether the methodological death of the Author can be sustained, and as in some instances the generated Author was seen to be linked to the biographical one, it also problematizes the applicability of the tenets regarding the necessary eradication of the a priori Author from texts during writing.


My readings also appear to support the suggestion that, using the notions of the representational framework, the Speaker in dramatic monologues occupies the position of the imaged. This postulate predicted correctly that Rabbi Ben Ezra is not a traditional dramatic monologue—indeed, according to some readings, it is not even dramatic. However, Rabbi Ben Ezra differed from the rest of the poems analysed in that in it, the extent of metathesis was found to be extremely narrow, which, in turn, excluded even the existence of an imaged.

In order to further support my suggestion about this general characteristic of the internal form of dramatic monologues, let me consider a text not regarded as a dramatic monologue, William Blake’s A Poison Tree, a poem included in his Songs of Experience. In this work, the lyrical I is present throughout and is described as active; that is, the role of the Speaker exceeds being an uninvolved narrator. This is, I think, important, as it creates the basic possibility of regarding the ‘I’ as a ‘person,’ a character similar to the Speakers in Browning’s dramatic monologues. The theme of the poem, based on its apparently direct statements, could be the notion anger or wrath. Consider, for example, the first stanza:

I was angry with my friend:

I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe:

I told it not, my wrath did grow. (1–4)

Determining the imaged, in my reading, poses no special problems either, as the elements and the visual representation of the poem are centred around a tree, which, finally, “bore an apple bright” (10), the poisonous fruit of unexpressed wrath and pretence. In my reading, the perceived distance between anger and tree is large, in other words, representing anger as a tree is unexpected, which fact suggests that in A Poison Tree, metathesis is wide. The same conclusion can be reached by considering the (visual) elements in the poem, which are abundant, but, it must be noted, are also somewhat general; but not as general as elements that were found in Rabbi Ben Ezra.

Based on this short analysis, A Poison Tree is an example for a poem in which metathesis is existent and can be considered wide, while its Speaker (lyrical I) is not equal to its imaged. Indeed, the poem is usually not read as a dramatic monologue. This negative evidence, I think, supports that my suggestion may be a usable approach to describing the internal structure of dramatic monologues. However, it, naturally, is far from being a perfect definition of the genre; I regard it as a small contribution to the arsenal of approaches already available to this challenging class of poems.

If my suggestion can be upheld, then, according to the representational relationships I postulated, it might entail that the representational antecedents of the imaged and the Speaker (lyrical I), the theme and the Author, also coincide; in other words, that the theme, the problem of such texts is the Author. While this suggestion could be interpreted in the light of theories which suggest that artworks are created to understand the place of ‘self’ in the ‘world,’ or the ‘meaning’ of the state of being ‘human,’ it is applied to a class broader than that of dramatic monologues; it can even be argued that the same is true of all creative actions inside or outside the realm of arts. This, in my view, is also a suggestion which points outside the domain of the representational framework, thus theme and author are interpreted differently in it. The suggestion extending the supposed equality of the Speaker and the imaged to the level of the original experience and the Author, to layer III, is, therefore, appears as far-fetched. The original suggestion, however, still holds.

It might also be worthwhile pointing out that Langbaum’s view, suggesting that the monologue serves to achieve a private illumination in a dialogue of the Speaker with itself (196–197) appears to echo my suggestion that the Speaker serves as the centre of the representer model, of layer II in dramatic monologues. Another suggestion of Langbaum connected to his notion of the necessary sympathy between Speaker and Reader, that “[w]e take his excursion into sympathetic identification with the speaker in order to refresh and renew moral judgment” (4), however, does not appear to be supported by the readings of Browning’s poems I cited—with the possible exception of Caliban upon Setebos as read by Edward Dowden.


Taking into consideration that my readings managed to predict some of the points where a stronger Authorial presence was felt by other readers, and that the investigations led to a possible insight into the internal characteristics of dramatic monologues, I think it could be risked to suggest that the notions and analytical tools based on the model of embedded communications and the representational framework proved to be usable, and, to a certain extent, effective. It seems to me that they also successfully mediated between theoretical considerations on the various and possible functions of the Author and tracing their presence ‘in practice,’ in the poems I selected for reading.

