“The Dream of the Rood” as a Dramatic Monologue

A dramatic monologue is essentially a narrative spoken by a single character and unlike the soliloquy, it implies the presence of some other characters listening and reacting. According to Cuddon’s Dictionary of the Literary Terms, dramatic monologue is “a poem in which there is one imaginary speaker addressing an imaginary audience” as in Browning’s “Andrea Del Sarto,” “My Last Duchess.” On the treatment of the dramatic monologue, the author of The Dream of the Rood” presents his powerful ability and greater skilled technique which leave an abiding impact upon the readers’ mind.

The author of The Dream of the Rood” treats the form of the dramatic monologue with entire liberty, puts it to impossible uses and achieves with it a succession of the splendid living poem. This is an old English poem attributed by some to Caedmon and by others to Cynewulf. It consists of a narrative introduction in the form of dramatic monologue relating to the vision of the Cross and the poet’s emotions in its presence. It is followed by the address of the visionary Cross to the poet, telling of the crucifixion and resurrection, his reflections thereon and allusions to the sufferings and angels in heaven. Dramatically, the speaker poses the significance of the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ – is nowhere properly realized in old English verse. The speaker embodies the poet’s interest in the poem. It is not only his outward outlook which is revealed but his very soul is also dissected. The speaker is not only undoubtedly confident upon his religious belief but he also resigns his full belief upon his lord. The speaker tells us how the Rood appeared to him and of the words it spoke and the words of the Cross have a wonderful dramatic intensity and freshness: “I dared not break or bend aside/against God’s will, though the ground itself/shook at my feet.”

The dramatic monologue though embodying the term dramatic is to be differentiated from drama. The two forms are different both in method and purpose. A drama essentially involves external action and outward conflict. It has a sustained plot and the action does not develop within a single character but the soul of characters. On the other hand, in a dramatic monologue, there is a single speaker and it is a dissection of the soul of that speaker which the plot attempts. There is no plot or action and no chronological sequence of events. The speaker’s mind moves over the past and the future while speaking in the present. The mode of the dramatic monologue is dramatic in so far as it is objective – the poet does not introduce himself in the poem but allows the speaker to speak or argue. The writer is behind the scene. Each of the dramatic monologues has an abrupt and arresting beginning, suggesting that the present situation is a continuation of something that has gone before. “Hwact!/A dream came to me/at deep midnight/when humankind/kept their beds/- the dream of dreams.”

After the dramatic beginning, the character speaks a particular situation over which his past, present, and future resemble. The very setting of the action evoked and the speaker presents his attitudes and moods, varying according to his intellectual and emotional aptitude. We have a minute revelation of a character and through character the essence of his deep theological belief.

This dramatic monologue of The Dream of the Rood” shows the two sides of speaker’s genius, his passionate appreciation of things seen and his instant sympathy with a condition of mind. This poem is again a finer than the noblest of all passion plays. It is a vision in which the gospel history of the crucifixion is so translated that nothing is left except the devotion of the young hero and the glory; it is not acted on any historical scene, but a same historical place where there is no distinction between the passion and the triumph. In this way the spirit of poetry does wonderful things, transforming the historical substance. The ‘cross’ with its dramatic implications of cosmic suffering and personal redemption is understandably one of the most compelling of Christian symbols. This dramatic monologue is also a medium of intellectual analysis or psychological insight of the poet. It has an unpredictability and fascination of its own. Partly because it is so different from the most familiar Christian verse of the Middle Age, and is considered as one of the finest dramatic monologue ever written in the history of English literature.

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