The Ring and the Book Robert Browning
The following entry presents criticism of Browning's poem The Ring and the Book (1868-69). See also Robert Browning Literary Criticism.
The Ring and the Book is regarded as Browning's poetic masterwork. Based on a set of historical and legal documents that the poet discovered in a bookstall in the square of San Lorenzo in Florence in 1860, the poem presents a series of dramatic monologues offering various perspectives on a lurid murder trial that involved a child bride, a predatory older groom, a disguised priest, a triple murder, four hangings, and a beheading. Critics contend that Browning's adaptation of these legal briefs, letters, and pamphlets into a complex, compelling, and well-crafted poem illustrates the poet's wide-ranging knowledge on an impressive range of subjects and constitutes one of the finest achievements in English poetry.
Plot and Major Characters
Comprised of more than 21,000 lines arranged in twelve sections, or books, and published in four volumes, The Ring and the Book is based on a collection of documents Browning dubbed the “Old Yellow Book,” which he bought for a pittance at a bookstall in Florence in 1860. Biographers assert that Browning started composing The Ring and the Book in 1864 and completed it at the end of 1868. In the first section of the poem, a speaker addresses the reader and describes how he discovered a book revealing the details of a seventeenth-century Italian murder trial in a Florence bookstall. He announces his intention to retell the story, and portrays himself as a master craftsman who will fashion a poem out of the raw documents, as a goldsmith shapes a beautiful ring out of raw gold. He maintains that although his rendition will be based on facts, the reader should not concentrate on the issue of the murderer's guilt, but should instead focus on why perception differs from person to person. The speaker then outlines the facts of the case, which are punctuated by ten extended monologues from the perspectives of the main players.
In 1693 Guido Franceschini, a poor nobleman of inferior rank, marries a thirteen-year-old girl named Pompilia Comparini from a wealthy family. Three years later, when Pompilia's mother and father, Violante and Pietro Comparini, visit Guido's estate in Arezzo, they are shocked to find their daughter living in impoverished and abusive conditions. They charge Guido with misrepresenting his financial situation at the time of the marriage and demand the return of their daughter's dowry. When it is revealed that Pompilia is the Comparinis' foster-child, bought from her mother, a prostitute, Guido intensifies his mistreatment of Pompilia. She finally flees the abuse and escapes to Rome with the help of a young priest, Giuseppe Caponsacchi. Guido pursues her and captures the couple about fifteen miles from Rome. Caponsacchi is excommunicated after being charged with seduction and adultery; Pompilia is sent to a nunnery. When it becomes apparent that Pompilia is pregnant, she is sent to live with her parents in Rome and months later gives birth to a baby boy, who is named Gaetano. Guido, realizing that he must have the child in order to gain his inheritance, travels to the Comparini estate in Rome. With four accomplices, he murders Pompilia's parents and stabs his wife 22 times; she survives long enough to identify her murderer. The baby is left unharmed. All five attackers are caught, arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death on February 22, 1698. Because he was a nobleman, Guido is beheaded; his accomplices are hanged in front of a large crowd. The final section of the poem reintroduces the speaker from the opening, who concludes with commentary on the nature of art and the role of truth in poetry.
The Ring and the Book incorporates several of Browning's most important thematic concerns: the nature of truth, the validity of human perception, the role of the reader in poetic expression, and the value of poetry as a reflection of universal concerns. By employing the extended monologue form—the poem includes ten dramatic monologues that express the perspectives of the speaker and the principals in the affair, as well as the Pope and the lawyers in the trial—Browning is able to present a range of perceptions as well as reveal the contradictory natures of individual characters. The Ring and the Book also explores several legal and moral questions current in seventeenth-century society, such as the status of women as property, domestic violence, the legal rules of marriage and inheritance, the responsibility of clergy, and the importance of honor in civil society. Commentators have found connections between the poem and Browning's personal experience, noting particularly the parallels between the relationship of Browning and his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and that of Caponsacchi and Pompilia. Moreover, they commend the range of metaphors and classical and biblical allusions found in The Ring and the Book. The ring metaphor is often viewed as the unifying metaphor at the heart of the poem and has been subject of a number of interpretations from a variety of perspectives.
Regarded as Browning's major contribution to English literature, The Ring and the Book has also been deemed the pinnacle of his poetic career. Reviewers recognized the value of the work upon its publication, and the poem enjoyed immediate success. Throughout the years, literary scholars have focused on Browning's skillful use of dramatic monologue, which functions to provide a multi-layered portrayal of the trial and its implications. However, as John M. Menaghan has pointed out, the disparate perspectives presented in The Ring and the Book have led to critical disputes over the poem's meaning and the author's intent. Scholars have investigated discrepancies between the “Old Yellow Book,” and Browning's imaginative adaptation, and while some have objected to the poet's apparent departures from the “truth,” others have contended that Browning is deliberately questioning the possibility of objective truth. W. Warwick Slinn has argued that there is “no separate divine truth in the poem, no dramatized position that corresponds to the position of, for example, Milton's God in Paradise Lost.” He has maintained that “Browning's structure for the poem stresses a continual movement into future texts, an unceasing transition from image to image, statement to statement, a movement which both produces meaning and postpones truth,” while Anne Hiemstra has stressed that “biblical symbolism functions as the element that controls the ultimate meaning” of the episodes depicted in the poem. Paul Zietlow has contended that in the poem Browning posits a world devoid of empirical and moral truth, and challenges the reader to “bear witness to ineffable spiritual truths by experiencing internal rebirth and resurrection.”
Other critics have examined a variety of aspects of the poem. Susan C. Hines and Mary Ellis Gibson have both observed in The Ring and the Book the Victorian fascination with crime and criminal trials. Slinn, Simon Petch, and L. M. Findlay have each explored different ways language functions in the poem. A number of critics have focused on psychology and characterization in The Ring and the Book. Alexander Pettit has detected elements of parody in Browning's depiction of Caponsacchi and Guido, which significantly affects the reception and interpretation of the characters. Candace Ward has seen Pompilia as representing a conflict of views on the nature of women. Melissa Valiska Gregory has explored domestic and sexual dynamics in the poem, arguing that “Browning's dramatic monologues shed new light on a domestic problem of considerable importance to the Victorian period: the psychology of sexual violence.” Norman Friedman has analyzed Guido's psychology, contending that by the end of the poem “he has moved from one level of being to another and come into contact with a part of himself that he has hitherto repressed.”