Not only the notions introduced turned out to be useful. In my view, and based on the experience of the above readings, taking into consideration the Author as an addresser, as a generator and generated entity may also prove to be useful in literary analyses, even outside the class of poems I set out to investigate. If a separation of the various functions of the Author—possibly determined on other grounds than I did—is upheld, that is, if the presence and domain of the Author is investigated and determined meticulously, then I do not think its inclusion makes it able, as some anti-authorial arguments appear to fear, to close the potential polysemy of a text and furnish it with a “final signified.” The Author that has to be taken into account is already dead: it is absent according to the postulates of the representational framework, and dead according to authors calling for the death of the Author as a necessary step in writing. The Author, the consideration of which appears to be in many cases inescapable, is what remains of it after it has been buried in its own text, which then, it seems, remains marked with the textual remains, the literary tomb of its once creator.


After the submission of my thesis I have realized that it may be more fruitful to distinguish between the extratextual and intratextual Authors based not on the hierarchy suggested by the theory of embedded communicative schemes but on the type and origin of information used in the construction of these entities. This suggestion is based on the observation that, strictly speaking, even the biographical Author is constructed; its supposedly extratextual status rests on the fact that a large amount of extratextual (biographical) information contributes to its generation. Moreover, this definition of the “extratextual” is in line with the implicit usage of this term in my thesis. The model of embedded communicative schemes still provides, in my view, a useful system aiding the analysis of various addresser entities.

Please also note that the same theoretical considerations prohibit abandoning the presupposed symmetry of the composition and reception processes in the representational framework (contrary to my suggestion in footnote 15) as it is, theoretically, guaranteed by this symmetry only that anything can be inferred (and even known) about the process of composition. Different extratextual and intratextual Authors may still be introduced if various reader-responses are to be predicted based on different sets of information (textual only, including literary sources, or including biographemes) using the methods and tools associated with the framework.

5 Works Cited

Whenever possible, I included the year of original appearance in parentheses of texts cited in my review of anti-authorial arguments.


Abrams, M. H. “Literature as a revelation of personality” In The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. London: Oxford University Press, 1953. Rpt. in Theories of Authorship. Ed. J. Caughie. 1981. London and New York: Routledge, 2005. 17–21.

Abrams, M. H., et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co., 2000.

Altick, Richard D. “ ‘Andrea del Sarto’: The Kingdom of Hell is Within.” Browning’s Mind and Art. Ed. Clarence Tracy. Edinburgh and London: n.p., 1968. 18–31. Rpt. in Browning: Men and Women and Other Poems. Ed. J. R. Watson. 1974. London: Macmillan, 1994. 225–238.

The Athenaeum. 4 June 1864 [untitled, unsigned review]: 765–767. Rpt. in Litzinger and Smalley 219–221.

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” (1967) Trans. S. Heath. Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Ed. D. Lodge. London: Longman, 1988. 167–172.

Bell, Robert. [Untitled review.] The St. James Magazine 10; July 1864: 476–479. Rpt. in Litzinger and Smalley 223–228.

Blake, William. A Poison Tree. Abrams et al. 2:58.

Bourbon, Brett. “The Logical Form of Fiction.” In Finding a Replacement for the Soul: Mind and Meaning in Literature and Philosophy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004. 50–79.

Brimley, G., and T. C. C. [Untitled review.] Fraser’s Magazine 53; January 1856: 105–116. Rpt. in Litzinger and Smalley 165–173.

Browning, Robert. Andrea del Sarto. Abrams et al. 2:1385–1390.

———. Bishop Blougram’s Apology. Gollanz 114–145.

———. The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church. Abrams et al. 2:1359–1362.

———. Caliban upon Setebos. Abrams et al. 2:1403–1409.

———. “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” Abrams et al. 2:1367–1373.

———. A Grammarian’s Funeral. Abrams et al. 2:1392–1395.

———. My Last Duchess. Abrams et al. 2:1352–1353.

———. Porphyria’s Lover. Abrams et al. 2:1349–1350.

———. Rabbi Ben Ezra. Abrams et al. 2:1413–1418.

Browning, Robert, and Elizabeth B. Barrett. The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett. Vol. 1. London: John Murray–The Ballantyne Press, 1923.

