At the very end of The Ring and the Book Browning delivers one of the most staggering mule-kicks ever meted out by an author to his readers. Bear in mind that the poem is more than 21,000 lines of blank verse – about twice the length of Paradise Lost. It was published in four monthly instalments, each containing three books of the poem, which appeared from November 1868 to February 1869. Browning, like Melville, was asking Jonah to swallow the whale. But even Melville might have blenched at Browning’s final exordium:
So, British Public, who may like me yet,
(Marry and amen!) learn one lesson hence
Of many which whatever lives should teach:
This lesson, that our human speech is naught,
Our human testimony false, our fame
And human estimation words and wind.
So that’s it. The British Public might reasonably ask, after 12 books and 21,000 lines of human speech, testimony and estimation, whether the message couldn’t have been delivered a little more crisply. Thomas Carlyle certainly thought so: the poem, he declared, was ‘all made out of an Old Bailey story that might have been told in ten lines and only wants forgetting’.
It is not in fact that easy to tell the story in ten lines – Browning’s most concise effort took him 43, and he could afford to leave out a lot of things he knew he was going to put in elsewhere. Here is the best I can do.
In September 1693, Guido Franceschini, an impoverished middle-aged count, originally from Arezzo in Tuscany but living in Rome in the retinue of a cardinal, married 14-year-old Pompilia, putative daughter of Pietro and Violante Comparini, a moderately wealthy middle-class couple. Shortly after the marriage, Guido, his wife and his parents-in-law moved from Rome to Arezzo. Subsequently the Comparini returned to Rome, claiming ill-treatment by Guido; Violante then publicly confessed that Pompilia was not really her child, but a prostitute’s whom she had passed off as hers in order to secure an inheritance in which Pietro held only a life-interest. The Comparini sued Guido for the return of the dowry; he counter-sued, claiming that the story of Pompilia’s illegitimacy was a fabrication. Meanwhile Pompilia, unhappy in Arezzo, eventually fled in the company of a priest, Giuseppe Caponsacchi. Guido pursued the couple, caught up with them just before they reached Rome, and had them arrested. The subsequent hearing satisfied nobody. The charge of adultery was not sustained, but Caponsacchi was ‘relegated’ to Civita Vecchia for three years and Pompilia was placed in the care of a convent which also acted as a reformatory for fallen women. Guido was told to go home. Lawsuits multiplied in both Rome and Arezzo. Then it was found that Pompilia was pregnant. She was released from the convent into the custody of her putative parents, and a few weeks later bore Guido – or Caponsacchi – a son. This was in December 1697. On the night of 2 January 1698, Guido and four accomplices – farm workers from his Aretine estate – arrived at the Comparini house and gained entry by pretending to be delivering a letter from Caponsacchi. Guido killed Pietro and Violante and thought he had killed Pompilia, too – she lay still after being repeatedly stabbed. As neighbours rushed to the scene, Guido and his accomplices fled, intending to escape to Arezzo where they would be outside Roman jurisdiction. However, Pompilia was still alive and was able to set the authorities on their track; moreover Guido had omitted to secure the necessary permit to hire horses in the city. The murderers covered nearly twenty miles on foot before collapsing, exhausted, at an inn where the posse caught up with them. When the bewildered Guido asked how they knew who to look for and where to find him, and was told that his wife was still living, he fainted. (It later emerged that his accomplices were planning to murder him for not paying them the money he had promised.) Pompilia lived four more days – long enough to make a deathbed confession and deposition.
At the subsequent trial, Guido’s lawyers claimed that the murder of his wife was a matter of honour, and that Guido had acted under extreme provocation. Already maddened by his wife’s adultery and by the Comparini’s cynical chicanery, the birth of (obviously) Caponsacchi’s bastard had tipped the noble cuckold over the edge. The prosecution argued that Guido’s real and ignoble motive was money, and that the birth of a child sealed the death-warrant of both Pompilia and the Comparini for purely mercenary reasons: with their deaths all the lawsuits would end and Guido as legal father of the one remaining heir would walk away with the jackpot.
Guido was found guilty and condemned to death. But he had one card left to play – an appeal to the Pope, Innocent XII, on the grounds that he was in minor orders and subject to the jurisdiction of the Church. The popular expectation was that he would be let off, but the Pope to everyone’s surprise confirmed the sentence and Guido, together with his four accomplices, was executed in February 1698.
