Browning: The Ring and the Book

March 15, 2010

The Ring and the Book (1869)
Robert Browning (Everyman’s Library, 1962)
550 p. First reading.

The Ring and the Book is a “shabby little shocker”: it tells the story of a seventeenth century Italian nobleman who marries a young girl, and when, some years later, she runs off with a priest in apparent romantic liaison, he murders her and her parents.  Browning — or his narrator, at any rate — tells how he discovered, in a book stall in Florence’s Piazza San Lorenzo, an account of the nobleman’s trial, and of how he thought it would be a fitting story by means of which to explore the full range and complexity of human relationships.  In the chapter of his book on Browning devoted to this poem, Chesterton remarks that in this he was emblematic of his age: whereas Homer’s epics deal with great battles and gods, and Virgil’s epic deals with the founding of the world’s greatest empire, and Dante’s epic deals with heaven and hell, Browning’s epic deals with a long-forgotten domestic quarrel and shameful murder.  This is an epic of the small gesture and the ordinary individual, sprouted from the same seed that gave us the novel.

The poem is divided into a series of long dramatic monologues, each spoken by one of the principal characters in the story: the nobleman (Guido Franceschini), his young wife (Pompilia), the priest (Giuseppe Caponsacchi).  We also hear from the lawyers prosecuting and defending the case, and from the divided people of Rome.  In the end the decision about Guido’s punishment for the murder is referred to Pope Innocent XII, who condemns him and his accomplices to death.

The principal interest, however, is not in the facts of the case, but in how each person involved perceived and understood them.  We are told the story over and over again, from different perspectives, and in each case the story is coloured by the interests and self-justification of the speaker. (This is the same technique which gives My Last Duchess its enduring interest; the real story emerges from between the lines.)  Today we could imagine this technique being used as a postmodern device to undermine the idea of objective truth, or even as an occasion to “celebrate diversity”, but Browning’s poem does not have this effect.  Young Pompilia speaks so simply and disarmingly, and her husband Guido so viciously and pompously, that there is little doubt about where the truth lies. Instead, it provides Browning with the means to explore, in detail, the inner motivations, passion-skewed perceptions, and self-deceptions of his characters.

Browning considered The Ring and the Book to be among his finest achievements, and it is certainly impressive.  Some sections, such as those narrated by the trial lawyers, I found rather tedious.  Both are self-important buffoons, and they have a certain comic value, but someone should have reminded Browning that brevity is the soul of wit.  The innocence and naivety of Pompilia is well-conveyed, as is the forthright intelligence and gallantry of the priest Caponsacchi.  Pope Innocent is portrayed as a wise and honourable old man concerned above all with justice.  At the end of the poem Browning returns to Guido Franceschini, now just hours from death and employing every means to evade repentance: anger, blasphemy, slander, cruelty, self-excuse, pride, flattery.  It is a masterful psychological portrait of a defiant soul resisting grace. Only when the guards arrive to take him to his execution does he beg for mercy.  We are told that he devoutly confessed and was reconciled on the scaffold, precisely the effects which the Pope had hoped the death sentence would have:

For the main criminal I have no hope
Except in such a suddenness of fate.
I stood at Naples once, a night so dark
I could have scarce conjectured there was earth
Anywhere, sky or sea or world at all:
But the night’s black was burst through by a blaze —
Thunder struck blow on blow, earth groaned and bore,
Through her whole length of mountain visible:
There lay the city thick and plain with spires,
And, like a ghost disshrouded, white the sea.
So may the truth be flashed out by one blow,
And Guido see, one instant, and be saved.
(Bk.X, 2116-27)

The dramatic monologue format has Browning animating his various characters from within, and we learn about them from what they say, but we also learn, I think, about Browning himself, and in some respects this is the poem’s chief attraction. Here is a man who knows the Western tradition backward and forward — its philosophy, its religion, its art and poetry — and he loves it.  He can speak of it without any anger or ironic detachment.  It is refreshing.

Some refreshment is in order, because at 21116 lines The Ring and the Book is genuinely epic in scale — about 50% longer than the whole of The Divine Comedy.  Gird up thy loins, dear reader.

[Death, the common destiny]
I see you all reel to the rock, you waves—
Some forthright, some describe a sinuous track,
Some crested, brilliantly with heads above,
Some in a strangled swirl sunk who knows how,
But all bound whither the main-current sets,
Rockward, an end in foam for all of you!
What if I am o’ertaken, pushed to the front
By all you crowding smoother souls behind,
And reach, a minute sooner than was meant,
The boundary, whereon I break to mist?
Go to! the smoothest safest of you all,
Most perfect and compact wave in my train,
Spite of the blue tranquillity above,
Spite of the breadth before of lapsing peace
Where broods the halcyon and the fish leaps free,
Will presently begin to feel the prick
At lazy heart, the push at torpid brain,
Will rock vertiginously in turn, and reel,
And, emulative, rush to death like me:
Later or sooner by a minute then,
So much for the untimeliness of death,—
(XI, 2346-66)

4 Responses to “Browning: The Ring and the Book”

  1. Maclin Says:

    This is extremely interesting, but even more so is the question of how you managed to find time to read it, with a job (I suppose?) and a new baby. You must be a blazingly fast reader, even of poetry. I seem to be faster than most (or at least many) people, and I’ve thought I might read The Ring and the Book when I retire.

  2. cburrell Says:

    The truth is that I read this book over six months ago, and only just got around to writing about it now. Six months ago I had a 40-minute morning and evening commute on public transit, which is quite a lot of time each day for reading. I don’t have that kind of time anymore, and probably could not read the poem now. Blazingly fast I am not!

  3. Christina A. Says:

    You are still a super dad! Changing diapers with one hand, spooning in cereal with the other and keeping the (excellent) blog going at the same time by…typing with your nose?

  4. cburrell Says:

    You are too kind, Christina. Thanks for the encouragement.

    Typing with one’s nose is easier than you might think. (But then I also play the piano with my nose — and forehead.)

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