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Transparency, Translucency, and Obscurity in the Victorian Monologue

Transparence, translucence et obscurité dans le monologue victorien
Jean-Charles Perquin


Le monologue dramatique victorien n’est pas seulement un discours poétique à la première personne, comportant un auditoire silencieux inclus dans le poème lui-même ; il s’agit également d’un clair-obscur poétique complexe dans lequel le discours lui-même est translucide, toujours à la limite de l’obscurité, puisque ce qui est en jeu est la question de la compréhension. Le locuteur du poème doit être compris par le lecteur, alors que l’allocutaire, lui, reste dans l’ombre du discours. En d’autres termes, le lecteur reconstruit le discours dans le dos de l’auditeur silencieux, ce qui ajoute encore à la difficulté inhérente au langage poétique. Si la poésie repose sur l’usage total de toutes les potentialités qu’offre le langage, le genre que constitue le monologue dramatique ajoute à cette définition une forme d’indirection du langage, à savoir que l’allocutaire doit rater le message que le lecteur, lui, doit comprendre, afin de mieux lui permettre de reconstruire le réseau complexe de significations qu’il constitue. C’est cette obscure transparence, ou bien cette transparente obscurité, qui est la condition d’un genre poétique qui ne peut seulement reposer sur sa forme propre.

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1 In the context of the question of transparency, especially in the field of Victorian studies, the dramatic monologue—also and better known as the Victorian monologue—should certainly be given pride of place. Indeed, such an innovative typically Victorian form doubly relied on the possibility or illusion of transparency to such an extent that it was not only what was at stake in the poem itself but it was more the core of the poetic principle on which the authors of dramatic monologues depended, both narratively and formally. Let us first remember the fundamental rules of the Victorian monologue: it is a first person poem, in which the speaker of the monologue is confronted with an addressee, whom he tries to seduce, convince, or dominate, or the three at the same time. He is the only speaker in the poem, the audience being only present in order to give the speaker the opportunity to deliver his speech. This is the only difference with the soliloquy, in which there is no audience, the speaker being on his own but feeling the urgency to speak his mind out. In Robert Browning’s poems, the best examples of such a distinction are ‘My Last Duchess’, for the monologue, and ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ for the soliloquy. In both poems, transparency is literally at stake since in ‘My Last Duchess’ the speaker is the Duke of Ferrara addressing the emissary of a Count whose daughter he would like to marry in order to replace his ‘last duchess’, whose disappearance is only alluded to as a threat to frivolous women: ‘. . . I gave commands/ Then all smiles stopped together’ (l. 45–46).

2 Then, beyond the absence of the author, whose presence in the poem is only perceptible through the touches of irony inviting us not to take the speaker’s discourse as revealed truth, the logical consequence of the form is that what is transparent in the monologue is precisely that the monologue should certainly not be considered as transparent. As we have thus seen, by addressing the emissary of the Count, whose daughter he would like to marry, the Duke addresses the aforesaid emissary, but also the Count himself, if not his daughter, by obliquely threatening them with the unsaid example of his last Duchess, if the Count’s young daughter had a mind for frivolous behaviour and disrespect. The Duchess’s destiny is certainly not transparent in the poem, the terse allusion of line 46, ‘all smiles stopped together’, being sufficiently ominous a warning. In this absence of transparency there is an intermediary state we could call a poetic chiaroscuro, which defines this uncomfortable position for the reader, supposed as he is, by the implicit and necessary rule of the form, to overhear what is not explicitly formulated and to see through the speaker’s monstrous speech. In the case of Robert Browning’s works, especially in his best dramatic monologues, the presence of that poetic chiaroscuro is as essential as versification. When he quite successfully published his second long poem, Paracelsus, in 1835, after the unsuccessful Pauline in 1833 and the doomed Sordello in 1840, in a preface dated 15th March, Browning himself obscured his poetic project by claiming: ‘I do not very well understand what is called a Dramatic Poem.’

