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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...

(The entire section contains 88270 words.)

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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

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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)

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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 such a peculiar, clotted, and roundabout path to their realization. If the poem is designed to convince us, say, of Pompilia's innocence, why has the poet built in so many elements that distract us not just from a conviction of such innocence but even from any steady concern with seeing it established? Why, if the poem's climax comes with the Pope's monologue, do the two books which follow do so much to complicate our sense of having arrived at the truth? When questions like these are raised at all, they are usually raised by critics who believe the answers must necessarily reflect negatively on Browning, that their needing to be raised at all calls into question not the critics' assumptions about what the poet was trying to do but the success of the work itself.

Loosely following the lead of Ralph Rader in another context,1 I would seek to ask instead the following general question as a means of resolving the many minor disputes that have dogged the work since its publication in four volumes in 1868-9: what must Browning have been trying to do, what larger intention for the construction of the whole must have determined the choices of developing each part in order that the poet, so familiar with the pain of being misunderstood, should have chosen to present the poem as he did, despite the risks of confusion such a complex presentation involved? A satisfactory answer to this question would, I believe, go far towards correcting any false assumptions that have been made about the poem in the past, and help us to see particular effects and sections of the massive work in light of the author's overarching design, his controlling intention.

Such a process must begin with a brief rehearsal of the most common and general critical controversies surrounding the work, followed by an attempt to resolve such controversies from the broad perspective of a posited controlling intention. Several major issues run through the criticism of the century and more since the work's appearance. The first centres upon the famous ‘Yellow Book,’ discovered by Browning in 1860 in the Piazza San Lorenzo in Florence. Despite the many imaginative embellishments evident in the poem, Browning insisted that he had adhered to ‘the facts’ in presenting the tale of Pompilia, Caponsacchi, Guido, the Pope, and the others in a series of alternately sordid and noble adventures. The obvious discrepancies between the limited and fairly unromanticized picture of both character and event which emerges from a reading of the ‘Yellow Book’ and Browning's imaginative, symbolic treatment of them have not been so obvious as to preclude their being pointed out, ‘substantiated,’ and used as a bludgeon by those critics disinclined to believe that Browning must have been aware of such discrepancies and have meant by the ‘facts’ something more primary and less open to interpretation. The hue and cry against the poet's rather liberal reinterpretation of the characters and their motives begins early in the criticism and is given repeated impetus by the introduction of the ‘Yellow Book’ itself and other documents relating to the case as they appear successively in English translations.2

A second controversy centres upon the ring metaphor, the object over the years of nearly every sort of scientific, aesthetic, and philosophical scrutiny and interpretation. The problem of deciding whether the metaphor works has been complicated by a series of disagreements over what it means, with every new commentator working a variation on Browning's original explanation.

Related to both of these issues has been the question of Browning's intelligence, his intellectual capacity. Did he possess and display a sure grasp of philosophical and theological intricacies? Was he capable of and did he provide a coherent new system of thought? Was he merely a none too penetrating optimist, or, conversely, a hopeless romantic indulging a dark fascination with evil and malevolence? Over the years, and particularly in relation to his master work, Browning has been accused of deficiencies in all of these areas.

Somewhat more crucial to this discussion of The Ring and the Book has been the debate over its structure. Critics have been at odds in deciding just what the length, dramatic form, and choice of subject-matter are designed to do. Is the whole apparatus merely meant to convince us of Pompilia's innocence, or, alternately, that there is no such thing as truth? Are we instead to see that only the poet possesses truth, by seeing it from all sides? Does the work end by presenting us with the truth, or only with a sense that truth is not to be had? Alternative answers to all of these questions have been offered at one time or another by critics, sometimes to establish the poet's success and sometimes his failure.

In addition, there are questions as to the suitability of Browning's subject-matter to his chosen format (Henry James saw the possibilities of a novel in the story, as apparently Browning had also, offering it to Trollope and others before deciding to treat it himself); the question of authorial intrusion versus dramatic presentation in books I and XII (is Browning to be taken as a dramatic character here?); and the obvious parallels in subject-matter and treatment between the poem and Browning's own life experience. These elements as well are sometimes viewed as the keys to the success of the work, sometimes as the evidence of its failure.

Is there a way of viewing the work and the issues raised by it which would account for our continued attention to it in spite of these apparent deficiencies and for our continuing to be moved by it?3 I think there is, and I think that many of the interpretations and accusations placed on Browning's masterpiece deserve to be re-examined in the light of his discoverable intention.

Suppose we take to heart the end of the poem, Browning's statement that the whole poem is meant to show that

                    our human speech is nought
Our human testimony false, our fame
And human estimation words and wind.(4)

Anticipating the reader, Browning as speaker proceeds to ask why one would take the foregoing, roundabout way to prove so little or, as Browning ambiguously puts it, ‘so much’ (XII.841). Browning's answer, which incidentally affirms and insists on this seemingly little thing to be proved as the complex intention of the poem, is that ‘the artistic way’ is ‘the one way possible / Of speaking truth’ (XII.843-4). The truth he wishes to have spoken cannot be rendered directly by one voice, self-consciously addressing an audience, not even the voice of the poet himself. In light of this fact, Browning induces us to understand that no particular statement or spokesman within the poem, not even the poet's own utterance, can be taken as authoritative. Thus Browning employs the only possible form in which to express truth: Art. The truth, then, rather than being extractable from particular statements within the poem, must be seen to exist only as the poem, and only if it succeeds as a whole, as the artistic embodiment of, not merely the vehicle for, a truth that could not otherwise be expressed.

But Browning is not concerned to enforce a theme so much as to have the poem work its effect upon the reader. The poem is not a bare, plain statement of the apparently simplistic notion that man cannot know truth. Rather, Browning would seek to ‘tell a truth / Obliquely, do the thing shall breed the thought’ (XII.859-60). He knows it is ineffective to look ‘a brother in the face’ and pronounce a thing to be truth, ‘Which truth, by when it reaches him, looks false’ (XII.855). So he would have us experience both the elusiveness of truth and a desire to attain or at least approach a knowledge of it. This experience necessarily involves a thorough acquaintance with the ‘bare facts’ of an actual human experience, as supported by documents, an attempt by the reader to sort through and at the same time vicariously participate in the insights and distortions of a variety of perceptions and finally to arrive at a sense of the truth as something more and more nearly visible with each additional perspective but never completely to be known. In this light what is often taken as the raison d'être of the poem, to establish Pompilia's innocence, is more nearly a device designed to sustain our interest in truth even in the midst of numerous distortions. Browning focuses our concern on a particular situation about which we will care enough to want to see the truth established and which will help to maintain our interest in seeing the existence of truth validated in general terms. From the perspective of this controlling intention—to bring us through an experience of the inaccessibility of, and at the same time fuel our hunger for, the truth—many of the accumulated distortions of criticism begin to drop away.


One major source of controversy has been the disputed relation, as noted above, between fact and imagination, between the facts as they appear in the ‘Yellow Book’ and elsewhere and Browning's apparent transformation of them into the extended human drama of the poem. Critics have not in the main objected to such a transformation, seeing it instead as the poet's right and function.5 Instead, they have been puzzled by the insistence upon fidelity to fact in view of the obvious extension and embellishment which occur. This puzzlement is reinforced by the almost jovial quality of assurance with which Browning expresses his insistence upon such fidelity: ‘“Why I almost have you at an unfair advantage,” Browning tells Miss Wedgwood, “in the fact that the whole story is true.”’6

Yet Browning's insistence need not be so puzzling if we see the poem as only peripherally concerned with the story of Pompilia and Caponsacchi. Even as regards their story, however, Browning is faithful to the facts in one indisputable sense: he does not alter events in order to reflect a theme. He does not, for instance, have Guido kill Caponsacchi and Pompilia when he discovers them at Castelnuovo, though he might well have had such a murder take place in his story were he concerned primarily to convince us of the wrong done to Pompilia. Browning does not consider such a story because such a murder did not, in fact, take place.7 He begins, then, with an assumed fidelity to the facts, to actual events, and only allows his imagination to elucidate the life behind the unalterable facts of the case. ‘Fancy with fact is just one fact the more’ (I.464). He is free to stick to the facts because the story itself is no more than a vehicle for the larger purposes of the poet. He is concerned not to alter events as a means of controlling our judgment but to direct our attention to the impossibility of certain judgment about such events. At the same time he must establish the importance of seeking the truth, which lies somewhere behind the distortions of interpretation.

Further, to accept Browning as a dramatic speaker in books I and XII, as we finally must do if we are to see the poem as a consistent whole, is to see this embellishment as a function of his self-acknowledged inability to present us with a view of events free from distortion. It is odd how few critics have even considered the possibility that Browning is a character in his own poem,8 yet he must be if the dramatic form is not to be violated and if the general message regarding human speech is not to be undercut. As readers schooled to accept the voice of the poet as authoritative, Browning's Victorian audience had to be taught that such a voice must be judged along with those of all the other characters in order for the poem to achieve its proper effect.

Nor have the critics made much, except to complain, of the fact that Browning for the first time in his poetic career builds the details of his own life experience into the poem to foster his status as a speaker with a full-fledged background and a set of artistic obsessions reminiscent of ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’ or ‘Andrea del Sarto.’ Those who claim that the latter is Browning's fullest version of himself have failed to recognize that the fullest version of Browning as artist and personality is given with a fair amount of explicitness in his greatest work, and that Browning, rather than concealing his personality behind an assumed mask, has chosen instead to dramatize himself in his ‘role’ as speaker.

Thus we can see that any question of historical accuracy becomes also a question of Browning's personal experience and its effect on the interpretation offered by his speaker/self. The complex relation between aspects of the poet's life and his transformation of the characters in the poem and their symbolic trappings is obliquely acknowledged by Browning. He manipulates the recognized limits of his own poetic and visionary powers to contribute to his main purpose. The poet as speaker distorts our view of the other speakers, revealing himself thereby as a less than independent observer even while he provides us with a seemingly objective opportunity to be exposed to the viewpoints of the various important principals.

As the biographers make clear, Browning was immersed in troubling private concerns all during the period of the poem's composition.9 Yet, rather than seeing the inevitable traces of the poet's personality as intrusions upon the dramatic presentation of a distinct historical event,10 we may well appreciate how Browning, by choosing for the first time in his career to express himself directly in his work (a work which, ironically enough, argues against the inefficacy of directness in myriad ways), hit on the brilliant device of turning himself into a dramatic and self-dramatizing voice. By this method he could appear to promote his own judgments on the one hand, warn us away from the wholesale adoption of them on the other, and cause us ultimately to be aware of and to question the influence of our own personal concerns on our ongoing interpretation of character and event.11

Finding Browning established as speaker/character, we begin to see that much of the embellishment of the facts (rather than of the characters themselves, whom Browning has ‘resuscitated’) may be said to emanate from the private motives of the speakers and from the larger demands of the dramatic framework. In this view, the poet/speaker is the medium through which the other characters speak, the distorting glass through which we are forced to perceive them, and yet the resuscitation itself is performed by the invisible poet.

How is the poet invisible and yet so wholly in evidence? This was the problem facing Browning himself, and his ring metaphor is an attempt to explain how the poet can be both a voice in the poem and the invisible shaper of the whole:

I fused my live soul and that inert stuff.


Though the controversy over the metaphor has continued unabated up to the present, with many critics continuing to find the metaphor troublesome, the best statement of its meaning and effect would seem to be the following:

The process of mixing alloy with pure gold to shape the ring parallels that by which Browning mixed imagination with pure fact for his poem. If a quick spurt of acid at last removed alloy from the ring's face, so the poet's imagination in effect vanished from the surface of the work—to be enveloped and subsumed by the psyches of his historic monologuists, whose speeches owe to it for their artistic design, interrelations, and ultimate meaning.12

To this it need only be added that, as Paul Cundiff first points out, the poet is removed only from the surface of the work, becoming invisible after shaping the whole.13 But within the work, blended with the pure gold of facts, Browning the speaker remains inextricably mixed in with the other characters and voices, influencing without quite controlling our view of them. Thus we have the shaping poet whose influence vanishes from the surface of the work and the inextricable alloy of the poet/speaker's interpretive prejudices mixed in with the other voices so anxious to persuade.

We may assume that Browning was at the same time not entirely oblivious to the many symbolic associations of the circle as a symbol of perfection, gold as both precious metal and filthy lucre, and the added richness of the connection between Elizabeth's actual ring and the attraction to ‘facts’ as pure gold. Further, we may see the analogy of the poem itself to a gold ring as pointing to Browning's contention that we are as humans destined never to arrive at a full perception of the truth but only to circle the area in which it resides. The repetition of the same basic events narrated by the ten different speakers (including the poet), a ring of persuasion and interpretation swirling around the same centre of unalterable fact, adds richly to the metaphor. There seems little reason, then, to complain about Browning's ring metaphor as inconsistent, illogical, or overworked. Complaints about the metaphor would seem to derive instead from a failure in large part to see Browning as speaker, and thereby to miss the main significance of the metaphor as a symbol of the split between the invisible poet removed from the work's surface and the poet/speaker as inextricable alloy mixed in with the other elements of the whole.

The same failure to perceive Browning's role as a speaker in the poem, subject to the same evaluative scrutiny as the other speakers, has led to a decidedly distorted view of his intellectual prowess.14 There is nothing wrong, of course, with questioning the limits and capabilities of Browning's mind. But if we come to see The Ring and the Book as a dramatic form in which the poet's voice is designed in a certain sense to be unreliable, to be one voice among many competing voices in the work, it must appear absurd to attempt to evaluate Browning the man by examining a dramatic self-portrayal which demands to be undermined if the poem as a whole is to succeed as a dramatic construct. As K. L. Knickerbocker suggests in response to one attack on Browning as a thinker:

He had no reason, perhaps not even the ability, to develop a system of thought. There are plenty of systems and none of them satisfactory … He made little effort to be obviously consistent, on the grounds, possibly, that life in any general sense is inescapably inconsistent anyway.15

At the very least, we cannot ask Browning to be consistent in a poem which is attempting to demonstrate experientially the impossibility of being so by presenting dramatic characters torn between the search for truth and their own motives for speaking, and a poet/speaker torn between the desire to disappear from the face of his objective presentation and to appear as a character within it, balancing a restless desire to discover the truth among the tangle of lives and lies against the conviction that a firm knowledge of truth lies outside man's power. Browning as poet, then, is concerned to present not the resolution of intellectual controversies but the development of ‘conflicts growing out of opposing intellectual and emotional forces.’16 He is not concerned to present a speculative system of thought but the drama of the human predicament in a world where truth, however earnestly desired, can only be approximated, never attained.


It is usually assumed that a conviction of Pompilia's innocence is that goal towards which the poet intends with all his poetic resources to lead us. Yet the evidence of both the poem itself and of critical reaction to it ought to call such an assumption into question. Not only does the traditional focus upon the monologues of Pompilia, Caponsacchi, and the Pope to the exclusion of the others seem false and sentimental, as recent critics have noted, but the poem also proceeds in such a manner as to make a firm conviction of any sort increasingly difficult to sustain or even arrive at. This is not to say that we do not in a general way assent to Pompilia's probable innocence. But the poem, were it designed to convince us of her unquestionable innocence, surely might have contained certain elements which are lacking and eliminated certain others so distractingly present. Pompilia's speech is no doubt very moving, but it is surrounded and qualified by other monologues and perspectives which cannot but discourage us from an easy acceptance of Pompilia as relayer of spiritual and temporal truth. As one critic puts it: ‘The ground of Browning's monologues remains a character seen under moments of intense stress, driven to take a point of view.’17 Pompilia is just such a character, as are Caponsacchi, the Pope, and all the others, the poet/speaker not the least.

Yet such intense stress is not the burden of the reader of The Ring and the Book. His natural concern for the narrative flow is rather tidily dismissed in book I by the poet/speaker, who tells the tale three times over, and interprets liberally for the reader, providing the momentary impression that, the narrative shot, there is nothing left to hear. What is left, however, is the opportunity to abandon for a time the reader's own need, experienced as a rule under ‘moments of intense stress’ in the unfolding of a traditional narrative, to adopt a point of view.

Instead, the reader is invited to relocate his attention, to listen to the various points of view, to know they have been adopted under stress, and from a position of semi-detached judgment to evaluate not Pompilia's innocence but the motives of human speech and the possibilities for discovering truth within it. The evaluation will by no means be an easy one. Only by evaluating motives and being exposed to the several characters engaged in speech and struggle can the reader begin to understand that this poem is not, like traditional drama or narrative, building to a climax of action or statement. Browning wishes instead to express the futility of such movement, of such a statement:

How look a brother in the face and say
‘Thy right is wrong, eyes hast thou yet art blind’?


We are to look instead for a series of perspectives to emerge which, as a whole, compose a circle, a ring. Just so, we are constrained by human limits, our own and those of the poet/speaker, to circle the truth, all the while gaining perspectives on it but coming more and more to see that it does not reside in particular statements or monologues. It is the poem itself as total work, total expression and form, which expresses truth. Still, our interest in Pompilia does persist, as Browning intends it to do, and provides one focal point for the monologues.

In this regard we can also see that Browning was not attempting to show that truth is non-existent. Had he been, his method would indeed have been quite inefficient. The formal design, to be successful, would have had to move us further and further from any sense that truth is worth pursuing and able to be located, into a world of chaos where man is resigned forever to subjectivity as a condition of human existence. Instead of convincing us that truth does not exist, the ordering of the monologues subtly contributes to a progress towards greater and greater approximation of the truth. The Pope, for all his limitations, is a seer of sorts, whose methods and intentions, at least, are above reproach. Guido's change of tone and story in book XI confirms our sense that truth, if it cannot actually be known, has in this case somehow been served, and that the effort to discover truth can in and of itself yield positive results. If the poet/speaker must come forth in book XII to remind us that we have not really achieved a secure formulation of truth, that truth lies somewhere mixed in among all these perspectives, such a reminder is different in kind from an assertion that there is no such thing as truth. Neither can the poet/speaker himself lay claim to any ability to express truth (as his resorting to the varied testimonies of others in book XII—a sort of mad scramble for additional perspective—makes clear). The poet as speaker distorts as much as he clarifies our view of the other characters.18 Only the invisible shaper of the whole, and only then by means of the poem in toto, can express truth through the artistic construct of the achieved poem, ‘the one way possible / Of speaking truth’ (XII.843-4).


It seems important to consider briefly what may be called the novelistic dimension of Browning's great work. At least partly because of Elizabeth's disapproval of the ‘sordid’ subject-matter, Browning offered the ‘Yellow Book’ in all of its naked possibility to several other writers, chiefly novelists, all of whom appear to have spurned Browning's suggestion that they make something of it. This evidence, along with a celebrated address by Henry James on ‘The Novel in The Ring and the Book,19 has contributed to the feeling often expressed or implied that Browning somehow bungled the execution of his plan (presumably to tell the story of Pompilia), that his choice of design or his powers of execution or both were inadequate to the task he proposed for himself:

Like Henry James later, he perceived a novel in the contrasting depositions and pleas of a murder case whose antecedent events were extraordinarily complex. The trial documents called for techniques in handling multiple viewpoints with an illusion of simultaneity that would tax the novelistic art of a Richardson. Even as late as 1868, Browning was dubious as to whether he could get people ‘to read through in proper order’ virtually the same story told ten or eleven times.20

Such dubiousness, originally Browning's, has survived in the form of critical speculations as to the success of the poet's design and the wisdom of its selection. The issue has been clouded in part by a tendency to see, as Robert Langbaum and others have done, the first and last books as an intrusion on the presumed design, as a violation of the straight dramatic presentation of the middle ten books.21 Yet if we are to appreciate the poem as it exists, we must attempt to revise our expectations—so far as this is possible and so far as the work has the power to persuade us to do so—in order to see not where the poem fails (though it may) but whether we perhaps fail in analysing it to penetrate the mysteries of its power over us and pleasure for us. Retrospective judgment on what might have been is a procedure appropriate only in the case of failed works, and I am convinced, as many readers before me have been, that Browning succeeds admirably, if not completely, in creating the ‘last poem of epic length in English of indisputably high stature.’22

Of course, Browning's relation to the developing tendency in fiction towards multiple points of view and psychological portraiture, however incidental to the overall design of The Ring and the Book, can scarcely be overemphasized. As has previously been observed, ‘its mature psychological content parallel[s] the contemporary fiction of Meredith and George Eliot and, in this respect, the later fiction of Mann and of Proust, of Joyce, of Virginia Woolf—and, indeed, of Henry James.’ But to say further that ‘the novel that Henry James with so much gusto and approval detected in the poem's “inordinate muchness” was not fully possible until 1922, since its techniques and imagery at least are too demanding for pre-Ulyssean prose,’23 is, finally, to say too much, to sacrifice Browning to an admiration for Joyce's inventiveness where it seems wiser and more fruitful to appreciate the distinct merits of each. This is especially so in light of the fact that historically Joyce is in debt to Browning, however indirectly, for his pioneering experiments with character and narrative, rather than the other way around, and because Browning ought not to be criticized for not achieving a thing he would appear not to have attempted—Ulyssean prose.

As for the work itself, we can see how different from the novelists of his own time Browning was in his eschewing narrative continuity in favour of the dramatization of both ‘narrator’ (poet/speaker) and characters, not in action but in speech. Browning was at the same time, despite his psychological penetration, concerned mostly to deal in types rather than individuals (as has occasionally been noted) in order, I would suggest, to maintain his primary focus not on personality but on the reflected patterns of expression and evasion he wished to display as representative of the general human conditions for speech: ‘scattered, fragmented experience recalled under stress and made coherent through the force of will.’24


Because I believe that the work does exist as a successful poem only in its entirety, I have been hesitant to extract passages from the work in order to lend a surface appearance of ‘textual validity’ to my attempts at reinterpretation. Yet it may be useful finally to subject my analysis to a brief comparison with some part of the text. For this purpose I choose the end of the poem, both because it seems, as I have indicated earlier, the most trustworthy statement of Browning's method and intent and because it has so often been used to misrepresent and distort what, from the present point of view, would appear to be Browning's final attitude towards his creation.

In a move, then, which brings us to a renewed awareness of the speaker's consciousness of addressing an audience, the concluding lines of the poem begin with an address to the ‘British Public’ both like and unlike the previous address of this sort in book I. Whereas near the end of that first book the British public was addressed as ‘ye who like me not’ (I.1379), Browning now appears to possess a certain confidence from having arrived at the end of his magnum opus, and so changes to ‘who may like me yet’ (XII.835). Whether liking or not, they are to learn ‘one lesson,’ however: that ‘our human speech is naught, / Our human testimony false, our fame / And human estimation words and wind’ (XII.838-40). Should he pause to consider that he has just read through twelve books of nothing but human speech and testimony, the reader may well be taken aback by this claim. Yet Browning does not make the claim to let it drop and then move on to other things. He insists, instead, that this is the lesson of the poem, that its effect should have been to convince us of the worthlessness of human testimony.

Even if we accept all this, the danger is that we may think Browning means that, since human testimony is worthless, there is no sense in attempting to discover truth. Browning anticipates this ‘so what?’ reaction (i.e., what's the point of dragging us through so much testimony if all you have to tell us is that it's worthless?) and tries to counteract it, ‘Why take the artistic way to prove so much?’ he asks. Browning understands that we may even yet have failed to see why he cannot simply tell us what he wishes us to know and so explains that even if one were to attempt to speak truly, ‘all this trouble comes of speaking truth’ to ‘a brother’ because

                    truth, by when it reaches him, looks false,
Seems to be just the thing it would supplant,
Nor recognizable by whom it left.


The truth when uttered appears false not only to the hearer but to the speaker as well. This is why ‘Art remains the one way possible / Of speaking truth, to mouths like mine at least’ (XII.843-4). Our mouths are like his in the first sense, of course, in that they cannot speak truth in direct address, but most probably unlike his in being without the resources of a great poetic power of imagination whereby truth can be embodied in a work of art. So Browning may be seen once again as a dual presence: on the one hand a palpable human speaker unable to express the truth in direct address, and on the other the special, gifted shaper of a vehicle designed to express what is otherwise inexpressible. ‘Art,’ Browning declares, ‘may tell a truth / Obliquely, do the thing shall breed the thought’ (XII.859-60).

As music and visual art make no direct statements, so Browning would ‘write a book shall mean beyond the facts’ (XII.866). By ‘facts’ he surely means in one sense the celebrated facts of the case he has just treated, but he seems also to want to suggest that human testimony's worthlessness and truth's inaccessibility are facts of the human condition. In order to ‘suffice the eye’ (XII.867) he has filled out the bare facts with resuscitated figures who live and breathe and speak as the poet's imagination allows, but he would also ‘save the soul beside’ (XII.867). For this he must convince us that, however attractive and seductive the speech of humans may be, only God can speak truth and only the poet, on a mission from God, can embody truth in his art.

When we begin to see that Browning, too, as the speaker of books I and XII, is a character attempting to make ‘coherent through the force of will’ his own experience in both a personal and a poetic sense and that the effort described is both the effort of Browning as maker and of the characters as the agents and interpreters of their own experience, as well as of the reader attempting to ‘live through’ and interpret the experience of reading the work, we have begun indeed to realize and to feel the effect of Browning's controlling intention. We come to see the poet, not as an intrusive non-dramatic presence, nor as the supreme truth-giver lording it over the characters and the reader, nor as a mentally deficient philosophical eccentric or hopelessly prolix failed dramatist, but as the masterful creator who can manage both to suffuse himself into the work and to remain the invisible, detached shaper of a complex, embodied, yet elusive truth which, like the poet himself, can never be wholly detached from the work in its entirety, its encompassing form.

In short, to perceive Browning as a dramatic speaker is to gain a new perspective on all the other speakers and on the work as a whole, on the lawyers, the citizens, and the principals of the piece, Guido, Pompilia, Caponsacchi, and the Pope. We come to see that Browning wants us to travel through the experience, through the twisted paths of logic and persuasion that are the monologues, experiencing all the while an increasing appetite for truth matched by a developing conviction that no one character can give it to us whole. Browning himself as speaker and Fra Celestino in his celebrated sermon as reproduced in book XII both hold out the hope that ‘man might share in some way in God's creative power.’25 For Browning this means the poet primarily, but also the British public and all who follow as readers. Certainly the poet must have felt that the true success of his endeavour would mean he had provided every reader with a glimpse of divine truth, but, given his track record with the British public, he was willing to stake his own salvation not on the success of the endeavour but only on the intent: ‘And save the soul! If this intent save mine,—’ (XII.868). To appreciate Browning's success we must first divine his constructive intention. The poet has carefully planted clues to the nature of that intention in the books in which he appears as speaker: to embody in Art a truth which can be expressed in no other way.


  1. Ralph W. Rader, ‘Fact, Theory, and Literary Explanation,’ Critical Inquiry, 1 (1974), 245-6. Rader's theory is more complex and highly developed than my use of it here may indicate. See also his ‘The Dramatic Monologue and Related Lyric Forms,’ Critical Inquiry, 3 (1976), 131-51 on Browning's work in the form.

  2. See W. C. DeVane, A Browning Handbook (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts 1955), pp 318-48 for a good summary of this issue and others surrounding the poem since its publication.

  3. For a related investigation of the frequent discrepancies between experience and explanation see Ralph W. Rader, ‘Defoe, Richardson, Joyce and the Concept of Form in the Novel,’ in Ralph W. Rader and William Mathews, Autobiography, Biography, and the Novel (Los Angeles: Clark Memorial Library, University of California 1973), p. 31 and ff.

  4. Augustine Birrell, ed, The Complete Poetical Works of Robert Browning, New Edition with Additional Poems First Published in 1914 (New York: Macmillan 1915), vol II, book XII, lines 838-40. All subsequent references to The Ring and the Book are to this edition.

  5. DeVane, pp 338-46.

  6. William Irvine and Park Honan, The Book, the Ring, and the Poet (New York: McGraw-Hill 1974), p. 429.

  7. See Browning's remarks to Julia Wedgwood in Robert Browning and Julia Wedgwood (London: John Murray and Jonathan Cape 1937), p. 158.

  8. But see Mary Rose Sullivan, Browning's Voices in The Ring and the Book (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 1969).

  9. See DeVane; Irvine and Honan; and especially Betty Miller, Robert Browning: A Portrait (London: John Murray 1952), pp 231-52.

  10. For one version of this sort of objection see Robert Langbaum, ‘The Ring and the Book: A Relativist Poem,’ in The Poetry of Experience (London: Chatto and Windus 1957), pp 109-36.

  11. For a good analysis of how Browning draws the reader into the work see W. D. Shaw, The Dialectical Temper (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1968), pp 235-307.

  12. Irvine and Honan, p. 430.

  13. See Paul A. Cundiff, Browning's Ring Metaphor and Truth (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press 1972), for an extended defence of the metaphor.

  14. In Boyd Litzinger, Time's Revenges (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press 1964), there is a careful consideration of Browning's reputation as a thinker down through the years, a subject interesting enough in itself but one likely to contaminate our sensitivity to the role Browning plays in The Ring and the Book.

  15. K. L. Knickerbocker, ‘A Tentative Apology for Robert Browning,’ in The Browning Critics, ed Boyd Litzinger and K. L. Knickerbocker (Louisville: University of Kentucky Press 1965), p. 275.

  16. Roma A. King, Jr, The Bow and the Lyre (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press 1957), p. 109.

  17. Wylie Sypher, in his introduction to Robert Browning, The Ring and the Book (New York: Norton 1961), p. xvii.

  18. See Sullivan, pp 3-20.

  19. Irvine and Honan, p. 409; and Henry James, ‘The Novel in The Ring and the Book,’ in Notes on Novelists (New York: Scribner's 1914), pp 385-411.

  20. Irvine and Honan, p. 409.

  21. Compare my view to that of Langbaum, p. 158, where he sees Browning as ‘abandoning the dramatic monologue entirely—by speaking in his own voice in the first and last Books in order to establish the right judgments.’ For a summary of critical judgments of this sort see Sullivan, pp 176-7.

  22. Irvine and Honan, p. 439.

  23. Ibid, pp 438-9.

  24. Richard G. Altick and James F. Loucks, II, Browning's Roman Murder Story (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1968), p. 10.

  25. Sullivan, p. 174.

Mary Ellis Gibson (essay date 1985)

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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 elusive are examples of the father's impact on his son's poetry. Indeed, to a considerable extent the influence seems to have flowed the other way, with Browning, Sr., attempting his own version of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” and illustrating with sketches some lyrics from the poet's Bells and Pomegranates.1 It is clear, however, that the poet shared his father's passion for antiquarian books and that he owed some of his materials from medieval history to his father's researches.2 Previously unpublished manuscripts reveal that the historical interests of Browning, Sr., went beyond the fact-collecting of the amateur antiquarian and suggested some of the historical matter of The Ring and the Book.

Two sources included in John Maynard's helpful checklist of Browning, Sr.'s notebooks and manuscripts are particularly important for understanding the shared historical interests of the poet and his father. The first source, a notebook of historical materials, chronology, and bibliography, gives us substantive insight into the elder Browning's habits of mind and methods of research. A second and more interesting group of materials consists of nine letters to Robert and five to Sarianna Browning detailing Browning, Sr.'s study of tenth-century Italian history. These letters provide an unexpected source for the Pope's historical meditation in The Ring and the Book.

The historical notebook of Browning, Sr., now in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, contains ninety-two pages in the elder Browning's hand. Differences in the hand indicate the notebook was probably used over a period of years, perhaps before and after Browning, Sr., moved to Paris in 1852.3 Though precise dating is impossible, it is clear that the notebook was not filled before 1860, for Browning, Sr., includes near the end of the notebook the 1860 English edition of Ranke's History of the Popes of Rome. The other nineteenth-century books he mentions date for the most part from the 1840s or earlier.

Though it amounts to a preliminary collection of materials and bibliography for a history of Edward I (1272-1307), the notebook reveals a wide range of interests. Browning, Sr., neglects neither historical nor cultural background; he makes notes on the political fortunes of Henry III, on the structure of the medieval church, and on ancient Christmas customs. His primary subjects are the political decisions of Edward I, his battles in Scotland with Wallace and Bruce, his fortunes in the Crusades, and his relationship with the papacy. Browning's notebook entries sketch the major outlines of Edward's reign along with many details of his administration. Occasionally the notes are of purely antiquarian interest: Browning, Sr., traces, for example, the ownership of numerous estates far beyond what would seem the scope of his principal subject. Such antiquarian interludes alternate with sometimes lively narrative passages. These notes, despite their variety, contain little useful historical generalization. As John Maynard has observed of Browning, Sr., the eclecticism of his interests led more often toward antiquarian curiosity than toward mature historical thinking.4 Browning, Sr.'s one surviving notebook provides only the raw materials of history.

Although the elder Browning's interest in medieval England did not furnish his son with the material of poetry and did not culminate in a finished history, his notebook does reveal a great deal about Browning, Sr.'s broad historical curiosity—a curiosity he shared with his son. The books Browning, Sr., lists or quotes range from literary sources to documents to European and local histories. Browning, Sr., refers to Barbour's Bruce, to documents including the Yearbooks, the Statutes at Large, and the State Trials. He cites such general histories as Sir Walter Raleigh's History of the World, Hume's History of England, Lingard's History of England (1823/31), G. P. R. James's History of Chivalry (1830), Francis Plowden's History of Ireland (1831), Wolfgang Menzel's History of Germany, Voltaire's Annals of the Empire [sic], August Thierry's History of the Norman Conquest, Giovanni Battista Verci's Storia degli Ecelini, and Ranke's History of the Popes (1860).5 Browning, Sr., supplements these general histories with such local histories as Cleland's Annals of Glasgow (1818) and R. W. Billings' Architectural Antiquities of Durham (1846). This rich mixture of documents, general English histories, local histories, and some of the best current European scholarship—by Ranke, Thierry, and Menzel—indicates how Robert Browning, Sr., might have offered to be “of use” to his son in historical research. Of the works Browning, Sr., lists, we know that father and son shared an acquaintance with those of Verci, Ranke, Raleigh, and probably Thierry.6 More significantly, the contents of the manuscript notebook strengthen the conjecture that Browning, Sr., was “of use” to his son in filling in the medieval background of The Ring and the Book.

More interesting than his notebook are the letters Browning, Sr., wrote his children from Paris, for in his correspondence he speculates more generally than in the notebook on the significance of medieval history. The letters of Browning, Sr., largely undated but written between 1852 and his death in 1866, show the father offering the son his assistance as a researcher and describing for him a chapter of medieval Italian history that eventually found its way into The Ring and the Book.7 In an undated letter Browning, Sr., mentions a favor he has done for the poet and remarks “how pleased I am that anything I could have had to communicate should have afforded you any useful information. I might perhaps be of further use in ferreting out any dates, facts, or names you may wish to be more particularly acquainted with.”8 This may be the same request to which Browning refers in a letter of 1866 quoted by Mrs. Orr: “The other day when I wanted some information about a point of medieval history, he [Browning, Sr.] wrote a regular bookful of notes and extracts thereabout.”9

William Irvine and Park Honan have speculated that Browning, Sr.'s bookful of notes was more likely concerned with the seventeenth-century Pope Innocent XII than with his medieval predecessors, but Browning, Sr.'s letters indicate, to the contrary, that the poet's father probably furnished medieval historical materials as well as an example of self-consciousness about historical method.10 The poet seems in fact to have found in his father's researches an important perspective on the Pope's monologue in The Ring and the Book. In his letters to his son, Browning, Sr., returns insistently to his study of Marozia, a tenth-century Italian woman who was the daughter of an unscrupulous and powerful Roman family, mistress of Pope Sergius, and by him mother of Pope John XI. Sergius is the same anti-Formosan whom Browning's Pope Innocent XII describes in his recapitulation of papal crimes, intrigues, and perversions of justice. The Pope concludes his rehearsal of the Formosan controversy with Sergius, a last example of papal misconduct:

But, after John, came Sergius, reaffirmed
The right of Stephen, cursed Formosus, nay
Cast out, some say, his corpse a second time.
And here,—because the matter went to ground,
Fretted by new griefs, other cares of the age,—
Here is the last pronouncing of the Church,
Her sentence that subsists unto this day.
Yet constantly opinion hath prevailed
I' the Church, Formosus was a holy man.(11)

The Pope presents Sergius and his papal predecessors engaging in futile quarrels, injustice, and violence. Innocent defends neither the Formosans nor their opponents. Browning lets Innocent's historical account vibrate with its own ironies even as he sets Innocent's monologue ironically against the doctrine of papal infallibility then being debated in Rome. The Pope, the poet, and the poet's father share the same historical authorities and the same general historical judgment. Both the Pope and Browning, Sr., rely on Luitprand as a reliable chronicler, and both find their documents at once fascinating and dismal.12

Browning, Sr.'s view of tenth-century Italian history provides a clue to the poet's choice of this period as the beginning matter of Pope Innocent's monologue. In one of his letters Browning, Sr., asks his son to find a “young man” to write Marozia's history, and he takes pains to explain the significance of his subject:

The narrative (if I may call it so) takes up but about 30 years—yet in that short space of time what wonderful events occurred. In that period are included—The rise of Modern Europe—The foundation of the Roman Hierarchy—the ascendancy of the tyranny of the nobility—and the murder of several popes—as this period is allowed, by every historian, to have been the darkest period of the dark ages—we have, as might be expected, a continual record of the most atrocious crimes.13

Browning, Sr., thus points to the thirty year's narrative, probably 895-926, as comprising at once atrocious crimes and the rise of modern Europe. In having the Pope begin his monologue by focusing on nearly the same period, Browning too is accounting for a continuity of Italian history—from Marozean tyranny on a grand scale to the decline and petty tyranny of the Franceschini. The Pope's sense of his own fallibility is made more believable by his initial meditation on an age Browning, Sr., characterized as the “darkest” of dark ages of the church; Formosus and his enemies provide ample material for meditating the nature of papal justice. Though Browning apparently never found a “young man” to take up his father's tenth-century researches, he indirectly fell heir to them himself in writing the story of the Old Yellow Book, which after his father's fashion he had tried to give away.

In addition to their common interest in medieval Italian history, Browning, Sr., and his son shared an interest in questions of historical method. Despite his obvious antiquarianism and fascination with detail for its own sake—as evidenced in the care he expended on his “Nomenclator of Old Testament Genealogy”—Browning, Sr., was not merely an empiricist or fact collector.14 He was acquainted with the method and the theoretical problems of the new critical history. His concern with such questions is evident in the way he envisions a history of Marozia. He longs for a young man to

try his hand on Marozia—But by no means to make a novel of it—I have collected material enough to form a “truthful” history of her, which as it is not a hackneyed subject might be read with interest. … I am certain an entertaining as well as useful biography might be made of it—The great difficulty lies in the willful misrepresentations many writers of ability have been guilty of—but there is great difference between omitting and misrepresenting facts—also a great pleasure in being able from authentic sources to clear up any difficulty arising from carelessness or any other less reputable sources.

In his directive for a proper history of Marozia, Browning, Sr., shows himself to be undertaking the central task of the critical historian—evaluating the biases of his sources. He is also sensitive to the problems in selecting material to represent historical events fairly. Finally, his remark—in quotations—that he desires a “truthful” history indicates he is aware of the competing and often dubious claims of history and fiction to present the “truth” about the past.15

Browning's own fiction of tenth-century history omits Marozia in favor of her lover Sergius and his papal predecessors. Browning's Pope Innocent XII begins his monologue almost as an antiquarian might, tracing the exhumation and trial of Formosus by Stephen and the subsequent conflicting judgments by Romanus, Theodore, John, and Sergius. Though the history he recalls is not directly relevant to the task at hand—judging Guido—Innocent has more than an antiquarian's interest in his predecessors. His judgments of contemporary evil and of ecclesiastical corruption are meditated in the context of an earlier and more grisly papal adjudication. The behavior of the popes from Formosus to Sergius allows Innocent, and Browning, to show the reader that the resoluteness behind a judgment is no certain measure of its morality. Instead, Innocent declares, one must examine the seeds of one's own judgments. Or as Browning, Sr., put it with respect to historical judgment, omission of facts (partial knowledge in the Pope's sense) is not so bad as misrepresentation of the facts. For Browning's Pope the tenth-century history suggested by Browning, Sr., provides a perspective from which to sift the “facts” and the “figures of facts” as best one can (X, 215-16). But the poet's and the Pope's skepticism about true judgment or “‘truthful’ history” goes still deeper than Browning, Sr.'s. For the poet, historical fact and the figures one makes of it come in the end to the same thing: the probability of human evil or error. The Pope contrasts human judgment with divine judgment. Human judgment, like history, depends upon human speech; and who, the Pope asks, can “tell you what a rose is like, / Or how the birds fly, and not slip to false / Though truth serve better?” (X, 364-66). The earthly antidote to the inevitable lie comes for the Pope in the occasion that papal history provides for him to sift his own motives and the motives of those who require his judgment. Browning allows the tenth century, the time his father pinpointed as the beginning of the modern era, to stand as the primary historical antecedent to the historical period he wishes to describe. At the same time Innocent XII's meditation stands as the historical counterpoint to the nineteenth-century argument favoring papal infallibility. The present is measured against at least two different eras in the past.16

Though Robert Browning, Sr., was by no means the only or even the principal influence on the poet's understanding of history, his letters and notes show him to have been a studious lover of history and, on occasion, an assistant to his son's researches. We can see the investigations of Browning, Sr., as assisting the process by which Browning's seventeenth-century pope meditates on tenth-century history and arrives at a rather Victorian affirmation of faith as an antidote to historically induced “medicinal” doubt.


  1. John Maynard, Browning's Youth (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977), p. 85, and Appendix B, Checklist of Sketchbooks, Notebooks, and Manuscripts of Robert Browning, Sr., p. 376; for anecdotes see Mrs. Sutherland Orr, Life and Letters of Robert Browning, rev. ed. Frederic G. Kenyon (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1908); on “Hamelin,” see William Irvine and Park Honan, The Book, the Ring, and the Poet (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974), pp. 2, 523n.

  2. Browning's library contained various seventeenth-century editions; see A. L. N. Munby, ed., Sales Catalogues of Libraries of Eminent Persons, vol. 6, Poets and Men of Letters, ed. John Woolford (London: Mansell, 1972). Browning, Sr., describes “walking among the books” in a letter to Robert Browning, n.d., catalogue no. 230, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England. Thanks to John G. Murray for permission to quote the letters of Robert Browning, Sr.

  3. Irvine and Honan, p. 283. Thanks to John G. Murray for permission to describe the notebook of Robert Browning, Sr., and to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, the University of Texas at Austin, where the manuscript is housed.

  4. Maynard, p. 343.

  5. Dates cited in the text are those listed by Robert Browning, Sr. I have supplied omitted names and titles. Browning, Sr., lists Verci by name only; I conjecture that like his son Browning, Sr., consulted the Storia degli Ecelini; Voltaire's Annals probably refers to the History of the Empire of Russia under Peter the Great; Menzel's History of Germany was translated for H. G. Bohn, London, in 1853-59; Plowden's History of Ireland was published in Philadelphia in 1805-06.

  6. In 1838 Browning took Verci's history to Italy as his guidebook for researching Sordello; see William Clyde DeVane, A Browning Handbook, 2d. ed. (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1955), p. 80; Maynard reports that Browning, Sr., presented his son with Raleigh's history and that Thierry was a member of the French Institut Historique when Browning was admitted in 1834 (pp. 344, 125); Browning certainly knew the 1860 English edition of Ranke but he probably knew of Ranke's work even earlier. Browning's friend William Wetmore Story wrote in 1850 of attending Ranke's lectures at the University of Berlin. See Story, letter to James Russell Lowell, January 30, 1850, Browning to His American Friends, ed. Gertrude Reece Hudson (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1965), p. 252.

  7. All letters quoted are in Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. All were written from Paris and thus can be dated to the fourteen-year period, 1852-66.

  8. Browning, Sr., to Robert Browning, n.d., no. 230, Fitzwilliam Museum.

  9. Orr, p. 263.

  10. Irvine and Honan note that Browning, Sr.'s dossier certainly reached Browning before he completed the Pope's monologue (pp. 418, 570n).

  11. Robert Browning, The Ring and the Book, in Works, ed. Charlotte Porter and Helen A. Clarke, Camberwell ed. (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1898), X, 141-49. Further references are included within the text.

  12. Browning, Sr., letter to Robert Browning, n.d., no. 229, Fitzwilliam Museum.

  13. Browning, Sr., letter to Robert Browning, no. 229.

  14. Browning, Sr., letter to Sarianna Browning, September 17, 1858, no. 224a, Fitzwilliam Museum.

  15. Browning, Sr., to Robert Browning, n.d., no. 230, Fitzwilliam Museum.

  16. A fourth era, of course, is introduced in the Pope's monologue by the appearance of Euripides.

Anne Hiemstra (essay date 1985)

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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, and his embedding, consciously or unconsciously, biographical detail in the work. In their analyses of Browning's use of the dramatic monologue, critics focus on the extent to which it was a viable method to evoke the “universal truth” that Browning saw inherent in the obscure seventeenth-century criminal case. However, generally speaking, their analyses of the dramatic monologue swiftly modulate from an evaluation of the success of the method in this poem to a reaction to the individual speakers. On the other hand, the biographical approach focuses on the parallels between the relationship of Browning and Elizabeth Barrett and that of Caponsacchi and Pompilia, especially with respect to Caponsacchi as a St. George figure. While it is useful, indeed necessary, to study the primary vehicle of Browning's poetic expression, and interesting, often even illuminating, to note biographical details in his poems, neither aspect, nor both taken together, can fully account for the meaning which emerges from the poem. An interpretation of The Ring and the Book based primarily upon these two aspects of the poem results in a gross reduction of the whole. The most interesting thing one could say about The Ring and the Book, interpreted solely from an examination of the mechanics of the dramatic monologue, is that it is a dramatization of a trial based on law briefs preserved in what Browning came to call the Old Yellow Book; and, interpreted simply from a biographical point of view, the poem is reduced to a personal romance and a eulogy to a dead wife.