When Browning retold this story in The Ring and the Book he used the form which he had made his own over the past quarter of a century, the dramatic monologue, but he did so in a novel way. A dramatic monologue, as the name suggests, is the utterance of a single speaker. The Ring and the Book presents a series of such monologues, arguably including those of an author-figure as well as those of the fictional characters. After an introductory book (or authorial monologue), a succession of speakers occupy Books II to XI, the first three of whom are outsiders, representatives of public opinion in Rome, who know about the events only by hearsay: ‘Half-Rome’, a partisan of Guido; then ‘Other Half-Rome’, who is on Pompilia’s side; then ‘Tertium Quid’, who purports to give an objective summary of the case. These gossips and guess-workers are followed by three of the principals: Guido, Caponsacchi and Pompilia. And these in turn are followed by three of the characters involved in the trial: lawyers for the defence and the prosecution, and the Pope, who sums up and delivers the final verdict. The eleventh book consists of Guido’s second monologue, this time spoken in his prison cell after he has heard that his appeal has failed and that he is to be executed the following day. The twelfth book, like the first one, belongs to Browning as narrator.
Having given this summary of plot and form I feel a sense of defeat, of dry aimlessness. It does little to describe the poem. It gives even less idea of what it is like to read it, and not the slightest hint of why Browning should have written it in the first place. Perhaps the old fox had a point after all. We have to start again, and aim at another point of vantage.
Two stories are bound up in The Ring and the Book. One is the story on which the action of the poem is founded: the trial of Count Guido Franceschini for the murder of his wife, Pompilia, in Rome in 1698. The second story is that of Browning’s discovery on a market stall in Florence in June 1860 of the first story, in the form of a bundle of pamphlets and letters bound up into a volume which we now call the ‘Old Yellow Book’, and of what he did with it. Knowledge of the Franceschini murder trial, one of the sensations of its day, as compelling and divisive as the O.J. Simpson trial, had by this time dwindled to this obscure collection of legal arguments and witness depositions, mostly written in cramped law-Latin ‘interfilleted with Italian streaks’, incomprehensible to most and of interest to none. Obscure, unreadable, it was like the fragment of a column left by the roadside ‘’mid the ordure, shards and weeds’ until the poet ‘Kicked it up, turned it over’ and could ‘calculate’ its ‘lost proportions’. From this forgotten remnant Browning (re)constructed a classical epic in 12 books, a ‘novel-poem’ to rival his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, a historical romance to challenge Scott, an urban realist fiction to emulate Dickens or Balzac, a religio-philosophical-aesthetic treatise in the modern vein of the Higher Criticism. From the 1830s he had been a dedicated Carlylean resurrection man, and The Ring and the Book is his greatest feat of grave-robbing.
A number of ways of interpreting the poem emerge from this history. One concerns the instability of interpretation itself, the uncertainties and ambiguities which attend any effort to ‘read’ the past. Founded on a documentary record, the poem questions the authority of every text, including of course its own. Within the story one character, the Pope, combines (apparently) authority to judge and confidence in his judgment: having studied essentially the same ‘dismalest of documents’ as the poet, he declares:
Truth, nowhere, yet lies everywhere in these –
Not absolutely in a portion, yet
Evolvable from the whole: evolved at last
Painfully, held tenaciously by me.
For a long time it was thought not only that Browning endorsed the Pope’s view of the case (Pompilia was innocent, Caponsacchi her heroic rescuer, Guido a monster) but that the model of interpretation which the Pope proposes for the documents of the Old Yellow Book could be applied to the poem itself: ‘truth’ is ‘evolvable’ from the 12 books of the poem, each monologue a partial sighting from a limited perspective, but together making up a complete picture, or joining hands to complete the ‘ring’ which is one of the poem’s governing symbols. However, the fact that Browning made use of a traditional pun (‘Truth . . . lies’) in the Pope’s declaration suggests that he was not so confident that their interests were identical.
Suppose, at the other extreme, that Browning is a radical sceptic and relativist, that the point of the poem is to demonstrate that there is no such thing as truth, only opinions and points of view. Yet there is clear evidence from both within and outside the text that Browning believed not simply in the factual basis of the story but, like the Pope, in the truthfulness of the verdict. In fact, the two notions of truth – the truth of fact, and the truth of interpretation – were fused in his apprehension to such an extent that he felt able to adjust one to the other without embarrassment: he changed, for example, the date of Pompilia’s flight from Arezzo with Caponsacchi from 28 April to 23 April, St George’s Day.
Apparently, then, Browning held two incompatible theories: one which affirmed the uncertainty of all knowledge founded on language, and another which held that the truth of an event (both in terms of what happened and of what it signified) can be grasped and communicated. This, too, seems an unsatisfactory outcome. But it is not the only conclusion we are driven to. The poem may have something else in mind altogether – something whose focus is not an abstract notion of truth but a concrete notion of text, of communication and of relationship: the relationship between a Victorian poet and his British Public.