3 The transparency of speech had certainly not been his purpose, but now the transparency of form was becoming another problem. Surprisingly enough, the Victorian monologue was not a monologue but first and foremost a poem, and only a poem. The fact that the nature of the poem was transparent enough in spite of the poet’s denials just contributed to the purported obscurity Browning suffered from. At that time of his literary career, the poet clearly hesitated between several modes—the lyrical, the dramatic, and the epic—and he was just about to write and publish his long unsuccessful Sordello, a long epic poem that would soon grant him the status of most criticized and least read poet of his age. Beyond the undecided poetic form the implications and consequences of the dramatic monologue were probably more complex and stimulating than the poets had imagined. As we have seen, the distinction between the dramatic monologue and the soliloquy was rather tenuous—in fact, the presence or the absence of an audience, and the necessity for the speaker to justify or defend himself in front of potentially hostile listeners. At least, the monologue gave the speaker the alibi of not being on his own, but the presence or the absence of an audience was not testified by some external narrator that would certify the setting of the poem.

4 In other words, the freedom of speech that was the prerequisite of the form was also becoming its main problem. Indeed, in some cases, the possible presence or absence of an audience in the poem would change everything and also ruin its linguistic transparency: for instance, and it has been envisaged by critics, the speaker in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ could well be on his own, just rambling on and on about his homicidal drives, instead of being a pathological lover whose conception of exclusive love necessarily led him to murder. In other cases, the situation is even more complex, for instance in the case of Tennyson’s ‘Saint Simeon Stylites’. In this case, Saint Simeon, on top of his pillar and praying to God in order to save his sinner’s soul, addresses God, letting us obliquely understand how deranged the man could be and how grotesque the situation is. It was all the more interesting as Saint Simeon really existed and was renowned for his masochistic tendencies for the sake of penance. If the reader believes in God, Saint Simeon is just a pious man talking to God. If the reader does not believe in God, then Saint Simeon is just another lonely madman on top of his pillar, waiting for something that will never happen. Surprisingly enough, the justification of the poem as a dramatic monologue can be problematic, since no omnipotent or omniscient narrator justifies the text and the context of the speech.

5 This very problem of course contributes to the poetic chiaroscuro I alluded to earlier. With Browning’s habit of changing perspectives constantly, readers and critics were often destabilized. For instance, if we get back to Sordello, the book looks like an epic poem about the life and thoughts of the eponymous troubadour, who had been previously quoted by Dante in his Divine Comedy. But if we go a little further in the poem, we must realize that Sordello as an epic was a failure Browning felt very ambiguous about, whereas Sordello as the long monologue of a talkative narrator was an incredible poetic achievement. In a famous letter dated 10th December 1855 he wrote to Ruskin, Browning attempted to clarify the whole point:

I know that I don’t make out my conception by my language; all poetry being a putting the infinite within the finite. You would have me paint it all plain, which can’t be; but by various artifices I try to make shift with touches and bits of outlines which succeed if they bear the conception from me to you . . . In prose you may criticise so—because that is the absolute representation of portions of truth, what chronicling is to history—but in asking for more ultimates you must accept less mediates.
(Collingwood, vol. 1, 200)

6In other words, what the poet called the ‘finite’, the ‘infinite’, the ‘ultimates’ and the ‘mediates’ redefined more his own poetic accomplishment, they implied the difficult question of meaning in poetry, and also its logical consequences, i.e. obscurity and transparency. As is clearly implied by Browning’s quotation from his December 1855 letter to Ruskin, there is no poetic transparency without some form of poetic obscurity.

