The Ring and the Book, by Robert Browning


The Ring and the Book, the longest and most important of Browning’s poems, is the product of several years of creative activity during the period of his fullest maturity. The love romance which had enriched his life for fifteen years had come to an end, and his thought was searching more profoundly than ever before the problems of life and death. For twenty years he had been devoting his art to casual subjects in rich succession; Men and Women and Dramatis Personœ lay in the immediate past, and the dramatic monologue had become an easy from for voicing his imaginations; yet he must have craved the fuller joy of expressing through some larger subject and at far greater length his conception of human life and of the Divine in and above the world.

The occasion for this expression came in the chance discovery of the Old Yellow Book in June 1860 on a market barrow in the Piazza di San Lorenzo, Florence, as told by Browning in the poem. This book is the record of a sensational murder trial at Rome, January-February 1698, and gives many of the facts and motives of an ignoble intrigue for certain properties, culminating in a brutal assassination and in the subsequent execution of the criminals. It was a dark page from the criminal annals of Rome, and time had all but effaced the record when it fell into the hands of the poet. The problem of making these dead fragments live again challenged the imagination of Browning, and by the power of his imagination he saw there in Florence that June night how the crime had stirred Rome a century and a half earlier. So interested did he become in the Franceschini story that he frequently told it to his friends in conversation, and is said to have offered it to one of them as the plot of an historical novel. Eventually the inspiration came to him to tell the story through his art of poetry, and what was more, he saw the opportunity of expressing through the incidents of this base crime his own fuller vision of man. The interpretation of the Yellow Book in his poem involved the whole problem of life as the poet saw it.

How then should he unfold his views? His own age had perfected the novel to present at length the activities and motives of man, and Browning learned much of his art from the novel. Yet he was no novelist, and he left unattempted the possible historical novel in the subject. Long years before he had tried the drama, and had been defeated by a half success, nor could a stage drama trace the minute threads of motive in this case. In the narrative poem as such he had little interest, and seldom practised the fascination of the narrator. Browning’s one purpose in the art of poetry was to search the heart deeply for motive. He had by years of practice developed the dramatic monologue to a high point of efficacy in expressing motive. It is accordingly not surprising that he made a “strange art of an art familiar,” and by the repetition of the story in many forms in a series of dramatic monologues, he invented a new type of poem which grew directly out of the material before him, and enabled him to tell the Franceschini story more truly than through any of the established forms of art.

This tragic course of events had not developed simply and symmetrically. Life seldom does. It was a confused web of disputed fact, with motive and counter-motive, genuine or sham, conventional or personal, further entangled by the professional casuistry of the lawyers, until the right and wrong of the story seemed hopelessly obscured. Such confusion surrounds every deeper crisis which stirs the heart of man, as is illustrated in the journalistic hubbub around every sensational crime and its trial at the bar of justice. Literary art tends to simplify all this by the intensification of the prevailing motives, and by the eradication of whatever distracts from these. Yet in the successive development of the epic, the drama, and the novel as methods of picturing life, there has been a distinct evolution away from this artistic singleness toward the variety and intricacy of life. The novel offers large opportunities to present this human complexity. Browning carries literary development a step farther by using in a new way the multi-monologue form of narrative, in which he tells the story from a series of personal standpoints, each of which modifies fact and motive with iridescent shadings of significance and with the perplexing but thrilling uncertainties which we find in real life. He illustrates by his art also the great principle which he found in life — the apparent relativity of truth —“The truth is this to thee and that to me.” He sees that the perception of truth is one of the most vital functions of personality, and that the kind and degree of our perception of it are invariably restricted by all limitations of personality. In monologue after monologue in his previous art Browning had tinged a thought or a passion or a story by the prejudice of the speaker. When at last he found the Old Yellow Book, it gave him illustration after illustration of such perversion of truth through personal bias. It became inevitable for him, therefore, in his strong sense of the obligation to represent the full truth of the tragedy, that he should tell and retell the story from the various personal standpoints possible until he had turned every phase of it to the reader. His figures of the landscape and the glass ball, book i. II. 1348-1378, illustrate this.

The Franceschini tragedy and the environing life of Rome thus come to live again before the reader in all that essential intricacy which we find in the world outside of books. In fact, the poem gives the impression not of a book, but of throbbing life, confused almost past finding out. We should read the successive monologues not for a chain of incident, nor for the achievement of a final judgment on the merits of the case, but to study the hearts of actors and spectators alike, as they pulsate with passions, noble or ignoble, which surge around that act of murder on January 2, 1698.