In a long opening passage, Browning describes finding the Old Yellow Book in the San Lorenzo flea-market in Florence on a blazing June day (the year is not given but has been fixed as 1860), devouring it as he carried it home with him to Casa Guidi, the house where he and Elizabeth had lived for most of their married life, finishing it as dusk fell and then stepping out onto the terrace where he ‘breathed/The beauty and the fearfulness of night’, grasping the truth of the story in a visionary moment of supreme assurance. Though the poet’s domestic surroundings are tenderly evoked, Elizabeth Barrett Browning herself is absent from this scene of solitary creative rapture (and we know from Browning himself that she was utterly uninterested in the story, refusing even to ‘inspect the papers’, recoiling from its vulgar melodrama and true-crime sordidness). Browning’s solitude in 1860 was indeed emblematic. When he left England in 1846 he became a poetic as well as a personal exile. The Romantic fashion for foreign times and places was well and truly dead: Tennyson’s English Idylls, his Arthurian epic, cast Browning’s Gothic grotesques, his Renaissance dukes or painters, into the shade. So, it might be argued, did Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s thoroughly contemporary Aurora Leigh, published in 1856; she, unlike Browning, had made her exile the springboard for her greatest artistic achievement and critical success. The triumphant progress of Aurora Leigh took place the year after Browning’s Italian masterpiece, the fifty prodigal, incandescent poems of Men and Women, had been greeted with incomprehension and derision. Browning was crushed by the failure of a volume which he had thought of as ‘a first step towards popularity, for me’, which he had filled with ‘more music and painting than before, so as to get people to hear and see’. For years he wrote nothing, busying himself with his wife’s growing fame and declining health, fretting about her weakness for spiritualism and Napoleon III and about the upbringing of their son. The picture of a man wandering around a second-hand market is hardly that of a creative genius at the height of his powers. And Browning didn’t set to work immediately after his transcendent experience on the terrace of Casa Guidi. At Rome in the winter of 1860-61 he spent most of his time in the studio of his friend William Wetmore Story, modelling clay figures, too absorbed (or depressed) even to read. In the same period he is known to have offered the ‘Roman murder story’ to a number of his friends (including Anthony Trollope and Tennyson) and the idea that he himself might make something of it seems to have come to him only after Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s death in 1861 and his return to England later the same year. The poem, whose roots go back to Browning’s years of Italian exile, to his intimate knowledge of, and fascination with, foreign locations and characters, was actually written in London. Its roots are also those of literary failure and bitterness, a condition with which Browning was as familiar as he was with the street-markets of his adopted home. If finding the Old Yellow Book was an act of salvage, The Ring and the Book, too, had a rescue mission to perform.
The circumstances of the book’s finding are insistently material. The San Lorenzo flea-market in Florence is evoked in all its profusion, its ‘odds and ends of ravage’:
White through the worn gilt, mirror-sconces chipped,
Bronze angel-heads once knobs attached to chests,
(Handled when ancient dames chose forth
Modern chalk drawings, studies from the nude,
Samples of stone, jet, breccia, porphyry
Polished and rough, sundry amazing busts
In baked earth, (broken, Providence be praised!)
A wreck of tapestry, proudly-purposed web
When reds and blues were indeed red and blue,
Now offered as a mat to save bare feet . . .
The book itself is sandwiched between ‘five compeers’ which include ‘The Life, Death, Miracles of Saint Somebody,/Saint Somebody Else, his Miracles, Death and Life’. In contrast to these notional volumes, the Old Yellow Book has a physical existence: ‘Small-quarto size, part print part manuscript’. The poet describes himself tossing it in the air and catching it again, twirling it ‘By the crumpled vellum covers’, jealous that the very reader he ‘shows’ it to may clutch his prize: ‘Give it me back! The thing’s restorative/I’ the touch and sight.’
‘The thing’s restorative’: yet the healing, sacred materiality of the Old Yellow Book is only part of the story. It may be ‘a book in shape’, but is really ‘pure crude fact,/Secreted from man’s life’; of itself it has no power, no active virtue. Which brings us to the other half of the title: for if the book is ‘pure crude fact’, what of the ring? The ring represents the poet’s artistry, the process by which the ‘gold’ of truth, of a real historical event, can be made malleable and shaped into a work of art. Another great Victorian principle comes into play here, the vitality of production, of the manufacturing process. The Ring and the Book, as Browning repeatedly pointed out to friends and correspondents, was a product of exhaustive research and exhausting labour (between 1864 and 1868). It is a craftsman’s job as much as an inspired vatic utterance. Browning states exactly what he paid for the Old Yellow Book – ‘a lira, eightpence English just’. The first readers of The Ring and the Book were required to buy it in four instalments, each costing seven shillings and sixpence. Each purchaser from Browning’s stall – or from that of his publishers, Smith, Elder – was therefore paying thirty shillings, or 360 pence, i.e. 45 times the price of the original. Like a canny Victorian merchant, Browning picked up his raw material cheap abroad, manufactured it into fancy goods, and sold it at a premium in his home market.
