Undisciplining the Dramatic Monologue
Lesson Plan Production Details
Goals, Questions, and Usage
Although the monologue is a literary device that surfaces in several literary and historical periods, it went through some especially convoluted developments in the nineteenth century. For example, the tension between character and audience that is inherent to the monologue’s form intensified when Victorian poets imbued the device with irony and played with the presumed distance between the identity of the poet and the monologue’s speaker. Critics have noted how developments like these added rhetorical and psychological complexity to the literary device, thus transforming it into the dramatic monologue. But these aesthetic developments were also intertwined with political concerns related to race and imperialism.
This lesson plan prompts a direct engagement with those concerns by attending to the political implications of the dramatic monologue as it shifts in context and authorship. What happens to the dramatic monologue when it moves from seemingly apolitical topics such as romantic love to overtly political ones such as abolition and enslavement? What are the advantages and limitations of the device when white poets use it to imagine a Black character or the experience of enslavement? How do Black poets during and after the Victorian period challenge their white counterparts by reinventing the device altogether? And how do the racial tensions exhibited in these poems from the long nineteenth century continue to reverberate outward to the present day?
Organization and Suggested Materials
This lesson plan is designed with flexibility in mind so that instructors can adapt and adopt it to meet their departmental/institutional requirements and their own pedagogical goals. The primary and secondary materials have been laid out in five sections to mimic a hypothetical five-week unit, along with sample discussion questions that act as starting points for each class. Instructors can adapt this lesson plan for a unit in a semester-long introductory course for undergraduates about Victorian literature, Victorian poetry, or poetry more broadly, or they can scale the lesson plan up for an advanced course about these topics. Each week in this lesson plan could also stand on its own, meaning that instructors could simply use certain segments as needed. Feedback or suggestions about any part of this lesson plan are welcome.
Heavy Is The Head That Wears The Crown (Week One)
This unit introduces students to the dramatic monologue by juxtaposing Robert Browning with the Harlem Renaissance poet, Anne Spencer, who both was inspired by and reimagined Browning’s approach to the form. Students can explore how the form’s ironic distance between poet and speaker allows Browning and Spencer to critique imperial figures. Additionally, they can examine what these critiques reveal about imperial ideologies. Instructors can also use the selected monologues to introduce core poetic concepts such as meter and rhyme.
Browning, Robert. 1842. “My Last Duchess.” Poetry Foundation, n.d.
Spencer, Anne. “Before the Feast of Shushan (Version 2).” 1920. Women of the Early Harlem Renaissance: African American Women Writers 1900-1922, edited by Amardeep Singh, digital ed., Lehigh University, 2018.
Greene, Roland, et al. “Monologue.” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics: Fourth Edition, Princeton University Press, 2012, pp. 897–98.
Karapetkova, Holly. “‘Chatterton, Shelley, Keats and I’: Reading Anne Spencer in the White Literary Tradition.” Callaloo, vol. 35, no. 1, 2012, pp. 228–44.
McClintock, Anne. “Introduction: Postcolonialism and the Angel of Progress.” Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Conquest, Routledge, 1995, pp. 1–17.
Schneider, Rebecca. “Publishing Anne Spencer: The Crisis, February 1920.” The UncommonWealth: Voices from the Library of Virginia, 19 Feb. 2020.
Spencer, Anne. “Life-Long, Poor Browning.” 1920. African American Registry, AAREG, n.d. Not a dramatic monologue, but useful for adding more contextual information regarding Spencer's relationship to Browning.
Sample Discussion Questions
- What kinds of speakers do Browning and Spencer craft? What relationship do these speakers have to power? What do they want, value, and need, and how do they behave? How does their need to control women’s bodies, for example, mirror the way that empires (in this case, a British and a Persian one, respectively) interact with their colonies? (McClintock’s chapter would be helpful background reading for this last question.)
- What are the similarities between the two monologues? Why do these similarities matter?
- What are the differences between Browning’s and Spencer’s monologues? Why does it matter, for example, that the words of characters like Vashti are legible to the reader, while the Duchess’s are not? What do critics like Karapetkova conclude about the differences between Browning and Spencer?
- Do you think the monologue’s ironic “I” allows Browning and Spencer to create an effective moral distance from their speakers? Do you think Spencer’s monologue is more or less subversive than Browning’s? Why?