Browning, however, had a much larger vision which required more than 20,000 lines of blank verse to express. The problem he faced was to show that “[t]he instinctive theorizing whence a fact / Looks to the eye as the eye likes the look” is not an adequate way of apprehending the meaning of an event or, by extension, the meaning of history.1 Browning's method of rewriting the Old Yellow Book has two distinct elements: first, the dramatic monologue that suffices in part for the evocation of the meaning and intention latent in the rhetoric of the speakers and is the means by which he could “enter sparklike, put old powers to play, / Push lines out to the limit” (I, 755-56); but more important, as we can see most explicitly in Books V-VII and X, is the nature of the “something else / … mixed up with the mass, / Made it bear hammer and be firm to file” (I, 461-63). In short, Browning's use of biblical symbolism in conjunction with the “facts” of the Old Yellow Book gives the poem its shape and illustrates the way Browning extrapolates the coherency of human history from a particular event.

Despite the glaring fact that he offered the Old Yellow Book to his novelist/friend Miss Ogle, to historian W. C. Cartwright, to Anthony Trollope, and some say to Tennyson for treatment, Browning, it can be argued, was not totally disingenuous when he claimed up to the end of his life that the shape of the poem came to him upon his first reading of the document. After one reads the Old Yellow Book, this seemingly unbelievable statement becomes credible.

Contained within the Old Yellow Book are a series of law briefs (summaries of fact and arguments by the prosecution and the defense regarding the interpretation of points of law), responses to the facts by two anonymous authors, and letters to the compiler of the book that Browning found and purchased in Florence in 1860. In these documents, the story of Guido and Pompilia Franceschini is told repeatedly, the lawyers and anonymous respondents shaping the details to correspond to the points of law that will either lessen the sentence—Guido's being guilty of the murder of his wife and her parents never being an issue—or necessitate the conferring of the death penalty. Browning recognized on first reading that, in the words of G. K. Chesterton, “No one ever lived who had not a little more to say for himself than any formal system of justice was likely to say for him.”2 It is obvious that the two opposing sides approach the case from a single point of view; what separates the two is their slanting of the facts, each trying to establish radically different motives for Guido's acts. The nine re-tellings of the story in The Ring and the Book do not vary in a substantive way from their source, simply in manner: the facts from the Old Yellow Book are utilized in The Ring and the Book, but the verbal form is altered from legal argumentation to dramatic poetry.

But what is interesting about the connection between the Old Yellow Book and The Ring and the Book is the extent to which Browning exploits in his poem what is merely hinted at in the briefs; that is, whereas in the Old Yellow Book biblical parallels are drawn in only two disparate instances, in The Ring and the Book biblical symbolism functions as the element that controls the ultimate meaning of this historical episode.

The first instance of this anomaly in the original—anomalous in that the lawyers draw their parallels from the precedents forged in previous law cases and law codes dating back to the time of Julius Caesar—is in Pamphlet 13: “For the Fisc, against Guido Franceschini and his Associates. A Reply in matters of law, by the Lord Avocate of the Fisc.” Here, the prosecuting attorney, Giovanni Battista Bottini, defending Pompilia's flight from Arezzo and Guido's home, uses instances of legal precedent for Pompilia's act, and then, almost as an afterthought, justifies the ambiguous implications of her flight with evidence produced by the defense, that is, a letter (itself a point of contention) of Pompilia's:

And therefore she is worthy of excuse since she fled for dire necessity in company of the Canon, a man of modesty well known by her (as is likewise evident from another letter in the Summary of our opponents, No. 7, letter 12, in which she calls him the chaste Joseph, and from the other letter, in which she commends him for his sense of shame).3

Slipped in parenthetically, and perhaps because it is parenthetical, this biblical allusion stands out prominently in the midst of the dry legal citations. There is no doubt that this reference, accompanied by the virginal Mary figure implicit in the Joseph reference, leapt off the page at Browning.

The second instance of a biblical allusion used in arguing this case is an overt equation made by one of the two anonymous respondents. In Pamphlet 15, the writer argues against the pro-Guido pamphleteer, describing Guido in the most damning terms he knows: those of Satan.

He [Guido] set about this enterprise [finding a wife who could provide him with a good dowry] with the aid of his brother Abate Paolo, using the astute prudence with which the malign serpent advanced his designs in Paradise to subvert Adam into disobeying God's precept and into eating the forbidden fruit. …4

One can imagine Browning's delight as he encountered this parallel between Guido and Satan. What was wanton hyperbole on the part of the anonymous writer becomes the basis of the battle lines Browning draws in The Ring and the Book: Guido/Satan v. Pompilia/Mary (also a type of Eve) and her protector Caponsacchi/Joseph.

What Browning did, then, with the Old Yellow Book was retain the content while turning the rhetorical strategy of the lawyers on its head. The legal argumentation, the concrete point-by-point comparison of apparent fact and recorded precedent, gives way to an expansion of the event—a discrete point in time—by the use of symbolism. History in the Old Yellow Book is a series of points—the various law cases—separated by time but connected because of the linear nature of time. Browning, on the other hand, takes the event and, by seeing the symbolic connections between the actors in this drama and the characters in the biblical drama, extends this single point in time, connecting the distant past to the present of the poem and, through the poet, to the historical present.

Browning's typological treatment of the material functions on two planes: first, on the horizontal plane, it works as a synecdochic treatment of history; second, on the vertical plane, it functions in the service of a metaphysical construct. Browning chose this method based on two considerations—one public, the other private. In the years between finding the Old Yellow Book and writing The Ring and the Book, Browning had returned to England and was very interested in the controversies raging there. Aside from the agitation for parliamentary reform, the higher criticism of the Bible inundating England at that time was the center of heated debate. Between 1860 and 1864, several controversial books were published, reinforcing the “crises of faith” prevalent among many of those in religious and intellectual circles. The most troubling of these texts were Essays and Reviews (1860), Bishops Colenso's Pentateuch (1862), Renan's The Life of Jesus (1863), and Strauss' The New Life of Jesus (1864).

The central issues of the debate are contained in a few sentences near the end of Strauss' Life of Jesus:

The results of the inquiry which we have now brought to a close, have apparently annihilated the greatest and most valuable part of that which the Christian has been wont to believe concerning his Savior Jesus, have uprooted all the animating motives which he has gathered from his faith, and withered all his consolations. The boundless store of truth and life which for eighteen centuries has been the aliment of humanity, seems irretrievably dissipated; the most sublime levelled with the dust, God divested of his grace, man his dignity, and the tie between heaven and earth broken.5

The idea that the “tie between heaven and earth [had been] broken” was the crux of the issue to Browning. Both the rational examination of the biblical narrative and the new economic conditions of the country worked to undermine the traditional connections between members of the same society and between man and God. (This is a conclusion drawn from literary sources; to what extent this is historically true is open to debate, but the fact that most, if not all, the literary figures of the high Victorian era struggled with these issues seems to indicate some degree of historical validity.) It is this aspect of the effects of the higher criticism to which Browning responded with The Ring and the Book.

This public consideration was, nonetheless, determined by Browning's private ethos. His vision of life, and of history, was based on his intuitive faith that each person contains within him a spark of divinity; in other words, each man is just one facet of the infiniteness of God—every life is unique, yet all lives participate in the divine presence. However, Browning's opinion constantly wavered with respect to the absolute historical validity of the Scriptures, especially the revelations of the Gospels, as this statement to Mrs. Orr in 1869 reveals:

The evidence of divine power is everywhere about us; not so the evidence of divine love. That love could only reveal itself to the human heart by some supreme act of human tenderness and devotion; the fact or fancy, of Christ's cross and passion could alone supply such a revelation.6

For Browning, the question of whether the gospel story is fact or fancy, history or fiction, reality or symbol was not the essential one; rather, the issue was the gospel narrative's correspondence to Browning's notion of God: that is, his faith in divine love, grasped intuitively through personal experience.

Browning's ethos and method cohere in the “Epilogue” to Dramatis Personae, where he begins the last section of the poem with an injunction to his audience, giving us a clue to his method of presentation in The Ring and the Book:

Witless alike of will and way divine,
How heaven's high with earth's low should intertwine!
Friends, I have seen through your eyes: now use mine!(7)

He has, in short, listened to the arguments of the higher critics and those affiliated with the Oxford Movement and has found the arguments unconvincing in that they fail to provide a vision of life; they lack a coherent vision of human history.

Abstractly in the lines cited above and more concretely in The Ring and the Book, we can see, moreover, Browning's affinities with Carlyle's theory of history and, at least partially, with his method of writing history. Browning's conception of himself as historian as manifested in the poem corresponds quite closely to Carlyle's “Seer,” who, with transcendent insight—not suffering from the crowd's “plague of squint”—is able to discern the cardinal points of history. Browning sets himself up as Historian in Book I:

The life in me abolished the death of things,
Deep calling unto deep: as then and there
Acted itself over again once more
The tragic piece. I saw with my own eyes. …

(I, 520-23)

His vision of the whole and his malleable psyche enabled him to approach the meaning of history more fully than, for example, the attorneys of the Old Yellow Book could.

But Browning's historicism corresponds to Carlyle's in an additional respect. In his essay “On History,” Carlyle exhibits a sense of the limits of human perception and their effects on the writing of history. He states that historians should

aim only at some picture of things acted, which picture itself will at best be a poor approximation, leave the inscrutable purport of them an acknowledged secret; or at most, in reverent faith, far different from the teaching of Philosophy, pause over the mysterious vestiges of Him, whose path is in the great deep of Time, whom History indeed reveals, but only all History, and in Eternity, will clearly reveal.8

Browning was painfully aware of the inadequacy of human perception and expression, as is obvious from his repeated insistence on the unreliability of language, a belief he exploits through his vehicle of the dramatic monologue. At first glance, a contradiction seems to arise between his conception of language and his poetic method: how can truth emerge from the exploitation of an unreliable source? Browning's answer is that

                                                  Art may tell a truth
Obliquely, so the thing shall breed the thought,
Nor wrong the thought, missing the mediate word.

(XII, 854-56)

His art in this poem is dependent upon two features: the dramatic monologue through which he might surround a “truth,” and the symbolic representation, the “thing” that “shall breed the thought.” Whereas the dramatic monologue provides the audience with a more immediate sense of character—his temporal, social, and psychological make-up—it is through Browning's use of symbolism that the truth of this event, and the truth of history as Browning apprehended it, emerges.

The coincidence of his finding the Old Yellow Book and his interest in the controversy over the historical validity of the Scriptures determined in large part Browning's treatment of the facts of the Guido/Pompilia/Caponsacchi case. Browning wanted his audience to read The Ring and the Book as they had once read Scripture. His statement to Mrs. Orr cited above regarding the evidence of divine love found in “Christ's cross and passion” appears in its poetic form in the Pope's monologue:

Conjecture of the worker by the work:
Is there strength there?—enough: intelligence?
Ample: but goodness in like degree?
Not to the human eye in the present state,
This isoscele deficient in the base.
What lacks, then, of perfection fit for God
But just the instance which this tale supplies
Of love without a limit? So is strength,
So is intelligence; then love is so,
Unlimited in its self-sacrifice:
Then is the tale true and God shows complete.
Beyond the tale, I reach into the dark,
Feel what I cannot see, and still faith stands.

(X, 1361-73)

Browning's argument is that one can extrapolate divine love from this recorded event in the same way that was once possible from the Scriptures. The key to his interest in this case is its synecdochic quality—handled correctly, it could represent the relevance of human history and function as an answer to those whose faith in a tale rested on its historical validity. Browning had the facts, but the challenge was to present them in such a way that the truth could be read correctly.

As mentioned above, biblical allusions appear twice in the Old Yellow Book, the most interesting instance being Bottini's citation of a reference to Caponsacchi as a Joseph figure in a letter Pompilia allegedly wrote. Functionally as well as structurally, Caponsacchi is the center of The Ring and the Book. On the most immediate level of symbolism, Caponsacchi does function as a Joseph figure, leading the virginal Mary out of danger so that she might deliver her child in safety. But as we note in the Pope's lines cited above, Caponsacchi plays a much more prominent role in the symbolic drama. In the Pope's mind, “God shows complete” if the act referred to reveals love “unlimited in its self-sacrifice”; in other words, God's assumption of the human condition for the purpose of man's redemption is the archetype of the act of self-sacrifice of which Caponsacchi is a symbol. Against the laws of both the church and state, Caponsacchi assumes laic dress and “saves” Pompilia from her hell on earth. It is the act, not the result, that is important in Browning's formulation; Caponsacchi clearly is not Christ—his rescue of Pompilia is only temporarily successful.

But whereas Caponsacchi has a dual symbolic role with respect to Pompilia—a type of Joseph and a type of Christ—his relationship to Guido has only one facet: he is Christ vying with Satan for the spiritual life of Pompilia. The complexity of their relationship lies in the fact that Guido plays a two-part role with respect to Caponsacchi—first, that of Satan, and, second, that of Judas. In each account of the two face-to-face encounters at Castelnuovo, the reader senses the atmosphere of epic/cosmic conflict. Satan faces Christ, both ready to do battle over what each considers his. But the symbolism swiftly modulates from Guido as Satan to Guido as Judas, turning Christ over to the authorities to face trial. However, the line between these two roles is not clearly drawn (perhaps because Judas has traditionally been treated as a Satan figure), and finally, in Caponsacchi's monologue, the two roles merge:

And thus I see him slowly and surely edged
Off all the table-land whence life upsprings
Aspiring to be immortality,
As the snake, hatched on hill-top by mischance,
Despite his wriggling, slips, slides, slidders down
Hill-side, lies low and prostrate on the smooth
Level of the outer place, lapsed in the vale:
Lo what, what is this he meets, strains onward still?
What other man deep further in the fate,
Who, turning at the prize of a footfall
To flatter him and promise fellowship,
Discovers in the act a frightful face—
Judas made monstrous by much solitude!
The two are at one now! Let them love their love
That bites and claws like hate, or hate their hate
That mops and mows and makes as it were love!
There, let them each tear each in devil's fun,
Or fondle this the other while malice aches—
Both teach, both learn detestability!
There let them grapple, denizens o' the dark,
Foes or friends, but indissolubly bound,
In their one spot out of the ken of God
Or care of man, for ever and ever more!

(VI, 1921-27, 1932-42, 1951-54)

Guido, as a snake, slipping to “creation's verge” is a powerful image—located in one of the most powerful passages of the whole poem—of the meeting place of Satan, Judas, and all those who live like Guido.

Moreover, Guido's connection with Judas has an additional dimension which is not made manifest until the Pope's monologue, in which symbolism is least evident but where the whole case is considered in its most abstract terms. The Pope's summation of Guido's character centers on his love of money—his lust for the proverbial thirty pieces of silver: “All is the lust for money: to get gold,— / Why, lie, rob, if it must be, murder!” (X, 542-44). His contempt for Guido is based upon Guido's spiritual emptiness:

Always subordinating (note the point!)
Revenge, the manlier sin, to interest
The meaner,—would pluck pang forth, but unclench
No gripe in the act, let fall no money-piece.

(X, 598-601)

As these lines illustrate, the Pope too notes the shift in Guido from a pompous, pugilistic Satan figure to a cowardly, avaricious Judas figure. Uncoerced, Guido has sold his soul to the material/physical world; he is a type for all who “subordinate / The future to the present,—sin, nor fear” (X, 1433).

As has been shown, on either side of Caponsacchi stand Guido and Pompilia, each symbolically related to him in a distinct way, yet also related to each other independently of their relationship to him. In their marriage, Pompilia and Guido re-enact scenes from the Garden of Eden, Pompilia playing the prelapsarian Eve to Guido's tempting serpent.

Guido's resemblance to Satan, explicit from the outset of the poem, coupled with his own repeated references to mud, dung, and slime throughout his first monologue, quite naturally invites the association of him with a serpent. Because the poem never questions Pompilia's purity, the drama of the early days of their marriage is as painful to listen to as it is predictable. Pompilia relates Guido's recognition of the distance—moral and psychological—between them and her reaction to him:

                                                  But when he spoke as plain—
Dreadfully honest also—‘Since our souls
Stand each from each, a whole world's width between,
Give me the fleshy vesture I can reach
And rend and leave just fit for hell to burn!’—
Why, in God's name, for Guido's soul's own sake
Imperilled by polluting mine,—I say
I did resist; would I had overcome!

(VII, 780-87)

Guido confirms this recollection in his second monologue:

This wife of mine was of another mood—
Would not begin the lie that ends with truth,
Nor feign the love that brings real love about:
Wherefore I judged, sentenced and punished her.

(XI, 1427-30)

Guido does finally have his way with her, and she feels herself fallen, no longer innocent: “My last stay and comfort in myself / Was forced from me: henceforth I looked to God / Only, nor cared my desecrated soul / Should have fair walls, gay windows for the world” (VII, 863-65).9

It is significant that these reflections on their marriage, altogether unrelated to Caponsacchi, should be represented symbolically as scenes from the fall of man. Up to the point of the fall there is no need for a savior/redeemer/intercessor, but with Eve's/Pompilia's corruption, a Christ figure is necessary. Hence, the Caponsacchi character is not only a necessary part of the drama; his, indeed, is the central role.

This rather oblique method—the symbolic re-enactment of the corruption of Eve through Satan's manipulation—is made explicit structurally. The lines cited above are enveloped by passages in which the Archbishop of Arezzo refers directly to Eve in the garden. His focus on Eve's partaking of “the apple and the snake” in conjunction with God's injunction to “be fruitful and multiply” indicates the ludicrousness to which the Archbishop's powers of ratiocination can be pushed. In this context, moreover, the snake is not only a symbol of Satan, but a portentous phallic symbol as well. The Archbishop betrays himself again, as well as extends the metaphor of the fall, when he says, “‘The sun shines as he shone at Adam's fall’” (791). According to Christian doctrine, nature fell along with man, and, thus, everything involved with earthly existence is askew from its original state.

This instance of less than full cognizance of the radical nature of the fall is precisely the point Browning wanted to illustrate, and is a basic element of his approach to human history. An essential aspect of the fall is that words have been severed from the Word. Because “human speech is naught, / Our testimony false, our fame / And human estimation words and wind” (XII, 834-36), Browning had to find an alternate method of writing history. His interest in the historical lawsuit stemmed from the fact that it contained all the elements—the “facts”—needed to enable it to stand as a synecdoche of all human history. His object was to evoke a realization of divine love without relying on the Scriptures. To do this, he had to present the characters on several complex symbolic levels.

Through his use of the Old Yellow Book, Browning answered the objections of the higher critics of the Scriptures by employing a “historically valid” text and showing that the truth of the Scriptures exists, but as a hieroglyph, in reality. In The Ring and the Book, he illustrates that the essence of human history contained within the Scriptures exists in this obscure case.

Thus, as we have seen, the cardinal points of history for Browning were man and nature's corruption in the Garden of Eden; Mary's implicit faith in God; God's self-sacrifice in his assumption of the human condition; Christ's cosmic battle with Satan necessitated by his role as man's savior/redeemer; and, the antithesis of these, Judas' betraying his redeemer for the love of money. Browning's evocation of these types through his symbolic treatment of the characters involved in the case was not an end in itself; through symbolism, by “missing the mediate word,” he suggests the meaning which he reads in human history: that each man contains within him a spark of the divine which enables him to aspire to a fuller, albeit perpetually incomplete, knowledge and experience of divine love during his earthly existence.

The Ring and the Book coheres on two levels: first, on a horizontal plane, it presents symbolically the coherent, linear progression of history; second, on a vertical plane, it aspires to re-establish a metaphysical connection between earth and heaven, between human and divine. These two facets of the work illustrate how typically Victorian Browning was. Like many of his contemporaries, he exhibits in his work an attempt to work out two of the key questions troubling nineteenth-century intellectuals. One ontological, the other metaphysical, both questions were an out-growth of the changed religious atmosphere. The Victorians were concerned with whether an interpretation of the meaning of life, past and present, could be formulated without the notion of Providence, and whether a metaphysical construct could be erected without the Scriptures as its foundation. As The Ring and the Book demonstrates, Browning clearly believed that both could be accomplished through his symbolic art.


  1. Robert Browning, The Ring and the Book, ed. Richard D. Altick (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), I, 863-64. Hereafter cited in the text with book and line numbers.

  2. G. K. Chesterton, Robert Browning (rpt. London: English Men of Letters Series, 1925), p. 171.

  3. Charles W. Hodell, The Old Yellow Book (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution, 1908), p. 145.

  4. Hodell, p. 169.

  5. David F. Strauss, The Life of Jesus, trans. Marian Evans, 4th ed. (New York, 1860), p. 867. Quoted in William C. DeVane, A Browning Handbook, 2d ed. (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1955), pp. 201-02.

  6. Mrs. Orr, “The Religious Opinions of Robert Browning,” in Contemporary Review, December 1891, p. 879. Quoted in DeVane, p. 297.

  7. Robert Browning, “Epilogue” in Robert Browning's Poetry, ed. James F. Loucks (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1979), p. 265.

  8. Thomas Carlyle, “On History” in The Works of Thomas Carlyle, vol 27, Centenary ed. (London: Chapman and Hall, Ltd., 1899), p. 89.

  9. The parallel between Pompilia and Eve can be drawn at this point even though their “corruptions” are radically different; i.e., Eve's fall is accomplished by an active choice on her part while Pompilia's is one of forced submission. However, the factor that enables this parallel to be drawn is Pompilia's conviction of sin brought about by her guilt at not having overcome Guido's advances. The parallel, then, between Pompilia and Eve lies in the fact that both were, in Miltonic terms, sufficient to stand but free to fall.

Paul Zietlow (essay date spring 1987)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10203

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 world fallen, unredeemed, presided over by evil—a world in which even the most generous and humane ideas of earthly community and relationship, although conceptions of possibility superior to prevailing realities, are no more than imitations of what cannot be imitated. The poem calls for commitment to an uncompromising moral vision culminating in the imperative for self-sacrificing effort to save the good and blot out evil. These challenges—to recognize earth's inadequacies and evil's power, and to assent to rigorous moral demands—represent only first steps in the poem's ultimate challenge, in its test of the reader's readiness for salvation.1 As he states climactically at the end of the poem, in writing The Ring and the Book Browning attempted to do no less than save souls:

So write a book shall mean beyond the facts,
Suffice the eye and save the soul beside.
And save the soul!

(XII, 866-868)2

To advance toward salvation the reader must bear witness to ineffable spiritual truths by experiencing internal rebirth and resurrection, must thrill to the impact of soul-inspiring revelation found miraculously in the lives of forgotten people involved in a sordid murder case that actually took place in late seventeenth-century Rome. This thrill of inner renewal constitutes ascent toward membership in a community which, although real, made evident in the facts of historical action, is not temporal, social, or even moral, but eternal, transcendent, spiritual—a community of souls in the presence of God.


The Ring and the Book offers a searing vision of evil's triumph. “A faultless creature is destroyed,” says the Pope; “and sin / Has had its way i' the world where God should rule” (X, 1421-1422). Only three characters in the poem attempt to spread the rule of God, all with disheartening results. Pompilia succeeds in saving her son from Guido's clutches, but she is brutally butchered in the bloom of young motherhood, and her child disappears into obscurity. Caponsacchi, her would-be rescuer, lives on in desperate isolation, plagued by guilt and self-recrimination for not taking his one brief opportunity to strangle Guido at Castelnuovo. The Pope, recognizing Caponsacchi's agony, can do no more than speak a melancholy, unheard blessing upon him: “Work, be unhappy but bear life, my son!” (X, 1212). The Pope does act against evil, but only by upholding Guido's sentence after his villainy has been consummated; the letters in Book XII show that the principles of Guidoism survive and prosper. In the poem, the possibilities for conquering evil and advancing the rule of God—possibilities available not only to an obscure, helpless young woman, but also to a promising young priest at the threshold of maturity, and even to the Pope himself—are shown to be so severely limited as to appear to justify the extremes of renunciation pronounced by Fra Celestino in his sermon of Book XII. Aware that for the one Pompilia exonerated, countless “sister-fames” have drowned in obscurity, he renounces all the pleasures and possibilities of this world, including the opportunity

                    to grow good and great,
Rather than simply good, and bring thereby
Goodness to breathe and live

(XII, 630-632)

In response to Pompilia's tragedy, he turns his back even on moral effort.

Pompilia's murder is a dramatic outburst of the evil that prevails in the daily life of the society portrayed in The Ring and the Book. In this society, the forces of greed, lust, and ambition ensnare and drag down the helpless and unwitting, the uncertain and half-hearted. A miracle of freshly created innocence and purity, Pompilia is saved from proletarian squalor for a life of bourgeois respectability, and then elevated to aristocratic station, but her rise through the classes grimly and ironically exposes the vanity of wealth and social position. Procured for money and bartered in marriage for status and security, she finds herself dwelling amidst lust and greed like her prostitute mother before her, and her sexual submission to Guido, sanctioned by social custom and the commands of the Church, is no more than a sordid reenactment of the loveless act that engendered her. Caponsacchi's worldly career is similarly planned by those who should love him most and ratified by the institution that should most concern itself with his spiritual welfare. Proposed for life in the Church because a bishopric is assumed to be a right of his aristocratic family, he honorably stops short at the vow to renounce the world as he recognizes his weakness, only to be lured into acquiescence by a spokesman for the Church's worldly interests. Examining his life after seeing Pompilia for the first time, he perceives “the gap 'twixt what is, what should be” (VI, 487), the disparity between his vague desire to serve God and what he actually does: he prostitutes his physical attractiveness and cultural sophistication to fill ecclesiastical coffers. In effect, the helpless and unwitting Pompilia is raped. In effect, the uncertain and half-hearted Caponsacchi is seduced. Thus does the world dispose of its children.

Caponsacchi begins with a hazy conception of what a priest ought to be, something beyond his grasp toward which he vaguely reaches, and his discontent with what he becomes manifests a potential for goodness. In contrast, evil is exemplified in the poem by various forms of not reaching, the lowest being the avid embrace of what is, to which Guido makes his bravado confession in his second monologue. He has lived to satisfy the basest actualities of his wolfish nature, greed and lust, and he conceives of the human order as being necessarily governed by a utilitarian social contract placing boundaries on the quest for pleasure, for “Anyone's pleasure turns to someone's pain” (XI, 530). He attempted to subvert the social contract as it applied to him by disguising his wolfishness in sheep's clothing, a strategy exemplified in his first monologue. Yet there his sheep's clothing, world-worn, tattered, and soiled, a professed conception of what should be so debased and dogmatic as to provide sanction for what is, grotesquely parodies the spotless fleece of the lamb of God. Its efficaciousness derives from its unremarkable familiarity. Guido claims to be just like the rest of the flock, to have trod the path where he was trained to go, to have lived, like his listeners, by the time-honored principles that govern the actions of all normally respectable human beings who accede to the natural wish to make their way in the world. His defenders—nay, even the chief lawyer for the prosecution—invoke the principles that he professes, and the majority sentiment in Rome appears to side with him.3 Guido's disguise in his first monologue is his claim, occasionally betrayed by outbursts of hatred and contempt, that he attempted to live by the prevailing conventional morality.

The ideals of the conventional morality to which Guido appeals are honor and respectability, duty and submission. He presents his marriage as a negotiated transaction into which he entered with the honorable and natural desire to increase his family's fortunes and produce an heir. In his view, Pompilia's behavior, beginning with her sexual withdrawal (a situation later remedied by the Archbishop's command) and ending with her elopement, violated her vow of obedience to her husband and besmirched his and his family's honor. Guido professes to have killed Pompilia to recover his honor after the processes of law to which he obediently submitted failed to restore it, and after its degradation was consummated in the birth of a child of dubious paternity. The murder, he claims, fulfilled the spirit of the law, enacted the verdict breathed, but not spoken, by God, felt by Guido, although unheard by the judges. Guido professes to want to live in order to raise his son—not biologically his, but his by right of law—to be a fit representative of the family name. For Guido and his defenders, the communal order is at stake. Wives and children ought to submit to husbands and fathers, whose duty it is to expand family fortunes and to preserve and enhance family honor. To condemn Guido would violate this conception of what ought to be and undermine the foundations of society.

While in his first monologue Guido's professed conception of what ought to be seems morally superior to the ravenous wolfishness to which he confesses in his second, it falls far short of what ought to be. Markedly absent from it is any recognition of the power and possibility of human love, any acknowledgement of the special affection, sympathy, and understanding that might bind together a more generously and humanely conceived social order. Yet to find examples of lives conducted successfully by more generous and humane principles, one must turn from Browning and The Ring and the Book to the works of other Victorians, Dickens, for example, or Tennyson, or Trollope, or George Eliot. In these writers one frequently encounters affirmation of the nurturing and supportive love potential in the ties of hearth, home, family and community. To be sure, characters in their works often betray these ties or fail to realize their potential, and sometimes one finds endorsement of other values, values of faith or personal fulfillment or imaginative vision. Yet ideals of relationship and community endure as possibilities that human beings can realize and occasionally do. Affirmations of possibility appear, for example, in Pip's reconciliation with Biddy and Joe at the end of Great Expectations, in the friendship to which In Memoriam is an abiding monument, in the growth of respect and affection that enables Plantagenet Palliser and Lady Glencorra to overcome their incompatibilities in the Parliamentary novels, in the imperfect but mutually supportive marriages between Mary Garth and Fred Vincy, Dorothea Brooke and Will Ladislaw at the end of Middlemarch. These successes of relationship, qualified and limited though some of them may be, suggest the possibility of sustaining mutuality in terms understood and sanctioned by at least a saving remnant of society.

Because Guido's professed conception of what ought to be typifies the highest reach of most people's aspirations in the society portrayed by The Ring and the Book, there is in the poem a remarkable absence of successful relationships between brothers or sisters, friends or lovers, parents and children, husbands and wives. All such relationships, whether between Guido and his brothers, de Archangelis and his son, or Guido and his father, or between Pietro and Violante or either of them and Pompilia—all such relationships appear sadly inadequate, if not mercenary and corrupt. Those extraordinary characters in the poem who are capable of conceiving higher forms of mutuality thus find themselves dwelling in loveless isolation. In Arezzo, Pompilia endures the scorn and abuse of her husband's family after having been abandoned by her adoptive parents; she suspects her one would-be confidante, her corrupt maid, of being her husband's mistress. Describing his life in his home city, Caponsacchi makes no reference to communication with his family; friends and superiors alike scoff at his qualms of conscience and urge him to advance his career by exploiting the affections of women. Even the Pope has no one to confide in, no relative, no friend, no trusted subordinate; he speaks his monologue aloud, but he talks only to himself.

It takes blind chance—or a miracle of providence—to bring the soulmates Pompilia and Caponsacchi together, but the relationship of selfless love established between them appears sexual and illicit in the eyes of the world, and their moments together are sadly, wrenchingly brief. Their salvation requires the severing of all communal and institutional ties, and they desperately fly from Arezzo toward an uncertain destiny. Caponsacchi has no hope of refuge in Rome, no friend or relation to accept him, no patron to offer him protection, and the outcome for him, exile at the command of the Church, consummates his isolation. Pompilia can hope for asylum only in the home of parents who publicly denied their parentage. She finds temporary and ineffectual shelter there, but only after she has been released from incarceration among strangers in the Convertite monastery, a refuge for fallen women to which the court consigned her. She is released to give birth to her child, and after the birth occurs the one moment of domestic felicity recorded in The Ring and the Book, the evening of New Year's Day 1698, when she and the Comparini gathered around the hearth, and Pietro characteristically described his schemes for a future of comfortable moderation, and Violante characteristically scolded him for chattering like a crow. “Oh what a happy friendly eve was that!” says Pompilia (VII, 249). On the next day, all three are brutally struck down by Guido.

As a result of their experiences, Pompilia and Caponsacchi both call into question the values of domestic possibility shared by so many Victorian writers and their readers. For Caponsacchi, the values cannot be fulfilled; for Pompilia, they are ultimately inadequate. At the end of his monologue Caponsacchi drifts into fantasy, imagining what might have been if the what is of his and Pompilia's life had been different: domestic felicity through marriage between the two, “small experiences of every day, / Concerns of the particular hearth and home” (VI, 2092-2093). To the ongoing, evolving revelation of “the true, / The good, the eternal” (VI 2089-2090) that might have been available through daily life with Pompilia he contrasts revelation in a transcendent flash, such as he received from first seeing and then meeting her. To share life with her would be

To learn not only by a comet's rush
But a rose's birth,—not by the grandeur, God—
But the comfort, Christ.

(VI, 2094-2096)

But for him the circumstances of earth thwart the possibility of Christ's comfort: “All this, how far away! / Mere delectation, meet for a minute's dream!” (VI, 2096-2097). He compares himself to a drudging student who, inspired to dream of heroic action by reading Plutarch, awakens from his fantasy into “the old solitary nothingness” (VI, 2103). Having been raised through Pompilia's influence to a vision of God's grandeur, but having nevertheless failed to save her from the powers of evil, he recedes into the comfortless, benighted agony of life on this earth. His last words are, “O great, just, good God! Miserable me!” (VI, 2105). Wearily, he awaits the ultimate fulfillment of the promise revealed in the comet-rush of Pompilia's brief life, a fulfillment into which only death can release him.

As she actually faces imminent death, what buoys Pompilia is faith in the grandeur of God as it was revealed to her through the person of Caponsacchi, and not the comfort of Christ such as she might derive from imagining her child's life. Although exultant in the birth and survival of her son, this young woman, who has been portrayed as all that is true and pure and beautiful and associated with Mary giving birth to the Christchild,4 finds little consolation in regarding her child's future. She suspects, in fact, that he will grow up to be like the rest of the world, frowning upon her “with the others” and saying reprovingly,

                    “Poor imprudent child!
Why did you venture out of the safe street?
Why go so far from help to that lone house?
Why open at the whisper and the knock?”

(VII, 216-219)

Pompilia guesses that her prostitute mother sold her in hopes of saving her for a better life, but Pompilia has since learned the vanity of such hopes, and she makes no plans for Gaetano. Through death, she fatalistically surrenders him to God, “But not to any parent in the world,” for “All human plans and projects come to nought” (VII, 899, 902). The child is hers, hers alone, but her possession of him, exclusively spiritual, can be fulfilled only in heaven: “So shall I have my rights in after-time” (VII, 1765). Having resigned her son to the care of God, Pompilia finds the courage to welcome death in contemplating the remote and inaccessible friend who heroically attempted to save her. In speculating that Caponsacchi would not marry even were he not a priest, Pompilia carries scepticism toward the adequacy of human relationships on this earth to its furthest extreme:

I think he would not marry if he could.
Marriage on earth seems such a counterfeit,
Mere imitation of the inimitable:
In heaven we have the real and true and sure.

(VII, 1823-1826)

Pompilia here testifies to the gap between the best that might be here on earth—marriage, mere imitation—and the ultimate ought to be—union of souls in heaven, the inimitable. For Caponsacchi, the best that might be is an idle dream, and he despairingly resigns himself to life without Pompilia, a miserable existence in the “old solitary nothingness” of this earth. Pompilia's vision, however, is positive, joyous. Having known Caponsacchi, she has absolute faith that the ultimate ought to be, infinitely superior to Caponsacchi's dream of what might have been, actually will be: “In heaven we have the real and true and sure.” Together, Caponsacchi's recognition of earth's thwartings and Pompilia's perception of earth's inadequacies amplify Browning's portrayal of a world presided over by evil, and challenge the normally humane reader's hopes for satisfaction and fulfillment. For good reason, Browning is only half-playful in accusing the British public of liking him not (I, 1379).5


The Pope bears witness to the gap between imitation here on earth and the inimitable in the realm above in his view of the medium by which human beings present themselves to one another and establish relationships: language, what he calls “these filthy rags of speech” (X, 373). Language is susceptible to misuse—in the mouths of Guido and his defenders such words as “honor,” “duty,” “husband,” “wife,” or “child” are filthy rags indeed—but beyond that, the necessity for language manifests the elusiveness of truth. The Pope thus believes that the capacity to speak will disappear in the realm above, for “He, the Truth, is, too, / The Word” (X, 376-377). In response to the same perception—the text of his sermon is “God is true / And every man a liar” (XII, 600-601)—Fra Celestino renounces the world, including the opportunities for moral effort.6 The Pope, in contrast, believes in the imperative for everyone to make “A fairer moral world than this he finds” (X, 1418), and thus he accepts his obligation to exercise his moral powers by sorting through the filthy rags of speech in order to find the truths of good and evil, innocence and guilt. By framing the poem as a series of monologues presenting incomplete, imperfect, and contradictory views of a central action, Browning forces the same obligation on the reader. The reader must recognize the desperate, fallen condition of the world, in which even the highest conception of possibilities for relationship and community are mere imitations, but the reader must nevertheless exercise moral powers to discern those truths in the fallen world that point toward the inimitable in the realm above.

The exercise of moral powers with which Browning challenges the reader is in two senses a limited process, but the challenge remains nevertheless formidable. In one sense, the process of judgment is limited in that it involves the merely natural capacities of intelligence and moral discrimination in the analysis only of such facts as are evident in the sphere of human behavior. In his imagination, the Pope reviews his judgment before Antonio Pignatelli, his former, uncrowned self, “not Pope but the mere old man o' the world” (X, 393), because recognition of moral truths requires no gift of inspired vision, no leap of faith, no Christian ordination such as might distinguish a priest from a layman or the Pope from everyone else:

I find the truth, dispart the shine from shade,
As a mere man may, with no special touch
O' the lynx-gift in each ordinary orb.

(X, 1243-1245)

There are higher truths than those of good and evil, innocence and guilt, and bearing witness to them requires higher powers than those of intelligence and discrimination. The Pope must exert those higher powers, but only after his moral assessment of the action establishes the solid platform on which he stands as he reaches upward.

The exercise of judgment forced upon the reader is also limited in that it is merely an exercise, a testing again of a hypothesis that has already been proven. The hypothesis is briefly stated in Book I when Browning discloses his own judgment of the case, and it is recapitulated in full detail in Book X when the Pope reviews the basis for the decision that he has already made. In the interim, the reader has been exposed to information and opinion such as was available to the Pope—but only to be in the position to recognize the truth of the Pope's views. What is at stake is not the judgment of the Pope but the reader's capacity to affirm it once again as a necessary stage in the journey toward higher vision. Yet for many readers assenting to the Pope might be a difficult task, for the principles by which he judges are extraordinarily strenuous and uncompromising, and the truths on which he judges are obscured in the externals of action.

The Pope judges in terms of absolutes, placing all the actors in Pompilia's tragedy on a moral hierarchy, Pompilia closely followed by Caponsacchi at the top, Guido and his family at the bottom. The reader of moderate temperament might find unsettling the outbursts of rage and loathing expressed in the Pope's characterizations of the Franceschini: Guido is the “midmost blotch of black” (X, 869), Paolo “This fox-faced … brother-brute” (880), Girolamo “nor wolf nor fox, / But hybrid” (898-899), their mother “The hag that gave these three abortions birth” (912). Further, the reader with relativistic, permissive moral standards, or a sentimentalist like Other Half-Rome, who persistently endorses the middle way, an ethic of compromise, might find it excessively severe to draw the line between good and evil where the Pope does, with pure whiteness alone on one side and on the other the full spectrum shading from faintest gray to absolute black.7 The Pope judges those in the middle, Pietro and Violante, as rigorously as he judges those below. They were brutally struck down by an evil hand, but he regards their deaths as appropriate punishment, harsh, but deserved because of their “Sadly mixed natures” (X, 1218), their moral confusion. Pursuing “the middle course” (X, 1221), they vacillated between good and evil, love and greed. The results for Pompilia, life amidst ravenous predators, could not have been worse had an evil will ordained her fate. “Go!” is the Pope's exasperated command to Pietro and Violante; “Never again elude the choice of tints!” (X, 1234-1235). White tinted gray by the shadow of worldly motives must be renounced for the pure whiteness of absolute good: “White shall not neutralize the black, nor good / Compensate bad in man, absolve him so” (X, 1236-1237). To choose the way of love and righteousness is to oppose the way of the world; to choose anything else is to choose the world. “Life's business,” says the Pope, is “just the terrible choice” (X, 1238).

The Pope's uncompromising rigor challenges sentimentality, moral permissiveness, and the canons of moderation; the basis on which he judges presents a challenge to pragmatic or utilitarian moralities. What counts for the Pope are not the results of actions, but the underlying motives, and he thus sees the story not as a sorry tale of good intentions gone awry, but as a glorious history of noble effort paving the road to heaven as it acts itself out heroically against insurmountable odds on earth. He judges others as God will judge him, on the basis of motive, for it is

                    the seed of act [that]
God holds appraising in His hollow palm,
Not act grown great thence on the world below.

(X, 272-274)

As the basis for his poem Browning has brilliantly chosen a history the moral understanding of which hinges on questions of motivation. At each step along the way, beginning with the sale of Pompilia, one's judgment of the actors depends on one's perception of their intentions. If Pompilia's mother were motivated by love rather than greed—by the desire to save her daughter for a better life, as Pompilia suspects—then one might forgive her for her role in the tragedy.8 Ultimately, if sexual love motivated Pompilia's and Caponsacchi's flight from Arezzo, and the murder were motivated by the desire to avenge wounded honor as Guido claims and most of Rome seems to believe, it is likely that the Court, the Pope, and the reader would judge the case differently.

Yet only God knows the inner recesses of the heart. What is present as indisputable fact to the human eye are actions and their results, and, in Browning's words, “Action now shrouds, nor shows the informing thought” (I, 1366).9 Sometimes truths of motivation strain credulity. Sometimes people are unaware of what their real motives are. More often they attempt to conceal them from one another, or they delude themselves. Fully conscious of his intentions, Caponsacchi states them boldly and directly, but to human beings familiar with the ways of the world—to the judges, for example, when he first appears before them—his claim that his love for Pompilia excludes and transcends sexuality appears improbable in the extreme. Either he lies, as Guido claims, or he deceives himself, as Other Half-Rome suspects. Pompilia appears not to have understood her motive for fleeing Arezzo. On a fresh spring morning a thrill of unwonted vitality made escape from Guido an absolute imperative, worth any risk, but she appears to have realized only later that this feeling was the first sign of her pregnancy, and the motive for flight a natural instinct to save her child.10 Guido's claim that he acted to avenge wounded honor is a conscious deception; the Pope must see through it in order to conclude that the real motive for the murder was greed, the desire to obtain Gaetano's inheritance. That Caponsacchi's statement of motive is truthful and Guido's false can be inferred only by thoughtfully examining the whole congeries of fact, testimony, and rumor associated with the case, for no single statement can be credited out of context. As the Pope puts it,

Truth, nowhere, lies yet everywhere in these—
Not absolutely in a portion, yet
Evolvible from the whole.

(X, 229-231)

And yet how difficult it is to evolve the fulness of truth from the whole! Perceiving Guido's greedy wolfishness beneath his sheep's clothing, the Pope rightly condemns him to speedy execution, but this wisest and most perceptive of judges fails to recognize the ultimate reality of Guido's nature. In Guido's second monologue, a portion of the reader's “everywhere” that is unavailable to the Pope, one finds confirmation for Pompilia's understanding of her husband: “hate was thus the truth of him” (VII, 1727).11 Transcending his ravenous lust for pleasure, Guido's evil is radical, Satanic: unmotivated hatred of the good. “Nor is it in me to unhate my hates,” says Guido near the end (XI, 2400), and he exhausts his remaining strength in avidly reliving in his imagination the brutal destruction of his hated victims. Employing the imagery of consumption as is his wont, he presents the murder of Pompilia as the purgative vomiting of a radically inimical substance, thus transforming himself into a regurgitating throat:

                              and I grow one gorge
To loathingly reject Pompilia's pale
Poison my hasty hunger took for food.

(XI, 2404-2406)

This revelation of Guido's radical evil underscores the justice of his execution, and it also substantiates further the necessity for the Pope's moral rigor. For good to prevail in this world it must be animated by a hatred of evil surpassing evil's hatred of good. Good must arise in uncompromising militancy to assert the grandeur of God. Too often good shrinks from the task, seeks compromise, settles for half victories. Too often good turns from confronting the ever-present threat of evil to seek the comforts of Christ in the “mere imitation of the inimitable” delusively offered by life in this world. Too often, but not always. In The Ring and the Book three characters rise in militant wrath against evil, but the value of their effort does not lie in the results, for their efforts fail, evil endures, and the possibilities for Christ's comfort remain as constricted as ever. The value lies in miraculous revelation insusceptible of direct transmission through the medium of language. The ultimate challenge to the reader is to bear witness to this revelation.