Burke, Seán. The Death and Return of the Author: Criticism and Subjectivity in Barthes, Foucault and Derrida. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.

Byron, Glennis. Dramatic Monologue. The New Critical Idiom. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.

Cervo, Nathan A. “Browning’s The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church.Explicator 61.4 (Summer 2003): 204–206.

Clarke, C. C. “Humor and Wit in ‘Childe Roland’.” Modern Language Quarterly 23.4 (December 1962): 323–336.

Derrida, Jacques. “The Purveyor of Truth.” (1975) Trans. A. Bass. The Purloined Poe: Lacan, Derrida, and Psychoanalytic Reading. Ed. J. P. Muller and W. J. Richardson. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988. 173–212.

Dowden, Edward. “The Transcendental Movement and Literature.” Contemporary Review 30; July 1877: 297–318. Rpt. in Litzinger and Smally 427–429.

The Dublin University Magazine 67; June 1856 [untitled, unsigned review]: 667–81. Rpt. in Litzinger and Smalley 189–190.

Dupras, Joseph A. “Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’: Paragon and Parergon.” Papers on Language & Literature 32.1 (Winter 1996): 3–20.

Eliot, T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” (1919) 20th Century Literary Criticism: A Reader. Ed. D. Lodge. London: Longman, 1972. 71–77.

Fizer, John. Alexander A. Potebnja’s Psycholinguistic Theory of Literature: A Metacritical Inquiry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute–Harvard University Press, 1988.

Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?” (1969) Trans. D. F. Bouchard and S. Simon. Critical Theory since 1965. Ed. H. Adams and L. Searle. Tallahassee: University Presses of Florida, Florida State University Press, 1986. 138–148.

Gollanz, Israel, ed. Men and Women by Robert Browning. The Temple Classics. London: J. M. Dent & Co. 1899.

Hesse, Beatrix. “The Private Life of Robert Browning, According to Henry James.” Private and Public Voices in Victorian Poetry. Ed. S. Coelsch-Foisner & H. Klein. Studies in English and Comparative Literature 16. Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verlag, 2000. 79–88.

Hogg, James. “A Victorian Everyman: Robert Browning’s ‘Andrea Del Sarto’.” Private and Public Voices in Victorian Poetry. Ed. S. Coelsch-Foisner & H. Klein. Studies in English and Comparative Literature 16. Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verlag, 2000. 67–77.

Jakobson, Roman. “Linguistics and Poetics.” (1958) N. trans. Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Ed. D. Lodge. London: Longman, 1988. 32–57.

Johnson, Barbara. “The Frame of Reference: Poe, Lacan, Derrida.” In Critical Difference: Essays in the Contemporary Rhetoric of Reading. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980. 110–146.

Lacan, Jacques. “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’.” Trans. J. Mehlman. The Purloined Poe: Lacan, Derrida, and Psychoanalytic Reading. Ed. J. P. Muller and W. J. Richardson. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988. 28–54.

Lancashire, Ian, ed. [Representative Poetry Online edition of Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess] Updated 28 November 2002. <http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poem/288.html>. Cited 23 September 2006.

Langbaum, Robert W. The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Litzinger, Boyd, and Donald Smalley, eds. Browning: The Critical Heritage. The Critical Heritage Series. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1970.

Masson, David. [Untitled review.] The British Quarterly Review 23; January 1856: 151–80. Rpt. in Litzinger and Smalley 178–182.

Mermin, Dorothy R. “Speaker and Auditor in Browning’s Dramatic Monologues.” University of Toronto Quarterly 45.2 (Winter 1976): 139–157.

Miller, Michael G. “Browning’s My Last Duchess.Explicator 47.4 (Summer 1989): 32–34.

“Mr. Browning and the Edinburgh Review.The Saturday Review 14; 7 January 1865: 15–17. Rpt. in Litzinger and Smalley 262–267.

Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. “Six Authors in Pursuit of The SearchersScreen 17 Spring 1976. Rpt. in Theories of Authorship. Ed. J. Caughie. 1981. London and New York: Routledge, 2005. 221–224.

Oliphant, Margaret. “Modern Light Literature—Poetry.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 74; February 1856: 135–137. Rpt. in Litzinger and Smalley 188.