7 The noun obscurity is itself awkward, since it would imply the poet’s inability to make his poetry clearer, whereas it is more about the reader’s ability to uncover what is obviously inside, instead of expecting something to come from the outside. Browning himself made it clear in Paracelsus, when the alchemist develops his theory of knowledge and understanding:

There is an inmost centre in us all,
Where truth abides in fullness; and around,
Wall upon wall, the gross flesh hems it in,
This perfect, clear perception—which is truth.
A baffling and perverting carnal mesh
Binds it, and makes all error: and, to KNOW,
Rather consists in opening out a way
Whence the imprisoned splendour may escape,
Than in effecting entry for a light
Supposed to be without . . . .
(I, 728–737)

8As is usual with the symbolical reference to understanding, light becomes its central metaphor. Paracelsus just reverses the process by implying that light has always been there, just waiting to be freed for men and women to enjoy it. Very interestingly enough, with such a trope, Browning indirectly accuses his reader of looking at the piece of glass instead of looking through it, looking at the transparent object for what it is instead of looking through it, what it was initially invented and made for. This point is all the more important as poetry is precisely the contrary of transparency: in a poem, instead of being simply turned towards the message it is supposed to deliver, language becomes self-centered. Poetry is written for the sake of language itself instead of being at the service of the very message. The poem being at its own service, its ‘message’, if we still can call it so, loses some of its transparency. Even though obscurity is the enemy of poetry and the poet, obscurity becomes an intrinsic part of poetry, the poem being structurally averse to transparency.

9 At this point, and bearing in mind the difficult questions of transparency and difficulty in poetry in general and Robert Browning’s in particular, especially with the background of Paracelsus, we should introduce the subtle difference that exists between transparency and translucidity. As Paracelsus himself claims, ‘effecting entry for a light’ (I, 736), more than transparency, which is the possibility for objects to be visible through the transparent medium, poetry in particular seems to be more translucent, which means more precisely that an object simply has the property to let light shine through it. The object beyond is thus vaguely discernible, the contours being more visible than the details. This subtle difference is not only food for Browning enthusiasts, it is indeed also the core of the study of poetry: the art of poetry does not have to mean something definite and particular; it means, in its own indefinite, ambiguous, translucent way. Let us again remember the 1855 letter to Ruskin: ‘You would have me paint it all plain, which can’t be.’ The impossibility of transparency was certainly not a deliberate choice from the part of Browning, who was at the time a young author waiting for celebrity and success. The difficulty of translucency rests on Browning’s own conception of his art: ‘in asking for more ultimates you must accept less mediates’.

10 This question is even more pregnant, in the case of the Victorian monologue, since the speaker in the monologue does not have to speak the truth; it is even the contrary. The best monologues rest on those liars, frauds, cheaters, hypocrites, and charlatans, who tell us their views so that we readers can see through their fraudulent arguments. Is it not one of the main characteristics of poetry to let light and truth shine through everything, evils and wrongs included? From Browning’s monologues to Charles Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil, what cannot be said has to be expressed in some other way. In Browning’s Paracelsus, published in 1835, meaning and light were already the heart of his preoccupations. A few years later, with the unsuccessful publication of Sordello in 1840, the question of light was still essential to him, but at that time, light was more a problem than a question, especially because of the opacity of language, as another famous poet, Sordello, explains in a surprising fashion and syntax:

He left imagining, to try the stuff
That held the imaged thing, and, let it writhe
Never so fiercely, scarce allowed a tithe
To reach the light—his language . . .
(II, 570-573)

11The whole question rests on the ‘stuff . . . of language’, with the possibility to ‘reach the light’, although such a possibility was far from being obvious at the time of Sordello, which was considered by critics and readers alike a masterpiece of unreadable obscurity and was probably the least read poem of the whole Victorian age.