Having reviewed and affirmed his judgment, the Pope rises to confront higher questions raised by the case and his role in it. “Shalt thou still gaze on ground,” he asks himself, “nor once face the doubt / I' the sphere above thee, darkness to be felt?” (X, 1281, 1283-1284). Does divine power encompass and interact with the human sphere? Does the natural light of his moral vision have its origin in illumination from above? In judging, the Pope affirmed his moral health, but the higher challenges tests the essential self of which moral discernment is but a portion: “At this stage is the trial of my soul” (X, 1305). The challenge that he—and the reader—must face is the challenge to faith posed by the prevalence of evil.

The Pope makes it clear that he retains his belief in the truth of the Christian story, a truth perhaps not objective, factual, historical, but “truth reverberate” (X, 1391), truth that strikes the heart, truth with the potential to inspire the probative moral struggle against evil. What challenges the Pope's faith is his recognition, substantiated so dramatically and touchingly in Pompilia's tragedy, that the Christian story has inspired precious little moral effort. Sadly, the Pope perceives that the world has not improved morally since the era of Euripides, whose voice he imagines speaking toward the end of his monologue. Euripides opposed the adverse forces of the world, clung to love and virtue for their own sakes, and inculcated moral standards unexcelled in the Christian era. Why should he be denied salvation available to members of the Church, whose ordained representatives played such cruel and disheartening roles in Pompilia's tragedy? The vanity, corruption, avarice, and moral half-heartedness of the ecclesiastical participants in the story—the Abate Paolo, the Canon Girolamo, the Archbishop of Arezzo, Romano, the Augustinian friar, the Convertites—are found by the Pope to be writ large in the actions of the Church extending back in time at least to the excommunication of Pope Formosus and reaching from Rome outwards to the ends of the earth. Considering the petty semantic squabbles of missionaries in China, the Pope laments, “And is this little all that was to be?” (X, 1614). There was indeed more than this little; there was the heroism of Caponsacchi—and yet,

Does he take inspiration from the Church,
Directly make her rule his law of life?
Not he: his own mere impulse guides the man.

(X, 1912-1914)

One guesses that Caponsacchi would have acted in exactly the same way had he lived in the time of Euripides. Do the pre-Christian virtues of Euripides merit salvation? Can the impulsive, instinctive heroism of Caponsacchi—and of Pompilia—be subsumed in the Christian vision? Such questions test the Pope's soul.

The questions are multiple, and no direct answers appear. The answers lie “everywhere … yet nowhere” in the twelve books of the poem. One can thus only guess that the Pope believes in Euripides' ultimate salvation just as he believes in Formosus' worthiness despite the prevailing curse of excommunication. As a model of right moral judgment, the Pope is a near-perfect round, lacking as a missing arc only a full understanding of Guido's radical evil, for as a moral phenomenon, Pompilia's tragedy is finite and complete, a matter of history preserved in documents available for analysis by the natural moral faculty, which has the capacity to formulate meanings accurately in terms of judgments and sentences. As a model of one who confronts doubt, however, the Pope can do no more than focus on certain kinds of evidence, state certain terms, and point in certain directions in the meandering second part of his monologue. For as a spiritual phenomenon, Pompilia's tragedy offers luminous moments of reverberate truth whose impact cannot be formulated in words; it blossoms miraculously into reality in those infinite regions of the soul that lie beyond the boundaries of articulation.

And yet Browning hopes to reach those regions of the soul indirectly through his art:

                    Art may tell a truth
Obliquely, do the thing shall breed the thought,
Nor wrong the thought, missing the mediate word.
So may you paint your picture, twice show truth,
Beyond mere imagery on the wall,—
So, note by note, bring music from your mind,
Deeper than ever e'en Beethoven dived.

(XII, 859-865)

The imagery on the wall shows truth twice in that it activates processes of inner apprehension—breeds the thought, brings music from the mind—at the same time that it accurately represents external truths of nature and morality. As the Pope infers truths of good and evil, innocence and guilt by examining the images of Pompilia's history provided in the verbal testimony, a spiritual awareness arises within him, an apprehension of inspiring power available in what he examines.12 As he appears to understand it, Pompilia and Caponsacchi make the tale of Christ a living actuality, not by being inspired by the tale, but by somehow enacting it once again. Their lives are thus instances of primal revelation, an idea that would seem to challenge Christian orthodoxy; but then the Pope perceives the possible necessity for breaking up the present form of Christian faith and replacing it with something new in obedience to new or renewed revelation, “some truth / Unrecognized yet, but perceptible” (X, 1871-1872), and he himself appears to undermine orthodox theology in seeming to reject the notion of original sin:

                              the fault, the obduracy to good,
Lies not with the impracticable stuff
Whence man is made, his very nature's fault.

(X, 1539-1541)

By implication, Christ's death has saving power not as an expiation for primal disobedience, but as a culminating, inspirational example of what all human beings are capable of attempting—of what all human beings must attempt if they are to advance beyond their nature and progress toward salvation and community with God. For the Pope, the tale of Christ reveals “love … / Unlimited in its self-sacrifice” (X, 1370-1371)—and so do the lives of Pompilia and Caponsacchi.

The Pope compares Caponsacchi to a golden rose graven “to imitate God's miracle” (X, 1098), such as he himself gave annually to an eminent servant of the Church. Through Caponsacchi, the Pope received such a gift, a miraculous replication in the form of breathing flesh and blood. At the cry of need, fire was struck from a heart of stone, and the foppish, foolish, motley-garbed priest became warrior, athlete, chivalrous knight, acting heroically in utter disregard of the “yea and nay o' the world” (X, 1116). What Caponsacchi disregarded was not only the worldliness of the world—status, reputation, privilege, power—but also the possibility of finding comfort in the human sphere through the fulfillment of earthly love for a worthy object. He resisted the temptation of natural love offered by the attractive presence of Pompilia, that figure of “perfect beauty of the body and soul” with whom he shared some two days of passionate intensity (X, 1181). Caponsacchi exerts his natural manhood in responding heroically to Pompilia's cry, but he rises above it in loving her with spiritual purity. Says the Pope, “Was the trial sore? / Temptation sharp? Thank God a second time!” (X, 1183-1184). According to Other Half-Rome, at least half the men who saw Pompilia on her deathbed fell in love with her, the priests not excepted, and of those who participate in the poem as observers, only the Pope can believe that Caponsacchi's love lacked earthly dimension. “You know this is not love, Sirs,” says Caponsacchi to the judges, “it is faith, / The feeling that there's God”—and he really means it (VI, 1193-1194). This love that sacrifices nature and becomes one with faith strains credulity with such force that it approaches the miraculous.

Pompilia even more strikingly exemplifies the love that sacrifices nature and becomes one with faith. The Pope compares her to a wild-flower that miraculously explodes into glorious bloom, “breaks all into blaze” (X, 1043). What most captures his imagination is not her natural innocence and purity—those qualities whose imperilment initially inspired Caponsacchi—but her rising above them as she ascended “from law to law,” promoted “at one cry / O' the trump of God to the new service” (X, 1056-1058). Nor does he locate the height of her ascent where one might expect, in her flight from Arezzo or in her giving birth to her son, for in these actions she was fulfilling the law of her feminine, maternal nature. Pompilia herself described her flight as intuitive, instinctive, natural, and in the Pope's view all purely natural creatures would act similarly, “in a common pact / To worthily defend the trust of trusts” (X, 1079-1080). At the climax of his revery on Pompilia, the Pope locates her glorious ascent to new law and new service in her attempt to save Caponsacchi from Guido:

And with his own sword [thou didst] stay the upraised arm,
The endeavour of the wicked, and defend
Him who … was there
For visible providence.

(X, 1083-1086)

Caponsacchi is also haunted by the memory of this “Leap to life of the pale electric sword / Angels go armed with” (VI, 1603-1604), his last image of her, the culminating revelation of her glorious spirit. After their first conversation, he felt her influence as a thrust into himself, an “invasion” to which he “lay passive” (VI, 947), like a womb receiving the fertilizing seed. In her attempt to protect him from Guido, this masculine potency of her spiritual influence takes the form of wrathful militancy. She invades the male space, wrests the sword from her husband's sheath, and makes an attempt on his life, crying “Die, … devil, in God's name!” (VI, 1546). At this moment the trumpet sounds, and Pompilia, presented elsewhere as martyr-maid and mother-saint, becomes a soldier-savior, appropriately compared by the Pope to the Angel Michael, whose statue on Hadrian's tomb, he says, makes him no less preeminent for being unarmed and uncrowned. Living by the law of natural need, Pompilia rises to the law of divinely righteous militancy, inspired by a surpassing hatred of evil, and the height of her revelatory heroism is measured by what she puts at risk—the life of her unborn child. Turning to confront the evil that she attempted to flee, her motive was not to save her baby but to rescue her savior. At the sight of her “angel helplessly held back,” she acted, as it is clear to her on her deathbed, “on impulse to serve God / Not save myself,—no—nor my child unborn!” (VII, 1587, 1600-1601).13 By rising above the temptations and bonds of natural love and risking all in an effort to save good from evil, Pompilia and Caponsacchi, to quote the Pope from another context, enact

          repetition of the miracle,
The divine instance of self-sacrifice
That never ends and aye begins for man.

(X, 1656-1658)

Pompilia and Caponsacchi rise miraculously to risk the sacrifices, but they fail to save one another from suffering the consequences of evil. Yet they do save one another spiritually; their reciprocal influence miraculously inspires inner processes of rebirth and resurrection that provide answers to the question posed by the Pope while regarding the moral decay of the Church:

Where is the gloriously-decisive change,
Metamorphosis the immeasurable
Of human clay to divine gold?

(X, 1615-1617)

“In rushed new things, the old were rapt away,” says Caponsacchi, describing his inner transformation after his first conversation with Pompilia: “Into another state, under new rule / I knew myself was passing swift and sure” (VI, 948, 964-965). Recognizing that “Death meant, to spurn the ground, / Soar to the sky” (VI, 951-952), he goes on to sever the ties of Arezzo and risk all to save Pompilia from Guido. Later this “gloriously-decisive change” manifests itself in further effort as he continues to evolve out of human clay into divine gold. Gathering together his most potent resources of passion and rhetoric, he rises in his monologue from the arena of action and morality into the arena of revelation and salvation as he attempts to transmit Pompilia's lumious power to the judges, with the intention not of exonerating her, but of saving them:

          I want no more with earth.
Let me, in heaven's name, use the very snuff
O' the taper in one last spark shall show truth
For a moment, show Pompilia who was true!
Not for her sake, but yours.

(VI, 169-173)

Without realizing it, Caponsacchi here fulfills the ought to be of priesthood toward which he vaguely reached after first seeing Pompilia. He summons up all his human powers to convey to his benighted listeners the impact of revelation, to make what transformed and saved him present for them by rendering incarnate the miracle of Pompilia's gloriously-decisive influence.

Miraculously in harmony with Caponsacchi's effort, Pompilia's ultimate intention in her monologue is to make him, her savior, a living presence, and thus to provide a basis for renewed faith. Spending her “last breath … wholly” to affirm his purity, she hopes to enhearten those who doubt:

If God yet have a servant, man a friend,
The weak a saviour and the vile a foe,—
Let him be present, by the name invoked,
Giuseppe-Maria Caponsacchi!

(VII, 932, 938-941)

Her intention reaches consummation at the end of the monologue, when she bears witness to the presence and influence of Caponsacchi with such eloquent force that he seems to be there before her, visible to her eye:

The face, again the eyes, again, through all,
The heart and its immeasurable love
Of my one friend, my only, all my own.

(VII, 1776-1779)

These lines make a bold and dangerous statement, for they can easily be misinterpreted as an expression of earthly love, and Pompilia continues in the same spirit, courageously confessing on her deathbed to the one critical charge against her that was true. On that fatal January evening she went to the door hoping to find Caponsacchi, and she wants him to know it: “Tell him … / It was the name of him I sprang to meet” (VII, 1806, 1808). Rising to meet her savior, she found death at the door, but her savior is ever-present, a living face visible to her mind's eye, substantiating in her the faith that death, to echo Caponsacchi's language, means spurning the ground and soaring to the sky. Her love for Caponsacchi is not an earthly tie that she grieves to sever, but a spiritual bond that she longs to consummate in the beyond. Referring to him again in her last words, she cries:

                    Through such souls alone
God stooping shows sufficient of His light
For us i' the dark to rise by. And I rise.

(VII, 1843-1845)

Having witnessed in Caponsacchi a revelation of God's saving power, Pompilia faces death as a “gloriously-decisive change.” Pompilia and Caponsacchi are denied the comforts and consolations prefigured in the birth of the Christchild into the holy family; yet through suffering and willing self-sacrifice in behalf of love unlimited, they somehow participate in the passion and the crucifixion, and their risings toward salvation enact resurrection and ascension.14

The reach of Caponsacchi's and Pompilia's efforts to make one another vitally present to their listeners is in itself a miracle of self-effacing, transcendent aspiration, but it is only a reach. While the tears of Caponsacchi's judges and Pompilia's well-wishers may suggest partial and temporary success, the whole story sinks into oblivion. Reading of it in a sheaf of yellowed documents pulled from the shelf of a bookseller's stall, Browning testifies to having felt the impact of saving revelation, revelation similar to that felt by Pompilia and Caponsacchi—indeed, revelation similar to that experienced by the writers of the Gospels on actually witnessing the life of Christ or hearing about it from other, first-hand witnesses. And, like Pompilia and Caponsacchi and like the writers of the Gospels, Browning felt compelled to save the revelation and make it a living presence. In the neglected historical documents he found truth moribund, truth obscured in the withered factuality of conflicting testimony and contradictory opinion—not truth “of force,” not truth “Able to take its own part as truth should, / Sufficient, self-sustaining” (I, 372-374). He “resuscitates” the wholeness of truth that these fragmented facts imperfectly reveal, makes “new beginning, starts the dead alive, / Completes the incomplete and saves the thing” (I, 719, 733-734). And his culminating effort of resuscitation, completion, and salvation, is his full-scale re-creation of the Pope. On the basis of minimal fact,15 Browning completes the story by imagining the Pope as an ideal witness to it, a model for the reader. He saves the revelation by dramatizing its impact on one who, like the reader, learns about it only by means of language. The Pope never laid eyes on Pompilia or Caponsacchi, yet, reading about them in documents similar to those found in the Old Yellow Book, he bears witness to their soul-inspiring power as he testifies to his renewed faith.

Under the influence of Pompilia's and Caponsacchi's self-sacrificing love, the Pope can also be seen to rise from law to law. Caponsacchi, having received in a flash the revelation of Pompilia's spiritual power, transcends the worldliness that he has been seduced into accepting as law, and attempts to save good from evil. But he loses the chance to perform the ultimate saving act, to throw himself upon Guido at Castelnuovo and destroy him. Pompilia rises above the law of her created nature, blossoms into full radiance, when, inspired by Caponsacchi's imperilment, she risks everything that makes her life in this world worth living to do the thing that Caponsacchi leaves undone. Yet she is a weak young woman after all, unable to fulfill the intention for which she grasps the sword. It is left to the Pope to consummate what the poem's manly hero failed even to attempt, and what the poem's weak and submissive woman attempted only to fail. An enfeebled old man, by natural temperament meditative, merciful, and charitable, he rises at the risk of his immortal soul to act with righteous vengeance: “And how should I dare die, this man let live?” is the Pope's penultimate line (X, 2134). In remembering the story of a faithful virgin who seizes a sword to slaughter a band of lustful pagans, Pompilia states the paradox of the action imagined by Caponsacchi, attempted by herself, and performed by the Pope: “Wrath of God, assert His love!” cried the virgin (VII, 1395). So inclined by his nature to live and rule on the principles of Christ's comfort, the Pope rises to the challenge to assert God's grandeur. If he failed in this, how could he face Pompilia in the realm above?

For the Pope has absolute faith that he will meet her in the realm above. Indeed, he is already in her presence, and so is Caponsacchi. At the moment that he decided to uphold Guido's sentence—a moment that precedes the speaking of his monologue—the Pope rose to become one with her. Spiritually, this moment was identical to Caponsacchi's rising to save her from Guido and her rising to attack with the sword. In the region where thought is bred by the thing, to the mind from which music arises, the poem presents a triangular community of souls—Pompilia, Caponsacchi, the Pope—souls estranged by the circumstances of the historical lives that they actually lived, but bound together in ties of eternal kinship. The relationships between them defy linguistic categorization, for they are such as might exist in the realm referred to by the Pope where “these filthy rags of speech” will be set aside. In a radically transformed world, Pompilia and Caponsacchi might be husband and wife, a possibility of which both are aware. Yet they might also be brother and sister—or even mother and son while simultaneously father and daughter, for the condition of hierarchy or priority in their relationship is flexibly reciprocal. Like a father or older brother, Caponsacchi is Pompilia's guide, savior, and protector in the flight from Arezzo, and her defender before the court. Like a gently loving yet militantly protective mother, Pompilia is Caponsacchi's savior through her spiritual influence, his defender when she brandishes the sword at Castelnuovo, and his advocate in her deathbed confession. Because of his age, his status, and his superior intellectual clarity, the Pope would appear to be the moral and spiritual father of these two children, but he is simultaneously their moral and spiritual brother, sharing vicariously in their suffering. Yet he is also a son who receives instruction from them, for, participating in their story as judge, he sees it as a judgment on the Church over which he presides. Their superior, he is also their follower: he sees Pompilia to have advanced beyond his condition, going a way that he himself hopes to take, and Caponsacchi to have broken new ground as “the first experimentalist / In the new order of things” (X, 1910-1911). He understands the story between the two as a miracle, a saving revelation that renews his faith; he rises in spirit to bow down before them.

The Ring and the Book derives power from its vivid energies of concreteness and immediacy, from its fascinating clash of contradictory perceptions, and from the unflinching rigor of its moral vision. But in the last analysis the poem must be seen as an effort of religious renewal exerted in an age perceived to be materialistic and faithless. For Browning's ultimate goal in the poem to be fulfilled, the reader, like the Pope, must bow down as music more powerful even than Beethoven's arises from the depths of the soul. Not to denigrate the poem, but to acknowledge the reach of its ambition, one might add that for the nineteenth- or twentieth-century reader to experience fully what Browning intends would in itself be a miracle.


  1. The Ring and the Book has usually been interpreted in terms of the first two steps, as a study in the complexities of perception or as an endorsement of moral vision. For example, in Browning's Voices in The Ring and the Book: A Study of Method and Meaning (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969), Mary Rose Sullivan writes that the poem is “about the differing ways in which people interpret reality, the reasons why their interpretations disagree, and how we—with the poet's help—can penetrate to the fundamental truth beneath their confusion” (xi). For Gordon W. Thompson in “Authorial Detachment and Imagery in The Ring and the Book,SEL, 10 (1970): 669, the poem is “a study of perception, of the many different ways people view the same events.” In The Focusing Artifice: The Poetry of Robert Browning (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1968), Roma A. King, Jr., stressing morality, sees the poem as an attempt “to depict the possible—the process by which man, in the absence of the ideal and of creedal and institutional guidance, may achieve a moral existence” (132). In Browning's Roman Murder Story: A Reading of “The Ring and the Book” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), Richard D. Altick and James F. Loucks, II write in a similar vein that the “crucial consideration” in the poem “is not so much what men believe as what they do.” At stake is “the faith in things unseen, but tested on the pulse, which can serve as the basis of the ethical life” (360, 361). Some interpreters have seen the poem as an archetypal drama pointing toward redemption or salvation. In “To Tell the Sun from the Druid Fire: Imagery of Good and Evil in The Ring and the Book,SEL, 6 (1966): 706, Barton R. Friedman notes a “struggle between good and evil, God and the devil. But in its implied promise of redemption [the poem] also suggests Browning's confidence in the ultimate triumph of good over evil in the world.” In “Browning Climbs the Beanstalk: The Alienated Poet in The Ring and the Book,Studies in Browning and His Circle, 5, (1977): 37, Kay Austen writes, “In showing the truth of God through the archetypal conflict between devil and saint, Browning attains the heaven for which he is striving in Book I—artistic and personal salvation.” Yet the concept of salvation in the poem requires further emphasis and analysis. It is the purpose of this paper to show how a firm grasp on painful realities and commitment to a rigorous moral vision have the potential to prepare the reader, and not merely the poet, to triumph by experiencing inner resurrection and ascent, although not by conquering evil in this world.

  2. Citations are from the Centenary Edition of The Works of Robert Browning, ed. Frederick G. Kenyon (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1912).

  3. Altick and Loucks point out that “the first speaker, Half-Rome, represents the heavily dominant portion of public opinion” (41). In their ninth chapter they provide a detailed description of how the Roman populace functions as a benighted and capricious chorus in the poem.

  4. Altick and Loucks provide a summary of these associations (216-219), which have sometimes been unduly stressed. For example, in “The Ring and the Book: Truth and Fiction in Character-painting,” Victorian Poetry, 6 (1968): 362, Henri A. Talon locates Pompilia's central import in her being an “incarnation of woman's love for her child.” The reality of what Pompilia experiences and apprehends transcends her natural tie to her son.

  5. Reviewing the poem for The Fortnightly Review, NS 5 (1869): 332, John Morley relishes the challenge to the British reader provided by the vision of evil: “In the tragedy of Pompilia we are taken far from the serene and homely region in which some of our teachers would fain have it that the whole moral universe can be snugly put up. We see the black passions of man at their blackest; hate, so fierce, undiluted, implacable, passionate, as to be hard of conception by our simpler northern natures; cruelty, so vindictive, subtle, persistent, deadly, as to fill us with a pai almost too great for true art to produce; greediness, lust, craft, penetrating a whole stock and breed.” In contrast, Julia Wedgwood, reading the poem in manuscript, protested Browning's “unduly predominant” interest in evil and the poem's excessive “atmosphere of meanness and cruelty.” Browning replied, “my pride was concerned to invent nothing: the minutest circumstance that denotes character is true: the black is so much—the white, no more.” Robert Browning and Julia Wedgwood: A Broken Friendship as Revealed by Their Letters, ed. Richard Curle (New York: Frederick A. Stokes and Co., 1937), 137, 138, 144.

  6. In “The Murder Poem for Elizabeth,” Victorian Poetry, 6 (1968): 220, Park Honan groups Fra Celestino with the Pope and Browning himself as observers whose understanding is superior to that of the actors. It is important to note that Fra Celestino's desperate renunciation of the world is a failed response to the problem of evil, although different in kind from that of people like Julia Wedgwood, who refuse to recognize the magnitude of the problem. Instead of lending unqualified endorsement to Fra Celestino's perception that all people lie, Browning asserts at the end of the poem that art is a human means for indirectly revealing truth.

  7. Perhaps a touch of moral sentimentality underlies the efforts of critics to show that Pompilia forgives Guido—for example, Robert Langbaum, “Is Guido Saved? The Meaning of Browning's Conclusion to The Ring and the Book,Victorian Poetry, 10 (1972): 295; or Roy E. Gridley, “Browning's Pompilia,” JEGP, 67 (1968): 83—or that the Pope “views the extinguishing of Guido's physical life as … a last act to prompt contrition—rather than as a mere punishment,” as Joseph A. Dupras puts it in “‘Immeasureable Metamorphosis’: Rite and Apology in Book X of The Ring and the Book,Studies in Browning and His Circle, 3, (1975): 105, a view shared by Langbaum, 295. Pompilia forgives Guido in The Old Yellow Book, but in the poem she says, “I—pardon him?” (VII, 1709), and then she walks a narrow tightrope: she willingly surrenders her life, she sees that it is for Guido to make amends to God, she states that she will not meet him in heaven but that he might somehow be “healed,” she asserts that he merely enacted his nature, and she thanks him in that his evil was the test by fire for her good—but she does not explicitly pardon him. Says the Pope, “For the main criminal I have no hope” (X, 2117)—unless he could be saved as if by a mighty flash of lightning. That is, only such a stroke could save Guido; the Pope does not expect it, but who knows what God might do?

  8. Pompilia is more forgiving than the Pope toward Violante, not because her moral standards are less rigorous, but because she has faith in Violante's good intentions: “I know she meant all good to me, all pain / To herself” (VII, 338-339).

  9. In the first edition, this line reads, “Action now shrouds, now shows the informing thought” (italics mine). Did Browning revise to stress how action obscures motivation, or might the change be a misprint?

  10. Perhaps a debatable point, but I find the verb tense to be telling in Pompilia's reference to “That thrill of dawn's suffusion through my dark, / Which I perceive was promise of my child” (VII, 622-623). Now she perceives its meaning; then she did not.

  11. It is often assumed that the Pope has a complete and comprehensive understanding of the case. In “Pompilia: ‘Saint and Martyr Both,’” Victorian Poetry, 17 (1979): 290, Kay Austen, for example, asserts that the Pope shared Pompilia's recognition of Guido's essential hatred. For the Pope, Guido's defining evil is greed (see X, 543, 733-740, 757-774, 791-798, 864-868).

  12. After reading Book X, Julia Wedgwood seems to have had the kind of internal experience that Browning aspired to produce: “I felt for awhile … as if something in me were released, and could speak—now when I listen for it the words are all gone, yet I know that sense of everything falling into its place which it gave me—and I hardly feel with anything but Beethoven's music—means something large and permanent, which does not wax and wane with this capacity for utterance which it seems to awaken” (Robert Browning and Julia Wedgwood, 167). Her reference to Beethoven may have inspired Browning's revision of XII, 865, which in the first edition read, “Deeper than ever the Andante dived.”

  13. In “The Laughter of Caponsacchi,” Victorian Poetry, 18 (1980): 355, Judith Wilt is wrong in asserting that Pompilia acts to protect her child, but she and Austen in “Pompilia: ‘Saint and Martyr Both’” are among a small number of critics who give due weight to Pompilia's brandishing of the sword. For example, in an insightful discussion of the poem's religious implications in The Dialectical Temper: The Rhetorical Art of Robert Browning (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1968), W. David Shaw omits reference to this definitive moment in his summary of what he takes to be the poem's underlying myth: “The hero of this myth is the Messianic deliverer, Caponsacchi, whose crusade to right the wrong choice made by the first Eve [Violante] issues in his rescue of the second Eve, Pompilia, his victory over the Edenic serpent, Guido, and his redemption of what is at once a society and a bride” (278). For a relevant discussion of Victorian interest in sexual role reversal, see Elliot L. Gilbert, “The Female King: Tennyson's Arthurian Apocalypse,” PMLA, 98 (1983): 863-867.

  14. In “Browning and the Question of Myth,” PMLA, 81 (1966): 577, Langbaum criticizes The Ring and the Book for failing to embody a myth, “an eternal pattern,” for in the poem “the pattern is rather too explicitly a moral pattern. We feel, as a result, that we are getting not absolute truth, but Browning's notions about absolute truth.” The ultimate pattern revealed in the poem would seem rather to be spiritual growth in interaction with moral effort, simultaneous manifestation of “the divine instance of self-sacrifice” and “gloriously-decisive change.” This pattern is not mythic but historical, to be witnessed somehow in what actually happened to real people. Altick and Loucks recognize the importance of the actions' concrete historicity, but they emphasize the morality of self-sacrifice: “In earlier ages it was wondrous physical events which brought God's message to men and challenged their faith; in modern times it is moral miracles, episodes strikingly at variance with man's inveterately self-regarding habits, that serve the same ends” (319). Equally miraculous is the spiritual phenomenon of internal rebirth and resurrection.

  15. For an account of the information about the Pope available to Browning, see Charles T. Phipps, S.J., “Adaptation from the Past, Creation for the Present: A Study of Browning's ‘The Pope,’” SP, 65 (1968): 702-722.

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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8685

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 this opposition is conflated. 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, no moment that escapes discourse. Unity, any singular truth, is deferred. A conclusive telos, towards which all events lead, is neither within nor outside the text; it is simply not available. Only textually produced terms whose meaning is derived from an unceasing extension of textual contexts are available.3


That the grand poetic intention of The Ring and the Book is to reveal the truth has been an axiom of Browning criticism. This assumption is fueled by passages in the poem itself, by jocular references in Book I to “whole truth” (I.117), to truth which is present “absolutely” (I.143), to “lingot truth” (I.459) and to the proverb that “Truth must prevail” (I.413), or by the affirmation in Book XII that “Art may tell a truth / Obliquely” (XII.855-856), a phrase which twice appears in the title of critical discussions about purpose and pattern.4 But the poem also teaches that “human speech is naught” and “human testimony false” (XII.834-835), that language goes “easy as a glove, / O'er good and evil, smoothens both to one” (I.1180-81), that words “characterize / Man as made subject to a curse” (X.349-350). The poem, therefore, observes a potential conflict between truth and language, between truth and its mode of representation. If human speech is nought, how does poetic speech escape the “mediate word” (XII.857)?

Mary Sullivan indicates this conflict, and is representative of most established critics, when she observes two basic themes: “the untrustworthiness of human speech” and “the power of the creative process to open man's eyes to truth” (p. 172). At one level this discrepancy between human language and poetic truth amounts to a dramatization of one of the dominant and recurring conflicts in Western thought—between skepticism and belief. Predominantly a clash between doubt and faith in the intellectual life of Victorian England, the opposition is presented to Browning's contemporary readers and their utilitarian biases largely, in Book I, through the supposed antagonism of fancy and fact. This contest can also be read in the poem as a division between relativism and essentialism, the form it often takes during the twentieth century.

At another level, however, these themes involve an epistemology of aesthetics. While Sullivan's formulation absorbs many strands related to signification—morality and language, truth and poetic production, perception and creativity—her implication that the poem resolves the inveterate conflict between skepticism and belief depends upon a privileged status for aesthetic discourse. In a similar way, most readers who stress the function of truth in the poem covertly locate it within some version of the powerful Romantic aesthetic of poetic transcendence.5 Through the splendors of the lyrical sublime or the fusing power of symbol and metaphor, language itself may be transformed, or poets (and readers by proxy) may reach through the exigencies of everyday language to some realm of pure truth beyond, to those temporal and temporary suspensions when we “see into the life of things.”6 In the nineteenth century such propositions were attractive to writers and intellectuals seeking ways of defending the truth-value of poetry against a utilitarian hegemony that marginalized and trivialized aesthetic experience. Valorizing the value of symbol and metaphor also remained strong at the turn of the century, amidst fin-de-siècle nostalgia for the efficacy of unmediated lyricism.7

The language of The Ring and the Book, however, is far from pure lyricism, continually being disrupted by the requirements of narrative mimesis. It would rather appear to resist absorption into such an aesthetic. The continual foregrounding of the presence of language through alliteration, assonance, and consonantal clusters, would appear to affirm a materialism that is rooted firmly within present temporality rather than encourage metaphysical abstraction. Here moments of lyrical intensity are usually contradicted by their context. In the opening passage, for example, the “oval tawny pendent tear / At beehive-edge when ripened combs o'erflow” is an image for “oozings” of raw gold which face not succulent sipping but “the file's tooth and the hammer's tap” (I.11-14). And the poet's famous personal version of the Franceschini murder in Book I (457-678) is so exaggerated in its melodramatic manner as to parody itself, subverting, in the very act of flaunting, its moral absolutism.8

Truth in this poem is revealed less through moments of metaphoric or symbolic synthesis than through a structural process of judgment and revelation. Nevertheless, the force of the poet's vision is seen to prevail. Again, Sullivan illustrates the point through her shift in emphasis from the moral or judicial verdict as a product of the poem/trial to the poetic process of arriving at that verdict. Meaning, she says, “has to do with the process by which the artist sees and shares his vision of truth” (p. 176). This approach inevitably restores the poem to a Romantic aesthetic of creativity, locating truth within the constructive processes of a post-Cartesian consciousness and all which that model assumes about the status of an independent and authoring self. In this instance Browning represents the epistemological problem of discerning truth within a morass of conflicting evidence and testimony, all of which is potentially false, and solves the problem by, in the Pope's word, “evolving” truth, sifting the contending discourses in order to separate the wheat of truth from the chaff of falsehood.9 Unlike some critics, Sullivan does not maintain the poet's separate objective stance in this process, but incorporates him as a subjective participant. He is “excited, emotionally involved, and partial, representing one more viewpoint in the circle of monologues” (p. 177). She reads Browning, then, like many critics, as a neo-Kantian, for whom truth is subjectively conceived and produced.

The plausibility of the reading, however, is affected by an underlying tautology. In attempting to overcome the difficulty of claiming universality or transcendence (p. 174) for a vision that is “one more viewpoint” in a “circle” of monologues, Sullivan argues that the poet's viewpoint is arrived at in a “unique” way: he confirms “his initial inspiration by re-creating the actors in his own mind and letting them express themselves,” and then by “putting all the resultant differing expressions together,” he evolves “the truth about their motivations” (p. 177). The tautology is revealed by Sullivan's parallel structures: “confirming his … inspiration,” “re-creating the actors,” “Putting all the … expressions together,” he has “evolved the truth.” All participial activities blur, so that putting the expressions together is confirming his inspiration and re-creating the actors is putting all expressions together which is confirming his inspiration. The process of evolving truth is one process with confirming inspiration and there can be no sure way of deciding whether the evolved truth is anything other than a solipsistic exercise of self-confirmation (a theme later explored directly by Browning in Fifine at the Fair). All that is proven is that the idealist poet can dramatize a world which suitably reflects his own perceptions; and who wants to read a poem that is twice the length of Paradise Lost in order to discover that?

The formal problem remains, then, if a singular poetic truth is to be established, of discerning a fixed center or resolution in a poem whose very method eschews, disrupts, all singular perspectives. Ever since Henry James complained that there was no defined center of consciousness for the poem,10 there have been efforts to distil the poet's (singular) meaning. Truth has been located within chosen speakers, usually Pompilia and the Pope,11 and models of circles, triads and spirals, or all three at once, have been proposed in order to establish patterns which break the mere successiveness of monologues and indicate the poet's controlling design.12 Alternative readings suggest relativism as a guiding principle, or shift attention from the discovery of truth, an epistemological question, to the struggle of being to survive, an ontological issue.13

But this poem is too challenging in its multiplicity to be explained by any model of singularity. It encourages a Romantic aesthetic only to betray that aesthetic. There is no hidden form, private code, or submerged structural logic which will reveal the secret meaning of The Ring and the Book; there is only a long series of discourses directed at a common set of circumstances, each concerned with its own meaning and its own determinate truth; there is only a series of texts which provide the contexts for each other's function and meaning. Poetic method neither eludes nor transforms the conditions of ordinary discourse. Consequently, the poet's own apparent privileging of art over the duplicity of human speech in Book XII is both supported and contradicted by the poem itself.14 Rather than privileging poetic truth over false language, either as a specific meaning to be elicited by the text or as a detached Word to be intuited by the reader, the poem presents truth and language as interdependent, as conceptual themes interwoven through dialectical process. Through foregrounding this thematic interplay, Browning emphasizes not truth as product, but truth as process, truth in the making, and in that process truth is both subverted by language and produced by it.


Conflicting aspects of the poem, then, require further attention. Perhaps the most telling and provocative of these is Fra Celestino's text that “‘God is true / And every man a liar’” (XII.600-601), which may be happily cited as evidence for the view that Browning portrays a divine absolutism. But this text is also a version of the paradox of the Cretan liar. If every man is a liar, how can the claim that “‘God is true,’” when made by a man, be a truth? Such paradoxes are playful commentaries on the insoluble contradictions of metatexts. Claims which attempt to transcend the referential field of their own context inevitably fail because their very meaning arises from that context. The claim in this instance that “God is true” takes its significance from the human context which defines its own condition as one of falsehood. Of course, there is no paradox if the speaker is not a man—a woman perhaps. That is, there is no paradox if the statement is not self-referential. But to avoid self-referentiality the speaking voice has to reside outside both referents, to be neither God nor man. Since the defined speaker, Fra Celestino, does not fit such requirements, the paradox as contradiction is very much active in the poem. At the end of this poem, therefore, is not a transcendent truth, or a resolved paradox, but an insoluble impasse.15 The grand theme of the poem is not a conclusion about the power of creativity to escape the conditions of human utterance, but a question, perhaps the most startling question of all for the human mind: how can meaning (or truth) transcend context when without a context there can be no meaning/truth at all?

This question also lurks about the Pope's whole monologue, the repository, for most readers, of the most vital truths of the poem. The Pope's will to absolutism is exposed at the end of the monologue when, anticipating God's remaking of the soul after death, he adds that the possibility of God's creation being in vain “must not be” (X.2131). Having invested his life and identity within religious structures, he cannot at the end allow doubt to rule. Yet his discourse is dominated by the fallibility of human perception. Implicitly, the possibility of his being wrong about Guido “must not be,” yet he cannot extract his decision from human imperfection and doubt. Hence the lurking contradiction in his text as he effectively ends his monologue after only 200 lines with the judgment that closes the case and removes all thought—“there is not any doubt to clear” (X.232)—but nevertheless continues for a further 2000 lines to explain his “pause.”

His famous remark about evolving the truth of the Franceschini case, a remark applied so often to the method of the poem as a whole, refuses to locate truth in any determinate place:

Truth, nowhere, lies yet everywhere in these—
Not absolutely in a portion, yet
Evolvable from the whole: evolved at last
Painfully, held tenaciously by me.


Truth, then, is not fixed somewhere, but dispersed “everywhere” (the Pope refers to the case documents). In being “Evolvable,” truth exists not in any detached state or in any specific location; it exists through its availability for evolving. That which is evolvable is therefore that which is potentially available, available in the future, requiring an act of evolving and subject always to the process of that act. The Pope contradicts this commitment to deferral and evolution by claiming like Celestino's text, to have closed the process, to have indeed “evolved” truth and located it somewhere (in him), no longer “everywhere.” The contradiction stands. He is clear about his decision (X.232-234) and he does not shirk its consequences (X.2134). But in order to give it meaning and significance he has to extend it into the context of further utterance; even in being claimed as “evolved,” the Pope's judgement, as an act of closure, remains deferred by the doubts and meditations of his own discourse.

While his religious framework, like Fra Celestino's, places divine truth and wholeness of vision outside the limits of human perspectives, the Pope remains aware that his understanding is rooted in this world, given significance by the perceptions of the merely human mind. His image of the convex glass represents God, heaven, the “known unknown,” as the product of human perception, as the “scattered points” that have been “Picked out” from the cosmos by the human mind, refocused by it, reunited and located back “there,” as if in some determinate and fixed place (X.1311-14). God exists “somewhere, somehow” for the Pope, but in human terms “there” is a fiction, a word without referent: “There … is nowhere, speech must babble thus!” (X.1317). The “whole” is “Appreciable solely by Thyself,” he says, addressing God, which makes divine truth unavailable to humankind, except through himself as Pope, as the man chosen to “represent” God. God, then, remains even for the Pope a representation, a conception formed within the “convex glass” of the human mind.

If Guido is always alert to the possibilities for manipulating meaning through metaphor and trope, the Pope, of all the speakers in the poem, is most aware of the way falsehood characterizes all human utterance. Even the most innocent of communications, when there is not “the least incumbency to lie,” will “slip to false” (X.363, 365), he observes. Lies are the inescapable circumstances of human discourse:

                                                            Man must tell his mate
Of you, me and himself, knowing he lies,
Knowing his fellow knows the same,—will think
“He lies, it is the method of a man!”
And yet will speak for answer “It is truth”
To him who shall rejoin “Again a lie!”


God's “judgement-bar” (X.347) escapes such contamination since He is both “the Truth” and “the Word” (X.375-376), the transcendental signified who stands outside discourse and, therefore, outside all falsehood. But the Pope remains clear that there must “be man's method for man's life at least” (X.381). Consequently, he contextualizes his judgement of the Franceschini case within the questioning of his human, non-papal self, Antonio Pignatelli (X.382-397). His procedure as Pope, the spokesperson for divine truth, is thus placed within the context of a “mere old man o' the world,” a context which nowhere eludes the conditions of the world, the “coil / Of statement, comment, query and response” (X.372-373).

The Pope's context of query and response incorporates an awareness (which operates throughout the poem) that falsehood in human speech relates to the separation of sign and referent. He is disturbed, for instance, about the exhaustive and destructive energies that have been devoted to the problem of which name to use for God in the Chinese province of To-kien (X.1590-1603), an obsession with competing signifiers that ignores the importance of the referent. And he is aware that in contemporary Christendom faith in “the thing” has become faith in “the report” (X.1865). The humanist challenge that he represents in the voice of Euripides also plays upon the sign/referent difference: what before Christianity were “forces and necessity” have afterwards grown “God” (X.1765), so that what has changed are the signs, not the scheme—“parts and whole named new” (X.1778).16

This distinction between sign and referent allows images and terms to shift their application and disturb expectations about fixed meaning throughout the poem. Truth itself, for instance, is a term that is subject to continual repetitions and reversals; it is claimed by speakers in contexts where it is overtly ironic and subject to constant reformulation (see Altick and Loucks, pp. 23, 121). Within such a process, any sense of a fixed meaning is undercut and the word functions according to context. This is not to say, however, with Altick and Loucks, that “words originally laden with powerful meaning can be weakened by repetition and abuse” (p. 121). It is not the signified of the signifier “truth” which is disrupted, but any claimed or implied referent for the sign.17 Signs still signify within the context of the language which gives them meaning, although signs may point in the wrong direction. A sign is not the thing itself and the word “truth” can therefore be applied to a range of potential referents, since the meaning as linguistic signification is dependent not upon the nature of the referent but upon the function of the sign among other signs—its function within the semiotic structure which gives it meaning. What Browning does, therefore, is not obliterate the meaning of the sign “truth,” but demonstrate and explore the arbitrary relationship between sign and referent. He explores, in other words, the way falsehood is not just a potential feature or result of language but its very condition. The condition for a sign to tell the truth is that it must be able to lie.

This principle is also illustrated by the use of Caponsacchi's name as the password which gains entry into the Comparini household. Guido's use of the name appropriates the sign for his own destructive purposes, but that is not to deny its function as a sign or name for some other sort of person. As Pompilia claims when referring to the more general appropriation of Caponsacchi's name by a cynical public, “the name,— / Not the man, but the name of him” is what comes to signify “mockery and disgrace” (VII.1338-40). Meaning, then, the relationship between sign and referent (or in many instances the relationship between signifier and several potential signifieds), is relative to context and cannot be assumed to have any fixity—the mistake made by the Comparini when they open the door for “Caponsacchi.”

Indeed, Browning explores the paradox (theorized by Hegel in the nineteenth century and recently by post-structuralism) that truth is not a separately existing essence, but a signifying term whose meaning is interdependent with its supposed opposite, falsehood, and inseparable from its linguistic context. A crucial moment in Book I questions the separation of truth from context:

Are means to the end, themselves in part the end?
Is fiction which makes fact alive, fact too?


Through such rhetoric Browning offers the Hegelian proposition that there is no end separate from the means which produce it, no meaning outside mediation, no truth outside the falsehood that gives it existence. No human is able to confront pure truth, only “truth with falsehood, milk that feeds him now, / Not strong meat he may get to bear some day” (I.831-832). Pure truth, truth outside representation, is deferred, available “some day,” never “now.”

Through such rhetoric, then, the poem develops a critique of Romantic epistemology and of the Romantic aesthetic of transcendent lyricism. The Ring and the Book locates the function of meaning and knowledge firmly within language—“For how else know we save by worth of word?” (I.837)—which is to focus attention not on transcendence, but on “live truth.” This concept is introduced in Book I, along with its concomitant, figuration.


The opening sections of the poem confront the reader with the figurative function of the images in the title, the ring and the book, and through the elaboration of these two images the poet introduces the procedures and themes that are to dominate the poem.18 At the same time, Book I is no mere introduction, no frame that sits outside the piece itself; it enacts the conflation of opposites and intermingling of figurative relationships that are the key to the textualism of the poem, educating the reader in the manner and theme of the poet's art. Although the figure of the ring has already received more attention than any other image in the poem, it is necessary to unfold this image further in order to stress the role of figuration itself and to explain the disruption in the poem of the opposition between live truth and dead fact.

The first line in Book I invokes a material referent, the physical presence of a real thing: “Do you see this Ring?” The reader is thus placed within a literal context, addressed by a speaker existing within a tangible world. The very next phrase, however, significantly qualifies that context, for the ring is no merely natural object; it is “Rome-work, made to match … Etrurian circlets” (I.2-4). The phenomenal object is no purely material “thing,” but is defined by its artificial status, by its function as an imitation, produced by “Castellani's imitative craft.” The proffered object is therefore immediately entered into a materialist context where it is not merely material, but compounded with mimesis, inseparable from its status and quality as a cultural production. It is thus linked with a cultural context which recedes in time, since it repeats the form and design of Etruscan rings, themselves artifacts from some earlier cultural context. Since it repeats their form it contains the traces of their presence; although absent, they are present within the imitative features of the preferred ring. Again, the designated ring is no merely single or pure object; the referent is itself a sign, a signifier for its intermingling of the material and the artificial and for its link with all previous cultural productions of which it is a repetition.