What persons then should be chosen as narrators? What personal standpoints were significant and vital to the complete understanding of the tragedy? First and most important were the three principals — the husband, the wife, and the priest Caponsacchi. Then the legal presentation of facts in the Yellow Book suggested the representation of the professional interpreters of law. Was not law the “patent-truth- extracting process” which man had established to ascertain the rights and wrongs of such cases? Hence Browning includes two of the attorneys found in the recorded case, though he cannot suppress his ironic attitude toward them. Above the lawyers stood their ultimate superior, the Pope, through whose final judgment the sentence was executed against the criminals; in him was exhibited judicial deliberation illuminated by an almost prophetic insight into divine truth. Beyond these six monologues, the poet saw the need of other narratives, which would present the story as it appeared to common, outside Rome. None of the actual personages involved, such as Abate Paolo, Canon, Conti, or Violante, could serve this purpose satisfactorily. Hence the poet invented two purely, typical, anonymous personages, “Half- Rome” and “Other Half-Rome,” who represent the two prejudiced camps of opinion which made up “reasonless, unreasoning Rome.” These speakers were doubtless suggested to the poet by the two anonymous Italian narratives of the murder story, which are included in the Yellow Book. Then in a sport of irony and caricature he invented “Tertium Quid”— a third Something — the supercilious, contemptuous opinion of the man who takes pride in his unsympathy, and who plays with judgment trivially, smartly, and sneeringly, even in the face of this violent crime — who found nothing in human life worthy of serious consideration save the etiquette and intrigue of his own polite circle. These three typical personages represent the opinion of Rome at large, but they also afford the poet and opportunity to tell and retell the story until all the details of fact have become familiar to the reader. Consequently when he passes on to the heart of the poem in the monologues of Guido, Caponsacchi, and Pompilia, he need no longer tell a story, but can devote himself entirely to such incidents and passions as bring out most fully and subtly the character of the speakers. The reading of books ii., iii., and iv., is a fundamental preparation of the reader for the complete understanding of the monologues of Guido, Caponsacchi, and Pompilia. When the poet had written these thrice three monologues he evidently felt his poem to be incomplete of final effect if he left the reader in any possible uncertainty as to the true nature of Guido. In book v. the poet had presented the Guido of skilled subterfuge and of supercilious reliance on the privileges of a sham social condition. He would now give us the genuine Guido, fierce, brutal, ignoble, depraved, blasphemous, till we shudder at the abyss of darkness in his heart. These are the ten monologues of the Ring and the Book, not ten repetitions of the same story, but ten glimpses into the human heart as it reacts upon a story which every changes with the personality of the narrator.

To this body of the poem Browning adds his prefatory and concluding books, both of them entirely unconventional in their form, but direct and vitally truthful to the poem as a whole, and to the Old Yellow Book before the poet. The first book is an invaluable preparatory miscellany, including the explanation of the title of the poem, an account of the finding of the Yellow Book, of its contents, of Browning’s immediate interest in it, and of his creative reaction in response to it; then a series of summaries of the monologue situations which follow in the succeeding books of the poem, and finally the invocation and dedication to Mrs.Browning. The concluding book is equally miscellaneous, and its purpose is to complete the story which had been broken by Guido’s shriek in his dungeon, and to lead the reader down from the glaring lights of mid-story into the creeping oblivion which overtook this fact as it overtakes all things human. The device of telling about Guido’s execution through the letters of eye-witnesses was suggested to the poet by the three letters of the Yellow Book, one of which, the letter of Arcangeli, is included in full, lines 239 — 288. From the additional Italian narrative which had fallen to his hands, Browning then fashions the ghastly spectacle of the throngs of Rome pressing curiously and unfeelingly around Guido’s scaffold. Even the final absolution of the memory of Pompilia and the establishment of her innocence takes the form of the court decree included in the Yellow Book. At last the inevitable tide of time surges over all, and the Franceschini tragedy and its stir in Rome are swept into final oblivion.

Through the ten voices of the ten monologues, Browning does not merely tell a story; he pictures the life of Rome and Arezzo in the year 1698, with all their play of professional and social motive. The accounts of the motives of Guido and Caponsacchi for entering the church reveal the great worldly ecclesiastical establishment of which they are a part. In domestic life the sacrament of marriage is pictured as mere barter and sale, not unmingled with fraud.

Marriage making for the earth,

With gold so much — birth, power, repute, so much,

Or beauty, youth so much, in lack of these.

And the law and the law courts, with their countless delays and perversions of justice are seen in a confusion of law. suits, civil and criminal, which surrounded Pompilia’s life. Rome is portrayed in the poem with an art more subtle and penetrating than is usually found in the art of the historical novel.

