The Ring and the Book, Robert Browning - Essay

Robert Browning


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession 1833

Paracelsus 1835

Sordello 1840

*Dramatic Lyrics 1842

*Dramatic Romances and Lyrics 1845

Poems. 2 vols. 1849

Christmas Eve and Easter Day 1850

Two Poems [with Elizabeth Barrett Browning] 1854

Men and Women. 2 vols. 1855

Poetical Works. 3 vols. 1863

Dramatis Personae 1864

The Ring and the Book. 4 vols. 1868-69

Balaustion's Adventure, Including a Transcript from Euripides 1871

Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, Saviour of Society 1871

Fifine at the Fair 1872

Red Cotton Night-Cap Country; or, Turf and Towers 1873

Aristophanes' Apology, Including a Transcript from Euripides, Being the Last Adventures of Balaustion 1875

The Inn Album 1875

Pacchiarotto and How He Worked in Distemper, with Other Poems 1876

La Saisiaz, and The Two Poets of Croisic 1878

Dramatic Idyls. 2 vols. 1879-80

Jocoseria 1883

Ferishtah's Fancies 1884

Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in Their Day 1887

Asolando: Fancies and Facts 1889

The Complete Poetical Works of Robert Browning [edited by Augustine Birrell] 1915

Robert Browning: The Poems. 2 vols. [edited by John Pettigrew and Thomas J. Collins] 1981

Poetical Works. 8 vols. [Oxford English Texts] 1983-2001

Strafford (play) 1837

*Pippa Passes (play) 1841

*King Victor and King Charles (play) 1842

*A Blot in the 'Scutcheon: A Tragedy in Five Acts (play) 1843

*The Return of the Druses: A Tragedy in Five Acts (play) 1843

*Colombe's Birthday: A Play in Five Acts (play) 1844

*Luria, and A Soul's Tragedy (play) 1846

The Agamemnon of Aeschylus (play) 1877

The Works of Robert Browning. 10 vols. [edited by Frederic G. Kenyon] (poetry and plays) 1912

The Brownings' Correspondence. 14 vols. [edited by Philip Kelley and Ronald Hudson] 1984-98

The Plays of Robert Browning [edited by Thomas J. Collins and Richard J. Shroyer] 1988

*These eight works comprise the Bells and Pomegranates series.

John M. Menaghan (essay date spring 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Menaghan, John M. “Embodied Truth: The Ring and the Book Reconsidered.” University of Toronto Quarterly 52, no. 3 (spring 1983): 263-76.

[In the following essay, Menaghan outlines and responds to the various controversies surrounding The Ring and the Book and elucidates Browning's goals for the poem.]

Man can embody truth, but he cannot know it.

W. B. Yeats


Anyone reviewing the critical literature surrounding Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book is likely to be led at some point to ask why, given what critics assume to be Browning's goals for the poem, he seems to have taken...

(The entire section is 6663 words.)

Mary Ellis Gibson (essay date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Gibson, Mary Ellis. “The Manuscripts of Robert Browning, Sr.: A Source for The Ring and the Book.Studies in Browning and His Circle 13 (1985): 11-19.

[In the following essay, Gibson identifies the notebooks and letters of Browning's father as viable sources for The Ring and the Book.]

In describing the poet's early education, most biographies of Robert Browning begin with the enthusiasms and historical interests of his father. The elder Browning's love for antiquarian books, his enlivening of the classics by conducting the Trojan wars in the school yard, and his penchant for odd rhymes as childhood mnemonic devices have all been duly noted. More...

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Anne Hiemstra (essay date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Hiemstra, Anne. “Browning and History: Synecdoche and Symbolism in The Ring and the Book.Studies in Browning and His Circle 13 (1985): 47-58.

[In the following essay, Hiemstra maintains that Browning greatly augmented the biblical allusions present in the “Old Yellow Book,” to the point that in The Ring and the Book “biblical symbolism functions as the element that controls the ultimate meaning of this historical episode.”]

The common critical approach of modern scholars to The Ring and the Book has been to focus on only two aspects of the poem, namely Browning's manipulation of point of view through the dramatic monologue,...

(The entire section is 4778 words.)

Paul Zietlow (essay date spring 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Zietlow, Paul. “The Ascending Concerns of The Ring and the Book: Reality, Moral Vision, and Salvation.” Studies in Philology 84, no. 2 (spring 1987): 194-218.

[In the following essay, Zietlow argues that Browning's main intention in The Ring and the Book is to save souls, and contends that “to advance toward salvation the reader must bear witness to ineffable spiritual truths by experiencing internal rebirth and resurrection.”]

Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book severely challenges the reader's capacities for recognizing and assenting to empirical and moral truths. As a representation of general reality, the poem portrays a...

(The entire section is 10203 words.)

W. Warwick Slinn (essay date autumn-winter 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Slinn, W. Warwick. “Language and Truth in The Ring and the Book.Victorian Poetry 27, nos. 3-4 (autumn-winter 1989): 115-33.

[In the following essay, Slinn analyzes the relationship between “human language and poetic truth” in The Ring and the Book.]

This essay will focus on the textualization of meaning in The Ring and the Book and thus on the poem as a critique of transcendence.1 Critics have often noted the concerns in the poem with both truth and language but generally have identified these in terms of a separation between human falsehood (error-ridden language) and divine (transcendent) truth.2 My point is that...

(The entire section is 8685 words.)

Susan C. Hines (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Hines, Susan C. “A Trial Reading of Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book.Studies in Browning and His Circle 18 (1990): 28-33.