The Etruscan rings were also found “alive” and “spark-like” and the ring which imitates them is “soft … Yet crisp as jewel-cutting” (I.5-8). Hence two further oppositions are conflated in these opening few lines. The first and most obvious is that the ring intermingles the organic and living qualities of the original, its softness, with the more technical elements of artificial making, with “jewel-cutting.” The distinction between the natural and the artificial is to feature throughout the poem as speaker after speaker praises the superiority and justifies the virtue of natural behavior and morality, always tending to ignore the way distinctions between natural and unnatural action are themselves the result of social production, of cultural artifice. The second, and less obvious opposition, is suggested through placing “alive” in apposition to “spark-like.” Since the Etruscan rings were found “alive,” the implication is that they are still living, and indeed they are, both as a model for Castellani's ring and as the repetitive design of that ring. At the same time, they were found “Spark-like,” an image for both brightness and ephemerality, combining the quality of life with the condition of a fleeting and fading existence. That which is alive is subject to change and loss. That which has organic existence dies. Yet it can be preserved through repetition and imitation, as Castellani's ring repeats and preserves the originals. The metaphor of the spark will be repeated throughout the poem and in the last book it becomes precisely designated as a metaphor for the sudden rise and decline of Guido's fame, for the growth and loss of his experience in time.

There then follows a sequence which invokes the process of the making of the ring, in particular the craftsman's “trick” through which the “pure gold” is wrought into an embossed ring. The addition of alloy to the raw metal, an alloy which is then removed once the ring is shaped, has received extensive explication as an allegory of Browning's concept of creativity. That method, critics argue, involves firstly the mixing of imagination with raw facts in order to shape the poem and secondly the withdrawal of the imagination, leaving the truth of the original material shaped and available for the reader's understanding. Since the poem rather obviously supports the “truth” of the poet's own version, this interpretation of the aesthetic process has run into trouble: it seems difficult to accept that the poet's fancy is ever withdrawn, in any manner corresponding to the removal of the alloy from the gold ring, and the poet confuses the issue further by suggesting that the fancy, or “fiction which makes fact alive,” is also “fact” (I.705)—that ends are never separate from their means.19

Here the process of making merges the organic (“ere the stuff grow”) with the inorganic (“a ring-thing”), and the natural (“gold”) with the artificial (“gold's alloy”). Once the process is complete, however, there is a claimed “repristination.” But restoration of the original metal is not all that is gained. What readers appear to miss is that the claim of repristination is a claim that there is no loss of value in the process, not that there is no addition. There is indeed addition: “you have gained a ring” (I.30). The aesthetic process therefore loses no worth from the original material and adds to it the “shape” which allows it to be “self-sufficient now”; we have gained “lilied loveliness” and “The rondure brave.” The climactic point of this brief section is to reinforce the balance and inseparability of nature and artifice: “Prime nature with an added artistry” (I.29). The key point, therefore, is not that the artificer removes all signs of his artifice, but that the raw material is enhanced and given a chance for survival, self-sufficiency, which it otherwise lacked. The aesthetic paradox in this fusion of nature and artifice is that the resultant artifact both contains raw existence, the exigencies and temporality of organic process (“Prime nature”), and presents a form (the “added artistry”) which differentiates the object from that process, giving it the illusion of a status that eludes temporality. (Insofar as form exists through differentiation, it appears to step outside temporality, but conceptualizing that difference, understanding its presence, remains part of the inevitable temporality of discourse; the point is akin to Hegel's paradox of a totality or unity which is inseparable from its divisions and differences.) The further paradox is that without the artifice, the gold would not have continuing life: without its new shape, which defines its difference, bestows self-sufficiency, it would not live. While Browning does not specifically refer to “life” in the summary of the status of the ring as a made and produced object (I.26-30), the fusion of nature and artistry produces a new meaning for “living” which begins with the Etruscan rings that were “found alive.” This new ring is now also “alive” and it has been given that life precisely through the fusion of nature and artifice, through subverting their opposition.

The produced ring thus contains “Gold as it was,” but also the “shape” which “remains”—the “rondure” and “lilied loveliness.” At this point it should be clear that the “Ring” that was first offered the reader is no simple “thing.” It is a “ring-thing” (I.17; my italics) and that means it incorporates all the combination of qualities and features that have so far been elaborated. Just as its presence invokes the absent “circlets” which it imitates, so too its presence as made object invokes the processes of its making and the conceptual perceptions of “shape,” “rondure” and “loveliness.” As a “ring-thing” it therefore acts already as a visible sign for all the antecedents of design, technique, value, and conception that have gone into its making: as a produced artifact, it is the sign of its own production.

The image is given a further and crucial dimension when the speaker/poet turns back self-consciously to his image: “What of it?” he asks (I.31). The pronoun refers to the ring in two senses: to the ring in the first line, the offered object, and to the preceding phrase “you have gained a ring” (I.30), the process of gaining a ring. What Browning does next, however, is a crucial step in the poem. He overtly enters the ring into language, into semiotic structuring: “'Tis a figure, a symbol, say; / A thing's sign” (I.31-32). By drawing attention to this process of sign-making, the poet reminds us that the ring has all along been not an object, but an image, a sign in language, and it is in language, and specifically the language of this passage (I.1-30), that it has gained its meaning, its definition, and signification. To say the ring and its making is a “figure” is to acknowledge its verbal status and function, without losing anything that has been conveyed, produced in the artifice of this discourse, about its function as a visible and material sign. The mixture of materialism and idealist conception in the ring as literal object now combines overtly with the materialism and idealism of the sign in language, so that the ring becomes a sign like other signs and can function as a signifier for some other signified: “now for the thing signified” (I.32), which is “the square old yellow Book” (I.33).

Thus the ring is entered into discourse, made part of a language process where all terms are signifiers whose signifieds can become other signifiers, for that is exactly what happens: the signifier “Ring” now attracts the signified “Book” (and that signified in turn is about to become another signifier with its own large and developing network of signification). Of course the ring always was part of discourse. For the reader of the poem the ring was never anything other than an image. But by drawing attention to the ring as symbol, Browning draws the reader directly into the very semiotic network of the process of production of the poem itself. This presence of the poem, therefore, as artifact, is also a sign of its own production, like the ring.

In thirty brief lines Browning has brilliantly set up the subtle processes of signification and sign-making that are the basis of the poem. Signs, like the ring, refer to objects, as referents, and to antecedents, to the designs that they imitate, to the absences whose trace is contained in their presence, but they also signify forwards, to other signifieds which are established through the discourse that gives them meaning. Further, without this discourse, the symbol would have no meaning. It is only within the context of this passage, and this poem, that the ring gains its value as a “symbol,” and only in this context, does a ring come to signify, to mean, book. Meaning in this process is textualized, entered into, and extended through discourse. Through the referent that is itself a sign, through the sign that becomes a symbol, Browning foregrounds the process of textualization from the outset.20

The Old Yellow Book, to which the poet now moves, is nevertheless a more overt image of textualization than the ring, and it was retrieved from an array of miscellaneous cultural bric-a-brac through response to a verbal sign: one glance at its “lettered back” and it must be read (I.82-83). A ring and a book are incommensurate, but if we regard them as artifacts which incorporate the complex set of reconciliations and traces that were indicated in the ring image, then we can see how one might signify the other. Unsurprisingly, therefore, one might suggest that the central focus of the poem is on the production of representational form—that is, the poem is continually re-enacting the process whereby “shape” is given to raw material and meaning to experience, and whereby both shape and meaning (form and content) are fused through figuration, the “imitative craft” of human discourse.

Like the ring, the book is also a cultural product which incorporates the process of its production and the imitation of antecedent forms. That is the case both for the book as poem, the book held by the reader, and for the book as Old Yellow Book. Like the ring, the Yellow Book contains both form and raw material: “A book in shape but, really, pure crude fact / Secreted from man's life when hearts beat hard” (I.86-87). It does not, however, contain the pure fact of life itself, but fact “secreted from” life. Already there has been a process of distillation, of reduction, and the poet's play with mastering the “contents” and knowing “the whole truth” (I.117, 143-144, 364-366) ironizes from the outset any crude assumption that by reading a book or summarizing its contents one will possess the whole truth. The Yellow Book contains “real … circumstance,” but it is real “summed-up” circumstance, which is “Put forth” and “printed” (I.146-148). In other words, the life that the Book contains is already inseparable from its discourse, from the productive processes whereby experience and events are summarized and printed.

Further reminders of this process are provided by the need to translate the title (I.120-121) and by the reference to Latin which is “interfilleted with Italian streaks / When testimony stooped to mother-tongue” (I.138-139). Transcriptions of the content and title are “translations” and even the documents themselves are translations of the language used by original witnesses. The contents of the Yellow Book are therefore signs of an array of antecedent events and utterances, and the lawyers and court procedures emphasize the point by placing the Franceschini case amidst an array of prior legal authorities and precedents (I.213-240). The text which records the evidence given about the case is thus a sign that a sequence of events preceded the trial, and it is that sequence with its explanations that is part of the signification of the Yellow Book.

Reality in this context disappears into the past. The events that are alluded to in the Yellow Book are lost (in being “secreted” they are hidden as well as distilled); all that remains are the traces and signs of their presence as recorded by the trial documents and by letters and reports. The Franceschini murder is already textualized when Browning comes to it,21 and its “truth” is neither separable from its textual status nor possessable in a summary of its contents. Otherwise, the book could simply be thrown on the fire (I.375). At the same time, the book cannot speak for itself; the book was lost amidst other cultural bric-a-brac until rescued and read by the poet. In itself, therefore, its content of “untempered gold” is dead fact—present, but without meaning. Meaning requires textual production. To become alive (known), the facts must be given new shape—read, retold, recontextualized.

The poet (initially the poet as reader, but increasingly the poet as creator, or re-creator) has to fuse his “live soul” with “that inert stuff” (I.469). In telling his fanciful version, the poet does not retell the contents of the Yellow Book, but turns away from the book (“The book was shut and done with and laid by” [I.472]) in order to “free” himself and “find the world” (I.478). The “life” in him “abolished the death of things” (I.520) and he “saw” the events once again with his “own eyes” (I.523). He has not reconstructed the facts of the Yellow Book, therefore, but textually, in discourse which continually parodies itself, re-enacted the events which preceded them, the events of which they were merely the trace. The textualized version in the Yellow Book, the discourse without referent, was, like Castellani's imitative ring, the sign of a lost set of antecedent processes, the experience that was told and the artifice which made the documents, but from the language of that text, the poet could “calculate … the lost proportions of the style” (I.677-678). Dead signs become alive when reread, respoken, recontextualized.22

The resuscitation of the past is, of course, Browning's main metaphor for poetic creation in the poem. Through “Mimic creation” the artist can breathe new life into that which is dead. Each revival is a “new beginning” which “starts the dead alive” (I.733), and since the poet enters the past “spark-like” (I.755), the new life is linked to the same image of change and ephemerality that was associated with the life of the Etruscan rings. All imitation is, therefore, both a revival of the past and a new beginning which moves into the future.23 The past cannot be recovered as “the past”; it can only be repeated as an imitation in the living present, and that living present is always subject to the temporality of all discourse—movement, loss, death—just as the poet's fanciful version of the murder story eventually encountered the “granite” of memory and fact which “proved sandstone, friable” (I.666-667). Dead fact is resident in the unread text, and it becomes live fact only through continuing acts of repetition and resuscitation, through acts of reading, writing, and speaking which add the life-giving artifice of discourse. In this sense the poet's act of reading (the Old Yellow Book) is never totally separated from the poet's act of (re)creation (writing this poem). Truth and meaning are not fixed features of the past that are recovered in the present, but fluid features of present discourse, always subject to change and always moving into a never-ending future.

At the end of Book I, Browning overtly establishes the relationship of living meaning to change (I.1348-78). He rejects the method of choosing only “one aspect of the year” to represent the whole “novel country.” He might “fix” the land through such a method, but it would be “dwarfed” to one perspective, life reduced to the death of a singular position (“Life cramped corpse-fashion”). Instead, he proposes to represent the multitudinousness and variegation of living truth:

                                                                                          Rather learn and love
Each facet-flash of the revolving year!—
Red, green and blue that whirl into a white,
The variance now, the eventual unity,
Which make the miracle. See it for yourselves,
This man's act, changeable because alive!


Like Hegel's speculative philosophy which aimed to represent living reality and not “inert lifeless understanding,”24 Browning's poetic method involves the production of living discourse, the shifting, mutable facets of continuing experience. Because the resuscitated past is now alive, it is changeable, and therefore characterized by present “variance.” Unity is postponed, deferred, always “eventual.”25 Perhaps nowhere does Browning's text come so close to a definition of Derridean différance, particularly in this antithetical structure which places “variance now” not against, but alongside, in succession with, “eventual unity,” and where both (variance and unity) produce the “miracle” of living meaning.

Through such passages and contradictions, life and truth (as fixed meaning) become incommensurate. The process of living involves an ongoing consumption of past signs and established facts, a consumption which transforms the facts by recontextualizing them. Living reality is subject to variation precisely “because alive.” Unity, once attained, would be dead truth, a fixed form no longer actively engaged with its material. Hence 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, both fixes the events by giving them the semiotic form which allows them to have meaning at all and extends them into the inevitability of loss and death when discourse must finally cease.

Browning's metaphors of the ring and the book provide a model for his art that is also a model for textual meaning. The fusion of natural material and added artistry, which gives a self-sufficient status to shape and raw material, produces the paradox of a fixed form (the ring or the book) that is variegated and shifting (the life and process of making). He confronts the reader with an artifact that contains the contradictions of a product (the completed book) which is inseparable from the process of its production (the text is only alive when being written or read). It combines an eventual unity (a single text) with present variance (the series of competing texts or discourses).


  1. The present discussion is an extract from a forthcoming book, The Discourse of Self in Victorian Poetry.

  2. Richard D. Altick and James F. Loucks, II, for instance, in Browning's Roman Murder Story: A Reading of “The Ring and the Book” (Chicago, 1968), claim as a premise of the poem that “while man's truth … is relative, God's truth is absolute” (p. 21), and through demonstrating Browning's discovery of “a transcendental truth” in the case records, the poem enacts “a parable of the ways of God to men” (p. 26); Gordon W. Thompson, in “A Spirit Birth Conceived of Flesh: Browning's Concept of Art in The Ring and the Book,TSL 14 (1969): 75-86, states that “Browning conceives of Art and Love and Truth as … quite apart from the mere words of men” (p. 75); in “Multiple Narratives & Relative Truths: A Study of The Ring and the Book, The Woman in White, and The Moonstone,BIS 10 (1982): 143-161, Sue Lonoff suggests that “Browning's truth” deals with the ways in which mankind may “attain spiritual insight and approach The Word beyond mere words” (p. 149); and in the most recent example of metaphysical reading, Paul Zietlow, in “The Ascending Concerns of The Ring and the Book: Reality, Moral Vision, and Salvation,” SP 84 (1987): 194-218, argues that “Pompilia's tragedy offers luminous moments of reverberate truth whose impact cannot be formulated in words; it blossoms miraculously into reality in those infinite regions of the soul that lie beyond the boundaries of articulation” (pp. 209-210). For non-transcendental readings, exceptions to the separation of language and truth, see Isobel Armstrong, “The Ring and the Book: the Uses of Prolixity,” in The Major Victorian Poets: Reconsiderations, ed. Isobel Armstrong (London, 1969), pp. 177-197; Claudette Kemper Columbus, “The Ring and the Book: A Masque for the Making of Meaning,” PQ 53 (1974): 237-255; Susan Blalock, “Browning's The Ring and the Book: ‘A Novel Country,’” BIS 11 (1983): 39-50; and Adam Potkay, “The Problem of Identity and the Grounds for Judgment in The Ring and the Book,VP 25 (1987): 143-157. In “The Dynamic Imagery of The Ring and the Book,SBHC 4 (1976): 7-29, Stephen C. Walker, despite his stress on Browning's restless and ambiguous imagery, nevertheless concludes that the dynamic symbolism of the poem “transcends ‘mere imagery,’” although what is incarnated is not so much God's truth as “the restless irony of Browning's poetic insight” (p. 29).

  3. These contexts also extend to the reader, including you and me. In her use of the masque form as a model for the poem, Columbus demonstrates the reader's necessary involvement in the production of the poem (see particularly her account of the carnival context, pp. 244-245), and Zietlow's claim that the poem represents the transcendent truth of Christian salvation depends on a repetition in the reader's mind of the Pope's “witness” to spiritual power (see pp. 195, 216). Zietlow does add that “for the nineteenth- or twentieth-century reader to experience fully what Browning intends would in itself be a miracle” (p. 218).

  4. In Altick and Loucks, chap. 1, and in Mary Rose Sullivan, Browning's Voices in “The Ring and the Book”: A Study of Method and Meaning (Toronto, 1969), chap. 7.

  5. Gordon Thompson provides a typical example: “A poet is not a wordsmith, but a man of elevated vision who can make others share his sight, not through verbal dexterity, but with imagination” (p. 78). A more recent example is found in William E. Buckler's Poetry and Truth in Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book (New York, 1985); Buckler shifts attention away from religious transcendence, but then proceeds to privilege the truth of art and imagination.

  6. This powerful aesthetic has been subject to continual critical analysis in recent decades, notably by Paul de Man; see Christopher Norris, “Paul de Man and the Critique of Aesthetic Ideology,” AUMLA 69 (May 1988): 3-47; rpt. in Paul de Man: Deconstruction and the Critique of Aesthetic Ideology (London, 1988), chap. 2.

  7. See, for instance, Stopford A. Brooke, The Poetry of Robert Browning (London, 1902); G. K. Chesterton, Robert Browning (London, 1903); and Arthur Symons, An Introduction to the Study of Browning (London, 1906). For further discussion of this point, see Herbert F. Tucker, “Dramatic Monologue and the Overhearing of Lyric,” in Lyric Poetry: Beyond New Criticism, ed. Chaviva Hosek and Patricia Parker (Ithaca, 1985), pp. 226-243.

  8. Most readings which emphasize metaphysical truth in the poem appear not to consider the comic and parodic qualities of this version. Hence Barton R. Friedman, in “To Tell the Sun from the Druid Fire: Imagery of Good and Evil in The Ring and the Book,SEL 6 (1966): 693-708, observes a “struggle between good and evil, God and the devil” (p. 706), and Kay Austen, in “Browning Climbs the Beanstalk: the Alienated Poet in The Ring and the Book,SBHC 5 (1977): 17-37, claims that “in showing the truth of God through the archetypal conflict between devil and saint, Browning attains the heaven for which he is striving in Book I—artistic and personal salvation” (p. 37). In the poem, Tertium Quid and Pompilia acknowledge Guido's human condition, as a man whose mother, at least, loves him (IV.1603-06, VII.1732), and Guido himself mocks expectations about his horny-headed status (XI.554-557).

  9. The performative function of the poem then allows the reader to repeat this process. See Altick and Loucks, who argue that while truth is not accessible to individual speakers, “it is accessible to us, because Browning gives us the means of comparing all the discrepant versions and discounting palpable bias wherever it appears” (p. 270).

  10. Henry James, “The Novel in ‘The Ring and the Book,’” Notes on Novelists (London, 1914), pp. 306-326; for the use of Bakhtin against James in relation to The Ring and the Book, see Blalock.

  11. See, e.g., Altick and Loucks: Tertium Quid, Pompilia and the Pope, “together … embody Browning's opinions on the central moral themes of the poem” (p. 40). Amazingly, despite the recognition of irony, duplicity, and ambiguity in every other monologue, Pompilia's speech has been almost universally exempted from such linguistic corruptions. The exceptions have been Columbus, and William Walker, “Pompilia and Pompilia,” VP 22 (1984): 47-63. See also Potkay: “no one interpretation … can claim absolute validity or transparent truth” (p. 148).

  12. The triadic structures suggested by Altick and Loucks, and later elaborated by Litzinger, work quite satisfactorily for Books II-X (three groups of three monologuists related to popular thought, the protagonists' action, and institutional responses), but they struggle to accommodate the remaining fourth of the poem, the other three books which fail to form a coherent unit of their own. See Altick and Loucks, pp. 39-40, 76-81, and Boyd Litzinger, “The Structural Logic of The Ring and the Book,” in Nineteenth-Century Perspectives: Essays in Honor of Lionel Stevenson, ed. Clyde de L. Ryals (Durham, North Carolina, 1974), pp. 105-114.

  13. See Robert Langbaum, The Poetry of Experience (New York, 1963), chap. 3, who also finds that the relativism is marred by Books I and XII, which make “our judgment … forced from the beginning” (p. 135); and L. J. Swingle, “Truth and The Ring and the Book: A Negative View,” VP 6 (1968): 259-269, who argues that the poem is not about “the search for and discovery of truth, but the loss of it” (p. 267). Lee Erickson repeats Swingle's emphasis on an ontological theme, in Robert Browning: His Poetry and His Audiences (Ithaca, 1984), chap. 7.

  14. John M. Menaghan, in “Embodied Truth: The Ring and the Book Reconsidered,” UTQ 52 (1983): 263-276, argues that Browning represents a truth which is “embodied, yet elusive” (p. 275); in his view, Browning's intention is “to bring us through an experience of the inaccessibility of, and at the same time fuel our hunger for, the truth” (p. 266); this reading closely approximates aspects of Romantic irony, notably Schlegel's sense of antagonism between “the impossibility and the necessity of complete communication.”

  15. The function of Celestino's text as a Zeno-like paradox has been noticed by William Walker and Potkay; Potkay proposes that no reader can “get beyond the paradoxical structure of Fra Celestino's enunciation” (p. 157); I agree with Potkay's suggestion that Celestino's paradox acts as an “emblem” for the poem, but in terms of Derrida's “vigilant practice,” not in terms of the “negative capability” which Potkay evokes—the Keatsian concept too readily restores a structure of idealist consciousness. See also Blalock, p. 49.

  16. To this challenge that there is no divine referent, only changing verbal fictions, the Pope replies not by establishing a truth outside language, but by arguing the need for a religious model in promoting right moral action.

  17. In noting that “truth” or “true” occur some 317 times in the poem, Altick and Loucks appear not to distinguish between meaning as a signifier/signified relationship and meaning as a sign/referent relationship: for them the words “truth” and “true” struggle to survive “as tokens of clear meaning” (p. 121).

  18. When referring to the poet or to Browning in this discussion, I refer to the poet/speaker who is the produced subject of the language and content of Book I and, later, Book XII, and who, in the poem, takes responsibility for its production; I do not refer to the biological referent named Robert Browning.

  19. The standard refinements of the ring image as an analogy for poetic creativity are Paul A. Cundiff, “The Clarity of Browning's Ring-Metaphor,” PMLA 63 (1948): 1276-82; George R. Wasserman, “The Meaning of Browning's Ring-Figure,” MLN 76 (1961): 420-426; and Mary Sullivan's extension of both these arguments (pp. 19-20).

  20. As Walter M. Kendrick suggests, in “The Vanishing Word,” an unpublished Ph.D. thesis (Yale University, 1975), to make the ring “the sign of more signs is to extend the figure to include figuration, to make the Ring a figure of a figure” (p. 228). I am indebted to this thesis for several suggestions about the ring metaphor: that it signifies the whole series of rings (p. 231), and that “each ring is the sign of what precedes and follows it” (p. 233). Kendrick also argues that “as an active sign, the Ring reconciles time and space, change and continuity. It is always different, yet always the same” (p. 233).

  21. See Potkay: “The Old Yellow Book does not … present ‘facts’ in an empirical sense, but the inscriptions of interpretive testimonies, which are already at a remove from the inscrutable historical phenomena of the case” (p. 156).

  22. Cf. Kendrick: “Rings, books, and men are only the signs of life, not life itself, unless they are being forged, being read, breathing and speaking” (p. 245).

  23. The process by which all Browning's poetry enacts beginnings that defer closure has been brilliantly described by Herbert Tucker in Browning's Beginnings: The Art of Disclosure (Minneapolis, 1980).

  24. G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, trans. and ed. J. B. Baillie (New York, 1967), Preface, p. 110.

  25. In “The Four-Cornered Circle: Truth and Illusion in Browning's The Ring and the Book,Studies in Browning and His Circle 13 (1985): 70-96, Harvey Feinberg repeats earlier metaphysical readings by regarding this passage as testimony for “an ultimate unification of parts” in the poem (p. 76); this unity is based once more upon a Romantic idealist aesthetic that is written into religious discourse: “Artistic truth duplicates divine truth, whose true unity mystically remains ‘multiform’ in its oneness” (p. 93). As far as reading the poem is concerned, an experience that is necessarily temporal, when is there ever a unity which is not also a “now” that is subject to variance? When can poetic form, as “known” form, ever escape the temporal conditions of its production?

Susan C. Hines (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2589

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 public with a fascinating addition to what had been a rapidly-growing sub-genre in the late nineteenth century: the Victorian crime drama. Despite the text's lofty religious and philosophical dimensions, much of The Ring and the Book's immediate popularity hinged upon the common British reader's unprecedented fascination with court proceedings and criminal behavior. But, even in an age of sensationalized violence, where, as Richard Altick has commented, “homicide first became institutionalized as a popular entertainment,” Browning's text distinguishes itself from other literary treatments of case history.1 For one, The Ring and the Book is a book of poetry; and, unlike the various prose works of the time, such as Bulwer-Lytton's Pelham, Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White, and Dickens's Newgate novels, Browning's poem does more than simply reference or re-tell the story of a crime. In fact, its narrative strategy, which relates the crucial events of the Franceschini trial via a series of multiple-perspective dramatic monologues, is contrived in such a manner that the criminal trial is the story, a tale which actively includes its readership in a ratiocinative pursuit—a tale not reported but experienced.

Because the twelve-part structure of this poem is strikingly similar to that of a criminal proceeding, readers, who are ushered through Guido's preliminary hearing and indictment in Book I, the discoveries and hearsay generated by the Romans in Books II through IV, the defendant's plea in Book V, the testimonies of Pompilia and Caponsacchi in Books VI and VII, the lawyer's summations in Books VIII and IX, the Pope's judgment in Book X, and, finally, Guido's confession and appeal in Book XI, find themselves subjected to the same intellectual tribulations—to the same kind of dual-natured trial—that jurors encounter. In both the objective legal sense and in the subjective emotional sense, Browning's audience is forced out of the ordinarily comfortable and obscure shadows of readerland and into the jury box, where audience members endure the trial of judging and, in the case of Count Guido Franceschini, of affirming the execution of a fellow human being. Indeed, beyond the gory subject matter of the story itself, the triple murder-mutilation of an entire family by its newest, newly-wed member, lies something more personally disturbing, something beyond the objective scope of a murder-trial scenario commonly sensationalized by the news media. Instead, readers are projected into Browning's material, and serve reluctantly in this poem as one might reluctantly serve on any long-term jury panel. For The Ring and the Book demands such rigorous attention to detail and sustained concentration throughout its 21,116-line reading that it presses relentlessly toward a person's individual judgment. “See it for yourselves,” encourages the poet-persona of Book I (1.1364); and, of course, this is how most people want to see.2

However, the poem's success depends as much on one's ability to make certain ethical judgments as it does on one's ability to make certain aesthetic judgments; thus, an audience must learn to adapt its interpretive skills to match not only the demands of poetic fiction but, also, of those made by an actual legal proceeding. The Ring and the Book is, after all, a res gestae in literary form, which, in legal terminology, means the “things done” or the “happening”; the poem thus re-presents the important events and presents the case evidence which is to be screened for admissibility. From beginning to end, legal imagery dominates the text. The back drop of law suits and divorce proceedings, the courtroom and prison-cell settings, the Latin spoken by the two lawyers captivate an audience, and, without a doubt, spurred on the interest of Browning's contemporary, Old-Bailey-going “British Public” (1.1379). In nineteenth-century England, where the courts had truly become the medium, the real-life genre, by which the wonders and horrors of human activity were revealed, nothing merited the full attention of the Victorians like a sordid and well-publicized legal battle. Of this, Browning was well aware.

In Book I it is the “old yellow Book” (1.33)—the collection of seventeenth-century letters, affidavits, and attestations upon which the text is based—that contests the popular “Ring” image for an equal position in the poem (befitting the first monologue's title: “the Ring and the Book”). Yet the “Book” has managed a somewhat spurious past in interpretation. Having been equated with the banal, the “pure crude fact[s]” of a real-life murder case, it has failed to achieve equal critical (that is, interpretive) attention, and represents—at least for numerous Browning scholars—the antithesis of poetic fiction. It is the “Ring” that operates at the figurative level, the all-too-trusted poet-persona explains:

Gold as it was, is, shall be evermore:
Prime nature with added artistry—
No carat lost, and you have gained a ring.
What of it? 'Tis a symbol, say;
A thing's sign: now for the signified.
Do you see this square old yellow Book … ?


But has Browning in fact recast the historical square into the fictional round? A traditional interpretation of the ring metaphor would certainly suggest as much. When the poet fuses “[f]ancy with fact” (1.464), when “the artificer melts wax / With honey” (1.18-19), the metallurgical analogy implies that the ringmaker-poet has combined and tempered two distinctly different, pure metals—“gold [fact] / With gold's alloy [fancy]” (1.19-20)—to form a ring, a poem. However, one of the crude facts of this much belabored figure tends to be conveniently overlooked. That is gold—especially in its simple or raw form—is rarely ever pure. The metal, which is formed between the grains of other rocks, does not maintain its form unless it is tainted. Subsequently, readers tend to miss the subtle, indirect analogy upon which Browning is drawing. Like gold ore, the Old Yellow Book is also an amalgam. The facts of the legal pamphlets are hardly pure in that they relate little more than the interpretive endeavors of various court representatives whose arguments, at times, border on mere speculation—fancy. The lawyers whose documents appear in the Old Yellow Book were, as Archangelis says in the poem, responsible for “Explaining matters, not denying them” (8.315). Thus, where the facts themselves provided few answers—where gaps appeared in the text—the onus was on the attorneys to “fill out” the story. Critical reading is central to the art of advocacy. And that is why the legal sourcework which is “see[n]” in Book I cannot be seen (in the sense that it cannot be read by the poet-persona's audience). “Give it me back!” he says: “The thing's restorative / I' the touch and sight” (1.89-90). Of course the “Book” does not go out on loan because it is also symbolic; and, the trial it relates can only—with Browning's help—be imagined. So the legal pamphlets are really no more “signified” than the ring itself. As the lawyer Bottinius' repetitive apostrophe “O Law” (9.1133, 1155) suggests, the facts of the Franceschini case are neither “[f]anciless” (1.144) nor “pure” (1.86); like the epic figure of speech, the “Book” is an abstract referent, figuratively present but literally absent. What Browning attempts to make his audience aware of is that legal authority (like literary authority) is not something real, fixed or immutable but is a vague concept easily altered by whomever interprets the law.

Whereas the ring metaphor deals with aesthetic concepts and attempts to describe the creative artist's activity—his “imitative craft” (1.3)—Browning's legal or book metaphor deals with the ethical concerns of the poem and underscores the important role of the audience as authorizing interpreter. For it is up to the individual observer—as the poet makes very clear throughout his text—to be a good judge. Unfortunately, though, the issues that arise in The Ring and the Book are highly complicated. From the hearsay of the three-parts Rome, to Guido's and Pompilia's dying declarations, to the Pope's affirmation of the death penalty, each monologue requires careful ethical deliberation. Is a trial, for instance, sensationalized by the public and the press a fair trial? Should torture be used to force a confession? Is the act of murder justifiable in the name of honor? Does capital punishment suffice to be punitive if the offender does not perceive his guilt? And, perhaps the most difficult question of all: Can the average person—a person who is prone to the rhetoric of inconsequential hearsay, highly emotional testimony and persuasive legal exposition—apprehend this case (or any other) in a moral and objective fashion in order to judge its litigants fairly?

While these questions are hardly the standard literary or critical questions which scholars have asked themselves in The Ring and the Book's rich one-hundred-twenty year history of interpretation, they allow for a fresh examination of the text. For Browning, in choosing a trial structure as his method of meaning, makes certain legal issues essential to understanding the plight of his monologists. With each testimonial monologue, the truth is thwarted because the integrity and competence of the speakers remain in constant flux. Whereas the Romans, the lawyers, and Guido demonstrate that the facts in any case can be manipulated to suit their own self-indulgent needs, Caponsacchi, Pompilia and the Pope issue statements under such mental and physical duress that their narratives are also affected, and, often, unreliable. Although law claims to be the transcendent clarifier in this poem, it actually facilitates factual distortions. And, while it claims to be just, it is, instead, responsible for the numerous injustices that afflict Browning's characters.

That Guido, for instance, has been subjected to corporeal inquisition prior to the trial which is supposed to determine his guilt or innocence is telling, for it reveals a legal system that is not only retributive in its premises but sadistic. Caponsacchi, whose priestly career has been destroyed by the courts, scoffs incredulously: ‘’I cannot bring myself to quite believe / This is a place you torture people in” (6.1595-96). But, unlike Guido, who contentedly believes that legal authority is supreme in its powers, that “God breathes, not speaks, his verdicts, felt not heard, / Passed on successively to each court” (5.1770-71), Caponsacchi challenges his adjudicators in a manner that risks contempt. “I talk impertinently” (6.1623), “Laugh at your jurisdiction” (6.1623), he says, contesting the moral objectivity of his “human jurists” (5.1776) and the very wisdom at the heart of their judgments. Emphasizing the idea that justice, while it is pursued through law, is hardly the same thing, Caponsacchi prepares Browning's audience for Pompilia's monologue, a somber speech which not only makes the accusation that law has failed justice but demonstrates that law can pervert justice. Forced, by law, to submit to the wishes of an abusive husband who could, and would, “twist her neck!” (5.710) and “with the vulgarist household implement, / Calmly and quietly cut off, clean thro' the bone, / But one joint of … [her] finger” (5.952-54), Pompilia is victimized by her culture's misogynistic traditions. Indeed, her one means of survival—to escape from her husband—was by seventeenth-century standards against the law. Her appeal to a priest for help does not elicit sympathy from the Roman courts but, rather, suspicion. Thus Guido's trial for murder is transformed into his dying wife's adultery trial.

But, while the legal principles referenced by The Ring and the Book are clearly inequitable, Browning works within the law, for he solicits his audience to become a party to the inequity he exposes, to become part of the trial system he has fashioned. Subsequently, he allows his readers to experience first hand how hasty, unthinking adjudication can warp legal authority, while making clear at the same time that law itself is not to blame, but that people who make and interpret the laws are culpable. Indeed, Browning demonstrates how “malleolable” (1.702) language really is and how utterly subjective decision-making can be, as the lawyers of Books VIII and IX make use of the same key words, facts, and phrases to entirely different ends. The law, as readers soon discover by the way of the attorneys' display, is hardly an absolute concept but is an ambiguous creature not without its literary parallels. For canons, both literary and legal, are born out of necessity, providing a rich history of commentary which can only reflect the biases of the tradition from which they emerge. Thus The Ring and the Book contests ethical orthodoxy with the same fervor with which it contests aesthetic or poetical conventions. As the poem-as-poem mocks its epic precursors, highlighting the traditional limitations of the genre with its rough, innovative versification and its seemingly inappropriate subject matter, the poem-as-trial exposes an unjust judicial system. Which begs the question: Why does Browning allow his “epic” to unfold in the same manner as might any criminal proceeding? Why is the “trial / Itself, to all intents … / Here in the book” (1.152-54)?

The indirect technique is not uncharacteristic of his work. As in other poems, especially those where organized religion is under attack and religious figures such as the monk of “The Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” and the bishop of Saint Praxed Church are featured, Browning accentuates the dangers of practicing hallowed ceremony out of the sheer inertia of custom. While he exposes the deleterious elements of certain institutions, he also calls for a reconsideration of those institutions which help readers to reunite them with their original purpose. The religious man's job is to know God. The man of law's aim is to discover the truth.

But, if the legal metaphor is read correctly, one may find that no true answers exist per se, as the disparity between the facts of the case and a person's understanding of the facts is often so incalculably great that any conclusions one might reach seem pitifully invalid beneath the ever-looming cloud of reasonable doubt—a cloud not dispelled by but conceived by Browning, who hopes to teach his audience at least “one lesson hence” (12.832):

This lesson, that human speech is naught,
Our human testimony false, our fame
And human estimation words and wind.


At the close of a book-length poem which contains precisely that—human testimonies, opinions, confessions, and judgments—such a statement supplies an exasperating impetus. But even if Browning has undercut his own project, he may still “tell a truth / Obliquely” (12.855-56), for law's effective purpose is metaphorical in that legal history, like literary history, is essentially the history of interpreting authority. Like the ring metaphor, the legal metaphor also comes full circle; and, as it falls back upon itself, it promotes an endless cycle of interpretation. Just when readers begin to apprehend the implications of the poem's trial structure, they are compelled to seek a mis-trial, to review, once again, the guilt and the innocence of the parties involved and to determine, once again, the indeterminable, the “whole truth” (1.117), and nothing but the truth.


  1. Richard Altick, Victorian Studies in Scarlet (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1970): 10.

  2. Robert Browning, The Ring and the Book, ed. Richard Altick (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971). All subsequent citations in the text will be indicated by line number.

Mary Ellis Gibson (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8662

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. Browning's subject—a grisly murder and its attendant trials—can easily enough be explained by reference to his account of discovering his historical sources in Book 1 of The Ring and the Book or by a general discussion of Browning's personal propensity for the criminal or the bizarre. I wish to argue here, however, that Browning's subject was not merely his “luck.” Rather it went to the heart of social concerns and fictional practices in England in the 1860s. I propose, not to offer an exhaustive new reading of the poem, but to show how we can see The Ring and the Book as embedded in Victorian responses to the criminal body. A focus on the body and crime can provide us with a significant new understanding of Browning's poem even as it offers us a new way to view that poem's connections to Victorian culture and to our own.

As recent criticism has shown, the relationship between social practices and literary texts cannot be fully understood on the model of historical background/literary foreground or on the model of text as mirror of society. A more complex approach to the relationships of text to culture is required, and such relationships must be understood through analysis of particular instances. On this view, a literary text may serve a particular social function; may reflect, or further, or reject particular social practices; and may, at the same time, work within or against particular literary conventions. To approach a literary text in this way requires a cumulative rather than a linear and unicausal form of argument. It requires attention to the multiplicity of practices and texts constituting any social space, even while we must recognize that no such account can be complete.

In this as in any cultural criticism, context illumines text and text provides a new understanding of context. The following prolegomena specifies the related elements of Victorian society which establish possible meanings of crime and the body. As Dominick LaCapra has recently observed, however, the besetting sin of various new forms of cultural criticism is “parataxis”—an enumeration of elements which form a pattern through association and analogy. Recent cultural criticism is caught, in this view, between the fragmentation of parataxis and the temptation to think of a culture as a totalizing system or monolithic discourse in which each element forms a subordinate part (LaCapra 6-7). This essay in cultural analysis tends more toward parataxis than toward totalization; the reader must judge the significance of the connections described by the saliency of the examples.

Although I devote attention to novels of the 1860s in this essay, I have chosen The Ring and the Book as my chief example for two reasons. First, Browning's poem appears anomalous, excessive, both in its length and in its choice of subject: a grisly murder and ensuing trial hardly seem within the conventional bounds of subject matter for a poem of epic proportions. The possibility of accounting for Browning's subject matter in terms of its contemporary context has been deflected by the poem's historical claims, but locating Browning's poem in its contemporary context will show how Browning's historical poem, like histories generally, tells the critic about its own time even as it claims to represent the historical past. Second, I have chosen to focus on The Ring and the Book because, in its very excess, the poem and its critical reception are inextricably embedded in the Victorian discourse surrounding the criminal body. Reading Browning's poem in the literary context of the sensation novel and in the social context of the discourse of crime can show us how Browning's poem is yet more excessive than even the sensation novel and how its meanings are intertwined with Victorian language and social practices related to the criminal body.

The contemporary significance of The Ring and the Book can best be understood in light of the specificity of its historical moment. It was written at a time when changes in the world of publishing created a relatively large reading public, when penal reforms and reforms in the practice of capital punishment were enacted, and when the Anatomy Act of 1832 had officially shifted anatomical study from the bodies of criminals to the bodies of the poor. This moment in the mid-Victorian period has both its own specificity and functions in the broader social changes Michel Foucault has described in Discipline and Punish. Certainly the shift from the spectacular display of bodily punishment to the rigors of discipline which Foucault describes was well underway in the eighteenth century, and the connections among body, text, morbid anatomy, and crime which I describe in The Ring and the Book were articulated a half-century earlier in Wordsworth's famous phrase “we murder to dissect” and, more spectacularly, in Frankenstein. Yet I argue that in the mid-Victorian period writers grappled with the connections between crime and text with peculiar intensity, as the institutions of penology and medicine were fully developed and as the nature of publishing radically changed. I shall show that these historical realities grounded a discourse of crime in Victorian Britain of which The Ring and the Book was both an expression and a critique.

We can see how The Ring and the Book participates in this discourse by considering the following converging phenomena: the rise of the general reading public and of the sensation novel in the 1860s; the changing status of trial, crime, and the criminal body, and the connections between crime and morbid anatomy in penal reforms; the manifestations of these concerns in literary texts and in criticism—in the reviews of The Ring and the Book, in the text itself, and in various novels of the 1860s.

I shall argue that we can see Browning's reviewers preparing the reception of The Ring and the Book by drawing on metaphors from the discourse of Victorian crime and that we can see significant parallels between Browning's poem and the more popular sensation novel. Browning's major poem, like the sensation novel, was written from a historical situation in which the criminal body has disappeared: the text, the body, and the trial then come to substitute for the spectacle of the criminal's public torture, execution, and dissection. The criminal, once anatomized in the operating theater, is now anatomized in the text. The body, once displayed in the public execution, is now displayed in the trial and in the text. The trial comes to displace the spectacle of public torture and execution—and becomes a metaphor and even a structural principle for the literary text itself. The Ring and the Book, like the sensation novel, participates in this new social order, making visible (at least figuratively) the display of the criminal body that was systematically eliminated in Victorian Britain.


Even as changes in British law and social practices significantly altered the meanings and uses of crime, punishment, and medical science, the publishing world too was changing in the 1860s, significantly affected by developments in these other cultural areas. As reviews of The Ring and the Book make clear, the 1860s were the years in which Browning was called upon to establish his popularity; yet in this decade the size and nature of the reading audience was very much at issue. The poem itself is directly addressed to that amorphous body, the “British Public, who may like me yet” (12.831). The decade of the gestation and publishing of The Ring and the Book was both the decade of the sensation novel and the first decade when all taxes on knowledge were repealed (Altick, Common Reader 354). As Richard Altick has pointed out, the repeal of stamp and paper taxes in 1861 enabled the daily paper to appeal to a fairly large middle-class audience, and it substantially increased the markets for shilling monthlies and for Dickens's new enterprise, All the Year Round, which tripled the circulation of Household Words. In this publishing environment, the sensation novel found its many readers, and the sensational reporting of trials was matched by an appropriate technology. Crime and trial furnished subjects for numerous profitable publishing ventures. Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White inaugurated the decade in All the Year Round, and The Moonstone closed it. The novelist Charles Reade admitted that the sensation novel had eclipsed popular historical romance.1

It is well known that Browning's critics even in the 1860s were ambivalent about his possible popularity (see McElderry). The ambivalence of Browning's critics reflects not only their varying judgments about the poet but also the ambivalent situation of a poem whose subject matter was of a sort dear to the “general public,” whereas its form—and its historical claims—linked it to the elite tradition of the literary epic. The Ring and the Book, with its notorious appeal to a “British Public” who may “like me yet,” is ambiguously connected to the rise of that public and to its favorite novelistic fare. It participates in the mid-Victorian discourse of crime, even as it formally and thematically exceeds it.

The Ring and the Book, like Collins's best known novels, functions in what Foucault has characterized as the general ascendancy of “discipline” in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, in the specific historical context of English law, and in the discourse of crime as elaborated in mid-Victorian England. Foucault recounts the bifurcation of writing about crime at the beginning of the nineteenth century when the “political function of popular illegality altered.” In the text of De Quincey and many others crime comes to have its aesthetic and becomes the privilege of the great. The literature of crime moves from execution to investigation, from “physical confrontation” to “intellectual struggle.” In short “the great murders had become the quiet game of the well behaved” (Foucault 69). Public carnivalesque executions are superseded by scrutiny. Private reading about crime replaces the public spectacle of hanging and criminal dissection. The scaffold gives way to Bentham's model prison, the Panopticon. In the Panopticon, a prison organized on the hub-and-spoke principle, the criminal is subject to isolation and to scrutiny by an unseen jailer.

At one level we can see The Ring and the Book as itself a Victorian Panopticon, the center from which multiple details are visible but which is invisible to itself. The poet who claims to disappear behind the documents in Book 12 is both historian and warden, with the moral office that designation implies. The historian's standpoint as he scrutinizes documents and presents them becomes an invisible center, though like the jailer of the Panopticon the poet is at the center of the reader's or the prisoner's concern. Crime itself calls forth these effects of multiple and private scrutiny. Wilkie Collins's multiple narrations in The Woman in White and The Moonstone achieve the same effect, but achieves it more simply, for the basically linear structure of these novels does not raise, as The Ring and the Book does, the problematic of its own narration.2

A second feature of the Panopticon's replacement of the spectacle by scrutiny is that it moves punishment to the inside; the spectacle of public punishment on the body is replaced by private execution, by imprisonment or, in England through the 1850s, by transportation. Eventually it is displaced by the more reserved public spectacle of the trial or the private reading of the text about the trial. It is more than coincidence that The Ring and the Book was published six months after the last public execution in England.3 Altick suggests that the execution scenes of The Ring and the Book may have been inspired by the public execution in 1863 of the murderer Franz Muller, itself a scene of crime mingling the respectable and the lower orders (Scarlet 113). In the crush of 50,000 bodies in front of Newgate Prison many of the respectable were garrotted, robbed, or harassed with impunity. Following Muller's execution, Parliament set up a Royal Commission which recommended an end to public hanging.

The Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868 ended public executions in England. The Act was the culmination of Victorian legislation eliminating the pillory, public flogging, and the public display of punishment (Beales 182-84; Tobias 138). Flogging was reintroduced in the 1860s as punishment (in addition to its use in prison discipline), but it was criticized by some as having no deterrent effect because it presented no public spectacle (Tobias 138).

Replacing the execution as public spectacle in the 1860s was the trial. Altick describes the ways in which famous nineteenth-century trials were spectacles for the eminently respectable (Scarlet 108-9; Moretti 138). For the majority of Browning's and Wilkie Collins's readers, however, the trial was spectacle presented as text—a spectacle subject only to private scrutiny that required no mixing with the mob. The trial substitutes for the public display of the criminal body in Victorian England, and the trial creates not the spectacle of bodily punishment but a multiplicity of texts.

A close examination of The Ring and the Book in the context of its cultural companion, the sensation novel, indicates indeed a social and a metaphorical economy linking trial, text, and body. The poet or novelist is not merely the doctor who like Sherlock Holmes diagnosed and rationalized social ills (Moretti 165). The doctor—and the poet or novelist—is a physiologist, a specialist in “morbid anatomy.”


Morbid anatomy, indeed, furnishes a key to Victorian meanings of crime. The Victorian fascination with morbid anatomy is elaborated from an earlier social practice; as it becomes a metaphor in and for the literary text it forms a link among crime, body, and writing. This concern with morbid anatomy is of course not unique to mid-Victorian England. Frankenstein is the most elaborate exploration of morbid anatomy and its consequences I know of in English. In mid-Victorian England, however, the fascination of morbid anatomy became increasingly powerful, largely in response to the controversy surrounding its practice. It permeates various novels, The Ring and the Book, and the critical language which shaped the reception of The Ring and the Book.

For writers in the 1860s morbid anatomy would have had specific historical associations now lost to us. The scene subsequent to the spectacle of public execution through the first third of the nineteenth century was in itself a spectacular display of the criminal body, for until 1832 the law required that executed criminals should have their bodies dissected (Altick, Scarlet 111). The famous resurrection man, William Burke, who murdered vagrants and sold their bodies as cadavers, was exhibited after his death to some 30,000 spectators in the anatomical theater of the College at Edinburgh in 1828. Three years later in 1831 thousands of onlookers in only six hours viewed the body of John Holloway, who had murdered and dismembered his wife (Altick, Scarlet 111). Although public dissection of criminals was ended by the Anatomy Act of 1832, the Act itself proved so controversial that it shaped the discourse of crime and punishment through the rest of the century.

This reform, eliminating public dissection of criminals and reducing the business of “resurrection men” who supplied corpses to anatomy schools, simply effected a transfer of legal dissection from criminals to the poor, thereby suggesting a basic connection between poverty and crime. By provision of the Anatomy Act, which was popularly understood to be part of the Poor Law Amendment Act, the “unclaimed” bodies of paupers, usually those who died in workhouse infirmaries, were given to anatomy schools for dissection. Between 1843 and 1883 the number of first-year anatomy students and the number of bodies dissected rose sharply, reaching by 1883 the largest number of bodies dissected in the London area before or since.4 The Anatomy Act was, of course, extremely unpopular with the working class, and it had an impact beyond those immediately affected. During the decade of The Ring and the Book, the Lancet conducted an inquiry into the state of workhouse infirmaries (1866), and prolonged agitation resulted in the establishing of the Royal Sanitary Commission of 1868-69 (Richardson 249). This agitation had implications both for conditions in infirmaries and the fate of their patients' bodies after death.

Morbid anatomy and the production of bodies for dissection were the source of much public controversy and became an inextricable part of the discourse on crime. The clearest literary testimony to the importance of human dissection as an issue in the 1860s is Dickens's Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), though, of course, many of Dickens's novels reflect his fascination with resurrection men and anatomical scrutiny. In Our Mutual Friend, Betty Higden goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid dying on the parish; however excessive her actions may seem to us, the cause of her concern would have been immediately obvious to Dickens's readers. In the same novel, Mr. Venus, “articulator of bones,” can be seen as a parody of the shady traffickers in human remains—the detritus of hospitals, of dubious continental sources, and, no doubt, of the workhouse infirmaries and anatomy schools.

Like Dickens, both Browning and his reviewers furthered the cultural connections between anatomy and crime. The controversy over morbid anatomy and the reforms that substituted the trial for the public spectacle of the criminal body furnished Browning's reviewers with metaphors and the poet with a richly suggestive historical situation. Browning's reviewers were quick to adopt the language of morbid anatomy. The British Quarterly, for example, spoke of Browning as being accomplished as Machiavelli at “probing” the Italian character. In reviewing The Ring and the Book it commented in passing on “Bishop Blougram's Apology”: “no doubt the poet has a higher function than this searching surgery” (Morley 439). Psychological acumen and physiological scrutiny are presented in terms of each other. In defending his choice of subject matter to his friend Julia Wedgwood, Browning himself took up these metaphors, admitting that he did “unduly like the study of morbid cases of the soul.”5

The clearest example of connections among anatomy, criminality, and text is in J. H. C. Fane's review of The Ring and the Book in The Edinburgh Review. Fane compares Browning to Victor Hugo as a “mental pathologist.” But he quickly connects mental and physical pathology, and he objects:

The study of morbid anatomy, whether moral or physical, is not to be prosecuted without contact with the unclean; but what we object to is that the processes of the dissecting-room should be conducted in the public street. It is quite possible to employ in art the valuable results of scientific mental analysis, without making the loathsome details of knowledge the vehicle of its communication.

(Litzinger 333)

In particular, the Edinburgh reviewer objects to the “mental and verbal garbage” assigned to Browning's male characters. In the metaphors of Fane's review, anatomy, criminality, and trial are displaced into art: the poem itself is dissection of the body “prosecuted” in the public street.

Fane's review was not the only one linking Browning's art to morbid anatomy. In his infamous 1869 essay on Browning, Alfred Austin, not to be outdone, introduced the related topos of vivisection in his discussion of what he called Browning's practice of “dissection.”6

Neither Browning's reviewers nor the poem were uncritically absorbed in this discourse of crime, body, and text. Reviewing The Ring and the Book in the Fortnightly, John Morley anatomized Browning's critics. He was quick to point to the obvious ideological implications of language like Fane's and Austin's and to perceive the ways in which Browning's style was itself understood as morbid. Morley wrote,

After we have listened to all the whimsical dogmatizing about beauty, to all the odious cant about morbid anatomy, to all the well-deserved reproach for unforgivable perversities of phrase and outrages on rhythm, there is left to us the consciousness that a striking human transaction has been seized by a vigorous and profound imagination, that its many diverse threads have been wrought into a single … web of art, in which stupidity and craft, prejudice and chance, along with truth and justice have to find a devious and doubtful way.

(Morley 334-35)

Morley's defense of The Ring and the Book culminates in another evocation of the body: the body of classical sculpture. Browning's poetry, Morley argues, catches the “thews of men” without their “moral drapery”; it shows us the lines of “nature and reality” and “not in outlines of a dress-coat, either of Victorian or Arthurian time” (Morley 333). The notion of morbid anatomy Morley shrewdly understands to be moral cant, but the story of crime must be defended even in the metaphors of its critics—text is displayed as body.

Morley's description of Browning's text as a web of art is, moreover, a metaphorical unification of the language of the body and clothing with the language of art. As we will see, he may have drawn this complex of metaphors from Browning's text itself, where webs and clothing provide Browning with a way of equating body, trial, and text. Chris Baldrick's study, In Frankenstein's Shadow, shows that in the work of Carlyle and Dickens the metaphorical pattern encompassing text, body, and clothing could easily accommodate the images of dissection and dismemberment (chapter 5). The Ring and the Book relies on similar connections.

Browning's own reviewers might have found their argument about morbid anatomy, crime, and poetry carried forward in The Ring and the Book itself, as the Fisc debates the desirability of morbid anatomy for painting or, by extension, its usefulness in poetry and in prosecuting (9.30-118). In The Ring and the Book and in the critical discourse surrounding it we find poetry allied with a science of physiological and psychological pathology. Poetry is morbid anatomy and “perversity of phrase.” Language, body, and text are metaphorically inseparable.


Whether it is conceived in the ostensible nakedness of classical sculpture or as an object of morbid anatomy, the body in The Ring and the Book is revealed in the text; indeed it may be revealed as text. Here Browning's long poem shares a fundamental characteristic of the sensation novel—it is writing imbued with metaphors of body, and it is writing with somatic effect. Writers and critics have long emphasized these qualities of the sensation novel. Henry James argued that the sensation novel was not so much art as “science,” and Charles Dickens wrote Collins that the “DISSECTIVE” quality of his narrators was essentially his own (page 124, 80). More recently D. A. Miller has reemphasized the somatic nature of reading sensation fiction. Such evaluations, as we will see, apply no less well to The Ring and the Book than to sensation fiction. Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White, perhaps the quintessential sensation novel and surely one of the most popular, stands as a particularly fine example of the somatic and dissective nature of sensation fiction. A comparison between The Ring and the Book and The Woman in White suggests that both establish intimate connections between text and body as means of display and that both connect this display of body with morbid anatomy and with the trial.

The concluding scenes of The Woman in White are almost a parody of the mutual display of text and body in the scene of the trial. Since the connection between the trial and the narrative structure of The Woman in White is by now a critical commonplace, I will focus here on the final scenes of this trial, which are represented as scenes of scrutiny and display. Here the public display of torture, execution, and anatomy is displaced into the private display that the text both represents and opens to the reader's scrutiny. The novel's climax is centrally concerned with display, spectacle, scrutiny, and their cultural meanings. In The Woman in White the recognition of the villain Fosco—the identification of his past and the moment of the hero's power—comes at the opera, that ultimate high cultural spectacle. The villain's life ends in the display of his magnificent corpse in the Paris morgue.

Still more interesting is the excess associated with the criminal body. Fosco is fat. In his final scene, the writing of his deposition, Fosco's fat is revealed to be a metonymic substitution for his excess as creator and consumer of texts.7

The writing of Fosco's deposition is constructed by the villain himself as a “scene.” Fosco arranges his materials like a professional writer for the press, and he calls his confession “writing business.” Nonchalantly he assures the hero, Walter Hartright, “Habits of literary composition are perfectly familiar to me” (Collins 552; “The Story Continued by Walter Hartright,” 7) Hartright describes Fosco writing his confession as a man mounted on a pedestal “for one cherished purpose of self-display” (Collins 552; “The Story Continued by Walter Hartright” 7). Fosco's writing is itself enormous. As he finishes each page, he throws it over his shoulder. As he wears out a pen, that too hits the floor: “Slip after slip, by dozens, by fifties, by hundreds flew over his shoulders on either side of him, till he had snowed himself up in paper all round his chair.” Finally “he sat down cross-legged on the floor among his papers; strung them together with a bodkin and a piece of string” (Collins 555; “The Story Continued by Walter Hartright” 7). The bodkin replaces the pen, and Fosco's performance combines elements of murder, surgery, and domesticated stitchery. Even after this prodigy of confession, Fosco has one brief document to write. He bequeaths his birds to the London Zoo, in effect placing himself on public display in a prison. The operatic recognition, Fosco's corpulence, his enormous self-display as writer of his own confession, his display of birds, and finally the exhibition of his corpse are all elements of a novel that replicates a trial and that exhibits to the reader's scrutiny the criminal body which is by law being made invisible. Fosco's “execution” is left to the nameless member of a secret society.

The Ring and the Book presents a rather different spectacle to our view than The Woman in White even as it is caught in the same larger economy of body, text, and trial. Whereas in The Woman in White the villain is the figure of excess, in The Ring and the Book both the villain's evil and the poem's very prodigiousness are excessive. The poem's most obvious characteristic, as David Shaw has emphasized, is its extraordinary length. Moreover the multiplicity of trials, of suit and countersuit, leaves the reader like the puzzled manager of a docket. We have the Comparini's suit over the dowry, Guido's divorce suit and a countersuit, Caponsacchi and Pompilia's appearance before the ecclesiastical court, and Guido's prosecution in both secular and ecclesiastical courts. The poem entails both an excess of writing and an excess of law.

The Ring and the Book begins where Collins's novel ends, with the text in the marketplace, and the text itself is closely linked with the body. Browning's loving display of the Old Yellow Book has often been read in the context of his claims to historical fidelity. Book 1 rests its claims on fidelity to fact. But from the first, the Old Yellow Book is intimately associated with body. It is twice said to be “secreted from men's lives when hearts beat hard” (1.88). Its leaves are “medicinable” (1.774). It is like a memorial pillar eaten by time until only the entablature remains. And this body/text is said to be the referent for another object of physical display, a ring. (Though the poem displays the ring/metaphor, the poet's obvious interest is in the ring's making and in his own creative process.) Moreover the poet delights in the connections of trial and book; since the Roman trial was conducted by written argument, the trial both in the poem and in its historical occurrence are in the book and “nowise out of it.” The Old Yellow Book and the poem itself may be shaped to a ring and may, the poet contends, give us truth. But the Old Yellow Book is likened to the old clothes of the marketplace, and words themselves are characterized as “filthy rags.” The trial in The Ring and the Book is presented through the Pope's monologue as human and inadequate recapitulation of “what we figure as God's judgment-bar” (10.347). The Pope draws an analogy: human speech is to the divine word as human trials are to God's trial of souls at the final judgment. Both speech and trial are paradoxically guaranteed by and shown to be inadequate in the analogy. So the Pope can conclude of language that it is “filthy rags of speech”(10.372), even as the poet has described his poem as the resuscitation of rags of flesh (1.754). The filthy rags of speech, writing, or trial partake of the very contact of body and world. Just as the Pope defends the “filthy rags of speech,” so the poet in Book 1 makes his “perilous” way in the market among “cast clothes a-sweetening in the sun” (1.108). In bodily secretions and in clothes, inside and outside meet. Clothes and detection, moreover, have their own connections, as the poem repeatedly reminds us by references to wolves in sheep's clothing and sheep mistaken for wolves.

The poet's ostensible appearances in Books 1 and 12 establish the connections among text, trial, medicine, and the filthy rags of speech; similarly, the historical characters' monologues themselves begin with the display of bodies. Consider Half-Rome's first words:

What, you, Sir, come too? (Just the man I'd meet.)
Be ruled by me and have a care o' the crowd:
This way, while fresh folk go and get their gaze:
I'll tell you like a book and save your shins.
                                                                                                    Sir, do you see,
They laid both bodies in the church, this morn
The first thing, on the chancel two steps up
Behind the little marble balustrade;
Disposed them, Pietro the old murdered fool
To the right of the altar, and his wretched wife
On the other side.

(2.1-4, 18-21 my emphasis)

Half-Rome hastens to recount how the chancel balustrade itself is fake, wood “painted like porphyry to deceive the eye”; so the crowd coming to see “the show” climbed on it, jumped over, and broke the woodwork (2.91-96). In Book 2 of The Ring and the Book, as in Browning's poem “Apparent Failure,” the spectator and the body of the victim are no more separable than the reader and the text. The absent bodies in Book 2 are Pompilia's and Guido's, and before the end of the poem they will be exhibited to the reader too.

The spectacular display of the body also becomes an emblem of Pompilia's and Guido's marriage. When Violante hurries her off to her wedding, Pompilia says they walked into “blank San Lorenzo” and she “fancied we were come to see a corpse” (7.432). All events subsequent to her marriage, Pompilia repeats, are a “blank”; and by its blankness evil reveals itself (7.574-94). In Pompilia's monologue Browning's characteristic use of ellipses takes on special significance; as Ann Brady has pointed out, Pompilia's ellipses, the blanks in her speech, elide her recollections of her sexual abuse and degradation by Guido (Brady 47-56). On the very night of her escape, Guido commands Pompilia to sleep beside him as if she were a corpse. The corpse Pompilia has come to see at her marriage in San Lorenzo is her own, and her marriage is figured as a violent writing upon blankness, culminating in twenty-two stab wounds. Paradoxically, Pompilia claims her wounds as the pronouncement of her divorce and of her purity. As Christ's wounds wash the sinner white, so Pompilia's wash white the “parchment” of her marriage (7.1713-20). The other “writing” on Pompilia's body is a writing only Caponsacchi can read, the “mark God sets on women.”

While her own horrible death is the final writing on Pompilia's body, a text set for Rome and for the British public to read, a further and still more complex connection of body, text, and crime is raised in the crucial matter of Pompilia's literacy. Here we see most clearly the way Browning's contemporary culture impinges upon his reconstruction of historical sources. Just as the plot of The Woman in White turns upon dictated, destroyed, and threatening letters, so The Ring and the Book turns upon accusations of forgery. Rewriting his source, Browning strives to leave no proof of Pompilia's literacy. Fidelity to the facts of the Old Yellow Book is in this glaring instance obviously less important than the imaginative reconstruction of Pompilia as the woman who is written but who cannot write. For all that she speaks herself, she is much more often spoken about; both her innocence and her victimization are guaranteed by the fact that she cannot write. If she could write, Pompilia might save herself or account for herself to her son; since she cannot write the love letters Guido imputes to her, Pompilia guarantees her own and Caponsacchi's innocence. These connections are made ironically clear as the prosecutor, who must plead Pompilia's innocence with Guido's guilt, rewrites the Eden story. Pompilia's fall like Eve's must be figured as a fall into reading and writing (9.448-52). The unfallen Pompilia is beyond the reach of law and its writing—as represented in the marriage parchment and in the arguments over forgery—yet she is written on by that law as well as by Guido's violence.

It is in the issue of Pompilia's literacy that the tendentious quality of The Ring and the Book becomes especially clear. For the poem as a whole all but endorses the very construction of good and evil, guilt and innocence, evoked in the Fisc's retelling of the Fall. Even Pompilia's final resistance to Guido is hers and not hers. At first Pompilia does resist Guido for she feels his assaults as both pain and degradation, but soon enough she resigns herself to death. Finally her body impels her to escape, but the same pregnancy that makes her wish to live is the catalyst of her death. Only on discovering he has a possible son and heir does Guido resolve on murder. Pompilia is thus both protected and betrayed by her body. In the face of this paradox and in order to establish a clarity of moral order, to rebuild the barrier continually destroyed between spectacle and spectator, the poem must present its heroine as exempt from the world of writing altogether.

Although Pompilia's writing is subject to trial—it is canvassed in the court of law and in the court of common opinion—Guido's revelations go beyond the requirements of the trial. Like Count Fosco's final deposition in The Woman in White and like all those witness-stand confessions of courtroom drama, Guido's final monologue exceeds necessity. Sarcastically, Guido asks his auditors, “If Law sufficed would you come here, entreat / I supplement law, and confess forsooth?” (11.509-10)8 Guido promises to give them the words they want, the “keystone” to their arch. Yet if this is the monologue that cements the architectural structure of The Ring and the Book, and in a way it is, how different from that neat and stable architecture completed at the end of The Woman in White or the Perry Mason drama. The excess of the body, text, or trial in the sensation novel or courtroom drama is exiled or contained: Fosco comes to rest behind the glass in the morgue; the Moonstone is returned to India; the witness in the dock is handcuffed and led away. Guido, in Book 12, goes to his death to be sure. But the execution is represented as a disorderly public spectacle, and it is represented in documents that are themselves disorderly.

This doubling of disorder cannot end the violence set in motion in Guido's monologues. The poem's historical setting opens it to an excess in the language of torture and in the representation of torture and execution. Instead of a resolution in which law and discipline coincide, a resolution made possible by the invisible execution, The Ring and the Book allots more than 4,000 lines to the language of torture; Guido's last monologue in its sheer length overpowers the various modes of closure in Book 12. In this excess, The Ring and the Book makes visible as literary text the spectacular punishments that have in Victorian England become invisible in social practice.

In fact, Guido's language rings the changes upon morbid anatomy, murderous anatomy, torture, and art. His first monologue is permeated with the language of torture; his second with the language of execution. Guido identifies his historical moment by the introduction of a new technology of execution—the guillotine—coupled with the old technology of judicial torture—the rack. The torture and public execution of The Ring and the Book bring excess from afar, from the seventeenth century and from Italy; they disrupt, insofar as a text can, the social equilibrium in which the trial (and its fictions) fills the cultural space once allotted to the execution and dissection of criminals.

In both his monologues Guido makes display of his tortured body even as he ostensibly discounts physical torture; the real torture, he claims, is that conducted by the mental surgeon Pompilia who for four years subjected him to “the play o' the probe” (5.27). In response, he claims he has merely disciplined his wife as the church allows, plucking perhaps more of her feathers than was strictly necessary (5.745-50).9 Finally, Guido opines, he was too gentle. Pompilia would have learned her lesson, he declares, had he

with the vulgarest household implement,
Calmly and quietly cut off, clean thro' bone
But one joint of one finger of my wife,
Saying, “For listening to the serenade,
Here's your ring-finger shorter a full third:
Be certain I will slice away next joint,
Next time that anybody underneath
Seems somehow to be sauntering. …”


The centrality of such an image is doubly indicated by its horror and by its status as a rewriting of the poem's initial and titular metaphor. Its sexual implications are equally apparent. Guido's first monologue establishes a reciprocity of torture—his own judicial torture matched by his domestic and institutionally-sanctioned torture of his wife. His second monologue establishes a reciprocity of murderous anatomy and execution.

The whole of Book 11 evokes the presence of the guillotine, even when it is not mentioned explicitly. At the beginning of the monologue Guido recalls his anatomical training by his old fencing master who dissects the body, declaring “Only anatomy makes a thrust the thing.” Guido puts himself a choice, to die by nature or by art. But the guillotine, he assures the churchmen, is not art. Guido would much rather be the victim of the famous court doctor Fagon, who would “pass his cold pale lightning of a knife, / Pistoja-ware, adroit' twixt joint and joint” (11.325-16). Guido imagines his own death by vivisection; nonetheless, he will die by the guillotine, ironically because of his own failure as a murderous anatomist. Having left Pompilia for dead, Guido has found that she lived “four whole extravagant impossible days” (11.1692, my emphasis). “Whom find I,” he asks,

Here still to fight with, but my pale frail wife?
—Riddled with wounds by one not like to waste
The blows he dealt,—knowing anatomy,—
(I think I told you) one to pick and choose
The vital parts. 'T was learning all in vain!


Guido is the pretender to murderous skill, the deceiver deceived even in his most violent act. Yet Guido is ultimately murderous and is ultimately executed or, as he sees it, murdered in turn. The last book of The Ring and the Book evokes the spectacle of his execution, yet the display of the criminal body comes to the reader with its mediations fully in view. The poet speaker turns to various documents and presents a congeries of commentaries.

At the same time that it might be said to invoke the aesthetics of murder, Book 12 makes explicit the connections of art, criminality, and execution. Again, this self-reflexiveness exceeds that of the sensation novel. At Guido's execution, the patron of the arts and the defender of Guido alike have their window seats; culture need not consort directly with the mob at the scene of execution, but it is implicated both in the murder and in the execution. The same crowd that viewed the victims' bodies views the murderer's head. Such spectacular symmetry—to begin and to end with the display of body—creates only marginal closure and contributes instead to the poem's disturbing power.

The elaborations of judgment and trial in Book 12 suggest that the displacement of body (its torture, anatomy, or execution) into trial and text might continue, in fact have continued, indefinitely (see Twitchell). The Ring and the Book, even with its historical setting, opens onto the contemporary and the modern reader's own historical moments. Collins's sensation novels, even with their Victorian settings, close off their own unsettling possibilities. The sensation novel, like the detective novel, presents us with excess contained; The Ring and the Book, like certain horror stories, offers little comfort of this kind.

The beginning of Browning's Book 12, “Here were an end had anything an end,” contrasts tellingly with the ending of The Woman in White. In Collins's novel the hero Hartright declares with satisfaction at the close of his narrative, “Two more events remain to be added to the chain, before it reaches fairly from the outset of the story to the close” (Collins 579; “The Story Concluded by Walter Hartright,” 1). The first event is the spectacle of Fosco's corpse; the second is Hartright's recognition of his son as “the Heir of Limmeridge.” In writing those last words, Hartright declares, “I have written all.” The excesses of sensation are knit up in the web of domesticity; the poor artist is knit to the gentry; the deserving victim is given her due. Collins's metaphorical chain, each ring in place, is complete. But The Ring and the Book makes no such promises. Unlike the young Walter Hartright's neat inheritance, the fate of Pompilia's child remains obscure:

Well, proving of such perfect parentage,
Our Gaetano, born of love and hate,
Did the babe live or die?—one fain would find!


The Ring and the Book proposes no reknitting of domesticity, no ending that relieves its readers of the burden of its story; instead it offers a declaration of its faith, its moral and spiritual intentions, and its own validity.

The poem's declaration of its own cultural legitimacy and its invocation of lyric love were enough to persuade most reviewers in 1869 of the poem's purity. Its magnitude and its author's reputation were enough to ensure comparisons to distant and great precursors—Shakespeare and Dante. Its historical setting was enough to deflect its critics' attention both from its subject's contemporary point and from possible comparisons to the novel. All these elements, reciprocally, assured Browning's critical success and made it unlikely that The Ring and the Book would be popular on the scale of the sensation novel. But the assessment of Browning's first critics should not blind us to the ways The Ring and the Book addressed the interests of the “British Public” of its day. More excessively than the sensation novel, the poem participates in the relations of text, trial, execution, and body that characterized the novel in the 1860s. More directly than the sensation novel, it raises questions about the relationships between the poet's or the reader's fascination with crime and the criminal's morbid or murderous anatomy.

It is here that the poem's concern with body, text, and trial brings us back to the questions it obviously raises about language, truth, and history.10 If poetry is to be figured not only as a ring but as the resuscitation of a corpse and if poetic language is to be figured as filthy rags of speech, we can understand anew what to make of the poet's insistence that art can only “tell a truth obliquely.” While the poem holds out a hope that one might directly experience inspiration—Pompilia's inspiration, divine in origin, comes through her body, Caponsacchi's through her physical presence—these immediate signs are instantly caught in a complex of cultural meanings and mediations. The body's language is language still. Moreover, the historical story is recoverable through a poetic inspiration that is itself mediated by documents which are insisted upon in their own materiality and which show the body subjected—if not reduced to—the requirements of the trial. Finally, the poem as a whole might well be understood as Browning's trial before the court of British public opinion, for a work of such magnitude made implicit claims for its own significance. Browning's reviewers, in their turn, perceived his poem through the matrix of the criminal body and its meanings in Victorian England.

My own effort to situate The Ring and the Book in the historical context of Victorian publishing, crime, and morbid anatomy, raises questions that go beyond the immediate scope of this inquiry. As Ruth Richardson has shown, issues of morbid anatomy and of class were inseparable in Victorian culture; an exploration of the connections of class, anatomy, and criminality in The Ring and the Book would reveal another crucial dimension of the poem. It would be equally useful to examine The Ring and the Book as a document in the controversy over the relationship between art and science; such further speculation might focus on the relationship between psychology and physiology as it impinged upon the language and the definition of poetry. Finally, there is more to be said about the discourse of crime in a number of Browning's other poems.

To situate The Ring and the Book historically is not simply to restore a lost context for the poem but to experience anew the poem's unsettling power. At the distance of a hundred years the full significance of Victorian morbid anatomy and the criminal body may be lost. But The Ring and the Book retains an excess, a scandal, even on Browning's centenary. We have only to recall Guido's fantasy of dismembering Pompilia's ring finger joint by joint in order to begin reconceiving for our own time Browning's ring metaphor and truth.


  1. For discussion of Browning and popularity see McElderry's essays; in discussing the reading public, Altick has pointed out that Browning, or at least his publisher, was assured only of an elite subset of Collins's and Dickens's readers. Even then the press run of The Ring and the Book, at 3,000 copies of volumes 1 and 2 and 2,000 of 3 and 4, indicates that Browning's claim to popularity was circumscribed; the 1869 volume of Tennyson's Idylls sold 40,000 copies in prepublication orders alone. Browning's poem, then, falls between the popular and the succès d'estime. See Altick, Common Reader, 387.

  2. See D. A. Miller, 52-57. The only discussion of Browning and Collins that has come to my attention is Sue Lanoff, “Multiple Narratives and Relative Truths: A Study of The Ring and the Book, The Woman in White, and The Moonstone.

  3. The last public hanging was the execution of Michael Barrett, May 26, 1868; the Irish patriot was convicted of dynamiting Clerkenwell Prison, but the London crowd was apathetic and only 2,000 persons witnessed the execution (Altick, Scarlet 114).

  4. The best single source on human gross anatomy in England is Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection, and the Destitute. Her third appendix indicates that while more dissections might have occurred in 1826 (figures are incomplete), the number had declined by the 1840s only to rise to a documentable high of 553 dissections in the London area per annum by 1883.

  5. Robert Browning, letter to Julia Wedgwood, 19 November 1968, in Robert Browning and Julia Wedgwood, 143. Two of Browning's short poems explicitly demonstrate his interest in issues of morbid anatomy and vivisection: “Tray” is of course his anti-vivisection poem; “Apparent Failure” is a fascinating and ironial recollection of a visit to the Paris morgue. “Apparent Failure” is particularly interesting in the context of The Ring and the Book for it equates a body on its “copper couch” with a “sermon's text”; the body becomes text and the poet its interpreter.

  6. In Austin's view Browning

    remains a mere analyst to the end of the chapter, pottering about among the brains and entrails of the souls he has dissected. … It would be wonderful if he could do anything more; just as wonderful as it would be if the anatomical professor could put together again the poor carcass of the dog he has reduced to so many inanimate members.

    (Litzinger, 343)

  7. See Miller for a discussion of Focso's reading of Marian's diary as rape, 163-64.

  8. Foucault's distinction between law and discipline in some measure explains this excess. Foucault argues that the relationship of law and discipline is one of opposition—that law does not suffice, for the law is an “explicit, coded and formally egalitarian juridical framework” while “disciplinary mechanism constituted the other, dark side of these processes” (222).

  9. Guido's monologue recapitulates a pattern of degeneration commonly portrayed in anti-vivisectionist writing in the nineteenth-century—the progression of cruelty from the abuse of animals to the abuse of women, both involving vivisection and dismemberment. Hogarth's “The Four Stages of Cruelty” was often used in anti-vivisectionist tracts to bring this point home. See Coral Lansbury, The Old Brown Dog, 53.

  10. For this general point I am indebted to Warwick Slinn's thoughtful response to an earlier draft of this paper.

Works Cited

Altick, Richard. The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public 1800-1900. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957.

———. Victorian Studies in Scarlet. New York: W. W. Norton, 1970.

Baldrick, Chris. In Frankenstein's Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing. New York: Clarendon, P, Oxford UP, 1987.

Beales, Derek. From Castlereagh to Gladstone, 1815-1885. New York: W. W. Norton, 1969.

Brady, Ann P. Pompilia: A Feminist Reading of Robert Browning's “The Ring and the Book.” Athens: Ohio UP, 1988.

Browning, Robert. The Ring and the Book. Edited by Richard Altick. New Haven: Yale UP, 1981.

Browning, Robert, and Julia Wedgwood. Robert Browning and Julia Wedgwood: A Broken Friendship as Revealed by Their Letters. Edited by Richard Curle. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1937.

Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White. New York: Century, 1907.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 1979.

LaCapra, Dominick. “On the Line: Between History and Criticism.” Profession 89 (1989): 4-9.

Lansbury, Coral. The Old Brown Dog: Women, Workers, and Vivisection in Edwardian England. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1985.

Litzinger, Boyd, and Donald Smalley, eds. Browning: The Critical Heritage. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1970.

Lonoff, Sue. “Multiple Narratives and Relative Truths: A Study of The Ring and the Book, The Woman in White, and The Moonstone.Browning Institute Studies 10 (1982): 143-61.

McElderry, Bruce R., Jr. “Browning and the Victorian Public in 1868-69.” Research Studies of the State College of Washington 5 (1937): 193-203.

———. “Victorian Evaluation of The Ring and the Book.Research Studies of the State College of Washington 7 (1939): 75-89.

Miller, D. A. The Novel and the Police. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.

Moretti, Franco. Signs Taken for Wonders: Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms. Translated by Susan Fischer, David Forgacs, and David Miller. London: Verso Editions and NLB, 1983.

Morley, John. Review of The Ring and the Book. The Fortnightly (March 1, 1869): 331-43. Rev. of The Ring and the Book. The British Quarterly Review 49 (1869): 435-59.

Page, Norman, ed. Wilkie Collins: The Critical Heritage. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974.

Richardson, Ruth. Death, Dissection, and the Destitute. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987.

Shaw, W. David. The Lucid Veil: Poetic Truth in the Victorian Age. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1987.

Twitchell, James B. Preposterous Violence: Fables of Aggression in Modern Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Tobias, J. J. Nineteenth-Century Crime: in England: Prevention and Punishment. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1972.

L. M. Findlay (essay date winter 1991)

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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, différance, against the experience of reading Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book (1868-69). Recently, other critics have made similar attempts, reading the poem as a “decentered struggle of interpretations”; as “a nesting structure of sacred books, of commentaries on commentaries”; as “a radical review of the narrating act in which the traditional separation of story and discourse is replaced by an unsettling dissolution of categories”; and as a “critique of transcendence.”1 But the theoretical questions raised by Browning's poem are dauntingly complex, and there is plenty of scope for further clarification and argument.

What, then, is différance and why is it important to our understanding of Derrida's model of deconstruction? Deconstruction, like most other movements in literary theory and criticism, can be defined by institutional affiliation (in this case, the universities of Paris and Yale); disciplinary configuration (continental philosophy and comparative literature); the texts it favors (predominantly canonical authors with strong literary and philosophical credentials); the method it employs (a reading against the grain of texts in order to expose their vulnerability to charges of dogmatism, blindness, naiveté); and its distinctive vocabulary.2Différance is one of a series of Derridean coinages designed either to designate dogmatism of one sort or another (as do the terms “phonocentrism,” “logocentrism,” “phallogocentrism,” and “the metaphysics of presence”) or to characterize the forces that subvert all claims to enduring clarity, closure, and wholeness (as do the terms “indeterminacy,” “marginality,” “aporia,” “hymen,” “supplement,” “dissemination,” and a cluster of others, such as “glyph,” “grammatology,” “trace,” and “inscription,” which defend writing against the charge that it is a mere surrogate or epigone of speech). Like so many of Derrida's coinages, différance aims to unsettle those who respect the traditional privileges enjoyed by speech over writing from Socrates on, and to liberate those who wish to contest authority in its many normative guises. Though open to dismissal as a mere witticism or self-indulgent play on words, différance is a term which articulates with great economy and intelligence the most important features of deconstruction while itself deliberately and persistently resisting such fixity as comes with verbal definition or reduction to a concept. However, such resistance to definition or conceptualization need not be absolute, and we can begin to take the measure of différance by first establishing its provenance.

Derrida's famous essay “Différance” was first delivered as a lecture at the Sorbonne in January 1968 and published later that year in the Bulletin de la Société Française de Philosophie and in a collection of essays entitled Théorie d'ensemble. It has been translated by David Allison and Alan Bass,3 and has been glossed by a number of distinguished literary theorists, most trenchantly perhaps by Barbara Johnson in her introduction to Dissemination (Chicago, 1981).4 Derrida's essay offers a brilliant defense of the priority of the written over the spoken5 and of what he takes to be writing's unrelenting economy. Derrida might be thought of as announcing his philosophical innovation by means of a neologism (différance), but for him such a position, despite its recognition of the element of deliberate newness in his language, would still be misleadingly complicitous with a speech-centered version of logos:

I would like to attempt, to a certain extent, and even though in principle and in the last analysis this is impossible, and impossible for essential reasons, to reassemble in a sheaf the different directions in which I have been able to utilize what I would call provisionally the word or concept of différance or rather to let it impose itself upon me in its neographism, although, as we shall see, différance is literally neither a word nor a concept.

(Bass, p. 3)

This highly ironic declaration of intent is full of interest (and difficulty) for any student of deconstruction.

Notice first in this passage that Derrida is not defeated by a sense of the ultimate futility of the project constituted by différance because its very purpose is to establish the idea of a permanent delay or “deferral” in attaining any ultimate reassembly (beyond a preliminary gathering of leaves in a “sheaf”) of that which has already been dispersed. Failure in the traditional sense becomes for Derrida (as for Browning's Childe Roland) success of sorts, and the mark of that success is (like the Old Yellow Book reworked by Browning) a textual gathering or weave whose problematic materiality helps create grave complications for those who would make simple and lasting sense of it. In the case of Derrida's sheaf (faisceau), we have to make do with a text that is incomplete and apparently neither stitched nor bound, a text permitting only readings which occur both too late and too early to produce definitive interpretation, unfolding as they must in that infinite interlude between dispersal and full reintegration. As we shall see with The Ring and the Book, such difficulties do not disappear when materials are incorporated in a sturdy example of the bookbinder's art.

In the passage quoted, Derrida's irony textualizes thought and action as well as matter. Arguments from principle or from essential grounds are countenanced, but only in the chastening context of the endlessly elusive double play of différance as both difference and deferral (two of the principal senses of the Latin differre and the French différer). The object of consciousness can never be the same as and immediately present to the thinking subject. Conscious and purposeful action is hence possible but inevitably limited like all other products of the scene of writing.6 In particular, the act of naming différance is itself unavoidably misleading, and must sooner or later give way to différance as a “neographism” capable of transforming the active bestower of names into a passive surface on which différance inscribes itself according to the rules of writing. This inscription is a trace of something which is not nor can ever be fully present to consciousness. In a manner reminiscent of negative theology, revelation is allowable (“as we shall see”) but only in its disclosure of a mysterious absence or radical alterity, in this instance the daunting realization that différance is neither word nor concept but something else. If a referential function remains for language, it is at best a provisional one, inverting those relations which it does not effectively dissolve. The distinction between literal and figurative language continues to be useful, but only in so far as it preserves différance against the charge of “mere” figuration. If différance is only in a figurative sense a word or concept, then such a figure must be a token of mystification and desire in anyone who uses it or in the tradition which authorizes its employment; consequently, the literal becomes a kind of boundary marking the limits of a norm that would deny its own figurality. In linking the subversive alterity of différance to the literal rather than the figurative, Derrida increases the force of his challenge to tradition in ways analogous to his attack elsewhere on the word as transparent access to a stable referent and the concept as part of philosophy's crypto-metaphorical discourse.7

The polemical density of the passage quoted is as typical of Derrida as is its adroit self-protectiveness. He does not want his challenge to Western traditions dismissed as squib or novelty. In order to resist such a move, he puts into question a series of foundational notions on which we customarily rely while making sense of oral discourse or written texts. This strategy collapses distinctions we might wish to maintain between terminology and epistemology, and causes us, no matter how sophisticated we may be in matters of interpretation, to feel anxious or overwhelmed in the face of burgeoning possibilities. Indeed, as far as Derrida is concerned, my calling différance a neologism would be at best only provisionally acceptable. Only after detailed engagement with The Ring and the Book will it be possible to determine whether I am entitled to go beyond such provisionality in the direction of words, concepts, or other forms of what he takes to be the apparatus of consciousness as “self-presence” (“Différance,” p. 16).

Derrida describes the challenge posed by différance in terms that situate it close to the concerns of Browning's long poem:

I will speak, therefore, of the letter a, this initial letter which it apparently has been necessary to insinuate, here and there, into the writing of the word difference; and to do so in the course of a writing on writing, and also of a writing within writing whose different trajectories thereby find themselves, at certain very determined points, intersecting with a kind of gross spelling mistake, a lapse in the discipline and law which regulate writing and keep it seemly. One can always, de facto or de jure, erase or reduce this lapse in spelling. … One can always act as if it made no difference.

(p. 3)

With a calculated mixture of modesty and hubris, Derrida insists that linguistic usage and orthography can be transgressive, and that they may transgress in a more or less “necessary” fashion against forms of “discipline and law” which he will show to be paradigms for the formidable array of social and discursive formations designed to keep us responsible and “seemly.” This feature of différance may help us to a fresh understanding of Browning's versions of discipline and law. Moreover, the constraints on characterizing différance will require of Derrida and of us “detours, locutions, and syntax … resembl[ing] those of negative theology, occasionally even to the point of being indistinguishable from negative theology” (p. 5). This stance is compatible with Browning's religious credo in The Ring and the Book which may, despite its length and focus, share with Derrida's “delineation of différance … a strategy without finality” (p. 9).

Derrida's essay moves inexorably outward from the letter a in différance to implicate in its “economy of death8 an impressive number of authorities and received ideas, including philosophy's foundational opposition between the sensible and the intelligible (p. 5), Saussure's arbitrary and differential linguistic sign (pp. 10ff.), Freud's distinction between the pleasure principle and the reality principle (p. 19), Heidegger's ontico-ontological difference thought “within the horizon of Being” (p. 23), and the “form of the proper. Which itself is only an effect of writing” (p. 24). A wide-ranging and intimidating deconstruction is hence performed in the “name” of différance, and with results some of which are especially suggestive to anyone interested in The Ring and the Book. Even Derridean connection proves deconstructive, offering what one might see as a dark parody of aesthetic process: not the fashioning of harmonious and durable bonds but rather an inexorable, indefatigable undoing at the heart of poiesis. It remains to be determined whether and at what cost The Ring and the Book can survive contact with such a virus.9

However, before we get to Browning, we need to make a clearer accommodation between the language of deconstruction and what might be termed ordinary or conventional language. The first part of my essay title combines an English colloquial phrase (taking the measure of someone or something) and what remains, pace Derrida, a French neologism, différance. However, this combination is not designed to express an a priori preference for the familiar over the unfamiliar. Such a preference might gratify linguistic conservatives, self-styled guardians of “English undefiled,” but it would surely dismay the Browning whose poems are full of quasi-Derridean curiosities and calculated affronts to a narrowly defined lucidity.10 My intention is not to proceed by means of glib oppositions, but rather to put into question the familiar, while putting to work that which appears at first strange and unnecessary, and this with a view to exposing the strengths and weaknesses of both. Such a procedure seems warranted, not least because it is so often Browning's own way of working. However, the attendant sense of opportunity and aptness is tempered by the realization that poetry as accomplished as Browning's has a habit of exposing the limitations of any critical approach, no matter how procrustean or provisional.

To help complicate the colloquial notion of “taking the measure” in my title, one might insist on the limits to such a process, as indicated for instance in Goethe's version of that which resists measurement, the “incommensurable.” Interestingly, Goethe uses that term in connection with another of the nineteenth century's great poems, Faust, in his admission to Eckermann that after so many years of labor on and exasperation with this work “the only matter of importance is, that [its] single masses should be clear and significant, while the whole always remains incommensurable [ein Ganzes immer inkommensurabel].”11 Goethe's reasoning is of a kind that W. David Shaw would instantly appreciate, proceeding as it does to constitute the incommensurable a form of hermeneutic mystery which, “like an unsolved problem, constantly lures mankind to study it again and again.” Goethe alludes to a property of the whole, an aesthetic virtue which discourages or precludes more particular and localized forms of indeterminacy. Poetic measures contribute to an ultimately incommensurable effect achieved through cumulative clarity and final transformation of the constituent parts of the work. Indeed, Goethe's remark expresses one of the grounds on which The Ring and the Book has been defended against its critics, namely, as a triumphant whole that is somehow more than the sum of its parts. The unity of the long poem was based on and accessible to measure, but ultimately of an order of achievement beyond the reach of mensuration. It remains to be seen whether différance is similarly resistant to measure, and, if so, whether and on what it grounds it may align itself with poetic mystery.

The negative definition of measure as that which breaks down in the face of the incommensurable wholeness of the long poem can be supplemented in equally cautionary ways from recent commentary on Browning's poem. One might look, for example, to Susan Blalock's observation that in The Ring and The Book “we have no stable tool to measure the difference” between fact and fiction; to Stephen Finley's claim that “Other Half-Rome never gets such a measure [as the Pope's] of the woman whose dying has so truly grieved him”; or to E. Warwick Slinn's insistence that “through such passages [as I.1348-78] and contradictions, life and truth (as fixed meaning) become incommensurate.”12 Such formulations, emphasizing respectively quantification, ethical judgment, and philosophical matching, suggest that, in contrast to Faust (in Goethe's understanding of it, at any rate), The Ring and The Book is incommensurable in some of its parts as well as in its overall accommodation of irony and contradiction. We are hence reminded of the importance of negative definition to our understanding even of those notions and activities associated with precise and positive determination, and of the fact that measure is a very complicated idea with a wide range of applications. Such considerations indicate that, at the very least, measure's relations with precision and verification are less straightforward than one might assume; they may even be interpreted as marking not the achievement of but merely the desire for accurate judgment and stable significance, or perhaps even as bearing witness to the thoroughgoing displacement of difference by différance.