But the price of the book can only partly be expressed in monetary terms; or to put it another way, there is a different kind of economic circuit which links the poet’s finding and processing of his ‘pure crude fact’ and the reader’s purchase or consumption of it. In a letter to Elizabeth Barrett, written early in their correspondence and long before they were lovers, Browning expressed his reasoned dissatisfaction with his contemporary reputation:
For a dozen cabbages, if I pleased to grow them in the garden here, I might demand, say, a dozen pence at Covent Garden Market, – and for a dozen scenes, of the average goodness, I may challenge as many plaudits at the theatre close by, – and a dozen pages of verse, brought to the Rialto where verse-merchants most do congregate, ought to bring me a fair proportion of the Reviewers’ gold-currency, seeing the other traders pouch their winnings, as I do see.
Notice that money here is a metaphor for praise; Browning is not complaining that his poems don’t sell, but that he is not getting his fair share of ‘the Reviewers’ gold-currency’; yet the allusion to The Merchant of Venice aligns him with Shylock, reviled ‘Even there where merchants most do congregate’, and the praise he feels is his due has a suspiciously clinking sound to it.
This letter was written in 1845, and its jocular tone should not deceive us. The issue of popularity was a burning one for Browning, and the flames were still fierce twenty-five years later. Ever since Sordello, published in 1840, Browning had been branded as a poet of impenetrable – and worse, wilful – obscurity. He may have collaborated with this image, he may have ended by embracing it, but there is no evidence that he originally sought it, and plenty of evidence to the contrary. With tragic and (in literary history) unparalleled self-delusion, he thought Sordello would be a popular success, and he was devastated by the farmyard chorus that greeted its appearance. Just as the critics accused him of wilful disregard for his readers, so he accused them of wilful laziness and ill-will. ‘My own faults of expression were many,’ he wrote in a resentful preface to Sordello when he finally agreed to reprint it, ‘but with care for a man or a book such would be surmounted, and without it what avails the faultlessness of either?’ From Sordello onwards Browning was a poet at war with his readers, and The Ring and the Book must be read as a phase of this war. As he outlines the story of the Old Yellow Book, and meditates on the difficulties of interpreting the behaviour of the characters, the conflict bursts into the open; Browning imagines his readers having their usual reaction to his work:
Well, British Public, ye who like me not,
(God love you!) and will have your proper
At the dark question, laugh it! I laugh first.
Browning’s laugh is a peculiar, a compound thing. It gets his retaliation in first, certainly; but it also expresses something else, something more primitive, which belongs, by that very token, to the talismanic magic of the Old Yellow Book:
Enough of me!
The Book! I turn its medicinable leaves
In London now till, as in Florence erst,
A spirit laughs and leaps through every limb,
And lights my eye, and lifts me by the hair,
Letting me have my will again with these
– How title I the dead alive once more?
These lines, I think, are the core of the poem. The laughing and leaping spirit (it lifts Browning by the hair as the ‘mystic Shape’ drew his wife ‘backward by the hair’ at the end of Sonnet I of Sonnets from the Portuguese) masters the poet and gives him mastery; like the inspired oracle or rhapsode, he is filled with the god and is able to convert this divine energy into acts of power and pleasure, of resurrection and naming. But the god here is a book, an object whose ‘medicinable leaves’ are not those of an authoritative scripture, but an accidental ‘secretion’ of human life. Triumphant over his readers, Browning is also on all fours with them; holding the poet’s divine mandate, he interprets not a sacred code but a ‘dark question’ of common life. The appeal he imagines himself making to them is, once again, for recognition – not of his own authority and prestige, but of their community of interest, their brotherhood, the old ambition which animated Sordello and of which Browning found himself so cruelly and (as he thought) unjustly bereft. As Stefan Hawlin and Tim Burnett point out in their absorbing and meticulously detailed account of the poem’s genesis and publication, the fact that Browning had not finished writing the poem when its first instalments appeared enabled him to gauge something of the British Public’s response to the monumental wounded love letter he was addressing to them, a response sufficiently encouraging for him to moderate his tone a little in the final book:
So, British Public, who may like me yet,
(Marry and amen!)
