The Ring and the Book "You Never Know What Life Means Till You Die"

Robert Browning

"You Never Know What Life Means Till You Die"

Context: Of all Browning's works, this poem is the most long sustained; it is generally considered his masterpiece. He based it on an old book found in Florence which contained the transcript of a murder trial that occurred there in 1698. Browning's re-creation of the event takes its title from the ring, or circle, of evidence and from the book in which it was recorded. Browning presents the evidence as seen from twelve different viewpoints and weighs it carefully, bringing out the character of each actor as he does so. The central figure is Guido Franceschini; he is a Florentine nobleman spurred on by ambition and fierce pride, who has married a young heiress in an effort to save his decaying fortune. Guido is fifty years of age and incapable of love. He suspects his wife Pompilia of infidelity and is further enraged when he discovers she is not really the child of Pietro and Violante, but has been supplied by them in order that certain property might be kept out of Guido's hands. A trial is held to settle the property, and Guido's brutality asserts itself: Pompilia leaves him, traveling under the protection of a young priest named Caponsacchi. Guido pursues and captures them, and another trial is held after he charges them with adultery. It ends in a legal separation; Pompilia is placed in a convent and the priest is temporarily exiled. Since Pompilia is now expecting a child, she is soon allowed to go home to her parents. She sues for a divorce; the infuriated Guido retaliates by murdering Pompilia and her parents. She lives long enough to accuse him. When his trial for murder begins, Guido conveys the impression that he is an upright and honest man who has suffered an unbearable humiliation. His plea of justifiable homicide is not accepted, and as events go against him, Guido's evil nature becomes more and more apparent. The cardinal and the abate visit him in prison, offering him the consolation of the Church. Guido berates them and condemns the Church and its political activities. He attempts to make various deals with them, and through them with the authorities. He tries vainly to change the past, that his murders might be carried out more effectively. Gradually his bravado evaporates; Pompilia haunts him, and he tells of the abuses she suffered at his hands. He still wants her child, that he may bring it up brutally. Finally, with execution imminent, he begs for mercy. The breakdown is all the more shocking when contrasted with such bluster as the following:

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 life means till you die. . . .