If we pursue the notion of measure more intently in the direction of deconstruction, its difference from différance is further (and radically) diminished. Measure does in fact offer fairly direct access to Derridean deconstruction via Heraclitus, Heidegger, and the forever doubling and dynamic role of those fiery “measures” (metra) which Heidegger glosses in ways which have had a profound and lasting influence on Derrida.13 Indeed, when Derrida writes of measure, his versions of this term consistently articulate an impossibility or an activity so radically qualified that its pretensions to dominance and unproblematic representation can be readily deconstructed.14 Affirmation of the possibility of measure is rapidly reclaimed for indeterminacy, as in the characterization of Benjaminian translation as “immeasurable measure” (la mésure démésurée: Psyche, p. 227). The possibility of self-measurement is claimed for the self-renewing store of unfinished business which Derrida attributes to “the logic of the supplement” (Psyche, p. 96), while the incommensurable is promoted as a persistent, irreducible feature of writing:

How then does writing occur? How does what is written constitute work and the Oeuvre in that work? What is happening, for example and above all, in writing being done at present, in the grammatical form of the present tense, in order to express what is not present and will never have been present, the present saying which presents itself only in the name of a Saying which inaugurates it, beyond and beneath, to infinity, like a kind of absolute anachronism, that of something completely other which, in order to be incommensurably heterogeneous with the language of the present and the discourse of the same, still leaves there a trace: always improbable but each time determined, this and not something else?

(Psyche, pp. 165-166; my translation)15

Derrida gives us here his version of the Logos, an unrelenting economy of writing wherein originary utterance is available only in an endless series of written traces ominously at odds with chronology, identity, probability. Purpose is harnessed to the cause of the “incommensurably heterogeneous,” to a plotless plot whose randomness effectively and endlessly subverts traditional assumptions about making sense in and as language. If measure is made radically problematic by Derrida, then there is a danger that my objective, to take the measure of différance, is hopelessly naive and blind to the exigencies of écriture. However, there is no need to concede quite so much so soon.

Derridean différance makes problematic both translation and interpretation (pp. 7ff.), and therefore offers a fairly direct challenge to a work based on documents first written in a foreign language and purporting to deal with definitive judgment on the basis of all the evidence (“Position of the entire criminal cause” in Browning's rendering of Cencini's prefatory Latin).16 Browning's poem is not only a judicial but a historical reconstruction which one might presume to be especially vulnerable to that deconstruction initiated by différance, subverter of history traditionally conceived (pp. 7ff.) as well as of discipline and law. Moreover, this poem gives “voice” not only to those whose oral testimony is recorded in the Old Yellow Book's transcriptions but also to others who were silent at the trial. This suggests a somewhat naive and excessive allegiance to private forms of consciousness as interior monologue and to public utterance as the origin of writing. Browning's concern with conduct, identity, and moral and legal accountability leads him to present Guido, Pompilia, and Caponsacchi in propria persona, as well as naming more general bodies of opinion as Half-Rome, The Other Half-Rome, and Tertium Quid. One may wonder how compatible such dramatically centered selfhood is with that decentering of self enforced by différance in the course of its transformation of the proper into a partly alien and unattainable effect of writing. Moreover, what of poetry itself as the source of the first and last word on these matters in this work? Is Browning as narrator offering aesthetic consolation for the endless succession of losses and delays incurred by différance, hence pretending to complementarity and closure where there can be only approximations to wholeness which culminate in exhaustion rather than fulfillment? I will attempt answers to these questions, first using textual evidence to vindicate Browning against the charges of historical, psychological, and phonocentric naiveté, and then showing how his sense of the connections between language, action, and accountability can help us to a less evasive version of human resolve and hermeneutic certitude than the theory of différance would appear to allow.

The Ring and the Book establishes its relations to history in a variety of ways which show the poet to be well seasoned in the reconstruction and redaction of Italy's past. Narrative perspective is conspicuously multiple here, incorporating contrast, opposition, repetition, summation, resolution, in the disposition of its monologues. Such truth as the poem may claim is obviously the product of progressive revelation, a cumulative construct which accommodates personal perspectives. The work opens with the famously sustained analogy between artifact and text, an unashamedly imaginative insistence on the compatibility between different kinds of making and on the importance of alloy to the fashioning of gold or aureate verse, to the fusing of “force” and “truth” that accompanies the transformation of “pure crude fact” (I.35). Releasing the truth latent in different materials calls for historical reconstruction of a kind not simply documentary, something more than the uncritical reprinting of a bibliographical find. However, Browning is keenly aware of the importance of both the materiality of the text—the doubleness of its printed body and written supplement, its mixture of Latin and Italian, the connections of style to stylus—and the circumstances of its reproduction (I.85ff). Processes of retrieval are for him both necessary and limited, as evidenced in the many terms beginning with the prefix “re,” including repristination (I.23), re-vending (I.52), rewarding and recognizing (I.188), re-suscitation (I.719), re-luming (I.738), re-investigating (III.687), retracing (III.752), repairing (III.1566), re-reading (VI.277), re-writing (VII.1504), re-counselling (IX,1299), re-creating (IX.1129), re-integrating and re-habilitating (XII.688), and restoring via Astrea redux (XII.711). History may have its exemplars of incisiveness (“Read Herodotus” [I.297]), of seriousness (“Thucydides / And his sole joke” [IX.1107-08]), of intermediate difficulty (Eutropius [XII.358]), or of reliability (“Eusebius and the established fact” [IV.42], and Livy's “veracious page” [XII.810]), but it has to do with other forms of conflict as well as large-scale war. Such events can betray the historian into prejudice, as in the medieval Sepher Toldoth yeschu told by a “foolish Jew, / Pretending to write Christian history” (IX.1028-41), or into narrative which ought not to occur in the first place, as when the infidelity of a wife ought to make the aggrieved husband's “chronicle” a mute one and “Silence become historiographer” (IX.881-884).

If Browning's ongoing comments on history show little sign of naiveté, it may well be, as différance would require, that this possibility has not been dealt with but only deferred. History, in so far as it relies on language for its narrative reconstruction, will manifest the weaknesses as well as the strengths of that medium. These weaknesses can be closely associated with the character and situation of a particular speaker or writer, as when Pompilia needs God's help to “Tell her own story her own way” (XI.1686) because of grievous injuries sustained at the hands of Guido and his helpers, or when Arcangeli can after so much testimony still lament, “Had I but time and space for narrative!” (XII.297). However, such personalized versions of linguistic deficiency are subsumed within a larger predicament which leaves historical discourse insisting on its uniqueness and autonomy yet at the same time only too aware of the virtues of rivals like poetry and scripture. This is the burden of the challenge repeated by the narrator close to the end of The Ring and the Book after he has translated a written deposition couched in “nearly the worst Latin ever writ”: “There, would you disbelieve stern History, / Trust rather to the babble of a bard?” (XII.795, 804-805). Aesthetic deficiency doubles as historical probity, but neither history nor poetry can ignore the role of desire in the giving or withholding of belief (“would you”), and such desire will always invite comparison with religious faith. The narrator's rhetorical question serves to remind us (if we choose) that all questions are to some degree rhetorical and that the historian's sternness is a stylistic option like any other. But does the rhetoricity of all questions, and all answers, effectively banish truth and correct judgment from the human scene?

In The Ring and the Book Browning shows himself to be as aware of the dangers of psychological as of historical naiveté, and of the fact that these dangers too are intimately connected with questions of language. Once again he offers personal as well as more general versions of deficiency which help establish a realistic and cautionary context for all claims to knowledge of others or of oneself. Testimony is partial, both incomplete and biased, and the various monologues feature a mixture of self-mastery and inadvertent self-disclosure familiar to readers of Dramatis Personae and Men and Women. Browning recognizes the close connection in his sources between identity and writing, and indeed their virtual coalescence in the question of identitas caracteris.17 However, he continues to offer vivid human characterization in language not easily reducible to Derridean writing, language which indeed seems to establish rather than dissolve identity, affirming possibilities of sameness (idem) and persistence over time (identidem) which appear to offer a double rebuttal to différance as the enactment of difference and deferral. To be sure, proper names are no straightforward index of identity, whether you have an abundance of them “writ so in the church's register” for you (VII.3ff) in Pompilia's case, a single one which you amplify into a parody of self-fashioning in Guido's “Franceschinihood” (V.437), or one which like Caponsacchi's becomes a “bye-word” for “ugliness / And perhaps shame” (VII.1331, 1334-35) in popular circulation. Proper names do, however, point to the importance of identity and the economics of allusion that they make possible, as well to the danger of reducing “the man, [to] the name of him” (VII.1339). Imprecision and change are only part, albeit an important part, of what's in a name. Self-effacement is no more absolute an option than self-glorification or self-protection; and where identity, however qualified, can be ascribed and assented to, praise and blame can also be apportioned.

As go names, so goes language more generally.18 Not even Guido's protean, ventriloquial discourse can entirely avoid being identified as in important respects his own; not even he can reduce writing to a depersonalized and consequently guiltless “prank o' the pen” (V.1204); not even his use of paronomastic (Ver-Sammlung) effects so characteristic of Derridean deconstruction—as in “dupes / To dupe the duper”19—can permanently suspend questions of sameness and difference in a pattern of bewildering echo or mise en abîme. Such effects are as conscious as and more culpable than Arcangeli's (VIII.1560-67), their distinctiveness lending further support to Caponsacchi's charge against Guido: “His facts are lies: his letters are the fact— / An infiltration flavoured with himself!” (III.1360-61). Punning and paronomastic coincidence and repetition can certainly be used to deconstructive effect, but not necessarily or exclusively so. Hence, when a term like “round” is claimed for duplicity and indeterminacy by someone like Guido in a false assurance of candor (“to be round with you” [V.1354]), that is not the end of the matter. We are entitled to wonder whether the term will eventually be reclaimed for plainness and reliability in a move from rounded characters to completion of those rounds that are the ring and the poem. How convincing we find such rehabilitation and resolution depends, as Browning well knew, on how we perceive connections between speech and writing, persons and texts, self and idiom. Such questions are always a matter of language, but not necessarily a matter of nothing but language or of language “grounded” in Derridean écriture.

As befits a sustained treatment of legal process, The Ring and the Book is intensely concerned with the relative virtues of speech and writing, and much of what it reveals overlaps with Derridean différance. Examples of and comments on difference and deferral abound in the poem. However, there is no systematic privileging of writing over speech (or vice-versa) but rather a careful reformulation of relations between them. Textual analogies are everywhere, as are tributes to the social power of the written word. We are warned too in the Bishop's reassurance to Caponsacchi that phonocentrism is not always a good thing and may in fact have outlived its usefulness:

The Jews who needs must, in their synagogue,
Utter sometimes the holy name of God,
A thing their superstition boggles at,
Pronounce aloud the ineffable sacrosanct,
How does their shrewdness help them? In this wise;
Another set of sounds they substitute,
Jumble so consonants and vowels—how
Should I know?—that there grows from out the old
Quite a new word that means the very same—
And o'er the hard place slide they with a smile.


Behind the breezy bigotry of this account there lies a serious concern with the ability of oaths to keep a witness honest and of religious invocation to make the divinity present to believers. A referential crisis in Hebrew, an example of negative theology at work in uttering that which cannot be uttered, is defused in a way not calculated to impress the Christian auditor overmuch: the solution to the difficulty is a term that doubles improbably as neologism and synonym within a signifying system that can substitute one term for another without difference or remainder and therefore completely control the sliding of the signifier. Such a language can grow only in that very special sense which the Bishop, in his attempt to convey a sense of Hebrew as a liturgical survivor rather than a fully living language, classes as the product of “jumble.” He wishes Caponsacchi to be as “shrewd” as the Jews in using language to ease his way over doctrinal obstacles. Browning, however, sees this as bad advice, a clear affront to the Christian Logos and the linguistic and spiritual destiny it guarantees.

Is it possible for a more positive view of the phonocentric potential of language to survive such recommendations as the Bishop's, or such complaints as Caponsacchi's about the “too paltry … transference” of important knowledge and feelings into language (VI.64-76), or the equation of “transparent words” with a hermeneutics of suspicion (VI.126-130), or the self-interested charges and counter-charges of advocates about the relation of speech to writing in the courts (VIII.235-237; IX.1ff.)? Pompilia can claim that the “first word I heard ever from [Caponsacchi's] lips” had “All himself in it,” but she then risks extending a lover's simple faith into simple-minded hyperbole: “an eternity / Of speech to match the immeasurable depths / O' the soul that then broke silence—‘I am yours.’” (VII.1444-46). This realization of wholeness and presence and identity in speech is perhaps less authoritative, or authoritative in a different way, than the Pope's defense of phonocentrism in Book Ten (ll. 346-380), for it is only after enumerating the terrible effects of “barren words,” and promising sterility for a certain breed of homo loquens (“this filthy rags of speech, this coil / Of statement, comment, query, and response, / Tatters all too contaminate for use”), that the Pope can affirm the phonocentric possibilities of “The Word.” They are possibilities, not certainties, and for their realization they require courage and self-awareness, as captured in the couplet: “Whatever we dare think we know indeed / —That I am I, as He is He,—what else?” But if the consequence of daring is simply tautology (“I am I, as He is He”), then what is the point in any form of circularity (including The Ring and the Book)?

Browning does not play down the doubleness of tautology, its ability to characterize Guido (V.603, 1568-81) as well as Pompilia (VII.198) and the Pope, but he sees this doubleness as the occasion for enabling difference rather than disabling différance. If Derrida's or Arcangeli's neologism can be described as daring (“Dare I make use of such neologism / Ut utar verbo” [VIII.1566-67]), then why cannot recourse to tautology be thought courageous? Only a rhetorical essentialist could argue that the one figure is essentially committed to the cause of openness and freedom, the other to orthodoxy and closure. If différance is not only a figure and not really a neologism, then what is it? Is an autonomous “neographism” less a product of faith than is the Christian Logos? Should Cicero only be read in one way, that is, deconstructively, when he exhorts us to defer some things till tomorrow (“Reliqua differamus in crastinum!” quoted by Arcangeli [XII.27])?

Disagreement between Derrida and supporters (however qualified) of phonocentrism comes down to an undecidable claim about the priority of writing over speech, but such undecidability need not be interpreted in deconstruction's favor. It generates an agenda of work to be done, including the work of literary theory and criticism, marking the site of competing interests which will variously emphasize the social, ethical, spiritual, imaginative, representational, and ironic aspects of language. Does it make a difference if such a question is decided one way or another? Bottini certainly thought so—“Tradition must precede all scripture, words / Serve as our warrant ere our books can be” (IX.1022-23)—and so do Browning and Derrida. Derrida brackets history and tradition to make possible his privileging of writing; Browning recognizes their power and that of Scripture, while looking to poetry as the form of discourse most aware of the strengths and weaknesses of language, most conscious of “Artistry's haunting curse, the Incomplete” (XI.1559), and therefore as the most plausible locus of accommodation for différance and divine providence, archi-écriture and God's “arch-prerogative,” measure and the immeasurable. After Derrida, The Ring and the Book is more rather than less interesting, whether you read with or against its complicated grain, as the following passage on speech and writing, supplementary self-hood, and the postponement of wholeness may “conclusively” attest:

                                                                                                              I find first
Writ down for very A.B.C. of fact,
“In the beginning God made heaven and earth;”
From which, no matter with what lisp, I spell
And speak you out a consequence—that man,
Man,—as befits the made, the inferior thing,—
Purposed, since made, to grow, not make in turn,
Yet forced to try and make, else fail to grow,—
Formed to rise, reach at, if not grasp and gain
The good beyond him,—which attempt is growth,—
Repeats God's process in man's due degree,
Attaining man's proportionate result,—
Creates, no, but resuscitates, perhaps.
Inalienable, the arch-prerogative
Which turns thought, act—conceives, expresses too!
No less, man, bounded, yearning to be free,
May so project his surplusage of soul
In search of body, so add self to self
By owning what lay ownerless before,—
So find, so fill full, so appropriate forms—
That, although nothing that had never life
Shall get life from him, be, not having been,
Yet, something dead may get to live again,
Something with too much life or not enough,
Which, either way imperfect, ended once:
An end whereat man's impulse intervenes,
Makes new beginning, starts the dead alive,
Completes the incomplete and saves the thing.



  1. See respectively Adam Potkay, “The Problem of Identity and the Grounds of Judgment in The Ring and the Book,VP 25 (1987): 144; W. David Shaw, “Browning's Murder Mystery: The Ring and the Book and Modern Theory,” VP 27 (1989): 97; Vivienne J. Rundle, “‘Will you let them murder me?’: Guido and the Reader in The Ring and the Book,VP 27 (1989): 99; E. Warwick Slinn, “Language and Truth in The Ring and the Book,VP 27 (1989): 115.

  2. For usefully contrasting introductions to deconstruction, see Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (Ithaca, 1982) and Christopher Butler, Interpretation, Deconstruction and Ideology: An Introduction to Some Current Issues in Literary Theory (Oxford, 1984).

  3. Différance,” trans. David Allison in Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena (Evanston, 1973), pp. 129-160, and trans. Alan Bass in Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy (Chicago, 1982), pp. 1-27. I quote from the Bass translation.

  4. Of a quality comparable to Johnson's exposition are Irene E. Harvey's analyses in Derrida and the Economy of “Différance” (Bloomington, 1986) and the essays collected in Derrida and “Différance”, ed. David Wood and Robert Bernasconi (Evanston, 1988).

  5. For a sustained and suggestive attempt to discredit this notion, see John M. Ellis, Against Deconstruction (Princeton, 1989), especially pp. 21ff. For a more balanced view of the claims of speech and writing, see the opening pages of Roy Harris' The Language Makers (Ithaca, 1980).

  6. For consciousness as writing, see also “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago, 1978), pp. 196-231.

  7. See respectively Signéponge/Signsponge, trans. Richard Rand (New York, 1984) and “White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy,” Margins of Philosophy, pp. 207ff.

  8. As Alan Bass points out in a substantial footnote, Derrida exploits the similarity between the Greek for tomb (oikesis) and for home (oikos) to construct for the word “economy” a double origin in death and domesticity, an origin that brings together lapidary writing and family romance in a commemorative enterprise both necessary and inadequate. Hegel and Sophocles are made to serve an economy wherein the body of the sign represents one kind of death (silence, absence) while referring to another (incarceration, entombment).

  9. For convenience, I suggest a straightforward distinction between health and sickness which Derrida interrogates in “Plato's Pharmacy,” Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago, 1981), pp. 63ff. For a less exacting rehearsal of the implications of such distinctions for literary studies, see J. Hillis Miller's fine essay, “The Critic as Host,” Deconstruction and Criticism (New York, 1979), pp. 217-253.

  10. Perhaps the best known of challenges is the cryptic citation, “Hy, Zy, Hine” at the end of “The Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister.” However, a cursory glance at the titles in Browning's collected poems will reinforce how much of an autodidact (with an unmistakable idiolect) Browning remained throughout his life.

  11. From Goethe's conversation with Eckermann on February 13, 1831; cited in translation in the Norton Critical edition of Faust, trans. Walter Arndt and ed. Cyrus Hamlin (New York, 1976), p. 426. For the German, see Johann Peter Eckermann, Gespräche Mit Goethe In Den Letzten Jahren Seines Lebens in Johann Wolfgang Goethe: Gedenkausgabe Der Werke, Briefe und Gespräche, ed. Ernst Beutler, 24 vols. (Zürich, 1949-60), 24:446; see also 24:636.

  12. See, respectively, Susan Blalock, “Browning's The Ring and the Book: ‘A Novel Country,’” BIS 11 (1983): 44; Stephen Finley, “Browning's ‘The Other Half-Rome’: A ‘Fancy-Fit’ or Not?” BIS 11 (1983): 144; Slinn, “Language and Truth in The Ring and the Book,” p. 129.

  13. See Martin Heidegger, Early Greek Thinking: The Dawn of Western Philosophy, trans. David Farrell Krell and Frank A. Capuzzi (San Francisco, 1984), pp. 117ff. and Ned Lukacher, Primal Scenes (Ithaca, 1986), pp. 132ff. Derrida's relationship with Heidegger takes on more personal as well as historico-political tones in De l'esprit: Heidegger et la question (Paris, 1987).

  14. See, for example, Psyche: Inventions de l'autre (Paris, 1987), pp. 115, 119.

  15. Derrida's French is as follows: “Comment donc écrit-il? Comment ce qu'il écrit fait-il ouvrage et Oeuvre dans l'ouvrage? Que fait-il, par exemple et par excellence, quand il écrit au présent, dans la forme grammaticale du présent, pour dire ce qui ne se présente pas et n'aura jamais été présent, le dit présent ne se présentant qu'au nom d'un Dire qui le déborde, au-déehors et au-dedans, infiniment, comme une sorte d'anachronie absolue, celle d'un toutautre qui, pour être incommensurablement hétérogène à la langue du présent et au discours du même, y laisse pourtant une trace: toujours improbable mais chaque fois déterminée, celle-ci et non un autre?”

  16. Robert Browning, The Ring and the Book, ed. Richard D. Altick (New Haven, 1971), I.122; emphasis added. All references to the poem follow this edition.

  17. That is, “identity of the handwriting.” See John Marshall Gest, The Old Yellow Book Source of Browning's The Ring and the Book: A New Translation With Explanatory Notes And Critical Chapters Upon The Poem And Its Source (Boston, 1925), p. 677, and “The Other Half-Rome,” III.1310-13.

  18. For Derrida's support of this proposition, see, for example, Signéponge/Signsponge, pp. 32ff.

  19. V.1360-61. For the Heideggerian tradition of Ver-Sammlung on which Derrida is drawing see Herman Rapaport, Heidegger and Derrida: Reflections on Time and Language (Lincoln, Nebraska, 1989).

Simon Petch (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10128

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, Louise Snitslaar, offers her case only as “a vindication of these minor characters” (28), and a lonely attempt to shift attention in commentary on The Ring and the Book from character to plot, which involves some detailed consideration of these books, has isolated Bruce McElderry as a voice in the wilderness. In Narrative Discourse, Gérard Genette offers The Ring and the Book as a canonical example of multiple narrative, but in spite of suggestive hints long ago from Charles W. Hodell and A. K. Cook, the narrative methodology of the poem has had little detailed attention.2 This is presumably because its proliferation of stories causes the poem to work against conventional notions of narrative structure, for however many times the story of the Franceschini case gets told, it can never be told definitively, and can exist only in variant forms. Such proliferation and variation are the essence of legal story-telling, and are borrowed by the poem from the legal documents which constitute its main source. Drawing attention to “the immense and often distorting role of language—of narrative—in law,” Richard Weisberg has said that “story-tellers find in law a precise duplication of their own narrative techniques” (1612-13). The Ring and the Book goes beyond such duplication, however, using the law to test the constraints of narrative, and using narrative to explore the possibilities of legal discourse in relation to other uses of language.

This paper addresses itself to the poem's narrative methodology. It does so primarily through analysis of the various constructions of plot in the three anonymous books that constitute the first major movement of the poem, and in the two anonymous pamphlets in the source on which these books are based. Criticism has understandably focussed on the great characters of The Ring and the Book—Guido, Pompilia, and Caponsacchi—but those characters are themselves the agents of the plot, which they create and recreate in their monologues. If the speakers at the beginning of the poem do not have the appeal of the three principals, that is because books II-IV of The Ring and the Book are concerned less with character than with the dynamics of narrative. In these books, stories are plotted, and re-plotted, in the context of social and cultural pressures. “Plotting” here means the shaping activity defined by Peter Brooks as “the logic of narrative discourse, the organizing dynamic of a specific mode of human understanding” (7). The structures produced by such an activity are intentional as well as organizing, and the poem's speakers simultaneously fabricate and disguise them by writing the plot under the pretence of reading it:

And, after all, we have the main o' the fact:
Case could not well be simpler,—mapped, as it were,
We follow the murder's maze from source to sea,
By the red line, past mistake: one sees indeed
Not only how all was and must have been,
But cannot other than be to the end of time.


This designation of plot has a narrative structure of its own: a maze becomes a map, a plot is revealed as a chart. By translating sequence into simultaneity, the map figure seems to write out the dimension of temporality that is so crucial to story-telling, while promising that plot alone can deliver that “anticipation of retrospection” which Brooks rightly calls “the master trope” of narrative logic (23). In legal narrative especially, this trope gives coherence to the story it controls; yet such coherence is always provisional, for all legal plots contain stress-points at which they will be challenged by competing, adversarial plots. (Thus, the substantive certainty of the final line of verse quoted above is subverted by the metrical stress-point occasioned by a twelve-syllable line. To read the line rhythmically, to maintain the plot of the iambic pentameter, involves hurrying over some distracting syllabic detail.) In The Ring and the Book, the variant plots of “Half-Rome,” “The Other Half-Rome,” and “Tertium Quid,” conflict and compete with each other, but their plots are made in similar ways. Their speakers use a semi-official discourse on the fringes of the law, and like lay-lawyers, they draw on a fund of stock stories—stories which embody human, social, and political values, and which do not simply describe social relationship but constitute it.3 This discourse and these stories give them a language with which to plot the Franceschini case.

The anonymous pamphlets on which these books are based have a special status in the Old Yellow Book. They are in the vernacular Italian rather than the law Latin of the pleadings; they provide the coherent narratives that are missing from the fragmentary pleadings; and, as documents that “were probably distributed throughout Rome,” they took the case beyond the court and the tribunal and before the “bar of public opinion” (Hodell 240). In these pamphlets, and in the parts of the poem based on them, a legal code speaks to a social world. The anonymous pamphlets at once elide and establish the relationships between law and ordinary life. They also offered Browning narrative principles which his poem could use to order the dispersed nature of the legal pleadings, and the anonymous books in the poem redeploy the narrative coherences of the anonymous pamphlets into the complex poetic universe of The Ring and the Book. James Boyd White's words about Aeschylus are wonderfully appropriate to Browning's legal epic: “The poet sees that the law is at its heart a species of narrative and dramatic poetry” (180).

The poem's creative interest in legal narrative can be seen in its development and expansion of legal citation. In the ninth pamphlet of the Old Yellow Book, Spreti defends Guido against the aggravating circumstances of the case, and makes a series of citations in support of his point. Each citation works as a compressed narrative, but a narrative that subordinates the story in the trial to the story of the trial,4 for the actions which prompted the case are processed in a discourse which privileges decision, reasoning, and sentence over “what happened.” For example, Spreti refers to a case cited by Marius Muta, a Judge of the Supreme Court of Sicily, in which one Leonardus, using his son, or her son, or their son (the Latin text says only “per filium”) as an intermediary, lured his unfaithful wife outside the city walls, and there killed her and left her body to be eaten by dogs:

“A report of the case therefore having been made in the General Visitation in March 1617, before his Excellency, because there appeared the wicked method of killing her, she having been thus called by his son and afterwards her corpse was discovered just as though the dogs had devoured it outside the walls, Leonardus himself was sentenced to the royal galleys for seven years.”

(Gest 430)5

When the case is rewritten by the poem, the citation of legal authorities moves close to narrative fiction. Thus, Browning's Archangeli:

For pregnant instance, let us contemplate
The luck of Leonardus,—see at large
Of Sicily's Decisions sixty-first.
This Leonard finds his wife is false: what then?
He makes her own son snare her, and entice
Out of the town-walls to a private walk,
Wherein he slays her with commodity.
They find her body half-devoured by dogs:
Leonard is tried, convicted, punished, sent
To labour in the galleys seven years long:
Why? For the murder? Nay, but for the mode!


The poem makes the trial part of the story. It foregrounds the story in the trial, by avoiding the institutional passive, by using the present tense, and by changing the sequence. (Archangeli's extra-legal play with language—“pregnant”—also leers at a pre-legal story.) The accounts in both source and poem begin with the decision, but whereas Spreti moves from the decision through the reasons behind it to the actions informing it, Browning's Archangeli goes from the decision, to the actions, to the sentence, and concludes with the reason for the decision. The sequence in the poem changes the order of priority, placing the narrative of events prior to both the sentence and the reasons for it. The coherences of Spreti's account, on the other hand, are not those of chronological sequence; his story is shaped by the way the judgment constructs the circumstances of the case, and a language of judgment writes out a language of description (James Boyd White 65). The rewriting of this precedent in the poem draws out the descriptive structures which the judgmental language of the law suppresses, but on which it depends. Stanley Fish has pointed out that precedent is itself a means to authority and coherence, “the process by which the past gets produced by the present so that it can then be cited as the producer of the present” (514). Legal citation, that is to say, not only takes a narrative form; it also locates its primary case within larger configurations of social meaning to which it does not, explicitly, refer. Thus Browning translates “per filium” as “her son,” which Gest seems to have thought incorrect; but this turning against his wife of her own son intensifies the betrayal on which the judgment turns and which the (poetic) lawyer wishes to stress, and also heightens the poem's strong sense of a patriarchal plot against all women.

Precedent is a form of analogy. “This Leonard finds his wife is false” asks us to look for similarities between the situation of Leonard and that of Guido, and the search for an apt analogy tempts Archangeli to exercise his narrative skill. As he defends Guido's killing of the Comparini, he leaps from the arguments of his prototype in the Old Yellow Book into a world of legal parable:

Do you blame us that we turn law's instruments
Not mere self-seekers—mind the public weal,
Nor make the private good our sole concern?
That having—shall I say—secured a thief,
          Not simply we recover from his pouch
The stolen article our property,
But also pounce upon our neighbour's purse
We opportunely find reposing there,
And do him justice while we right ourselves?
He owes us, for our part, a drubbing say,
But owes our neighbour just a dance i' the air
Under the gallows: so we throttle him.
The neighbour's Law, the couple are the Thief,
We are the over-ready to help Law …


In place of the citations which occur in the Old Yellow Book at the equivalent point to this (879, Everyman 20), Archangeli here justifies his client's action by an analogy that does not quite fit: “the couple are the Thief”; and the lack of fit in the analogy questions the representational or referential claims of legal discourse. “Analogy is not a logical operation, nor can analogies be proved” (Goodrich 77): the reworking by Browning's Archangeli of these devices of analogy and precedent suggests the unacknowledged reliance, by the law, on the tropes of narrative to construct the apparently logical coherences of its own rhetoric.

Like Archangeli in book VIII, the anonymous speakers in books II-IV of The Ring and the Book show us legal narrative being made. The substantial narrative movement of this part of the poem occurs at a crucial stage in the development of the legal plot: after the processus fugae and the other suits, some of which were pending on appeal at the time of the murders, but before the murder trial itself (IV.1306-30). Conscious of legal stories that have not yet come to closure, these speakers create the arguments of which Guido, Pompilia and Caponsacchi are the creatures. The anonymity of Half Rome, Other Half-Rome, and Tertium Quid confers on these speakers an identity that is discursive and social, and their stories focus the cultural forces that are shaping the legal plot. For all their divergent opinions and with all their distinguishing variations in style and argument, they speak the same language and share a common cultural syntax; their narratives locate and give meaning to several sets of legal institutions and prescriptions; and, as situated speakers embedded in a context of practice, they are merely doing what comes naturally.6

In this context of practice, levels of narrative enter discursive competition and collaboration. Perhaps the most dramatic moment in The Ring and the Book, repeated and reworked throughout the poem, is when Guido enters the room in the inn at Castelnuovo where Pompilia is asleep. This is described in the poem for the first time by Half-Rome, who stresses the compromising circumstances of the situation for Pompilia:

Her defence? This. She woke, saw, sprang upright
I' the midst and stood as terrible as truth,
Sprang to her husband's side, caught at the sword
That hung there useless, since they held each hand
O' the lover, had disarmed him properly,
And in a moment out flew the bright thing
Full in the face of Guido,—but for help
O' the guards who held her back and pinioned her
With pains enough, she had finished you my tale.


“Defence” here focuses Pompilia's story, in both senses of that phrase: what did she say in court, and what is she said to have done at the inn? The word rushes us from the court to Castelnuovo, conflating the documents with the deeds they record. “Defence” glibly if uneasily mediates levels of narrative, and integrates one institutionally-produced discourse (the evidence of eyewitnesses) with another (the testimony of the principal witness). As a legalism, the word suppresses Pompilia's spontaneous self-assertion by redefining it. Actions may speak louder than words, but they are accessible only through language, and the speaker concludes his account of the episode by drawing attention to yet another narrative dimension: “she had finished you my tale” betrays his self-conscious awareness of the discursive continuity between Pompilia's story and his own.

The complex interweaving of levels of discourse is also focused on the poem's discussions of torture. Here, Browning went behind the Old Yellow Book to one of its most frequently cited authorities, Sanfelicius Farinacci, and even made his own Archangeli quote the jurist (Cook 167). Farinacci's sober tone—at least in Hodell's translation (Hodell 335-36)—his injunction that the torment be tempered, and his awesome sense of the cruelty of the procedures, are all absent from Archangeli's jocular account:

Of all the tools at Law's disposal, sure
That named Vigiliarum is the best—
That is, the worst—to whoso has to bear …
Out of each hundred cases, by my count,
Never I knew of patients beyond four
Withstand its taste, or less than ninety-six
End by succumbing: only martyrs four,
Of obstinate silence, guilty or no,—against
Ninety-six full confessors, innocent
Or otherwise,—so shrewd a tool have we!


The terms martyres and confessores are Farinacci's, but Archangeli adds the qualities of “guilt” and “innocence.” These words cross-reference each other in evident misalignment, and in the sudden switch from “best” to “worst” to describe the “tool” of the tormentum vigiliae the language translates itself into contradiction. The disturbances in Archangeli's own language dramatise the legal stress-point at which torture becomes talk, and pain, procedure. In the legal process torture is equated with argument; it is a form of discourse that is instrumental in producing further discourse.7

The stress-points in the anonymous monologues are frequently those at which talking becomes telling, where chat hardens into directed story, and where the shifting levels between talking and story-telling bring speaker and listener together in a context that is linguistically pressured. Behind Half-Rome's description of Guido returning to Arezzo after the processus fugae lurks a threat, which the listener must pass on to his cousin, but the threat is disguised in the “chorus of inquiry” confronting Guido on his return home:

“And did the little lady menace you,
Make at your breast with your own harmless sword?
The spitfire! Well, thank God you're safe and sound,
Have kept the sixth commandment whether or no
The lady broke the seventh: I only wish
I were as saint-like, could contain me so.
I am a sinner, I fear I should have left
Sir Priest no nose-tip to turn up at me!”
You, Sir, who listen but interpose no word,
Ask yourself, had you borne a baiting thus?
Was it enough to make a wise man mad?
Oh, but I'll have your verdict at the end!


The anticipated “verdict” signals the speaker's awareness of his quasi-legal context, but this context is disturbed by more personal revelations. The interpolated “I” directs the speaker's sexual insecurity, and the ironic approval of Guido in “another” voice becomes an indirect threat. The threat is disguised by the complication of voices and situations, but gets its patriarchal authority from the appeal to the commandments. The conventions of the monologue are doubled to create a layered, and pressing, impersonality. And the end of this paragraph looks ahead to the end of the monologue, where the power of the patriarchy, and the threat, re-emerge in an explicit context of insecurity and misogyny.

Other Half-Rome has no wife, but his sentimental predisposition towards Pompilia barely disguises a similarly patriarchal bias, and his indirect address to Guido in the following passage sees him similarly using Guido as a stand-in for his auditor. Other Half-Rome's direct relationship with his listener is one of agreement, however, and at the end of the monologue the Comparini-Franceschini wrangle is displaced by his approval of the power of the legal institution to determine inheritance disputes:

                                                            I who have no wife,
Being yet sensitive in my degree
As Guido,—must discover hurt elsewhere
Which, half compounded-for in days gone by,
May profitably break out now afresh,
Need cure from my own expeditious hands.
The lie that was, as it were, imputed me
When you objected to my contract's clause,—
The theft as good as, one may say, alleged,
When you, co-heir in a will, excepted, Sir,
To my administration of effects,
—Aha, do you think law disposed of these?
My honour's touched and shall deal death around!
Count, that were too commodious, I repeat!


The speaker and his listener are united by the law. They solved their disagreement in court, and, as co-heirs, were regarded in law as a single unit (Finley 135; Maine 150, 188). This fiction dissolves the speaker's individuality, and redefines his identity in terms of the institutional processes of the law. An argument about law and property has detached itself from the story of Pompilia which it was the speaker's ostensible purpose to tell.8 Pompilia is abandoned, and the speaker's sentimental reverence for her is replaced by a very unsentimental appreciation of property and inheritance, these being the main instruments of the Patria Potestas in Roman law.9 His most substantial argument about the Franceschini case turns on property and inheritance; it is that Guido waited for the birth of his child before carrying out the murders, for then all the money in dispute would come to him:

By an heir's birth he was assured at once
O' the main prize, all the money in dispute:
Pompilia's dowry might revert to her
Or stay with him as law's caprice should point,—
But now—now—what was Pietro's shall be hers,
What was hers shall remain her own,—if hers,
Why then,—oh, not her husband's but—her heir's!
That heir being his too, all grew his at last.


The legal inheritance works here through linguistic lineage, as female yields to male in the assonantal progression from “hers” through “heirs” to “his.” The argument used here is one of the strongest in the Old Yellow Book, where it is put forward by Bottini (Everyman 189-90; Gest 394-95; Cook 69), but in its transposition to the poem the legal strength of the argument is over-ridden by its use to indicate the patriarchal prejudices of this speaker. A formally powerful argument is weakened by its contextualisation, and the disjunction here between Other Half-Rome's story and his argument exposes a fault-line in his narrative.

At such moments, the stress-points in the complex interplay of past and present dramatically make themselves apparent in narrative discourse. The main stress-point in the Old Yellow Book itself is the decree or sentence handed down in the processus fugae. Caponsacchi was “relegated” to Civita Vecchia for three years “pro complicitate in fuga, & deviatione Franciscae Comparinae, & deviatione Franciscae Comparinae, & cognitione carnali eiusdem” (Hodell xcix); as Gest translates, “for complicity in the elopement or flight, and for the seduction of Francesca Comparini and for carnal knowledge of her” (11; Everyman 106). The story told in this decree was constructed differently by each of the anonymous writers (Everyman 149, 222-23). In The Ring and the Book, Caponsacchi maintains that this sentence is no more than a provisional contrivance, a form of words that has given rise to unwarranted inference, “a simple penman's error” (VI.2007-22). Any error that may have been involved was far from simple. It is apparent from the Old Yellow Book that, at the instigation of Lamparelli, this decree was to have been changed in some of its particulars (this was to strengthen Pompilia's position in the suit brought by the Convertites against her estate), and was to have been made less specific; but the change was not actually recorded in the documents as having been carried out (Cook 136-37; Gest 259-64). This incomplete story of the decree necessarily complicates the story in the decree, suggesting alternative versions of the latter; and in the poem Bottini uses the anti-Guido writer's figure of a sign outside the door of an inn to focus the discrepant or incomplete relationship between sign and referent suggested by the decree (IX.1543-50; Everyman 223).

Bottini's “word for word” translation alters the decree distinctly:

Decreed: the priest, for his complicity
I' the flight and deviation of the dame,
As well as for unlawful intercourse,
Is banished three years …


“For unlawful intercourse” is a curious translation of “pro cognitione carnali.” “Carnal” is contained by and submerged in “unlawful,” although it possibly surfaces in “intercourse.” (Previously Bottini has used “intercourse” and “conversation” in ways that both suppress and suggest their sexual meaning [1274, 1278], language again enacting the intercourse or conversation of ambiguous narrative levels.) In a bizarre development in the textual history of the poem (and indirectly in the history of the case), Hodell made his own corrections to the decree. Taking the hint from Lamparelli in the Old Yellow Book, Hodell follows the Bottini of the poem, although his “deviation” lacks the deviousness of Browning's lawyer. Hodell renders the pro-Guido writer's “carnalmente” as “carnally” (cxlv, 120), but in the anti-Guido pamphlet translates “pro cognitione carnale” as “criminal knowledge” (ccxxi, 180), thus filtering his own pro-Pompilia bias through the poem's prosecutor.10

The interdependence of the poem and the translation of the source of the poem, and the presence of the poem's precedent “deviations” in the translation of its source, are arbitrarily decreed by the law's imprecise and haphazard sentences. The sentence or decree in the processus fugae is not a legal fiction in the formal sense of the term, but the advocates' attempts to renegotiate meanings behind verbal formulations themselves signify the instability of language as institutionalized in the legal fiction. At about the same time that Browning found his Old Yellow Book, Henry Maine was eulogizing legal fictions as agents of reform. Maine uses the term “‘Legal Fiction’ to signify any assumption which conceals, or affects to conceal, the fact that a rule of law has undergone alteration, its letter remaining unchanged, its operation being modified” (21-22).11 Maine regards the legal fiction as a valuable expedient for overcoming the rigidity of law, and such expedience is entirely predicated on a legitimated instability in the relationship of word and referent. The fictions of the poem's speakers, of the writers of its source, and of the translator of that source, are all authorised by the unstable and nonreferential quality of language as acknowledged and institutionalized in legal procedure.

The decree in the processus fugae thus yielded variant meanings, which were inevitably construed as competitive by the adversarial procedures of the law. The processus fugae itself produced different legal verdicts: the judgment of the court at Arezzo, which condemned Pompilia to imprisonment in the Stinche for life, and the judgment of the court at Rome, which took effect as Pompilia was then under Roman jurisdiction (Everyman 5-7, IV.1501-20). Furthermore, Guido may have told “two tales to suit the separate courts” (VI.2043), just as Violante told two stories about Pompilia (II.585-87), and just as Pompilia herself was reputed to have made two confessions (IV.1477-80). Competing confessions, competing verdicts, competing tales in different courts: all these features of the legal discourse in the Old Yellow Book are at the basis of the poem's profound sense of the inadequacy of human discourse to capture any final version of truth. The method of The Ring and the Book, as Langbaum pointed out in a seminal essay on the poem's relativism, makes clear “that no point of view is identifiable with the truth” (130), for truth exists only as a set of variants.

Legal narrative claims authority by presenting itself as history, but history, like law, produces only as a range of variant narratives (Hayden White 20). Even Tertium Quid is baffled by this, as he says after a brief survey of the case: “It makes a man despair of history, / Eusebius and the established fact—fig's end!” (IV.41-42). Although the anonymous pamphlets in the Old Yellow Book discuss and indeed discover the facts of the Franceschini case through their competing narratives, an “established fact” may still be the occasion of dispute. For example, it is agreed that after the Comparini moved to Arezzo (one of the conditions of the marriage contract) there were disagreements in the Franceschini household. To the pro-Guido writer, these proceeded from “the bitter tongue of Pietro and the haughtiness of Violante, his wife” (Everyman 147), whereas the anti-Guido writer places these disagreements within the larger network of family affairs. By harassing the Comparini to an early grave, the Franceschini would have full advantage of the property they stood to inherit under the terms of the marriage contract (Everyman 212). This is the rhetorically superior argument, for it creates a more plausible “order of meaning” (Hayden White 5). It develops the domestic discord as a consequence of the marriage contract, and also as a consequence of the Comparini's discovery that they had been tricked by Guido's statement of his income, a statement designed to lure them into the contract in the first place.

Guido stated his income as 1700 scudi, and the falseness of this figure is admitted by both writers as a fact (Everyman 146, 213; Cook 99). A document which contains lies and is possibly forged is given a firm place in the narratives by the conflicting interpretations which it sustains. According to the anti-Guido writer, this document was used to tempt Violante; whereas the pro-Guido writer argues that the statement of income was produced, not for the sake of tricking the Comparini, but at the instigation of Violante to get Pietro to agree to the marriage (Everyman 212, 146). In this version, Guido's statement is virtually re-authorised to Violante, and in each account the document is plotted differently, as it becomes evidence, not of Guido's income, but of the competing chains of motivation by which the document itself was produced. The writers agree that the problem for both Guido and Violante was to persuade Pietro to agree to the marriage, but in each case the solution to the problem is plotted differently.

Any legal document, such as the title of the Old Yellow Book (I.121-31), or the decree in the processus fugae, may contain submerged narrative structures without taking on a specifically narrative form. Even a contract—here, the marriage contract—may be construed as a plot, for it tells a story, or rather two stories. The opposing writers of the anonymous pamphlets agree on how much Pietro was worth, they confirm the amount of Pompilia's dowry, and they agree on the terms of the Comparini's maintenance (Everyman 145-46, 211). Louise Snitslaar rightly points out that “a contract and a money transaction can only be a contract and a money transaction” (41), but her language locks itself into meaningless stasis. The terms of the marriage contract (the document itself has not survived) are only activated by the structures of cause and motivation which give the contract legal meaning and social significance, and of course the writers plot their respective narratives quite differently. The “facts” can exist only through “the mediate word” (XII.857), and in the poem as in these pamphlets the language of contract comes alive only in the force-field of narrative.

Tertium Quid pauses to reflect on who cheated whom:

There was a bargain mentally proposed
On each side, straight and plain and fair enough;
Mind knew its own mind: but when mind must speak,
The bargain have expression in plain terms,
There was the blunder incident to words,
And in the clumsy process, fair turned foul.