The pleasure which Browning felt as he turned the leaves of the Old Yellow Book is linked to the pleasure he offers to a reader of The Ring and the Book, and the reader’s acknowledgment of this pleasure completes the circuit: ‘Marry and amen’ indeed.
In this light, the poem’s preoccupation with ‘truth’ and with the instability of meaning looks less like a metaphysical trap and more like a proposal of common ground. ‘See it for yourselves,’ Browning urges us in Book I, ‘This man’s act, changeable because alive!’ No one else’s ‘seeing’, not even that of the greatest poet, can substitute for our own. The condition of life is change, uncertainty, doubt; the truth of Browning’s vision of the story, considered simply in its own terms, is a dead letter. The gigantic and intricate mechanism of The Ring and the Book is designed not to enforce a point of view, but to make an immense acknowledgment of our common human predicament.
Unlike the Old Yellow Book, Browning’s poem has not suffered the indignities of oblivion and can hardly be classified among the ‘odds and ends of ravage’ in the literary market; but like other Victorian works, even those of Dickens, it is growing less accessible as its historical context recedes, a problem compounded by its own detailed reconstruction of a past culture, and by its elaborate literary allusiveness. The earliest book-length commentary, by A.K. Cook (1920), is still indispensable, though a great deal of historical information has emerged subsequently; much of this is summarised by Hawlin and Burnett, but even they do not incorporate the latest findings in the Arezzo archives, where Michael Meredith, the indefatigable general editor of the Oxford edition, has uncovered a great deal of new material about Pompilia, and especially about the priest Giuseppe Caponsacchi, who apparently enjoyed a drink and a brawl and carried on with his bad-boy behaviour long after Pompilia’s death and well into his own middle age. One of the paradoxes of the poem is that we now know much more about the Franceschini murders than Browning did, and much of the new evidence undermines his view of the case; yet if my reading of the poem is right, this fact should strengthen its power rather than weaken it. In any case a modern reader’s understanding of the poem (at the basic level) is dependent more on detailed local annotation, and here the picture is mixed.
Richard Altick’s 1971 edition in the Penguin English Library has now been reissued in collaboration with Thomas Collins, another eminent Browning scholar; but Al-tick’s necessarily sketchy notes have neither been expanded nor updated, and the only addition to his supplementary material (a chronology of real events, a list of lawsuits etc) is a welcome and useful collection of contemporary responses to the poem in letters and reviews. Moreover, Altick has tacitly reneged on the strong case he made in 1971 for printing the first edition text of the poem; this reissued volume, evidently under Collins’s auspices, prints the text that appeared in the final edition of Browning’s Poetical Works in 1888-89. The editors treat this text with impeccable bibliographical method, but do not argue, merely assume, its superiority to the first edition – a procedure somewhat lacking in candour, given that Altick had provided specific examples of why he thought Browning’s revisions to the poem were mostly fussy and unnecessary. Altick’s contention in 1971 – that the first edition should be preferred ‘because it represents the poem in the precise form in which Browning chose to submit it to the “British Public, who may like me yet”’ – still seems to me correct, or at least arguable.
Though Hawlin and Burnett’s annotation is much fuller and more detailed than Altick’s, it is still defective in many respects, principally because of its arbitrary and narrow focus on historical explication. The relationship between The Ring and the Book and Browning’s other works is an especially culpable omission, given the importance of this relationship and the frequency with which it involves cross-connections with Browning’s reading. In Book I, Browning speaks of Guido as the man who ‘determined, dared and did/This deed just as he purposed’. Not only does the phrase ‘determined, dared and did’ reappear in this particular poem (at IV 1106, for example: ‘murder was determined, dared and done’) but it resonates throughout Browning’s work because it comes from one of his favourites, Christopher Smart’s Song to David (1763), which concludes its exultant paean of divine glory with a flourish of self-praise: ‘And now the matchless deed’s achiev’d,/DETERMIN’D, DAR’D, and DONE’. An editor need not speculate as to why Browning took a phrase designating supreme artistic achievement and used it to describe the accomplishment of a brutal crime, but readers deserve to have the connection pointed out.
Where Hawlin and Burnett really make a difference is in their general introduction, which can hardly be bettered for clarity and informativeness, gives an appropriately dense and living portrait of Browning’s working methods, and richly enhances and illuminates the autobiographical aspect of the poem. As often happens, the reader is left wishing for an impossible compound – Altick’s original text, Hawlin and Burnett’s introduction, a better selection of notes. We should be thankful at least that the poem is still alive and kicking.