English Words, “Black” Voices? (Week Two)
This week’s materials invite students to explore the white poet’s initial motivations for using the dramatic monologue to imagine Black speakers as well as the illustrations, circulation, reception, and afterlife of these monologues in the long nineteenth century.
Cowper, William, and Humphrey Sumner Milford. “The Negro’s Complaint.” The Complete Poetical Works of William Cowper, Oxford University Press, 1911, pp. 371–72.
Hack, Daniel. The African Americanization of Victorian Literature. Princeton University Press, 2019.
Hartman, Saidiya V. “Innocent Amusements: The Stage of Sufferance.” Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 17–48.
Illustrated Scenes. The Negro’s Complaint: A Poem, by William Cowper, Harvey & Darton, 1826, p. 22. British Library Board, T.1271(1).
Prince, Mary. The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave. Related by Herself. With a Supplement by the Editor. To Which Is Added, the Narrative of Asa-Asa, a Captured African. 1831. Documenting the American South. 2000
The Negro’s Complaint. 1788–1870. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library, The New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Sample Discussion Questions
- Why does the monologue seem like an effective form to convey an abolitionist stance? (The historical context materials provided online through The British Library about the 1787 Abolitionist Committee will be helpful here.)
- What are the aesthetic and political advantages of this monologue? What are the limits? How, for example, do abolitionist monologues such as Cowper’s reinscribe or depart from what Hartman calls “the spectacular nature of black suffering” (22)?
- Why did Thomas Pringle, the editor of Mary Prince’s autobiography, insert Cowper’s monologue into Prince’s book? Why did illustrators design certain depictions to accompany Cowper’s monologue on posters and other visual materials? What do the images emphasize? And, conversely, what do they overlook? (Secondary materials from The British Library and the NYPL as well as Hack’s article will be especially helpful here.)
Monologue or Minstrelsy? (Week Three)
This week’s materials examine the links between the monologue form and minstrelsy to deepen student discussions about the nineteenth-century monologue, race, enslavement, and imperialism.
Barrett Browning, Elizabeth. “The Runaway Slave At Pilgrim’s Point” (PDF). The Complete Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, edited by Charlotte Porter and Helen A. Clarke, vol. III, Thomas Y. Crowell & Co. Publishers, 1900, pp. 160–71.
Gregory, Melissa Valiska. “Race and the Dramatic Monologue.” Victorian Studies, vol. 62, no. 2, 2020, pp. 213–18.
Schaub, Melissa. “The Margins of the Dramatic Monologue: Teaching Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point.’” Victorian Poetry, vol. 49, no. 4, 2011, pp. 557–68.
Stone, Marjorie. “Elizabeth Barrett Browning.” Elizabeth Barrett Browning Archive, n.d.
Sample Discussion Questions
- What happens to the “I” voice when it traverses racial identities through the monologue form? Why does it matter to Gregory that Elizabeth Barrett Browning is white, while the speaker that the poet constructs is presumably Black?
- How does Gregory conceptualize the relationship between the monologue and minstrelsy?
- How does Barrett Browning’s monologue reinscribe what Gregory calls “stock types” (215)? Why are these representations problematic from Gregory’s perspective?
- What are the similarities and differences between Shaub and Gregory’s perspectives on the monologue?
- How does Barrett Browning’s background as the daughter of a slave owner complicate her choice to craft a Black voice? (Stone’s encyclopedic entry, excerpted on the Elizabeth Barrett Browning Archive, provides strong background information on her family history.)
The Little Black Boy In The White Literary Market (Week Four)
This week’s materials spark a transhistorical discussion on how dramatic monologues from the long nineteenth century continue to shape our present.
Blake, William. “The Little Black Boy.” 1789. Poetry Foundation, n.d.
---. “The Little Black Boy Illustrated Plates.” Blake Archive, 2021.
Glück, Louise. “Nobel Lecture” (PDF). The Nobel Foundation, 2020.
Nguyen, Viet Thanh. “The Post-Trump Future of Literature.” The New York Times, 22 Dec. 2020.
Sandler, Matt. “On Louise Glück, Minstrelsy, and Abolition.” Verso Books, 13 Jan. 2021.