In the movement from mind to speech, not even the “plain terms” of contract can prevent the bargain, in the legal sense of “compact,” from translating itself into a blunder. Social pressures require that the cynical nature of the bargain be packaged in decent language, and under the influence of those pressures the language of the law writes a story in which no-one's intention gets clearly expressed:

According to the words, each cheated each;
But in the inexpressive barter of thoughts,
Each did give and did take the thing designed,
The rank on this side and the cash on that—
Attained the object of the traffic, so.


At the very instant of its creation, the contract falsifies itself, for its conception in language brings alive the narrative potential of variability. “Incident to words,” the bargain is simultaneously incident to “the shifting and variable effects produced by stories powerfully—that is, forcefully—told”; and in this “contest of persuasive styles,” the notion of the “plain effect” of the language of contract, of “an agreement sealed by its verbal representation,” cannot hold (Fish 507; and see 4). In the poem, as in the pamphlets, legal documents exist only as interpreted, and the interpretive contexts can only be competitive. The plain language of the contract is dispersed in different stories, and its plain effect is conflict: “According to the words, each cheated each.”

One writer's conflict may be the means to the other's coherence. Yet another established fact to which different meaning is assigned by the pamphleteers is the departure of Guido's brother Paolo from Rome when Pompilia was released from prison into house-arrest. Faced with the need to explain this, the pro-Guido writer slips into indirect discourse to focalise Paolo's inner life, and map his feelings through metaphor: “for although it was indirectly that he was offended, that is, in the person and honour of his brother, nevertheless it seemed to him that every man's face had become a looking-glass, in which was mirrored the image of the ridicule of his house” (Everyman 151). Such narratorial sophistication amounts to no more than special pleading to explain away a difficult problem, and the opposing writer takes full advantage of this difficulty: “[Paolo] left Rome to take part in the planning of that notorious murder, which followed a little while later” (Everyman 219). Paolo's mysterious absence, which the pro-Guido writer could explain only by moving outside the conventions of legal discourse, is here deftly turned into his hidden presence in the murder plot. His departure is continuous with the murder, and the smoothness of the rhetorical move is best gauged by its easy establishment of plausible narrative coherence.

Bernard Jackson maintains that the plausibility of a story told in a legal context is “a matter of the internal coherence of the narrative” rather than a question of “correspondence” or representation (58; see also 41).12 The legal narratives in both the Old Yellow Book and The Ring and the Book can only be evaluated in terms of “coherence” rather than “correspondence,” for such coherences as the narratives possess are discursive and rhetorical rather than referential. The norms to which law appeals, the events of which it speaks, and the rules of closure which structure its operations, are effects of its discourse: “they are constructed within those forms of discourse, and form part of the system of signification which makes such discourse meaningful” (Jackson 140). Coherence is conspicuous primarily through its absence. The writers of the pamphlets and the speakers of the poems occasionally fail in their attempts to achieve the coherence that is necessary to a powerfully unified narrative. To the writers of both pamphlets, Caponsacchi is something of a wild card in the legal game they are playing. In both narratives he is denied volition, and subpoenaed occasionally to whatever role the argument requires him to play. His character, that is to say, is strictly a function of plot. To the anti-Guido writer, Caponsacchi is both Pompilia's rescuer and her dupe, writing risqué poems and observing the limits of due modesty, but firmly detained at Civita after the processus fugae lest he disturb the plot. The pro-Guido writer, on the other hand, requires Caponsacchi to exert a needling pressure on Guido after the processus fugae, so in this narrative Caponsacchi returns from Civita, less for the purpose of visiting Pompilia than for joining the plot against Guido. Figuratively defrocked, Caponsacchi returns cloaked in predatory metaphors: “For like a vulture, Caponsacchi wheeled round and round those walls, that he might put beak and talons into the desired flesh for the increase of Guido's disgrace” (Everyman 152).

In the poem, the presence of Caponsacchi as a disruptive threat to narrative coherence is realised most fully in “The Other Half-Rome.” McElderry points out that this is the only monologue which gives a “closely chronological account of the action” (197), but the speaker's attempt to tell a chronological story is interrupted by Caponsacchi; after the first mention of his name, “Now begins / The tenebrific passage of the tale” (III.788-89). Coherence is impossible to maintain, and the story needs yet another beginning: “There was a certain young bold handsome priest” (839); but each new beginning only leads the speaker to a point at which he has to loop back and begin again: “Will you go somewhat back to understand?” (964). The problem is that the testimony of Caponsacchi keeps interfering with what Pompilia has said, and Other Half-Rome finds that he can no longer tell the story because there is no longer any one story to tell. The conflicting stories of Pompilia and Caponsacchi turn Other Half-Rome's own narrative into a story of difference, and its interpretation slides out of his grasp: “Here be facts, charactery; what they spell / Determine, and thence pick what sense you may!” (837-38).

The insistent contradictions between the stories told by Pompilia and Caponsacchi ensure that conflict displaces coherence in the speaker's own narrative. He gives Pompilia a quasi-legal authority as she thrice “avers” her story about the letters (908, 919, 923), but the more committed Other Half-Rome is to Pompilia's credibility, the harder Caponsacchi is to explain away. The speaker tries to intensify the suasive power of his discourse, and the monologue signals its stress-point, as once again the presence of the auditor dramatises the problem the speaker is trying to resolve. The problem is still Pompilia's story that she and Caponsacchi met and came to agreement without communicating by letter:

                                                            Is that credible?
Well, yes: as she avers this with calm mouth
Dying, I do think “Credible!” you'd cry—
Did not the priest's voice come to break the spell …


The coercive syntax depends on a crucial, and momentarily disguised identification between speaker and auditor, as the “I” magically transforms itself into “you” through shared credibility. But Caponsacchi again breaks the spell; his contradictory assertion “damns the story credible otherwise” (931), and this leads the speaker to total impasse: “why should the man tell truth just here / When graceful lying meets such ready shrift?” (938-39).13

As Other Half-Rome moves to his account of the flight, pursuit, and capture, he abandons any pretence at coherence. Pompilia gives her account (1121-70), Caponsacchi his (1171-1202), then “Guido's tale begins” (1203), and later concludes with his discovery of the letters at the inn. As if in reflection of the speaker's own problem, Guido is continually confronted by situations that test his narrative ingenuity. Each crisis poses a double problem: what is he to do, and what is he to say? What story would he tell to explain the different shapes taken by the past? (1293-94, 1307). There is a partial resolution for both speaker and Guido in the discovery of the letters at the inn, which provides Guido with a new story, and which offers a backward loop to Other Half-Rome's plotting of the narrative, allowing him to regroup his stories and regain some degree of narrative coherence. This monologue puts stories into dialogue with each other; it is a story about stories. But the stories do not agree, and the meta-narrative is subject to the same instabilities as the stories it is trying to control.

Even at stress-points, when we are aware of the speaker, we are aware of him less as a character than as a would-be controller of his own discourse. In the anonymous books, as in the pamphlets, the question of characterisation is always subordinate to the question of coherence: “Focus in such a text is on one side of a dispute, not on the people who are involved” (Kurzon 478). The anonymous pamphlets are more conscious than the pleadings themselves of character, although it is very clear that the only character who matters is Guido. Neither writer has the slightest interest in the subjective lives of either Caponsacchi or Pompilia, whose maternal instinct, which is so significant in the poem, is not mentioned in the source. Guido's instinct is important to the writer defending him, but is carefully contextualised within the discursive practices of the law. The writer describes Guido's mental response to the decree in the processus fugae:

Let any one who has the sense of honour consider in what straits and perturbations of mind poor Guido found himself, since even the very reasonless animals detest and abominate the contamination of their conjugal tie, with all the ferocity that natural instinct can suggest. They not only avenge the immodesty of their companions by the death of the adulterer, but they also avenge the outrages and injuries done to the reputation of their masters. For Elian in his Natural History tells of an elephant which avenged adultery for its master by the death of the wife and the adulterer found together in the act of adultery.

(Everyman 149)14

Instinct springs to life as the direct consequence of a legal verdict, and is scrupulously situated in discourse; a legal sentence produces instinctive behaviour which is then ratified by legal citation. Instinct is placed firmly within the structures of the legal discourse which validate its operations, and Guido's physical actions and mental processes are united in verification of the theoretical propositions which justify and explain them. His subjective life is rendered at the level of social discourse, ensuring that the issues raised in the trial are ideological and political rather than individual and subjective. The pamphlets agree that their plotting should be on this level, for in both of them the narrative is a testing-ground for social principles and attitudes rather than a story about individuals.

Robert M. Cover has said that any legal tradition is “part and parcel of a complex normative world. The tradition includes not only a corpus juris, but also a language and a mythos—narratives in which the corpus juris is located by those whose wills act upon it” (9). Such myths establish paradigms of normative behaviour, and the legal narratives of the pamphlets constantly appeal to the social and cultural norms by which they are constituted, and which their institutional authority sustains. While the various roles among the principal figures in the Old Yellow Book are distributed according to the needs of legal argument, the roles themselves play out a drama of family, property, and patriarchy. Even in the most technical of legal matters, the “content of the law” is always “some social, moral, political, or religious vision” (Fish 131; and see 226), and the vision in these texts is that of the Patria Potestas; its guiding concept is that of the family. Although a product of ancient society, this distinctively Roman institution of patriarchal power was basic to the codes, social and cultural as well as specifically legal, that effectively wrote the Franceschini trial in the Old Yellow Book, and it determines the plotting of the narratives in the anonymous pamphlets.

The starting-point for the pro-Guido writer is money. His narrative begins with details of Pietro's financial affairs, and then moves into an account of the relations between the Franceschini and the Comparini. Guido is above all the representative of the Franceschini line and the guardian of its honour, and he only enters the narrative as an independent agent when he wakes up one morning to find his wife gone (Everyman 148). In response to this, the anti-Guido writer begins Guido's story much earlier, and introduces him as an idle loafer in Rome looking about for a wife, although this comes after a long preamble which attempts to shift the ground of the murder plot from causa honoris to greed and causa litis (Everyman 210). This writer places Paolo behind Guido as surely as the pro-Guido writer places Violante behind him. Guido's behaviour and motivation are conditioned by family and interfamily politics, which in turn are determined by the social power of marriage, money, inheritance, and the place of women in the social economy.

In each narrative, the plotting is meticulous. The pro-Guido writer places Violante's confession in narrative sequence after Pietro's declaration by judicial notice that Pompilia is not his daughter (Everyman 147), a plotting strategy which locates Violante as the prime mover in the Comparini's own plot against Guido. And, through a series of similar delaying tactics, this writer presents Guido as enmeshed in the need to restore the family honour, which has been betrayed by feminine wiles. (This writer is eager to discredit all women—Violante in particular, but also Angelica and of course Pompilia, whose behaviour is explained in good part by her “most vile parentage” [Everyman 147].) The main problem for Pompilia is that she is a woman, as the anti-Guido writer acknowledges by his unwillingness to do better for her than “the unfortunate child” or “the poor wife” (Everyman 223, 225). At worst, Pompilia betrays the institutional expectations of the feminine; at best she cannot live up to them. The behaviour of the principals is constantly referred to social forces and values by the writers, who agree in their high valuation of honour, but disagree as to whether or not honour motivated the murder. To the anti-Guido writer, Pompilia kept her wifely honour intact, thereby guarding this valuable institutional commodity (Everyman 216). In the pro-Guido writer's presentation of Pompilia, honour is besmirched by “immodesty” (Everyman 156), which, along with “modesty” and “impudence” constitute a complex of terms in the Old Yellow Book that is put to complex use in the poem.15 However the writers plot the relationship of Guido and Pompilia, they appeal constantly to the same social principles, and for both of them characters exist only on a socially-defined level.

In stories told by the speakers of the anonymous books in The Ring and the Book, the poem's great characters are no more than counters in a game of social narrative. Half-Rome's misogyny extends the pro-Guido writer's bias into the aggressive contempt for “the weaker sex” that pervades the corpus juris as found in the Old Yellow Book (Everyman 211, IX. 225). This speaker believes that the law failed Guido as husband and father (1388-89), leaving him with no choice other than to “take the old way trod when men were men!” (II. 1524; see III. 880, and VIII. 419). And Half-Rome sees Guido's appeal to the four co-killers as sons, husbands, brothers, and fathers as a justifiable patriarchal fundamentalism that goes beyond law and gospel (1395-98).

The patriarchal worldliness of Other Half-Rome is more elusive than this fundamentalism because it masquerades as spirituality. This speaker adumbrates the Pope by opening up the central religious themes of the poem (Finley 143), but he can only see Pompilia as helpless and victimised. To him, Pompilia is “the most lamentable of things” (224), diminutive and dehumanised, “little Pompilia,” a child, a plant, a bird, an egg,—anything but a woman. His superstition—“Thus saintship is effected probably” (111)—and his insistence on Pompilia's survival as miraculous (7, 34, 54, 241, 1641) are as expressive of patriarchal attitudes as is his reverence for property and the law of inheritance:

It seems that, when her husband struck her first,
She prayed Madonna just that she might live
So long as to confess and be absolved …
to speak and right herself from first to last,
Right the friend also, lamb-pure, lion-brave,
Care for the boy's concerns, to save the son
From the sire, her two-weeks' infant orphaned thus,
And—with best smile of all reserved for him—
Pardon that sire and husband from the heart.


Such patriarchal altruism is miraculous indeed. Her prayer to Madonna, mentioned in the Secondary Source but not in the Old Yellow Book itself (Cook 55, Everyman 263), is a conspiracy between women to make things easier for the men involved in the situation.

This monologue introduces Fra Celestino into The Ring and the Book. He is ridiculed by Other Half-Rome, whose proprietorial attitude to Pompilia makes him envious of Fra Celestino's privileged position as her confessor. To this speaker, “the Augustinian Brother” (18) is as much in love as anyone else with Pompilia, and Other Half-Rome defines himself against the authority of the church by his impatience with Fra Celestino's orthodox doctrine of original sin (98-104). In his desire to see Pompilia as a special case, this speaker appropriates religious discourse as a form of special pleading, dissociating it from its institutional authority and putting it instead in the service of his patriarchal reverence for property and inheritance. He expresses what he calls the “fatal germ” in the story, the Comparini's craving for an heir, as a spiritual desire on their part (143-54), and by giving the desire for an heir precedence over the usufruct, he reverses the order of priority given by Half-Rome (II.209ff). The official representatives of religion in this monologue are either villainous (Paolo), stupid (Fra Celestino), or problematic (Caponsacchi), but Other Half-Rome's own sentimental Christianity is no more than a mask for the commitment, which he shares with Half-Rome, to the patriarchal institution of the law.

Tertium Quid lives in a world of gossip, and he too speaks the language of the law. The Old Yellow Book gives no specific authority for this voice, but “Tertium Quid” brings legal discourse alive in the social world to which he clings. The merging of the society world and the linguistic world of the law is the most significant feature of this monologue, in which gossip does the work that is done by legal citation in the pleadings. Taking his illustrations from the world around him, Tertium Quid joins the conspiratorial male plot against Pompilia. His search for an appropriate figure to illustrate Pompilia's own justification of her choice of Caponsacchi, leads him from Pompilia herself, to Eve, to Eve's daughters, his point being that women blame men for their own misdemeanours: “‘Adam so starved me I was fain accept / The apple any serpent pushed my way’” (V.858-59); and then he uses a generalisation masked as a question—“How could a married lady go astray?” (867) to link Pompilia with a recent instance of aberrant social behaviour:

Look now,—last week, the lady we all love,—
Daughter o' the couple we all venerate,
Wife of the husband we all cap before,
Mother o' the babes we all breathe blessings on—
Was caught in converse with a negro page.


This incident is made to work strongly against all women by condemning them to a pattern of behaviour that the subsequent story establishes as normal or even inevitable—a stock story:

We must not want all this elaborate work
To solve the problem why young fancy—and—flesh
Slips from the dull side of a spouse in years,
Betakes it to the breast of brisk—and—bold
Whose love-scrapes furnish talk for all the town!


Yet the words of the accused daughter, wife and mother, which constitute the majority of this long paragraph (878-97) struggle free of this context and reveal a woman reacting against imposed roles. The “citation” contains two narratives, and the story contains its own sub-text, in a way that is typical both of Tertium Quid's duplicitous detachment and of the radical instability of the narrative method of The Ring and the Book. In one story, the moral is that women should be harshly treated because that is what they truly want; in the other, the moral is that women react against the roles which society forces on them. The latter rewrites Pompilia's behaviour as authentic rebellion, but the important precondition of both narratives is the implicit existence of a social centre conferring authority and meaning (Hayden White 11, 19).

Tertium Quid dissolves any barriers between the social world of his audience and the legal world of the case by expanding a legal issue until it fits the audience's structure of assumptions. For example, he draws an analogy between the Comparini robbing the heirs by the appropriation of Pompilia, and the recent discovery of a sapphire by one of his listeners:

The story is, stooping to pick a stone
From the pathway through a vineyard—no-man's-land—
To pelt a sparrow with, you chanced on this


The analogy depends on legal right over property, or “occupancy.” In Roman law, jewels disinterred for the first time fell into the category of res nullius, “things which have not or never had an owner” (Maine 203). Again, the analogy tells two stories. Superficially, it justifies Pietro and Violante; but it also dehumanises Pompilia by turning her into a precious stone, and defines her as masculine property, “no man's goods” (Maine 208) in “no-man's-land.”

Such use of legal tropes and language in ordinary speech is an exceptionally powerful way of talking, and Tertium Quid is the great contextualiser of the power of legal discourse in The Ring and the Book. This power does not serve Tertium Quid's purpose of ingratiating himself with his audience, and the aside with which his monologue ends at once exposes his failure and contextualises his unwitting self: (“You'll see, I have not so advanced myself, / After my teaching the two idiots here!”) (1639-40) This ending is a strong example of the speakers' unknowing contextualisation of each other. The “two idiots” are, for Tertium Quid, “Her Excellency” and “Her Highness,” but for the reader they must also be the two speakers who have preceded Tertium Quid, Half-Rome and Other Half-Rome. Unconsciously enmeshed in the same narrative network, the speakers contextualise themselves, and each other, without being aware of it. In the Old Yellow Book, the second anonymous pamphlet was formulated in response to the first; their relationship was avowedly adversarial. In The Ring and the Book, the speakers are placed in relation to each other by the language and discourse that constitute the world they inhabit.

They inhabit a world of legal narrative, a world of plotting and fiction which is also a social world of relationship and interpretation. “Narrative locates us in a network of connections that makes our world intelligible and gives our actions a context” (Clayton 45). The law is just such a system of narrative contextualisation, for the form of the story is the bridge between legal and lay discourse, linking the narratives of the law with those of ordinary life (Jackson 64, James Boyd White 175). Narrative is a poetic principle of legal discourse which the law leases, in perpetuity, from the more general world of social discourse and communication. Law and society meet in narrative, and talk to each other through it. “The virtue of literary stories about law,” according to Weisberg, “is that they force us to grapple with the unique elements that often come to the fore when law acts on people” (1612); but this general formulation does less than justice to Browning's great poem. The Ring and the Book forces us to grapple with the complicated nexus of individual story-telling and institutional authority—indeed, with the general question of discursive legitimacy—that always comes to the fore when law acts on language. Half-Rome, Other Half-Rome, and Tertium Quid, are situated at the noisy limit of the legal world, where social pressures translate the language of the law into prejudice; their constructions of social reality through language are powerful manifestations of the invisible discourse of the law (James Boyd White 63). The anonymity of these speakers signifies that they are the effects of an institutional discourse to which they give an affective shape. Contextualised as they are in this way, they bear witness to the continuity of “literature” with other forms of discourse. Their stories are inadequate, partial, and biased; but they also are evidence of a vital cultural relationship between law, language, and living.


  1. The most recent book on the poem, by Ann P. Brady, barely mentions these speakers. William E. Buckler puts all three in a single chapter, as does Mary Rose Sullivan. Richard D. Altick and James F. Loucks give these books appropriate emphasis in their integrated discussion of the poem, but their perspectives differ from my own.

  2. Some recent critics who discuss the function of narrative in the poem are David D. Bedell, Susan Blalock, Sue Lonoff, and Vivienne J. Rundle. The plot is discussed by Boyd Litzinger.

  3. For official language, see Frank Burton and Pat Carlen; for lay-lawyers and stock stories, see Gerald P. Lopez; and for legal discourse in The Ring and the Book, see Simon Petch.

  4. This distinction is made in relation to legal narrative by Bernard S. Jackson 35. Jackson also points out that the “casuistic” form of ancient law “is in fact a mini-narrative,” and he contrasts this narrative model with the more abstract model of the modern legal rule: 98-99.

  5. Spreti cites the case twice: see Gest 430, 322; Everyman 140, 29.

  6. For “cultural syntax,” see James Boyd White 63; for narrative as the location of legal institutions and prescriptions, see Robert M. Cover 4-11; and for “doing what comes naturally,” see Fish ix.

  7. For legal attitudes to torture at the time of the trial, see Cook Appendix VI, Gest ch. 4, and Hodell 335.

  8. For a fruitful distinction between “story” and “argument,” see Lopez 32-35.

  9. For the Patria Potestas, see Maine passim, and ch. 44 of Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

  10. See Everyman 175, where Hodell again uses “criminal”; and compare Gest 270, who uses “carnal” rather than “criminal” in his translation of the same passage. Gest's general remarks (11) on the sentence are also relevant.

  11. See also 107, 281. The standard work on Legal Fictions is by Lon L. Fuller. This is critically evaluated by Kenneth Campbell, who regards Maine's definition as “laconic,” but acknowledges that it is “not wrong”: 365 n.47. On Legal Fictions as legitimated metaphor, see Owen Barfield. For a recent theoretical discussion, see Scheppele.

  12. Guido would agree (XI.849-73), as would Hayden White: 2, 21.

  13. For a lucid and comprehensive account of the vexing discrepancies between the depositions of Pompilia and Caponsacchi in the processus fugae, the discrepancies between their monologues, and the discrepancies between their monologues and their respective depositions, see Cook Appendix V.

  14. This citation of Elian occurs more frequently in the poem than it does in the Old Yellow Book: see Cook 11, and 1.232ff.

  15. Everyman 149; see also Fra Celestino's affidavit (Everyman 57-58), and Bottini, IX.793, 803.

This paper was read in draft by Bruce Gardiner, Roslyn Jolly, Jennifer McDonell, Warwick Slinn, and James Boyd White. I am grateful to all these people for their suggestions, all of which have strengthened this paper. I owe a special debt to Frances Muecke, of the Latin Department at the University of Sydney, who has given generously of her time and expertise in response to my many queries about the Latin in the Old Yellow Book, and in The Ring and the Book itself.

This paper is for Roslyn Jolly.

Works Cited

Altick, Richard D., and Loucks, James F. Browning's Roman Murder Story: A Reading of The Ring and the Book. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1968.

Barfield, Owen. “Poetic Diction and Legal Fiction.” Essays Presented to Charles Williams. London: Oxford UP, 1947. 106-27.

Bedell, David D. “Paring The Ring and the Book: A Note on the Poem's Narrative Organization.” SBHC 11 (1983): 63-65.

Blalock, Susan. “Browning's The Ring and the Book: ‘A Novel Country.’” BIS 11 (1983): 39-50.

Brady, Ann P. Pompilia: A Feminist Reading of Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book. Athens Ohio: Ohio UP, 1988.

Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1984.

Browning, Robert. The Ring and the Book. Ed. Richard D. Altick. Penguin English Poets. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.

Buckler, William E. Poetry and Truth in Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book. New York: New York UP, 1985.

Burton, Frank, and Carlen, Pat. Official Discourse: On Discourse Analysis, Government Publications, Ideology and the State. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979.

Campbell, Kenneth. “Fuller on Legal Fictions.” Law and Philosophy 2 (1983): 339-70.

Clayton, Jay. “Narrative and Theories of Desire.” Critical Inquiry 16 (1989): 33-53.

Cook, A. K. A Commentary Upon Browning's The Ring and the Book. London: Oxford UP, 1920.

Cover, Robert M. “Nomos and Narrative.” Harvard Law Review 97 (1983): 4-68.

Everyman. The Old Yellow Book. London: Dent, n.d. [1911]. See Hodell below.

Finley, C. Stephen. “Robert Browning's ‘The Other Half-Rome’: A ‘Fancy-fit or Not?’ BIS 11 (1983): 127-48.

Fish, Stanley. Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1989.

Fuller, Lon L. Legal Fictions. 1930-31. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1967.

Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Oxford: Blackwell, 1980. First published 1972.

Gest, J. M. The Old Yellow Book. Source of Browning's The Ring and the Book. A New Translation with Explanatory Notes and Critical Chapters upon the Poem and Its Source. 1927. New York: Haskell House, 1970.

Goodrich, Peter. Reading the Law: A Critical Introduction to Legal Method and Techniques. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.

Hodell, Charles W. The Old Yellow Book. Carnegie Institute Publication No. 89. Washington DC: Carnegie Institute, 1908. Rpt. Everyman (see above).

Jackson, Bernard S. Law, Fact and Narrative Coherence. Legal Semiotics Monographs 1. Merseyside: Deborah Charles Publications, 1988.

Kurzon, Dennis. “How Lawyers Tell Their Tales: Narrative Aspects of a Lawyer's Brief.” Poetics 4 (1985): 467-81.

Langbaum, Robert. The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition. London: Chatto and Windus, 1957.

Litzinger, Boyd. “The Structural Logic of The Ring and the Book.Nineteenth-Century Literary Perspectives: Essays in Honor of Lionel Stevenson. Ed. Clyde de L. Ryals. Durham NC: Duke UP, 1974. 105-14.

Lonoff, Sue. “Multiple Narratives and Relative Truths: A Study of The Ring and the Book, The Woman in White, and The Moonstone.BIS 10 (1982): 143-61.

Lopez, Gerald P. “Lay Lawyering.” UCLA Law Review 32 (1984): 1-60.

Maine, Henry. Ancient Law: Its Connection with the Early History of Society, and Its Relation to Modern Ideas. 1861. New York: Dorset Press, 1986.

McElderry, B. R. “The Narrative Structure of Browning's The Ring and the Book.Research Studies of the State College of Washington XI (1943): 193-233.

Petch, Simon. “Browning's Roman Lawyers.” Browning Centenary Essays: Special Edition of AUMLA. Ed. Simon Petch and Warwick Slinn. AUMLA 71 (1989): 109-38.

Rundle, Vivienne J. “‘Will you let them murder me?’: Guido and the Reader in The Ring and the Book.VP 27 (1989): 99-114.

Scheppele, Kim Lane. “Facing Facts in Legal Interpretation.” Law and the Order of Culture: Special Issue of Representations. Ed. Robert Post. Representations 30 (1990): 42-77.

Snitslaar, Louise. Sidelights on Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book. Amsterdam: Swets and Zeitlinger, 1934.

Sullivan, Mary Rose. Browning's Voices in The Ring and the Book: A Study of Method and Meaning. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1969.

Weisberg, Richard H. “Entering With a Vengeance: Posner on Law and Literature.” Stanford Law Review 41 (1989): 1597-1626. Review of Richard A. Posner, Law and Literature: A Misunderstood Relation (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988).

White, Hayden. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1987.

White, James Boyd. Heracles' Bow: Essays on the Rhetoric and Poetics of the Law. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1985.

Alexander Pettit (essay date spring 1993)

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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 understand, or even, at times, to recognize. I mean to analyze various ways in which Browning creates what we may imagine as a disjunction of character and context, and to argue that Browning dramatizes this disjunction by presenting his antagonists as representatives of exhausted cultural and literary traditions. In this admittedly revisionist reading, Caponsacchi and Guido are both anachronisms and are more-or-less equally absurd. Browning's movement is a curious one, I think: not so much a parody of genre per se as a parody of characters who act in ignorance of the cultural requirements of genre. I do not claim that this is all that Browning is up to with these characters; but I do hope to demonstrate that Browning portrays in Caponsacchi and Guido a mixture of absurdity and pathos that qualifies the menace of the one character and argues against the alleged heroism of the other.1

The geography of Browning's poem is intrinsically disjunctive. Rome, the political and spiritual center of seventeenth-century Italy, is also of course the geographical center of The Ring and the Book. But Browning's Rome is a rhetorical abstraction. Browning's two “Half-Romes” do not describe a complete population or, rhetorically speaking, a balance of thesis and antithesis. To this native disunity the poet adds Tertium Quid. The jest is simple and significant: tertium quid does not—as it should—negotiate between partial or conflicting positions, but, when superadded to a quantity already stated as complete, mocks the false symmetry of the argument, or, if you will, of the population that gives voice to it. Browning's Rome is not halved, but fragmented.2

Like Browning's other “characters,” the city becomes a metaphysical presence variously construed by various narrators. The Jubilee atmosphere and the almost Dickensian profusion of characters help transform the literal Rome into what a contemporary reviewer called “the world of forms, the city of bodies” housing “the scattered rays of … mysterious humanity.”3 The discord, confusion, and sheer preponderance of the immigrant and tourist voices tend equally toward realism and disjunction: while suggesting the diversity of Italy's largest city, they prohibit any precise or harmonious representation of that city. The immigrant characters routinely fail in their attempts to become parts of, or to understand, Rome. Unable to participate in the confident acceptance of paradox suggested by the presence of Tertium Quid, Browning's foreigners struggle without success to piece together a comprehensible Rome. Late in the poem, for example, the anonymous Venetian epistolist expresses surprise that he (and, as he would have it, “all Rome”) was mistaken in his prediction that Guido would be pardoned (12.73-79); and in an urbane and confident tone, he ranks the likely successors to the papacy—none of whom, including the Venetian's own favorite, would in fact succeed Innocent XII (12.42-48).4 The Venetian cannot become a Roman any more than Boccaccio's Andreuccio da Perugia can become Neapolitan, or than Manzoni's Renzo can become Milanese.

But Rome is nonetheless the “ghastly goal” (1.518) toward which the hopeful characters gravitate. Caponsacchi had been planning to abandon his near-four-hundred years of Aretine heritage (6.235) for the “eventual harbour” of Rome (6.369) even before his first encounter with Pompilia. Although he will depart for Rome a fugitive and will arrive there a prisoner, he maintains a pilgrim's enthusiasm for his destination. His naive vision of Rome is a vehicle for Browning's irony: Caponsacchi carries Pompilia to Rome “‘lest hell reach her’” (6.1426); and, once apprehended, he “‘bid[s] Rome / Cover the wronged with her inviolate shield’” (6.1583-84). At Rome awaits a blacker hell than Caponsacchi could have imagined—Guido describes himself traveling from Arezzo to Rome “as Lucifer … falling to find hell” (5.1046)—and the “inviolate shield” of Rome proves a worse protector of Pompilia than did even the corrupt courts of Tuscany. Pompilia's murder is to Caponsacchi the failure of both Roman court and Roman Church (6.1630-33); and Rome ultimately becomes for him a dream from which he, like “a drudging student” inspired by Plutarch to grand visions of antiquity (6.2098-2100), “smilingly, contentedly, awakes / To the old solitary nothingness” (6.2102-03). The poem gives free reign to Caponsacchi's imaginative redactions of Rome; but the canon actually experiences Rome only from a position of detachment—as a prisoner and as a witness—and from one of deprivation—as a disconsolate lover. Caponsacchi never encounters the Rome of his fancy.

Guido, a resident of Rome for thirty years, has an equally unsatisfactory relation with the city: his failure as a Roman is evident in his inability to procure horses for himself and his bravi—easily obtainable by the simplest of bribes.5 Guido is well described by The Other Half-Rome as “over-burly for rat's hole” in “the core of Rome” (3.414-415). Like Milton's Satan, whom he at times recalls, Guido chafes stupidly in his new home; but unlike Satan, he remains constricted and ill at ease, ignorant of the social codes that describe power in his adopted environment.

Guido's removal from Tuscany, a region disdainful of trade in the late seventeenth century, to Rome, the modern city populated by the “grubbing toiling moiling ants” of the commercial middle class (11.1263), is necessarily disjunctive. Tuscan tradition becomes in the poem antithetical to Roman mercantilism. Not only are the major Tuscan characters aristocratic and the major Romans bourgeois, but attempts to integrate these groups invariably fail. Guido's ambiguous (and mock-tragic) role in this polarized class structure is defined by his descent to the language, the behavior, and even the kinship of the mercantile Romans and by his simultaneous insistence upon his separateness from these same “denizen[s] o' the dung” (5.293). A conflict is already inevitable when Guido is bid “‘with one foot in Arezzo stride to Rome’” to “‘spend [him]self there and bring the purchase back!’” (5.232-233). In his adoption of the Roman mercantile ethos, Guido becomes an ironic moral counterpart to his most despised representative of the middle class: the vulgar and utilitarian Violante into whose family he marries. Guido's hawking of his title at the “market-price” (5.462) describes his doomed and disjunctive decline; “Half-Rome” understates the case when he says that “the Count had lounged somewhat too long in Rome, / Made himself cheap” (2.113-114). Guido, so to speak, is neither here nor there: his final speech—“I am the Granduke's—no, I am the Pope's!” (11.2423)—indicates the numbing muddle of his personal geography.

Browning's relentless mythologizing, the terms of which have been catalogued by Richard Altick and James Loucks II, produces a conflated sense of history that blurs the temporal frame of the poem. And Altick and Loucks observe that “the Renaissance atmosphere of the poem is intensified by various literary allusions and echoes”—notably to or of Othello.6 But they do not note that the myth-interest and the Renaissance shading contradict the time-frame of the fable, nor do they see in the poem, as I do, a larger pattern of temporal obfuscation. Historiographical accident is Browning's ally in what amounts to a sleight of hand: Beatrice Corrigan notes that “of all the epochs in Italian history, [the seventeenth century] is the most neglected.”7 The Victorians do not seem to have been particularly interested in the period; and the present paucity of scholarship on the period indicates that Corrigan's remark, made thirty-six years ago, is still apposite.8 The lack of enduring literature produced during the period is a commonplace of literary history; and the period remains largely a postscript to a Renaissance that in Browning's day was becoming fashionable among younger intellectuals (although obviously was not likely to seduce the creator of the Bishop of St. Praxed's), or perhaps a prelude to the risorgimento that had quickened the pulses of English poets of the earlier nineteenth century. Onto this dark age Browning could easily graft the social habits, the political ideas, and the literary modes of other times.

Browning portrays Guido and Caponsacchi as historical and literary anachronisms: products neither of their own day nor even of the Renaissance, they strive improbably to become feudal lord and cavaliere romanzesco respectively. When the antiquated roles attempted by Guido and Caponsacchi collide with the less glamorous present, an anti-heroic paralysis of action results. The movement is subtly parodic and suggests, as Browning's monologues often do, the limitations of a passive or retrogressive self-definition.9 The poem's grand farce—the non-duel at Castelnuovo, which I will discuss shortly—is the collision of Caponsacchi's absurd chivalry and Guido's absurd feudalism. The scene becomes a sort of meta-farce in which the agent of parody is the actors' own lack of consciousness about their inability to play the roles that they have selected for themselves; to this reader, at least, the movement more suggests the mock-heroic mode of the Augustan satirists than the bona fide “heroism” that critics often find in the scene.

Browning takes considerable pains to create an atmosphere of anachronism on the level of local detail. Guido wears a sword after it has become déclassé for nobles to do so; he strengthens his wistful proposal for mutilating his wife by invoking the days when a noble could “[stab] knave / For daring throw gibe” (11.104-105).10 And Browning clothes his “courtly Canon” (3.845) in the worn and ill-fitting garb of chivalric literature. Caponsacchi is “a prince of sonneteers and lutanists” (1.1030): a Petrarchan and a madrigalist in an age given more to folksy stornelli than to finely crafted sonnets, and more to arias, cantatas, and guitar-music than to the madrigals plucked by solo lutanists.11 He is repeatedly styled a “cavalier” and a “courtier,” and Half-Rome sees him as a “gay, dare-devil, cloak-and-rapier spark / Capable of adventure” (2.709-710). This sort of description recalls a period distant from that of Browning's fable, and chivalric affectations such as Caponsacchi's were treated with an indulgent nostalgia even by Boccaccio, in, for example, the novelle of Guillaume di Roussillon (Decameron, 4.9), Nastagio degli Onesti (Decameron, 5.8), and Federigo degli Alberighi (Decameron, 5.9). The Pope invokes nostalgia to soften his censure of Caponsacchi's encounter with Guido at Castelnuovo:

                                                                                Ay, such championship
Of God at first blush, such prompt cheery thud
Of glove on ground that answers ringingly
The challenge of the false knight,—watch we long,
And wait we vainly for its gallant like.


But even before his terminal disclaimer, the Pope had dismissed this behavior as boyish and quaint—“this youth prolonged though age was ripe, / This masquerade in sober day” (10.1129-30).

Guido's understanding of seventeenth-century Rome is frustrated by his frequent romantic retreats both to his lofty Aretine heritage and to a Rome that had long since become fodder for literary myth. The “blessed Tuscany” (11.1658) to which Guido attempts to flee after his murder of the Comparini was in fact a relatively insignificant state politically, economically, and culturally.12 The lights of Aretine culture had burned out long ago: Franco Sacchetti, beloved of Guido for his “Hundred Merry Tales,” had died in 1410; and the other great Aretines invoked in the poem—Petrarch and Michelangelo—had died in 1374 and 1564 respectively.13 But this defunct Tuscany defines Guido's temporal identity and is that against which he juxtaposes Rome and Romans. Guido recognizes both the allure and the degeneracy of his native Tuscany:

                                                                      All too plain, he pined
Amid Rome's pomp and glare for dinginess
And that dilapidated palace-shell.


And Guido swells with pride as he “boast[s] [him]self, Etruscan, Aretine” (11.1919); the word “Etruscan” calls attention to Guido's penchant for anachronism, and it clashes with the humble seventeenth-century signification of “Aretine.” Given the time-frame of the poem, the adjectival progression is intrinsically bathetic, but Guido's belief in the compatibility of his terms is, rather, pathetic. This distance produces irony and becomes a parodic reminder of Guido's temporal dislocation.

And Guido also has an odd habit of mistaking “Rome” for “the Rome that was.” In a particularly melodramatic moment he imagines himself as the first Caius Julius Caesar (11.1801-04). His disturbed exhortation to the Romans to rally around his projected “Utopia” is sodden with the nostalgia or revisionism perennially beloved of Italian demagogues: Guido imagines a “Rome rife with honest women and strong men, / Manners reformed, old habits back once more” (5.2039-40). Guido, that is, imagines a Rome ruled again by feudal privilege, free from the contagion of such as the Comparini.

But this Rome has vanished (“as fugitive, alas, as the years,” as Proust would later say of another lost world). The blood with which Guido will mix his own dying drops is rather the “red refuse” of common Rome (11.18) than the bluer patrician stuff. That Guido dies without comprehending his geographical and temporal dislocation in large part describes his pathetic absurdity: he demands, “Well? / Why do things change? Wherefore is Rome un-Romed?” (11.264-265). Elsewhere he can only splutter, “I am Guido Franceschini, am I not?” (5.1790). The syntax is expedient. The belligerent interrogatives ask nothing but insist upon a great deal: they are perfect linguistic vehicles for the reactionary and bewildered Guido, who sees his crime as a “prank [his] grandsire played” (11.111), his punishment as “murder” (11.2425), and his adopted city as a negation of its own—imagined—past.

The relationship of the cavalleresco Caponsacchi and Pompilia is often discussed in terms of the Italian literary tradition, but commentators on The Ring and the Book have not acknowledged the incompatibility of Browning's borrowed fable and the Dantean strain that he grafted onto it. Pompilia has been made the donna angelicata, that type who provides the inspirational motive for the proto-Dantean dolce stil nuovo of the fourteenth century; her qualifications as a type of Beatrice seem to some bolstered by Browning's own chivalric attitude toward Elizabeth Barrett.14 But affiliating Pompilia with this tradition poses several problems. One must, for example, ignore the disturbing role of physical love in The Ring and the Book. Although J. E. Shaw insisted some time ago that Browning's poem agreed with the Dantean notion that “sexual love” was “a stage on the way to the conscious love of the highest good,” and although subsequent critics have allowed Shaw's observation to harden into orthodoxy (p. 78), any propulsive representation of the “stage” that Shaw identifies is absent from the poem: sexuality in The Ring and the Book is preeminently a device for terror and humiliation. The impetus behind Caponsacchi's youthful dalliances undoubtedly crumbles before the greater glory of Pompilia. But both the vigor with which Caponsacchi and Pompilia deny physical involvement with one another and the persistence with which Browning presents the love-plot as inseparable from the surveillance and confinement motifs violate the internal decorum of the dolce stil nuovo, with its comparatively unrestrained and unselfconscious lovers and its equal emphases on what Aldo D. Scaglione identifies as “the knowledge and enjoyment of God through one of His creatures.”15 The denials carry with them as well a suggestion of repentance alien to the Italian form.

Casting Pompilia as a donna angelicata also poses problems of ontology (Caponsacchi's “donna angelicata” is not only married but a mother) and teleology (can anyone seriously imagine Beatrice being “hacked … to pieces” [6.1633] by a jealous lunatic?). Beatrice could not possibly enter hell—Dante reserves the task for the male pagan Virgil—and she descends to purgatory so that she may guide Dante to a manifest heaven.16 But Pompilia's road lies through a convincing mundane imitation of hell, and precisely where she guides her “lover” is impossible to determine:17 heaven is an ephemeral presence in the poem, and everything we know about Browning suggests that his need to believe in an afterlife exceeded his actual belief in one. (If we choose to endorse her pious vision of her own future, Pompilia's journey actually recalls that of the character Dante more than that of Beatrice.)

This is not to say that Browning does not tempt us to see a donna angelicata in Pompilia—he does so repeatedly. The Pope pronounces her “perfect in whiteness” (10.1004); and she is to Caponsacchi “The glory of life, the beauty of the world, / The splendour of heaven” (6.118-119) who inspires “faith, / The feeling that there's God” (6.1193-94). But the Pope is primarily a juror, selecting from among the various courtroom narratives that he has heard, and must reason a posteriori in order to imagine the Pompilia of the poem's central action. And Caponsacchi speaks after his arrest and his separation from Pompilia: he is recreating Pompilia in his memory for a dispassionate audience, invoking an idealized version of her—an icon of sorts—as surely as Guido will when he pleads for the protection of his (presumably dead) wife at the end of his second monologue.18 When Caponsacchi reconstructs the actual words that he and Pompilia had spoken during their flight, the mellifluous poetry gives way to a clipped and awkward syntax (6.1199ff.); Browning thus suggests the considerable contrast between “real” and imagined versions of the beloved. By reconstructing the absent lover in the image of a donna angelicata, Caponsacchi demonstrates not the viability of chivalric woman-worship, but rather the inappropriateness of a given cultural and literary tradition in a world divorced from the values endemic to that tradition. To wax eloquent and chivalrous before the bar in the stiflingly legalistic world of seventeenth-century Italy (or of nineteenth-century England) may be marvelous—it is marvelous—but it is also a tad silly, or, to be more generous, pathetic. Browning, that is, demonstrates in The Ring and the Book a self-consciousness about literary influence that would never have troubled (say) William Morris.

Guido mocks the misplaced aura of dolce stil nuovo that Caponsacchi brings to the poem. He dismisses the sort of chivalric love that Pompilia craves (and that he believes Caponsacchi capable of providing) as subservient to financial or non-literary considerations:

                                                                                Guido's love—
Why not provençal roses in his shoe,
Plume to his cap, and trio of guitars
At casement, with a bravo close beside?
Good things all these are, clearly claimable
When the fit price is paid the proper way.


Guido himself would have in Pompilia a feudal Griselda rather than a humanist Beatrice; their marriage is incomprehensible to him because the woman whom he has chosen to elevate with his title responds to him non-submissively. Thus, while Guido is able to identify the literary anachronism that informs Caponsacchi's flirtation with Pompilia, he is unable to identify the equally anachronistic social or political notions by which he is himself motivated.

Caponsacchi's dreamy vision of Pompilia as donna angelicata perhaps never satisfactorily answers Guido's callous charge: this vision inspires in Caponsacchi delusion, indecision, and (finally) despair rather than elevation or heroic action. Sundry critics have echoed Robert Langbaum, who, having reasserted Pompilia's position as Caponsacchi's donna angelicata, suggests that “[she provides] him with the crucial opportunity of his life—the chance for heroic exploit and the chance to recognize, in her, embodied goodness” (p. 111). But few critics have bothered to note that Caponsacchi botches this “opportunity” egregiously. Caponsacchi's paralysis at Castelnuovo is everywhere at odds with the St. George myth which Caponsacchi parodies rather than embodies: in opposition to the critical tradition doggedly supportive of an “active” or “heroic” Caponsacchi, Isobel Armstrong finds Caponsacchi himself “ironical about the inevitable comparison between himself and St. George”; and, more pointedly still, Roy E. Gridley argues persuasively that “[Caponsacchi's] role during the escape and flight from Arezzo cannot, after all, be likened to Saint George; there are similarities, but the differences between the successful mythic action of the savior knight and Caponsacchi's actions are too great. The priest had imperative use for his sword, so he thinks; but he did not slay the dragon.”20 An active Caponsacchi, or a St. George, is no doubt a necessity if one is to find in the poem crisp characterizations of “hero (Caponsacchi), saint (Pompilia), and villain (Guido)” (Talon, p. 353); but such readings ignore, locally, the inaction of Caponsacchi at Castelnuovo, and, more broadly, the complications posed by the force of literary anachronism on the time-frame of the poem. Caponsacchi is not a hero; he is a frustrated aspirant to an unattainable heroism, like Browning's Andrea del Sarto incapable of distinguishing between imaginary and evident “versions” of his beloved and, again like Andrea, unaware of the distance that separates him from the mode of expression toward which he aspires.