12 That short extract from the second book of Sordello, although initially a reference to the troubadour’s ambitious work as a poet, was also an allusion to Browning’s own conception of poetry. Images, pictures, portraits, descriptions, and narratives were certainly the staple food of the poetry of his age but his ambitions went and reached much further. Interestingly enough, whenever a Victorian poem has been considered difficult, it has been immediately called ‘modern’—very little needs to be said concerning the utmost modernity of Sordello, then. If poetic language can be defined as the maximal use of the numerous resources of both spoken and written language, language itself becomes what is at stake and the one and only means to reach that purpose. If we look even more closely at Sordello’s definition of poetry, we cannot but realize that the first step of poetry is the ‘imaged thing’, the second step being the ‘stuff’ that holds it tight and gives it its final shape. Not that Browning naïvely thought that form and content could be separated, as Stéphane Mallarmé himself formulated that they were as inseparable as the two sides of the same coin. To get back to Sordello’s conception of poetry, the ‘stuff’ in question holds the ‘imaged thing’, i.e. gives it its shape and meaning. No language, no shape; no shape, no art—let us not forget that the Latin adjective ‘formosus’ means ‘beautiful’, implying that there is no beauty without a decent shape and form.

13 Worse still, the complexity inherent in the maximal use of the resources of poetic language should go against the transparency which is the title of this colloquium. And yet, it is precisely through the lack of transparency/translucency that light is allowed to glow, that meaning is allowed to go across the barrier of the words which are here to give shape to the poem. As Jacques Lacan claimed in his Écrits, ‘Le langage de l’homme, cet instrument de son mensonge, est traversé de part en part par le problème de sa vérité’ (Lacan 166). The transparency/translucency of Browning’s poetry only depends on its possible obscurity, its possible obscurity being in turn the only condition of its making sense and its beauty. The explanation that follows Lacan’s provocative, but sound, statement, is twofold:

Soit qu’il la trahisse en tant qu’il est expression . . . soit qu’il manifeste cette vérité comme intention, en l’ouvrant éternellement sur la question de savoir comment ce qui exprime le mensonge de sa particularité peut arriver à formuler l’universel de sa vérité. (Lacan 166)

14The translucency of Paracelsus’ quotation was the very condition of its possible obscurity. If light reaches out, it is because the meaning of language cannot stop at the door, although Browning himself eventually doubted his aptitude to convey meaning to his reader, as he confessed in the same letter to Ruskin of December 1855: ‘I know that I don’t make out my conception by my language’. It is not by chance that Sordello, Browning’s mouthpiece borrowed from Dante’s Inferno, was himself a troubadour. The word ‘troubadour’ itself comes from the Provençal ‘trobar’, meaning ‘to find’, in the same way as ‘trouvère’ has the same root as the French verb ‘trouver’. According to Paracelsus, there is light in anyone of us, light that craves to be let out, but this light, again, has to be found, and poetry was designed for that purpose.

15 Paradoxically enough, the complexity of poetry was precisely compatible with the obscure difficulty of the world. Poetry is probably not transparent enough to ‘bear the conception’, as Browning put it in his famous letter, but Browning clearly understood that he was on the side of translucency, as he metaphorically put, ‘touches and bits of outlines’ being on the side of the implicit and not of the explicit, what he reproached his potential readers with expecting from him. If we remember Lacan’s famous quotation again, and especially its final twist, we must understand what is essentially and unavoidably complex at the core of language: ‘la question de savoir comment ce qui exprime le mensonge de sa particularité peut arriver à formuler l’universel de sa vérité’. This kind of complex paradox was particularly relevant in the case of Browning’s poetry, since the poet was most interested in speakers caught in their incapacities to understand or accept their worlds and surroundings, whether these tragic situations were moral, political, marital, or religious. Again, and paradoxically enough, what expresses plainly and partially should also formulate precisely and clearly. Truth and content are never clearly stated, since poetry, by definition, is the contrary of transparency, but neither are they silenced. It would be the possible if absurdity were the purpose, which is not the case. If transparency is not the purpose, translucency is more the means, what Sordello, the discoverer and the finder, did to the ‘stuff’ of his incredible language.