Sample Discussion Questions
- According to Glück, what role did Blake’s monologue play in her poetic development?
- Why do Nguyen and Sandler take issue with Glück’s reflection? How do their critiques extend the problems that Gregory raised in relation to Barrett Browning’s monologue? How do Blake’s poem and the illustrations he drew anticipate or depart from nineteenth-century stock types? (The illustrations of Cowper’s monologue from Week Two will also be useful here.)
- How does this controversy about Blake and Glück demonstrate that stock types continue to exist in our present, especially in the literary market? Are there other spaces (e.g., art, music, fashion, films) where these stock types continue to exist? Conversely, what strategies are contemporary artists using to dismantle or reinvent the stock types we have inherited (e.g., Black Panther)?
“Jamaica people colonizin / Englan in reverse” (Week Five)
This week’s materials examine how Black writers in the early twentieth century used dialect to respond to or subvert the monologues that white poets produced in the long nineteenth century. The texts also prompt students to explore ways of speaking that may be familiar or unfamiliar to them.
Bennett-Coverley, Louise. 1966. “Colonization in Reverse.” Best Poems, n.d.
McKay, Claude. “Quashie and Buccra.” 1912. Songs of Jamaica (1912): Digital Edition, edited by Amardeep Singh, Lehigh University, 2017.
Bennett-Coverley, Louise. Colonization in Reverse. Miss Lou, Yes M’Dear, Island Records, 1983. Audio recording.
Cooper, Carolyn. “From ‘Centre’ to ‘Margin’: Turning History Upside Down.” Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender, and the “Vulgar” Body of Jamaican Popular Culture, Duke University Press, 1995, pp. 174–98.
Greene, Roland, et al. “Dialect Poetry.” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics: Fourth Edition, Princeton University Press, 2012, pp. 355–56.
James, Winston. “Becoming the People’s Poet: Claude McKay’s Jamaican Years, 1889-1912.” Small Axe, vol. 7, no. 1, Mar. 2003, pp. 17–45.
Jekyll, Walter. “Preface to ‘Songs of Jamaica’ (1912).” 1912. Songs of Jamaica (1912): Digital Edition, edited by Amardeep Singh, Lehigh University, 2017.
Rodis, Katherine Verhagen. “Vernacular Literacy and Formal Analysis: Louise Bennett-Coverley’s Jamaican English Verse.” Journal of West Indian Literature, vol. 18, no. 1, 2009, pp. 60–72.
Sample Discussion Questions
- How and why do Bennett’s and McKay’s characters and speakers use Jamaican dialects? How did white English critics at the time like Jekyll respond to this choice?
- How do these monologues “reverse” colonialism through rhyme, meter, imagery, and/or metaphor? (Cooper and Rodis conceptualize the politics of reversal in Bennett’s poem differently, with the former focusing on aspects like imagery and the latter focusing on scansion. Instructors could invite students to compare and contrast the two critics. James provides strong context for McKay’s dialect poetry and its relation to McKay’s own response to colonialism.)
- What role does translation or the politics of legibility play in these monologues? To whom were these dialect monologues legible, and to whom were they not (or, at least, not immediately)? Why do these differences matter?
Cherrie Kwok is a Ph.D. candidate and an Elizabeth Arendall Tilney and Schuyler Tilney Jefferson Fellow at the University of Virginia. Her dissertation examines the relationship between Decadent aesthetics and anti-imperial politics through a set of writers from the Black Atlantic, China, and India from the long nineteenth century onwards. Her other interests include global Anglophone literature (especially in the Victorian period), poetry, postcolonial theory, and the digital humanities.
Header Image Caption
Henry Ossawa Tanner. Crossing the Atlantic (Return Home). 1894. The Smithsonian Institution. Used for education consistent with the principles of fair use under Section 108 of the U.S. Copyright Act.
Page/Lesson Plan Citation (MLA)
Cherrie Kwok, les. plan dev. “Undisciplining the Dramatic Monologue.” Carolyn Betensky, Melissa Free, Ji Eun Lee, collab. peer revs.; Sophia Hsu, les. plan clust. dev. Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom, 2021, https://undiscipliningvc.org/html/lesson_plans/africa_dramatic_monologue.html.