The Ring and the Book reveals Robert Browning’s deep perceptive and poetic powers at their greatest heights. Based on a murder trial that took place in the city of Florence in 1698, the poem attempts to probe the inner motivations of the people involved in this old, sordid tale of passion and crime. A series of dramatic characterizations and episodes carries readers to a magnificent conclusion. Pompilia and Caponsacchi are among Browning’s most notable creations. Too long to be as widely read as Browning’s briefer poems yet too masterful to be disregarded by any of his admirers, The Ring and the Book exhibits language of tremendous power.
Compared to William Shakespeare’s greatest plays when it first appeared, The Ring and the Book put the final stamp of unqualified distinction on its author and confirmed his equality with Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the other giant of Victorian poetry. The Shakespearean comparison was a tribute to Browning’s poetic range and to his capacity to dig deep into experience to raise up forms and people that were larger than life. John Keats thought Shakespeare divine because the bard could create both a depraved villain such as Iago and a virtuous heroine such as Imogen, each with equal dramatic power. Similarly, Browning was admired for the variety and complexity of his characters. In Men and Women (1855) Browning revealed his gift for penetrating character analysis in such brilliant dramatic monologues as “Fra Lippo Lippi” and “Andrea del Sarto.” The joyous realism of Lippi—his relish for portraying things “just as they are”—contrasts sharply with the self-delusion of del Sarto, who betrays his talent and reputation for the sake of a worthless wife.
What Browning accomplished with individual monologues (his characteristic poetic form) became the basis for a cosmic view of human evil in The Ring and the Book. For four years, he worked on this ambitious project, and he published it at intervals from 1868 to 1869. The narrative poem consists of many long monologues, each expressing a different perspective upon the central action, Guido’s murder of Pompilia and her parents. By reflecting each character in the thoughts of the others, Browning’s monologues achieve dazzling effects in point of view and psychological revelation—despite the syntactical obscurity of much of the verse (Browning shares with the later Henry James a peculiar blend of impenetrable style and striking psychological insight).
The monologue form enables each character to speak his or her mind and to speculate on the thoughts and feelings of the others with a depth unavailable to the conventional drama. The effect evokes a juxtaposition of Shakespearean soliloquies—if such soliloquies could constitute a...
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