[In the following essay, Hines examines the relationship between the ring and legal metaphors in The Ring and the Book. “Like the ring metaphor,” she observes, “the legal metaphor also comes full circle; and, as it falls back upon itself, it promotes an endless cycle of interpretation.”]

When Robert Browning published his final volume of The Ring and the Book in 1869, he enjoyed instant success. Not only had he made a substantial and unique contribution to the poetical genre, but he had supplied his...

(The entire section is 2589 words.)

Mary Ellis Gibson (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Gibson, Mary Ellis. “The Criminal Body in Victorian Britain: The Case of The Ring and the Book.Browning Institute Studies 18 (1990): 73-93.

[In the following essay, Gibson perceives The Ring and the Book to be based on Victorian responses to crime and the body.]

“For the choice of subject we have nothing but condemnation. It is Mr Browning's luck” (Litzinger 331). Thus the reviewer for Chamber's Journal in 1869 summed up his reaction to the subject matter of Browning's The Ring and the Book. Indeed, this account of Browning's subject has seemed satisfactory to all but the biographically inclined of Browning's critics....

(The entire section is 8662 words.)

L. M. Findlay (essay date winter 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Findlay, L. M. “Taking the Measure of Différance: Deconstruction and The Ring and the Book.Victorian Poetry 29, no. 4 (winter 1991): 401-14.

[In the following essay, Findlay conducts a deconstructive reading of The Ring and the Book.]

In the 1990s, when the reception of deconstruction has moved beyond the extremes of zealotry and hostility that marked its early career in North America, there is a continuing need to register indebtedness to its principal proponents in a careful, reasoned, yet critical way. In this essay I hope to contribute to this process by testing several contentions associated with the Derridean coinage,...

(The entire section is 6696 words.)

Simon Petch (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Petch, Simon. “Law, Narrative, and Anonymity in Browning's The Ring and the Book.Victorian Literature and Culture 20 (1992): 311-33.

[In the following essay, Petch examines the narrative methodology of The Ring and the Book, noting its use of techniques of legal discourse.]

Nobody has ever had much to say for the anonymous voices who speak in books II-IV of The Ring and the Book. “Half-Rome,” “The Other Half-Rome,” and “Tertium Quid” have consistently attracted less attention than other parts of the poem.1 In critical studies of the poem they invariably get lumped together or ignored. Even their main advocate,...

(The entire section is 10128 words.)

Alexander Pettit (essay date spring 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Pettit, Alexander. “Place, Time, and Parody in The Ring and the Book.Victorian Poetry 31, no. 1 (spring 1993): 95-106.

[In the following essay, Pettit analyzes elements of parody in The Ring and the Book, with which, he contends, Browning creates a pervasive sense of disjunction and absurdity in the poem.]

In The Ring and the Book, Caponsacchi and Guido experience place and time disjunctively. They inhabit a series of environments the quality of which is obscure and their relation to which is obscure as well; they are dislocated geographically and temporally, awkward guests in a city and a century the particulars of which they fail to...

(The entire section is 5224 words.)

Candace Ward (essay date spring 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Ward, Candace. “Damning Herself Praiseworthily: Nullifying Women in The Ring and the Book.Victorian Poetry 34, no. 1 (spring 1996): 1-14.

[In the following essay, Ward attempts to reconcile competing interpretations of the character of Pompilia in The Ring and the Book.]

Readings of Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book often focus on the views of women: the enlightened view presented through the characters of accused adulteress Pompilia and her champion, the Pope, and the misogynistic view held by Guido Franceschini, Pompilia's husband and murderer. Because these two views seem diametrically opposed, and because Guido's testimony is...

(The entire section is 5713 words.)

Melissa Valiska Gregory (essay date winter 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Gregory, Melissa Valiska. “Robert Browning and the Lure of the Violent Lyric Voice: Domestic Violence and the Dramatic Monologue.” Victorian Poetry 38, no. 4 (winter 2000): 491-510.

[In the following essay, Gregory maintains that The Ring and the Book provides insight to the problem of domestic violence in the Victorian period.]

Although the study of Victorian poetry may not be teetering on the brink of extinction, contemporary literary scholars have tended to work through their primary concerns in novels rather than poetry when it comes to questions of nineteenth-century domestic ideology. Like Nancy Armstrong, who argues in Desire and Domestic...

(The entire section is 7893 words.)

Norman Friedman (essay date May 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Friedman, Norman. “The Mind of Guido: Psychology and Art in Browning's Darkest Villain.” Studies in Browning and His Circle 23 (May 2000): 122-34.

[In the following essay, Friedman offers a psychological profile of Guido, the villain of The Ring and the Book.]

My aim is to attempt a psychological study of Browning's most fully developed villain, but since such a project is best seen within the poem's overall artistic form and purpose, I will first direct our attention to that context. And the lion in the path is, of course, Robert Langbaum's study of The Ring and the Book in The Poetry of Experience1 and in his article “Is Guido...

(The entire section is 5630 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Bailey, Suzanne. “Somatic Wisdom: Refiguring Bodies in The Ring and the Book.Victorian Studies 41, no. 4 (summer 1998): 567-91.

Investigates Browning's preoccupation with the body in The Ring and the Book.

Brewer, William D. “‘In Heaven We Have the Real and True and Sure’: The Influence of Dante's the Vita Nuova on Browning's The Ring and the Book.Studies in Browning and His Circle 16 (1988): 7-17.

Determines the influence of Dante's Vita Nuova on The Ring and the Book, arguing that “a Knowledge of Browning's debt to Dante is vital to a full appreciation...

(The entire section is 950 words.)