16 Things are even more complicated and ambiguous if we get back to Browning’s dramatic monologues, which are a particular form in his poetry. The monologues consisted in speeches that are not acceptable, since their utterers are not themselves trustworthy. Liars, murderers, frauds, and jealous lovers were Browning’s ideal speakers, for in every case the poet invited the readers to understand what the speakers did not seem to realize or accept, and we readers had to rebuild the true stories literally in the back of those dubious speakers. Truth is not formulated the right way by those speakers but it is nonetheless obliquely expressed in the poem since it is obviously possible for any competent reader to understand it, beyond the layers of lies and unsaid elements the speakers provide us with. We readers fill in the blanks and correct the mistakes that were deliberately left by the author for us to take care of. As a consequence, the monologue places us far beyond the questions of intelligence and stupidity, the real question being the possibility of being several people, i.e. several speakers at the same time, through the incredible coexistence of several speeches in the same moment. We readers do not have to judge or condemn some speakers but through the functioning of the dramatic monologue, we become several voices at the same time.

17 Robert Browning himself conceived this form of poetry as a way of writing first-person poetry without being identified as the speaker in the poem. In other words, and surprisingly enough, the deictic ‘I’, by definition the most transparent pronoun since it immediately refers to its utterer, does not obey the rule of referential transparency in order to become a most surprising sign of opacity. It is probably the most obvious touch of irony in the genre of the Victorian monologue, since it implies that the final speaker, i.e. the author of the poem, is all the more absent of the monologue as the ‘I’ is present in the poem. This blatant contradiction at the heart of the monologue is not only a blatant contradiction, it is much more than that, it is the very structure of this form of poetry, if not the very structure of language as well. After all, the condition of irony presupposes an irreconcilable difference between what is said and what is meant. This difference, or distance, is the core of irony, especially when we read and understand that something is said and something else is meant. There are, of course, many instances of irony in the Victorian monologue, but they are just instances whereas the form itself, pointing at different coexisting directions, clearly rests on a structural form of irony that permanently implies in the very reading process that the one is the other, without exactly meaning who or where this other is.

18 When the dramatic monologue was created as a genre and the best examples of such a genre were composed, at the dawn of the Victorian age, its major British authors could not of course imagine the fortune of the genre or its influence on the literatures to come. Nevertheless, when Arthur Rimbaud, who was born in 1854, claimed in a letter to Paul Demeny he wrote on the 15th of May 1871, that ‘je est un autre’, probably one of his most famous and least understood quotes, Rimbaud indirectly and unknowingly commented on the problem already posed by the dramatic monologue. Indeed, the occidental conception of the subject from Descartes onward had understood the subject, hence the literary subject, as a radical unity rejecting every possible division at its core. As the provocative sentence ‘je est un autre’ suggests, the literary ‘I’ can be more than just the social ‘I’. The literary ‘I’ contains more hidden spaces and identities that justify this artistic plurality that cannot be summed up and enclosed in a single space of speech and ‘song’ as Browning himself would have said. This was precisely what Browning claimed when, in 1840, he wrote: ‘I do not very well understand what is called a Dramatic Poem’. Indeed, he rejected the conception of the dramatic poem that feigns the plurality of voices and characters by paradoxically unifying all those voices and characters behind one voice and character, the author, whether anonymous or not.

19 The very question of transparency went far beyond the simple question of the name and identity of the author or the speakers in the poems. The Victorian monologue indeed allowed and enabled the author to explore the no man’s land of poetic creation beyond social identities and names to be acknowledged and accounted for. As if, to paraphrase Rimbaud and his famous letter, the poet were actually seated next to his creation, watching it being born, developing, and growing independently. Such a circumstance was not very far from the Romantic conception of Romantic irony, with the progressive reduction of the distance between fiction and reality, between writing and seeing. Again, such a transparency does not seem so far from the form itself of the metalepsis, with its subtle confusion between the various levels of narration in literature, when, for instance, such character or speaker addresses the reader or author, as is the case in the last and fourteenth stanza of the famous poem entitled ‘A Light Woman’ by Robert Browning:

Well, anyhow, here the story stays,
So far at least as I understand;
And, Robert Browning, you writer of plays,
Here’s a subject made to your hand!

