The Ring and the Book "'Tis Death That Makes Life Live"

Robert Browning

"'Tis Death That Makes Life Live"

Context: This poem is the most long sustained of Browning's works and is considered his masterpiece. It is based on an old book he found in Florence, which contains the transcript of a sensational murder trial that occurred there in 1698. The title of Browning's poem comes from the circle of evidence which is sifted in it and from the old manuscript book on which it is based. In the poem Browning restates the evidence from twelve different viewpoints and weighs it, revealing the character of each major figure through testimony. The central person is Guido Franceschini, a nobleman of fifty from Arezzo, who married a young heiress named Pompilia in order to rebuild his crumbling fortunes. She is not really the child of her supposed parents, Pietro and Violante; she has been supplied by them in order that certain property may not be transmitted to another branch of the family. When she learns from Guido why he has married her, Pompilia tells him the truth. A trial is then held to settle the property. Guido is a cruel, fiercely proud man incapable of love; his brutality now asserts itself and is such that his bride leaves him, fleeing under the protection of a young priest named Caponsacchi. Guido pursues and has them arrested, charging them with adultery; this trial ends in a separation, Pompilia going to a convent and Caponsacchi to temporary exile. She is expecting a child, however, and is allowed to go to live with her parents, where she begins a suit for divorce. Guido, in an uncontrollable fury, butchers all three; but Pompilia lives long enough to testify against him. He claims justifiable homicide at his trial but loses, and an appeal is denied by the pope. Guido's first testimony gives the impression that he is a noble man who has been unbearably humiliated and denied his rights, but his true nature is gradually revealed. In prison, awaiting execution, he talks at length to the cardinal and the abate, who have come to offer him the consolation of the Church. Here he reveals himself in all his repellent nature. He rails at the Church and its politics, attempts various deals, tries to turn back the clock to perform his murders more effectively. He reveals many of the abuses he heaped upon Pompilia, who now haunts him; he wants custody of the child to bring it up sternly. In the end he begs abjectly for mercy; this act is all the more shocking for its contrast with the bravado immediately preceding it:

What if I be 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,
. . .
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!
And, as regards the manner that offends,
The rude and rough, I count the same for gain.
Be the act harsh and quick! Undoubtedly
The soul's condensed and, twice itself, expands
To burst through life, by alternation due,
Into the other state whate'er it prove.
You never know what death means till you die:
Even throughout life, 't is death that makes life live,
Gives it whatever the significance.