Yet here, as at all times, Browning is interested in men rather than institutions; in Abate Paolo, Canon Conti, the Confessors Romano and Celestino rather than in the church as such; in Arcangeli and Bottini rather than in the profession of the law. Hence many who were mere names in the Yellow Book become personal and alive in the poem. Violante stands forth in all her meddlesome self-will. Donna Beatrice grows portentously to a true novercal type, amplifying the sketch of the old duchess in the Flight of the Duchess. The worldly Bishop of Arezzo again yields to the Franceschini in bland deference the victim they desire. A score and more of persons have started into life from the old record, and are significant to Browning as a searcher of the heart of man.

But it is in the interpretation of the three chief actors that the creative Browning best found expression. Guido, Caponsacchi, and Pompilia become at last the measure of Browning’s mastery and insight, and are the high-water mark of his creative imagination.

Browning has represented many evil men in his art, but all his other villains pale into insignificance beside the full, passionate, living portrayal of Guido Franceschini. Yet Guido is not a monster, nor an accidentally unfortunate man; he is the hideous outgrowth of a self-seeking, Christless society, in which nobility is no longer a spiritual attribute, but has become a mere merchantable asset and a shield for crouching littlenesses. The Yellow Book makes plain accusation concerning the ruthless greed of Guido, but Browning connects this with the effete nobility and the worldly churchmanship of the day as he saw it. And this theme of greed is made to run through the whole Franceschini family with variations. Guido’s final desperation of hate and of misanthropy expresses itself in his terrible ravings in his prison cell on the night before his execution.

Caponsacchi, on the other hand, is Browning’s highest conception of heroic manhood, not an unreal, and vainly ideal dream, but a passionate, earnest, and great-hearted man, with a lovable impetuosity and rashness at times. He is a modern St. George, saving a woman in desperate plight by a reckless display of courage. Called suddenly from the narrow, uneventful life of an idle, fashionable canon, not by a great, shining duty, but by a low cry of pain from the roadside, he threw prudence and self-seeking to the wind that he might worship God in saving this woman. Though he is summoned by pity, he is detained by passion — not a debasing, physical passion, but passion controlled by the consecrating power of reverential love, as of the divine. He worships Pompilia with no merely conventional worship of love- sick poetising, but he bows, is blest by the revelation of Pompilia, who seems to him to be an embodiment of the virtues of the Madonna, whom he as a priest had been taught to revere. Into this portrait of his “soldier-saint” Browning put much that was noblest in his own high type of manhood.

In Pompilia, Browning has achieved his master picture of woman. Probably the character of the real Pompilia as it shone from the affidavit of Fra Celestino in the Old Yellow Book fixed the poet’s attention on this story. She is represented there as saint and martyr in simple loveliness of character. He further endowed her with the highest spiritual graces which may glorify woman, the passion of maternity, the devoted love for the man who embodies her ideal of manly nobility, and her unquestioning faith in God “held fast despite the plucking fiend.” These are greater and more essential to the highest womanhood than the intellectuality of Balaustion, or the social charm and grace of Colombe. Pompilia of the Yellow Book has been glorified at last with all that Browning had found most divine in that woman whom he reverenced primarily as a woman of these same spiritual graces, and only secondarily as a woman of genius.

The Pope might be added to the noble portraits of this great poem of humanity. As Caponsacchi may be said to represent the passionate and noble-worldly side of Browning’s nature, so the Pope represents his graver, more other worldly character. Browning has given us an unfading portrait of the great, wise, grave Pope, facing a sad duty, and turning from it to confront the darkest problems which may assail the human heart. But he creates the Pope less as a portrait than as a mouthpiece. Through this wise, earnest personality he would speak what he himself felt most deeply in the tragedy. No historic Pope could have spoken as Browning makes Pope Innocent speak. It may be pointed out that Browning uses his other great old men of this period in the same way, as mouthpieces of his own vision of truth: for such undoubtedly is his use of Rabbi Ben Ezra, of the Apostle John, and of the Russian village pope in Ivan Ivanovitch. Through the Pope, therefore, Browning gives his own mature verdict in the case, and gives it weight by the impressive personality of the Pope as he presents him.

The slow toil of years had at last carried out the plan which came suddenly to the poet as he was thinking of the materials in the Yellow Book, yet it was not the “gold” of fact but the “alloy” of personality, the richly endowed nature of Robert Browning that raised the poem to greatness. It is at last the one poem which seems to employ every power of his mastership, and to utter his deepest convictions concerning the life of man.

Charles W. Hodell.

Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.A.
January 27, 1911.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50