20In other words, the speaker crosses the metaleptic barrier by addressing the author, who is not the speaker but who was nevertheless ironically known to the speaker at a time when the author, Browning, had already given up the idea of writing plays. When Men and Women was published, in 1855, the poet was no longer planning to write for the stage and was thus, in ‘A Light Woman’, retrospectively making fun of forsaken ambitions by inventing some relentless tormenting speaker through the transparency of the present in order to stage the opacity of the disappointing past.

21 The questions of transparency and opacity, as they were both challenged and staged by the dramatic monologue, reach far beyond the simplistic reality of the difficulty of poetry. Transparency is indeed not only a way of conceiving the accessibility of poetry in general and the Victorian monologue in particular. In other words, the reality or the absence of such transparency is the very condition behind such a poetic form. The heart of the problem is indeed not the fact that something (not so well) hidden is eventually revealed to the reader in the back of the speaker. The problem is more the very possibility of such a revelation; not the discovery but the fact that such a discovery is made possible by the poem. As a matter of fact, it is unthinkable that the reader of a Victorian monologue should not understand what the speaker paradoxically reveals to us without being clearly aware of both the intellectual process involved by the revelation and the revelation itself. This is logically the reason why such literary processes as metalepsis and irony, whether it be simple, dramatic, or Romantic, are so compatible with the Victorian monologue. The form itself goes beyond the simple duality between transparency and opacity. The form made such a simple duality obsolete, since its transparent, obvious, and evident meaning principally rests on the opacity of a speech and a poetic form that are supposed to be the one in spite of the other and the one because of the other at the same time.

22 As a conclusion, the transparency involved in and by the dramatic monologue is not so transparent and should rather be remembered as the oxymoron of opaque transparency. The apparently paradoxical combination thus echoes and redefines what Browning himself opposed in his famous 1855 letter to Ruskin; instead of transparency and opacity, the poet just used the words ‘mediates’ and ‘ultimates’, in a more spiritual and less visual metaphor. Browning thus showed how the exploration of language and/through poetry was his only concern, instead of showing what that reality and the reality of language were. Such opaque transparency involved by the poetic form of the dramatic monologue implied a subtle form of complexity that was often mistaken for difficulty, if not obscurity, and contributed to the poet’s belated critical and public success. The opaque transparency of the Victorian monologue was more on the side of complexity, which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means ‘Consisting of parts or elements not simply co-ordinated, but some of them involved in various degrees of subordination.’ What is complex may be difficult but it should rather be defined by the opaque transparency of an impossible, yet constant, revelation of what cannot be exposed in full light, whether it be the identity of the speaker or the message delivered by the afore-mentioned speaker.

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Armstrong Isobel, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics, London: Routledge, 1996.

Byron Glennis, Dramatic Monologue, London: Routledge, 2003.

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Perquin Jean-Charles, ‘“You have made even the Darkness of it!” Sordello, Modernism and Readibility’, Modernism and Readability, ed. Alfandary, Isabelle & Axel Nesme, Montpellier: Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2011.

Sinfield Alan, Dramatic Monologue, London: Methuen, 1977.

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Jean-Charles Perquin, « Transparency, Translucency, and Obscurity in the Victorian Monologue », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 77 Printemps | 2013, mis en ligne le 05 décembre 2013, consulté le 25 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.268

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Jean-Charles Perquin

Jean-Charles Perquin is a ‘Maître de Conférences’ at Lyon 2 University (France), and has published several articles on British poetry, especially Victorian poetry. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the genesis of Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue and has since then worked on first person poetry, especially in the Victorian era, and the Victorian novel.
Jean-Charles Perquin est maître de conférences à l’université Lyon 2 (France) et a déjà publié plusieurs articles sur la poésie britannique, notamment la poésie victorienne. Sa thèse concernait la genèse du monologue dramatique chez Robert Browning. Depuis, il travaille sur la poésie à la première personne, en particulier à l’époque victorienne, et sur le roman victorien.

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