Potter, Russell A. “Authorship.” Unspun: Key Concepts for Understanding the World Wide Web. Ed. Th. Swiss. New York: New York University Press, 2001. 148–161.

Saphiro, Arnold. “ ‘»Childe Roland,«’ Lear, and the Ability to See.” Papers on Language & Literature 11.1 (Winter 1975): 88–94.

Schorer, Mark. “Technique as Discovery.” In The World We Imagine. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968. 3–23.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Abrams et al. 1:1109–1191.

———. The Tempest. In The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: The Cambridge Text. New York: Gallery Books, 1988. 11–32.

Stigand, William. [Untitled review.] The Edinburgh Review 120; October 1864: 537–565. Rpt. in Litzinger and Smalley 230–260.

Stoddard, Richard Henry. “Robert Browning.” Appleton’s Journal 6; 11 November 1871: 533–536. Rpt. in Litzinger and Smalley 372.

Thompson, Lou. “Browning’s My Last Duchess.Explicator 42.1 (Fall 1983): 23–25.

Tierce, Mike. “ ‘Chile Roland’: A Poetic Version of Browning’s ‘Perfection in Imperfection’ Doctrine.” American Notes & Queries 23.1/2 (September/October 1984): 10–14.

Vasari A see Vasari “Andrea del Sarto.”

Vasari F see Vasari “The Most Excellent…”

Vasari Z see Vasari “Andrea del Sarto kiváló firenzei festő…”

Vasari, Giorgio. “Andrea del Sarto kiváló firenzei festő élete.” A legkiválóbb festők, szobrászok és építészek élete. Trans. Zoltán Zsámboki. Notes by Lajos Vayer. n.p.: Magyar Helikon, 1978. 505–537.

Vasari, Giorgio. “Andrea del Sarto.” Medieval Sourcebook: Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574): Lives of the Artists, selections. Updated 8 September 1998. <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/vasari/vasari17.htm>. Cited 28 August 2006.

Vasari, Giorgio. “The Most Excellent Florentine Painter, Andrea del Sarto.” Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. Trans. Mrs Jonathan Foster. London: n.p., 1851. Rpt. in Browning: Men and Women and Other Poems. Ed. J. R. Watson. 1974. London: Macmillan, 1994. 43–48.

Vayer, Lajos. “Bevezető [Introduction].” A legkiválóbb festők, szobrászok és építészek élete. By Giorgio Vasari. Trans. Zoltán Zsámboki. n.p.: Magyar Helikon, 1978. 9–23.

Wikipedia. “Clerical celibacy.” Updated 2 October 2006. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clerical_celibacy> Cited 8 October 2006.

Wordsworth, William. “Preface to Lyrical Ballads, with Pastoral and Other Poems.” 3rd ed. (1802) Abrams et al. 2:239–251.

[12] For the sake of brevity, let me refer to the Speaker as ‘he,’ noting that nothing goes against an interpretation regarding the Speaker female.

[13] Mike Tierce quotes Harold Bloom and Browning and suggests that “[T]he poem is a poetic version of Browning’s assertion in his essay on Shelley (‘dated a month before the completion of Childe Roland’) that ‘an absolute vision is not for this world’ and that any poet must accept the doctrine of ‘perfection in imperfection’ ” (10).

[14] The main opposition in both cases appear to be between the aged / learned and the young / ignorant / seize-the-day people, although this opposition is treated from different points of view and is reached from different grounds. In Rabbi Ben Ezra, for example, a religious overtone is also apparent.

[15] My representational framework, as it postulates that the processes of composition and reception are symmetric, and deals with only one layer III, cannot capture a case in which the generator extratextual Author and the generated extratextual Author (both on layer III) significantly differ. This, however, is of little importance here as I primarily concentrate on the reception process. If the framework is to be extended to include such cases, then the symmetry should be disregarded, and the whole framework should be based not on two, but three embedded communicative schemes. This way, the (re)constructed, intratextual Author may occupy the position of the generated Author, while the generator Author remains the extratextual Author. The Speaker / Narrator / lyrical I can be identified as the third embedded addresser. This theoretical set-up, however, also has its drawbacks.