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NaPoWriMo Poetry Prompt 4: Drama Is Good

Sarah and Jeff Boyle

Difficulty Level: 4/5

I'm betting you've heard of dramatic monologues. But just in case let's break it down. A monologue is a (long) speech delivered by one character in a play or movie. If that monologue is "dramatic," it is specifically and especially a speech that is performed. In other words, the person delivering the monologue is playing a character in front of audience. The monologuist isn't telling his/her/their own story, but a story of a fictional--a dramatic--character. 

Poetry has a long history of dramatic monologues. In these poems, the poet pretends to be someone else. They use the voice of that made up character to tell a story. The most famous dramatic monologue I can think of is "My Last Duchess" by Robert Browning. (Look, I'm sure there are other equally famous monologues, but this what my education gave me, so we're going with it.) "My Last Duchess" is a bit long, so we're gonna start by looking at just the beginning:

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will ‘t please you sit and look at her?

Do you follow so far? This guy, who we assume is a duke because he's talking about his duchess, is looking at a painting of his wife "looking as if she were alive." Hm, there's your first clue about her: she's dead. And we also know that a painter named Frà Pandolf painted the painting the speaker is gesturing towards. And then--this is my favorite part--the duke says, "Will 't please you sit and look at her?" It's like he's saying that to you, the reader. This whole speech is delivered to an audience, and that audience is you. From here the story spins on. The entire poem is below. Read it, be scandalized, figure out what happened to the "last" duchess. 

Your task today is to write a dramatic monologue. Here are a few steps to break it down for you:

  1. Who is your main character? Give that person (or animal? object? abstract idea made flesh?) a name.
  2. What is the setting? Brainstorm out a few details about what it looks like, smells like, sounds like.
  3. What is the conflict? Trying using "somebody wants but so" to map it out. For example, in "My Last Duchess," we could break it down so (spoiler alert!): The Duke wants a wife but he killed his last one so now he's looking for a new one. Or we could break it down this way: The Duke wants a wife who doesn't love anyone else but his last duchess was easily made happy by anyone so he kills her. What does your character want? But what stands in their way? So what do they do?

As you write, include the details you brainstormed above. And have your character talk to someone. The "you" in your poem could be a specific person in the scene, as in "The Last Duchess" where the duke is talking to an underling of a count whose daughter he hopes to marry ("The Count your master"), or it could be a general reader like you and me. Don't forget to send us your poems for possible publication on the blog: flashbangwriting@gmail.com.

My Last Duchess
by Robert Browning

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will ‘t please you sit and look at her? I said
‘Frà Pandolf’ by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ‘t was not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say, ‘Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,' or ‘Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat:' such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart -- how shall I say? -- too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ‘t was all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace -- all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men, -- good! but thanked
Somehow -- I know not how -- as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech -- (which I have not) -- to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, ‘Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark’ -- and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
-- E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will ‘t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!


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