The reader is alerted early in the poem to the strained and hyperbolic chivalry—the would-be heroism—of the debacle at Castelnuovo. Tertium Quid, ascribing a disconcerting literalness to Caponsacchi's disguise, says that at Castelnuovo “‘the priest was metamorphosed into knight’” (4.1159); and Guido will see Caponsacchi at Castelnuovo “in cape and sword a cavalier confessed” (5.1051). But anticlimax carries the day. Although the “cavalier,” like Guido seized by an improbably heightened sense of heroic behavior, perceives his adversary as a foul and mythic monster, he is nonetheless incapable of becoming the St. George for whom the text has prepared us. Confronted by “a bag of venomed purulence” (6.1484) who “part howled, [and] part hissed” (6.1440), Caponsacchi becomes meditative and inanimate: “And while I mused, / The minute, oh the misery, was gone!” (6.1498-99). The deflation continues when Caponsacchi's “lady”—again, we remind ourselves, actually an unhappy wife—draws the sword. The captive Caponsacchi recovers sufficiently to describe her ambush in mythic terms but from a hopeless remove:

Ah, but they all closed round her, twelve to one,
—The unmanly men, no woman-mother made,
Spawned somehow! Dead-white and disarmed she lay.


The heroic strain becomes increasingly theatrical and detached: Caponsacchi employs a familiar metaphor when he describes the exultant Guido “losing his fear, beginning to strut free / O' the stage of his exploit” (6.1568-69).

Guido, too, is neutralized at Castelnuovo; his swollen babble about wifely duty and titular prowess is reduced to nothing by his inability to enact the vengeance conventionally expected from one in his position. Corrigan notes that “according to the prevailing code of honor [Guido] should have killed at least his wife and if possible her lover too when he had come on them at Castelnuovo. Instead he had feebly summoned the constables and invoked the processes of the law as though he were a meek bourgeois rather than a noble” (p. xxxiv). He who had arrived with his sword in tow and his honor on his sleeve can only croak, “‘capture the culprits, friend!’” (6.1464). Like Caponsacchi, Guido is finally an observer of the scene rather than a participant in it. Guido retains the arrogance of the feudal tradition but none of its strength—a fine (and contemporary) example of Arnold's Barbarian.

So Caponsacchi fails as a cavalier, as a disciple of women; Guido as a feudal lord, a master of women. The Pope's lament that “the old heroism” has been rendered “impossible” (10.1849) sounds a keynote in the poem. The Ring and the Book alternatively affords us a shadowy glimpse of actors aping their elders and perhaps their betters as if through a dense fog. This fog—this disjunctive and suffusive atmosphere—is the unreconciled histories of cities and centuries never known and of absurd and pathetic men who mistake themselves for heroes and lords.


  1. Because the present argument questions (often tangentially) the presence of a stable “truth” in the poem, it is generally in sympathy with relativist readings of the poem. Debate on this issue began with Robert Langbaum's “The Ring and the Book: A Relativist Poem” (PMLA 71 [1956]: 131-154), reprinted in, and here cited from, Langbaum, The Poetry of Experience (New York, 1957), pp. 109-137. The present ascendancy of relativist readings is evident in the triad of articles in VP 27, nos. 3-4 (1989) by W. David Shaw (“Browning's Murder Mystery: The Ring and the Book and Modern Theory,” pp. 79-98); Vivienne J. Rundle (“‘Will you let them murder me?’: Guido and the Reader in The Ring and the Book,” pp. 99-114); and E. Warwick Slinn (“Language and Truth in The Ring and the Book,” pp. 115-133); Slinn summarizes the “truth” debate (pp. 129-130, note 2).

  2. Richard D. Altick and James F. Loucks II, focusing on alchemy rather than rhetoric, note that “although … Tertium Quid has elements of two other substances—the speakers preceding him—he is not a simple product derived from them but something quite different”; they do not find in his presence an intrinsic or a structural irony. See Browning's Roman Murder Story: A Reading ofThe Ring and the Book” (Chicago, 1968), pp. 44-46.

  3. Moncure D. Conway, in Atlantic Monthly 23 (1869): 256-259; reprinted in Browning: The Critical Heritage, ed. Boyd Litzinger and Donald Smalley (New York, 1970), pp. 312-313.

  4. Unmentioned by the Venetian, Giovanni Francesco Albani would succeed as Clement XI in 1700. Cf. W. David Shaw, who suggests, obliquely, that “the Venetian [is] … to be commended for seeking self-enlightenment,” and claims that “[he] degenerates into a dupe” (p. 87). Citations of The Ring and the Book, noted parenthetically, refer to Richard D. Altick's edition (New Haven, 1971).

  5. See Langbaum: “A routine bribe would unquestionably have obtained for Guido the scrap of paper necessary to leave Rome with horses” (p. 126); Langbaum is speaking of the Pope's reaction to Guido's failure, and believes (as I do not) that Guido is “wise to [Rome's] inside track” (p. 126).

  6. Much of Altick and Loucks' chapter “The Drama of Metaphor” (pp. 226-280) is concerned with myth-imagery; for the quotation, see p. 9, note 11.

  7. Introduction to Curious Annals: New Documents Relating to Browning's Roman Murder Story, ed. and trans. Beatrice Corrigan (Toronto, 1956), p. vii.

  8. Lacy Collison-Morley's Italy after the Renaissance (London, 1930) remains the only extensive study of the century; but see Eric Cochrane, Florence in the Forgotten Centuries: 1527-1800 (Chicago, 1971), and Dino Carpanetto and Guiseppe Ricuperati, Italy in the Age of Reason: 1685-1789 (London, 1987). The period 1630-85 is not yet covered by the Longman History of Italy; for DeSanctis, Croce, and the “buttress[ing]” of the animus against sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italian studies, see Julius Kirshner, Introduction to Italy 1530-1630, by Eric Cochrane, ed. Kirshner (London, 1988), pp. 1-2.

  9. The folly of inaction or frustrated action is evident in (for instance) Browning's Andrea del Sarto and his Bishop of St. Praxed's; cf. the obsessively active Childe Roland.

  10. For the rise and fall of swords among the Tuscan nobility, see Collison-Morley, p. 282.

  11. For Caponsacchi's musicianship, see also 3.844-845 and 6.330-332. In his chapter “A Stagnant Interval,” Ernest H. Wilkins discusses the stornelli in the seventeenth century: see A History of Italian Literature (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1954), p. 322. For the seventeenth-century eclipse of the lute by the guitar, see Willi Apel, The Harvard Dictionary of Music, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1972), p. 362; for “[the erosion] of the very concept of the madrigal as an independent genre” (ca. 1630), see The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (London, 1980), 11:474.

  12. See Collison-Morley, pp. 279-281; although Cochrane is more generous to post-Renaissance Florence, and has partially rehabilitated the long-vilified Grand Duke Cosimo III by comparing him to his contemporary governors (but not to his ancestors among the Medici), he nonetheless refers to late seventeenth-century Florence as a “purposeless age”: see Florence, pp. 272, 313.

  13. Sacchetti, actually a Florentine, is claimed by Guido as a “townsman” (5.560); that Guido makes the claim is the important point. Michelangelo, Aretine “at a pinch” (12.807), was born in Arezzo but raised in Florence.

  14. A contemporary reviewer noted that Pompilia “has something of Dante's Beatrice”: see R. W. Buchanan in The Athenaeum, March 20, 1869:, 399-400; reprinted in Litzinger and Smalley, pp. 317-321. Subsequent critics who have made or endorsed the connection of Pompilia to the donna angelicata type or to Beatrice herself include J. E. Shaw, “The ‘Donna Angelicata’ in The Ring and the Book,PMLA 41 (1926): 55-81; Langbaum (pp. 111, 125); Park Honan, “The Murder Poem for Elizabeth,” VP 6 (1968): 215-230; Henri A. Talon, “The Ring and the Book: Truth and Fiction in Character-painting,” VP 6 (1968): 353-365; Charles T. Phipps, “Browning's Canon Guiseppe Caponsacchi: Warrior-Priest, Dantean Lover, Critic of Society,” ELH 36 (1969): 696-718; Ann P. Brady, Pompilia: A Feminist Reading of Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book (Athens, Ohio, 1988; see p. 143, note 13); and William D. Brewer, “‘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,SBHC 16 (1988): 7-17; the later critics, except Langbaum and Honan, cite Shaw by name. The zeal for biographical criticism has prompted some astonishing results: “Dante and Browning had each parted with the object of his love and the source of his inspiration, but each had found her again in heaven” (J. E. Shaw, p. 71). William C. DeVane argues for the equation of Pompilia and Elizabeth Barrett and finds Browning in the chivalric Caponsacchi: see “The Virgin and the Dragon,” YR 37 (1947): 32-46, and A Browning Handbook, 2nd ed. (New York, 1955), p. 345.

  15. Aldo D. Scaglione, Nature and Love in the Late Middle Ages (Berkeley, 1963), p. 57. On their non-sexual relationship, see Caponsacchi in 6.1617-23 and Pompilia in 7.160-179; Isobel Armstrong's argument about the “ambiguousness” of Caponsacchi's “feelings” (specifically, sexual) toward Pompilia tends further to disqualify the disciple/donna angelicata model: see Armstrong, “A Note on the Conversion of Caponsacchi,” VP 6 (1968): 275. Roy E. Gridley argues that Pompilia creates the “cavalier” Caponsacchi in response to accusations that Caponsacchi is her lover; his argument implicitly reduces Pompilia's qualifications as a donna angelicata by presenting her as mutable rather than a source of ultimate stability: see “Browning's Pompilia,” JEGP 67 (1968): 64-83, particularly p. 79.

  16. Cf. J. E. Shaw: “Beatrice descended from heaven to hell to save her lover” (p. 73).

  17. Mary Richard Boo sees “profound resignation” in Caponsacchi after the death of Pompilia; Charles Edwin Nelson finds Caponsacchi “helpless at the end of his monologue”; Gridley has him mired in “self-reproach,” “despair,” and a “sense of loss”: see Boo, “The Ordeal of Giuseppe Caponsacchi,” VP 3 (1965): 188; Nelson, “Role Playing in The Ring and the Book,VP 4 (1966): 97; and Gridley, “Browning's Caponsacchi: ‘How the Priest Caponsacchi said his say,’” VP 6 (1968): 295.

  18. “Pompilia, will you let them murder me?” (11.2425). Pompilia imagines herself as the virgin mother Mary (e.g., 7.91-92, 7.1690-94, 7.1762-65); but Gridley's argument that Pompilia “speaks not to describe her life but to discover it” (“Pompilia,” p. 65) implicitly limits the truth-value of Pompilia's local observations on her own character and on the characters of others by presenting Pompilia as progressively evaluating or working through mythological roles of varying appropriateness.

  19. For the Provençal origins of the dolce stil nuovo, see Scaglione, pp. 56-57.

  20. See Armstrong, p. 276; and Gridley, “Caponsacchi,” p. 292. Supporters of the “donna angelicata theory” necessarily find Caponsacchi “heroic.” Phipps notes Caponsacchi's “religious and chivalric heroism” (p. 713), and would reconcile heroism and passivity: “[Caponsacchi's] reluctance to kill a man is understandable in terms of his priesthood” (p. 714; my emphasis). Non-ironic readings of the Caponsacchi/St. George “parallel” have been common at least since “The Virgin and the Dragon”: DeVane's contention that “we may know what to think of each speaker by the treatment he accords the [Perseus/St. George] myth” (p. 43) could be usefully extended to allow the possibility of an ironic distance between action (plot) and projection (characterization); DeVane is perhaps not sufficiently mindful of his own concessive aside that “Caponsacchi was only a partially effective Perseus or St. George” (p. 44).

Candace Ward (essay date spring 1996)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5713

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 discredited by his obvious villainy, it is easy to accept the Pope's view of Pompilia's “perfect whiteness” as Browning's own. But such an idealization of Pompilia—however far removed from Guido's description of her as a “nullity in female shape”—does not constitute a celebration of womanhood, as some critics believe.1 Instead it conforms to a perception of woman as man's “natural” moral superior, a perception that gained credence in the nineteenth century. Rather than accept these two views as strict opposites, then, I propose to analyze them as a site of struggle between certain overlapping ideologies, a struggle that supplies much of the tension in Browning's poem.

Some of this tension already underlies what Browning calls the “pure crude fact” of the seventeenth-century Roman murder case. Here the issue was not whether Guido Franceschini had murdered his wife and her parents, but “whether and when a Husband may kill his Adulterous Wife without incurring the ordinary penalty death.”2 Browning's source was originally compiled for a Florentine lawyer “interested in the case as a precedent on an important and much disputed point of law” (Hodell, p. x.) While this point of law, the honoris causa, or honorable cause, constitutes Guido's primary defense, it also reveals a particular view of femininity and marital relations.

According to Guido, marriage is strictly contractual exchange: his “good” and “old” name for Pompilia's person, the implied promise of an heir, and her dowry. Should the contract be violated and that violation go unpunished, the social structure might collapse, as Guido's complaint explicitly states:

Will the Court of its charity teach poor me
Anxious to learn, of any way i' the world,
Allowed by custom and convenience, save
This same which, taught from my youth up, I trod?
Take me along with you; where was the wrong step?
If what I gave in barter, style and state
And all that hangs to Franceschinihood,
Were worthless,—why, society goes to ground,
Its rules are idiot's-rambling. Honour of birth.—
If that thing has no value, cannot buy
Something with value of another sort,
You've no reward nor punishment to give
I' the giving or the taking honour; straight
Your social fabric, pinnacle to base,
Comes down a-clatter like a house of cards.(3)

Guido attempts to ally himself here with a patriarchal social structure where honor is all and marriage is economically motivated. Indeed, he is the by-product of the ideology of which such reasoning is part, the same that was taught him “from (his) youth up.” In Guido's world view, the husband has a “natural” right to protect his matrimonial investment. When Guido discovers he has been cheated in his marriage contract, he feels perfectly justified in punishing Pompilia. And when she eventually escapes from him, Guido pursues and eventually murders her, all on the pretext of preserving the social fabric.

Faced with the unanticipated consequences of this exercise of his rights, Guido feels victimized by changes within the social structure:

I see my grandsire's hoof-prints,—point the spot
Where he drew rein, slipped saddle, and stabbed knave
For daring throw gibe—much less, stone …
Because I play some prank my grandsire played,
… here I sprawl: where is the company? Gone!
A trot and a trample! only I lie trapped,
Writhe in a certain novel springe just set
By the good old Pope: I'm first prize. Warn me? Why?
Apprize me that the law o' the game is changed?
Enough that I'm a warning, as I writhe,
To all and each my fellows of the file,
And make law plain henceforward past mistake.


Given the ambiguous sentences passed in the earlier adultery proceedings against Pompilia and Caponsacchi, it does seem that Guido has a legitimate complaint against the judicial system. When he first brought charges of adultery against Pompilia and Caponsacchi, some eight months before the murder, the Roman courts took the “middle road,” placing Pompilia in a convent and relegating Caponsacchi to Civita. Guido then appealed to an Aretine court, which instead sentenced Pompilia to “imprisonment for life / I' the Stinche. There,” Guido gloats, “was Tuscany's award / To a wife that robs her husband” (5.1912-14). Though these ambiguities hardly justify Guido's subsequent actions, the adultery case was never resolved in the courts. Furthermore, until the Pope makes the final decision condemning Pompilia's murder in Book 10, Guido's actions and motives remain a subject for debate, as illustrated by the various arguments condemning or defending him in Books 2-4 and by the lawyers' arguments in Books 8 and 9.

Still, we see Guido as villain; in our eyes, he is cruel, no matter what background he springs from. Part of what makes Guido so fascinating, though, is the assurance with which he appeals to conventional seventeenth-century Rome.4 But even though seventeenth-century mores (repulsive by Victorian standards and our own) may inform Guido's arguments, they are nevertheless manipulated by Browning for the poem's purposes, and serve as a foil to the more palatable—but also historically determined—views expressed by the Pope.

As mentioned earlier, the differences between Guido's perception of his wife and that of the Pope appear irreconcilable. According to the Pope, Pompilia is “perfect in whiteness,” completely innocent of Guido's charges of adultery. Though Guido speaks twice on his own behalf in The Ring and the Book, thereby lending weight to his testimony, the Pope's single monologue tends to stand as the “true” portrayal of Pompilia. Further, as the most visible example of a benevolent and wise father figure, Innocent the Twelfth's motives remain largely unexamined, the soundness of his judgment unquestioned; even though his Church may be corrupt, the Pope is made to appear completely trustworthy. As the narrator's two frame monologues suggest, the Pope's voice is one of reason and wisdom—and this voice speaks enthusiastically of a Pompilia who happens to conform to conventional Victorian ideals of propriety, as shown by the Pope's encomium:

This I praise most in thee, where all I praise,
That having been obedient to the end
Dutiful to the foolish parents first,
Submissive next to the bad husband,—nay,
Tolerant of those meaner miserable
That did his hests, eked out the dole of pain,—
Thou, patient thus, couldst rise from law to law,
The old to the new, promoted at one cry
O' the trump of God to the new service, not
To longer bear, but henceforth fight, be found
Sublime in new impatience with the foe!
Endure man and obey God.


The Pope's testimony, filled with the same adjectives employed by nineteenth-century moralists and conduct-book authors, extols patience and submission as ideals of feminine virtue.5 For the Pope, Pompilia's purity and patience, then, secure her heavenly fortune.

But Pompilia alone does not reap the rewards of her virtue; others will also benefit from it. Kay Austen argues that Pompilia qualifies for sainthood, describing her as “the character who will save the soul … who indeed saves the souls of Caponsacchi and those about her bedside.”6 The Pope and Caponsacchi also believe in Pompilia's ability to save others. Indeed, because of it, Pompilia can “rise from law to law”—from the “old law” of Guido's conventionality to a “new,” higher law advocated by the Pope. Moreover, Pompilia's rise is directly attributable to her superior spirit.

Such a belief in the moral and spiritual superiority of women constitutes an advance over Guido's views. But it is also very much a part of a nineteenth-century reasoning that helped to justify, for example, the increasing domestication of women in a society demanding clearly marked and differentiated public and private spheres. This demarcation is reflected in the testimonies of both Caponsacchi and the Pope, “the mere old man o' the world” (10.392). They have seen so much of the world—despite their clerical callings—that Pompilia's virtue stands in sharp contrast to worldly evils; because they know the world, they know that Pompilia is too good for it. And when Caponsacchi claims to have been “blessed / By the revelation of Pompilia” (6.1865-66) and insists that it was she who led him to the “truth,” he sounds very like the nineteenth-century moralist, Peter Gaskell, who believed that a woman's natural piety could “exercise a most ennobling impression upon (man's) nature.”7

Both male and female moralists of the nineteenth century saw “innate” female moral superiority as a form of power. Moreover some of these moralists, such as Sarah Stickney Ellis, explicitly identified the public/private split as its source:

How often has man returned to his home with a mind confused by the many voices, which in the mart, the exchange, or the public assembly, have added themselves to his inborn selfishness, or his worldly pride; … he has stood corrected before the clear eye of woman, as it looked directly to the naked truth. … So potent may have become this secret influence, that he may have borne it about with him like a kind of second conscience. …

The long established customs of [Great Britain] have placed in [women's] hands the high and holy duty of cherishing and protecting the minor morals of life, from whence springs all that is elevated in purpose, and glorious in action. The sphere of their direct personal influence is central, and consequently small; but its extreme operations are as widely extended as the range of human feelings.8

Man, with his “inborn selfishness,” must turn to woman for moral guidance without which he will be lost. Though Ellis does not mention mothering in this particular passage, the confinement of woman's influence to the home and of her duties to nurturing and protecting all imply a conventionally maternal role. Moreover Ellis uses language that emphasizes a passive, generative power: although woman's influence is “secret” and secondary, her authority necessarily limited, her maternal/moral power is the source “from which springs all that is elevated in purpose, and glorious in action.”

One character, however, remains immune to Pompilia's “potent” though “secret” goodness: Guido.9 Guido's descriptions of Pompilia as chattel—property—throughout both of his speeches in Books 5 and 11 are not surprising given his role of seventeenth-century villain. More shocking, though, is his reaction to Pompilia's patience and humility. Unlike the Pope's or the above-cited nineteenth-century moralists' responses to female virtue, Guido's reactions indicate revulsion rather than reverence. From the beginning of their relationship, in fact, Guido has been repulsed by Pompilia's innocence, referring to her as a child “with milk for blood.” Moreover, her unenthusiastic response to his physical overtures insults him; thus, says Guido, “she begins with wronging me, / Who cannot but begin with hating her” (11.1031-32).

Once the two are married, Guido sees Pompilia's submissive behavior not as desirable, but offensive. He believes her martyrdom is “rehearsed,” an act of saintship that is “predetermined,” (i.e., premeditated), mere obedience to Violante's instructions to “endure” Guido. If Pompilia would only revolt, Guido could gain some compensation, for “Revolt's to quell.” But denied the pleasure of forcing Pompilia to submit to his will, Guido begins to see his wife as “a nullity in female shape” (11.1111)—without her generative power she is nothing. Pompilia's passive behavior becomes even more pronounced when Pietro and Violante leave Arezzo and abandon her to Guido. According to Guido this is simply a new tactic, devised by Pompilia solely to offend him—“The hare stands stock-still to enrage the hound!” (11.1332). Because she no longer has to protect her parents from Guido's cruelties, Pompilia appears to give up the struggle entirely, angering him even more. He refers to her passivity as a “new game of giving up the game,” a still-worse “offence of not offending more” (11.1341-42).” Moreover, he attributes such resignation to women's instinctive knowledge of how best to torment men.

In spite of their undeniable cruelty, Guido's remonstrations provide an ironic counterpoint to conventional readings of Pompilia's character. By the nineteenth-century standards of feminine behavior embedded in the Pope's and Pompilia's testimonies, Pompilia's behavior is admirable: she's patient, silent, acquiescent, obedient. Guido's testimony, however, undermines these standards; his perception of Pompilia as an “insipid harmless nullity” (11.1127) presents an unappealing side to her self-effacement and forces into view the dehumanizing effects of an exaggerated feminine moral superiority.

Guido's criticisms of Pompilia, though, are inconsistent, dependent on his own circumstances and the audience he is addressing. For example, though he calls his wife “a nullity in female shape” and accuses her of frigidity (“All women cannot give men love, forsooth!” [11.1422]), he also accuses Pompilia of adultery.10 Guido's contradictory reports of Pompilia's sexual appetites are the product of his desperation; his life, after all, depends on his testimony. More important, though, Guido's about-faces provide a more provocative—and problematic—view of women's sexuality than, say, the Pope's.11

For all their differences, however, the views of Pompilia held by both men focus on her body and require its effacement. Guido's belief in and desire for Pompilia's body culminates in the act of murder. Unable to possess her on the terms he dictates, he decides to annihilate her. Indeed, Guido focuses so intently on Pompilia's body that his vision blurs; with each stroke of his knife, he “fancies” that some of the twenty-two blows will strike Caponsacchi, that others will “find / A friend's face at the bottom of each wound, / And scratch its smirk a little!” (11.1238-40). Such violence contrasts sharply with the Pope's beatification of Pompilia, but both men relegate the physical reality of Pompilia's body to a symbolic level: Guido by overt oppression and physical violence, the Pope by an idealization of Pompilia's virtue that elevates her above, and therefore outside of, worldly concerns and that simultaneously erases her body.

Regardless of the Pope's denial of Pompilia's body, though, in one crucial instance it refuses to be denied: her pregnancy. Regina Barreca notes that sex and death are two undeniably physical acts, “more scientifically defined by the functions of the body than the spirit.”12 I would go further to add that the fact of pregnancy insists on physicality at all levels: conception, gestation, and childbirth. But like the denial of female sexuality and desire, the physical conditions of pregnancy in Victorian culture were often sanitized and euphemized, veiled behind a spiritual, poetic—and formulaic—discourse.

Such is the discourse that describes Pompilia's pregnancy and the birth of her son, Gaetano. According to the Pope, the “new service” to which Pompilia is called, and the “Change!” to which she herself attributes her desire to escape Guido, is nothing less than the instinct—the highly “maternal” instinct—to protect her unborn child. Whereas Pompilia had once desired only to sleep and thereby “get nearer death,” one morning she finds herself “summoned” to escape:

                                        Up I sprang alive,
Light in me, light without me, everywhere
Change! A broad yellow sun-beam was let fall
From heaven to earth,—…
My heart sang, “I too am to go away,
I too have something I must care about,
Carry away with me to Rome, to Rome!
The bird brings hither sticks and hairs and wool,
And nowhere else i' the world; …
I have my purpose and my motive too,
My march to Rome, like any bird or fly!
Had I been dead! How right to be alive!


Until this awareness of her pregnancy, Pompilia had been willing to endure the trials “God” ordained. She had resignedly accepted her situation, especially when she realized no one was going to help her—not her parents, the law, or the Church. But, when strengthened by a sacrificial love, Pompilia suddenly finds the wherewithal to act. Although she had not considered her own life worth fighting for, she is moved to resume the struggle for another.

The sanctification of feminine reproduction, and of the self-sacrificing behavior that accompanied it, informs Pompilia's and the Pope's testimonies and parallels the same phenomenon in much nineteenth-century literature. In 1833, for example, Peter Gaskell attributed maternal love to woman's native characteristics:

Love of helpless infancy—attention to its wants, its sufferings, and its unintentional happiness, seem to form the very wellspring of a woman's heart—fertilizing, softening, and enriching all her grosser passions and appetites. It is truly an instinct in the strictest acceptation of the word. A woman, if removed from all intercourse, all knowledge of her sex and its attributes, from the very hour of her birth, would, should she herself become a mother in the wilderness, lavish as much tenderness upon her babe, cherish it as fondly … sacrifice her personal comfort, with as much ardour, as much devotedness, as the most refined, fastidious and intellectual mother, placed in the very centre of civilized society.

(Quoted in Poovey, p. 7)

The emphasis on the “natural” fitness of Pompilia's feelings, the allusions to birds and flight in Browning's poem, reflect the attitudes of many nineteenth-century thinkers on the subject of motherhood. And even though the Pope believes the “prompting” to save herself and her child comes to Pompilia not from nature but from God, he, too, compares the phenomenon to an instinct that appears in brutes, birds, reptiles, and flies.

Sacrificing Pompilia's “grosser passions and appetite” to an ennobling, maternal instinct defuses the question of her sexuality; relegated to the role of sacrificing mother, Pompilia acquires a certain status. She seems to be aware of this, and despite the dramatic events of her short life, the only memory she hopes to leave is the fact “That [she] had been a mother of a son / Exactly two weeks” (7.13-14). Pompilia feels herself blessed by this fact, for “All women are not mothers” (l. 1683).

But there are other mothers—or, in Violante's case, women who claim to be mothers—in Browning's poem: Violante, the prostitute reported to be Pompilia's biological mother, and Guido's mother, Countess Beatrice Franceschini. However, of the four women, only Pompilia speaks. Why? Why are these others voiceless? It would seem that, as much as anything else, it is for a failure to conform to an ideal of subservient, self-sacrificing motherhood, an ideal that may be more permeated by nineteenth-century standards than seventeenth-century ones.

Violante, for example, though seen as a victim of Guido's malice, is usually considered a deserving victim. In each of the poem's twelve books, she is seen as the dominant partner in the Comparini family and it is at her instigation that Guido and Pompilia marry—without her husband's knowledge or consent. Regardless of her motives in making the match, Violante's actions initiate the tragedy. This, of course, explains why she is equated with Eve by Half-Rome (2. 253), and later described by Guido as “the hag … that brought hell / For a dowry with her to her husband's house, / She the mock-mother, she that made the match / And married me to perdition” (5.1649-52). Violante assumed a role that should have been her husband's.

But this is not her first sin. After the marriage, the Comparini discover that Guido's actual wealth is less than he reported. They retaliate by claiming that Pompilia was purchased from a prostitute and passed off as Violante's own child; the marriage should therefore be annulled and the dowry returned to them with Pompilia. This disclosure reveals that not only has Violante stepped out of her allotted role by marketing and selling Pompilia, she has also sold contraband goods—Pompilia is not her natural daughter. The best indication of how divergent this behavior is from a “proper” maternal response is revealed in Pompilia's defense of Violante:

Do let me speak for her you blame so much!
When Paul, my husband's brother …
Heard there was wealth for who should marry me,
So, came and made a speech to ask my hand
For Guido,—she, instead of piercing straight
Through the pretence to the ignoble truth,
Fancied she saw God's very finger point,
Designate just the time for planting me,
(The wild briar-slip she plucked to love and wear)
In soil where I could strike real root, and grow,
And get to be the thing I called myself:
I know she meant all good to me, all pain
To herself,—since how could it be aught but pain,
To give me up …
She meant well.


Here, Dennis Camp claims, “Pompilia is clearly reading her own feelings” into Violante's actions.13 As the ideal, “good” mother, she cannot believe that any woman could be motivated by such avarice, that Violante could “sell” her child into a bad marriage as easily as she bought Pompilia from her biological mother. And even if we doubt readings like Camp's, and are persuaded to believe that Pompilia's tone in this exoneration is ironic,14 her description of Violante's behavior is interwoven with a concern for the safety of her own child (7.280-350). The juxtaposition of the “good,” “natural” mother's responses with those of the “terrible” and “unnatural” mother effectively emphasizes the superiority of Pompilia over Violante, especially if we believe that Violante has experienced Guido's cruelty herself and still abandons her daughter to him.

And yet, just as Guido's disgust with Pompilia's passivity can help us see the historically determined quality of the Pope's views, Violante's selfishness also undercuts Pompilia's apparent altruism. If, as occurred in Guido's Rome and Browning's Britain, women were marketed in the marriage place, Violante's actions are quite logical—she's participating in the system. In the cultural milieu of both the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, however, such a co-optation of her husband's role is perceived as threatening rather than logical. But in the nineteenth century, with its idealization of motherhood, such actions were condemned as “unnatural.” Blame and responsibility were often allocated to women strictly in terms of their behavior as mothers, with the standard of behavior set by mothers like—Pompilia.

The common device of providing a foil for the good mother reflects how readily this ideal of the good mother was incorporated in Victorian literature, as evident in Browning's poem.15 In addition to Violante, the poem includes two other terrible mothers who serve as foils to Pompilia's good mother role. The first is Pompilia's biological mother, the woman who sells her child to Violante. Just as Pompilia excuses Violante, she also forgives this other mother. Once again, she seems to project her own characteristics onto another woman:

If she sold … what they call, sold, … me her child—
I shall believe she hoped in her poor heart
That I at least might try to be good and pure,
Begin to live untempted, not go doomed,
And done with ere once found in fault, as she.
May not you, seeming as you harmed me most,
Have meant to do most good—…
This it was for you sacrificed your babe?
Gained just this, giving your heart's hope away.


Of course, we do not doubt that Pompilia does “try” to be “good and pure,” and that the achieves this despite the brand her mother wore (as a fallen woman) and that she is called to wear by those who accuse her of adultery. Pompilia herself recognizes that people expect her to follow her biological mother's example, as does Guido, who plays on this cynical expectation to prove Pompilia's infidelity:

Would not you prophesy—“She on whose brow is stamped
The note of the imputation that we know,—
Rightly or wrongly mothered with a whore,—
Such an one, to disprove the frightful charge,
What will she but exaggerate chastity,
Err in excess of wifehood, as it were,”
So you expect. How did the devil decree?
Why, my lords, just the contrary of course!


Likewise, Guido's feigned concern for his son is based on popular notions of maternal influence:

My son …
Moulded into the image and made one,
Fashioned of soul as featured like in face,
First taught to laugh and lisp and stand and go
By that thief, poisoner and adulteress
I call Pompilia, he calls … sacred name,
Be unpronounced, be unpolluted here!


If Guido dies, he argues, Gaetano will be raised by an unfit mother, and his listeners are well aware of the possible effects of allowing terrible mothers to raise children.16

In fact, Guido himself provides a case in point, for he has been raised by just such a mother. Countess Beatrice Franceschini, described in Book 1 as “a grey mother with a monkey-mien” (l. 571), is harshly condemned by the Pope in Book 10 for producing Guido's “satyr-family.” According to the Pope, it is she even more than Violante who is responsible for the tragedy, for she gave birth to and raised Guido and his two brothers. She is

The gaunt grey nightmare …
The hag that gave these three abortions [Guido, Paolo, and Girolamo] birth,
Unmotherly mother and unwomanly
Woman, that near turns motherhood to shame,
Womanliness to loathing.


This indictment against Guido's mother seems unwarranted, particularly when the details of her behavior in the affair are so scanty. However, she does provide another mutation of the good mother; despite her aristocratic background and the opportunity to raise properly three sons, she abdicates those responsibilities. Instead of using her maternal influence to mold her sons into patriarchal ideals, she becomes one of the brutes, a “she-pard” who leaves her “whelps” to their brutish and unrefined masculinity.17

Despite the seemingly irreconcilable differences between “good” mothers and “bad” mothers in Browning's poem, all of these women share something. Each, by virtue of her femaleness, poses a threat to the social order: the fear of illegitimacy that grows out of any patriarchy's dependence on the female to “produce the sons who will become the patriarchs of the next generation.”18 In order to preserve the stability of the system, and to thwart the possibility of illegitimate offspring, women were encouraged to conform to certain models of virtue and propriety. This attempt to displace the fear of illegitimacy links the patriarchal systems of both the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries and, despite their overt differences, informs the values of Guido and the more “enlightened” values of Pompilia and the Pope. The question, then, of good mothers and bad mothers, like the question of feminine virtue, is central to the struggle of the ideologies within Browning's poem.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the portrayals of Pompilia and Violante. These two women are privy to a knowledge no one else has—not Guido, not the Pope, not Browning, and not the reader: the knowledge of their children's paternity. Despite Browning's attempts to establish Pompilia's credibility over Violante's, both women are accused of producing “illegitimate” children, and the “true” circumstances of both Pompilia's and her son's birth are never revealed. Browning's inability to eliminate this element of doubt produces the same tension that is cloaked by nineteenth-century attitudes toward women and motherhood, attitudes that Pompilia succumbs to in the end.

For Pompilia's death is in keeping with the same nineteenth-century sensibility that idealized “good” mothers and revered “virtuous” women. And though Browning himself does not create the violent circumstances of the murder, he does present Pompilia's death as spectacle. In contrast to Pompilia's sexuality, which cannot be admitted without calling into question her virtue, her death can be discussed, revelled in, and eroticized. As in many Victorian death scenes, Pompilia's appears to offer “the satisfaction of other-worldly recompense for an otherwise destitute and unthinkable existence” (Barreca, p. 2). And yet, the violence surrounding her death, which Browning can not alter given the facts of The Old Yellow Book, serves to point out just how inadequate such compensation is, especially when we understand that Pompilia receives this reward—the only one available to her, given her nineteenth-century revision—only by sacrificing everything else. Despite Browning's reconstructive efforts, the virtue that shrouds Pompilia's life and death only emphasizes the negation of her person. She, too, becomes one of the “unnatural” women. Not in the way the Pope or Guido defines “unnatural” but by becoming objectified and idealized, by losing her identity to the Victorian era's oftentimes fantastic representation of women.


  1. See, for example, Ann P. Brady, Pompilia: A Feminist Reading of Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1988). Brady points out Pompilia's (eventual) defiance of Guido, but she does not examine the motivation behind this action (i.e., her pregnancy), nor does she examine Browning's presentation of the other women in the poem.

  2. Charles W. Hodell, introduction, The Old Yellow Book (London: J. M. Dent, 1908), p. xix; emphasis added.

  3. Robert Browning, The Ring and the Book, ed. Richard D. Altick (London: Penguin, 1971), Bk. 5, ll. 431-445. Subsequent parenthetical references are to this edition.

  4. See Adam Potkay, “The Problem of Identity and the Grounds for Judgment in The Ring and the Book,VP 25 (1987): 143-157. Potkay explores Guido's appeal to conventionality in terms of reader-response criticism, noting that Guido's appeal “to conventionality per se brings to light the bedrock of equally conventional assumptions by which we judge him” (pp. 149-150).

  5. Of course, these characteristics were celebrated long before the nineteenth century and particularly in the eighteenth century, at the height of conduct-book writing. Written about one hundred years earlier than Browning's poem, for example, the prefatory essay to The Ladies Complete Pocket Book (1768) exhorts women to cultivate the same traits for the same reasons: “Whenever you aim at anything else than to be dutiful daughters, loving wives, tender mothers, prudent mistresses of families, faithful friends and pious christians you aim at somewhat that is quite out of nature and set aside the intention of heaven in making you rational creatures” (qtd. in Elizabeth Bergen Brophy, Women's Lives and the Eighteenth-Century British Novel [Tampa: Univ. of South Florida Press, 1991], p. 13; emphasis added). While Pompilia's defiance of Guido and her flight contradict some of the advice above, only the object of Pompilia's duty changes—the maternal overcomes the wifely. Moreover, Pompilia's actions bespeak an act of desperation and can hardly be considered an encouragement for women to leave their husbands or abandon their homes.

  6. Kay Austen, “Pompilia: ‘Saint and Martyr Both,’” VP 17 (1979): 295.

  7. Quoted in Mary Poovey, Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 8.

  8. Sarah Stickney Ellis, The Women of England: Their Social Duties and Habits (London, 1839), pp. 53-54.

  9. Although Guido cannot be “saved” by Pompilia, that does not necessarily detract from the power of her virtue. As John Ruskin observes about Shakespeare's female characters, they are “infallibly faithful and wise counselors—incorruptibly just and pure examples,—strong always to sanctify, even when they cannot save” (“Of Queen's Gardens,” Sesame and Lilies [1865; Repr. Philadelphia, 1894], p. 135).

  10. Browning's retelling of Pompilia's flight and the subsequent charges of adultery levelled against her echo the debates surrounding the Divorce Act of 1857. Under this act, adultery constituted the principal ground for divorce, but as Philippa Levine notes, instead of adding to women's rights, the act “enshrined the double sexual standard”:

    It shall be lawful for any Husband to present a Petition … praying that his Marriage may be dissolved, on the Ground that his Wife has since the Celebration thereof been guilty of Adultery; and it shall be lawful for any Wife to present a petition … praying that her Marriage be dissolved, on the Ground that since the Celebration thereof her Husband has been guilty of incestuous Adultery, or of Bigamy with Adultery, or of Rape, or of Sodomy, or Bestiality, or of Adultery coupled with … Cruelty … or of Adultery coupled with Desertion, without reasonable excuse, for Two Years or upwards.

    (Quoted in Victorian Feminism, 1850-1900 [Tallahassee: Florida State Univ. Press, 1987], p. 136; emphasis added.)

    A woman experiencing in 1857 what Pompilia suffered in seventeenth-century Arezzo would have had legal recourse. But Guido's simple charge of unaggravated adultery would have been as damning in 1857 as it was in 1697. While the British divorce legislation (which forced women to bear the onus of divorce proceedings) effectively contradicted popular notions of female moral superiority, it actually served as a reminder that the real concern for British lawmakers was not female virtue, but property. If, for example, women (i.e., wives) were morally superior to men, it would seem logical that the divorce courts would need to be thoroughly convinced of any charge of their misconduct. However, the mere suggestion of adultery on the wife's part was enough to threaten her already tenuous inheritance and property rights. As Levine observes, “A wife might not be permitted to own property, but she was, of course, the vital link in maintaining the family” (p. 136).

  11. For Guido's description of an ideal woman, see 11.2181-2225.

  12. Regina Bareca, Sex and Death in Victorian Literature (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1990), p. 2.

  13. Dennis Camp, “Browning's Pompilia and the Truth,” The Personalist 47(1966): 352.

  14. See William Walker, “Pompilia and Pompilia,” VP 22 (1984): 47-63.

  15. See Joan Manheimer, “Murderous Mothers: The Problem of Parenting in the Victorian Novel,” FSt 5 (1979): 530-545.

  16. Guido's concern for “his” son are doubly ironic, since his charges of adultery imply that Pompilia is pregnant by Caponsacchi.

  17. Of course, Guido's appeal to convention and the echo of his words in the Pope's condemnation of Countess Franceschini raise an important question: If terrible mothers have such an adverse effect on their children, why isn't Pompilia affected by her two terrible mothers?

    One possible explanation for these ironies may lie in the nineteenth-century consolidation of bourgeois power and the “relocation of the idea of virtue. Instead of being articulated upon inherited class position … virtue was increasingly articulated upon gender” (Poovey, p. 10). While this partially explains Pompilia's “immunity” to her mothers' influences, it doesn't account for Violante's or Pompilia's unnamed mother's lack of gender-derived virtue. Another explanation may be the flexibility of these fictional representations of women, created by Browning to suit the circumstances of his narrative. Hence Pompilia is virtuous because it is in her “female nature,” and her mothers are not virtuous because they have performed “unnatural,” “unwomanly” acts such as abandoning their children, assuming masculine roles, and leading impure lives; because they are “unnatural” women, they are punished by having their maternal influence revoked.

  18. Elizabeth Langland, “Patriarchal Ideology and Marginal Motherhood in Victorian Novels by Women,” SNNTS 19 (1987): 383.

Melissa Valiska Gregory (essay date winter 2000)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7893

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 Fiction (1987) that “the gender of representation is … bound … to the institution of the novel,” academic critics repeatedly position the novel as the most effective testing ground for hypotheses regarding Victorian culture and domesticity.1 This essay, by contrast, situates Victorian poetry, and Robert Browning's dramatic monologues in particular, within the analysis of domestic and sexual dynamics that has dominated literary and cultural criticism over the past two decades.

More specifically, I suggest that Browning's dramatic monologues shed new light on a domestic problem of considerable importance to the Victorian period: the psychology of sexual violence. I will argue that Browning's focus on sexual violence paradoxically lies at the heart of both the fierce public rejection of his early work and the suddenly enthusiastic and widespread approval of The Ring and the Book (1868-69), which, after its publication, was “praised to the far side of idolatry.”2 This abrupt reversal of critical opinion seems weirdly contradictory, given that the subject matter of The Ring and the Book shares the same transgressive resonances that Victorian readers repudiated in Browning's early work. A violent wife murder is, as Mary Ellis Gibson remarks, “hardly … within the conventional bounds of subject matter for a poem of epic proportions” (p. 74). Academic critics, however, have generally neglected to probe the competing Victorian responses to Browning's early and later representations of sexual violence. This oversight not only glosses over important nuances in Browning's formal treatment of the subject, it also obscures the larger implications of the important relation between Victorian representations of sexual conflict and poetic authority. The changing public response to Browning's work stems from a tangled convergence of Victorian literary and social concerns, as Browning questions both the fate of the lyric voice and the traditional power dynamics inherent in the Victorian domestic ideal. Browning at once intervenes in a Victorian debate about domestic violence (a debate which struck at the heart of nineteenth-century domestic ideology and heterosexual norms), and, moreover, implicitly argues that this cultural problem is best explored through poetic representation.

This project, which emulates Isobel Armstrong's efforts to relate “both formal and cultural problems, … to see these things as inseparable from one another,” first demands a brief and general consideration of literary representations of sexual violence in the Victorian period.3 Next, I will investigate the representations of domestic violence in Browning's early work, comparing it to representations of sexual conflict in novels and speculating as to why Victorian readers found it so profoundly unsettling. Finally, I will consider how The Ring and the Book's reconfiguration of the lyric voice as testimony accounts for its great public success.


Historical work on the subject of sexual violence within the Victorian home suggests that it was a relatively common feature of domestic life, and occurred within families from a wide range of economic and social positions.4 Marital conflict was so prevalent that “until the nineteenth century wife-beaters had been punishable on indictment only,” remarks Maeve Dogget, noting further that the punishment for spousal abuse was augmented only marginally in the 1853 Act for the Better Prevention and Punishment of Aggravated Assaults upon Women and Children.5 More generally, in the decades following the 1857 Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act, the Divorce Court proceedings reported in the daily papers effectively exposed the reality of marital violence with some regularity. Real-life accounts of domestic violence—such as Caroline Norton's public condemnation of her abusive husband—also gained national recognition.6 And John Stuart Mill's The Subjection of Women (1869) alludes not only to domestic abuse, noting that “there is never any want of women who complain of ill usage by their husbands,” but also to the infrequently addressed topic of marital rape.7 Mill's stark observation that a husband “can claim from her [his wife] and enforce the lowest degradation of a human being, that of being made the instrument of an animal function contrary to her inclinations” (p. 504), acknowledges the presence of severe violence even within the bourgeois Victorian home.

Despite its everyday presence in Victorian society, domestic violence resonated as a deeply transgressive act. Sexual violence within the domestic sphere profoundly violated the Victorian domestic ideal, a far-reaching and powerful set of social norms which positioned the home, and especially marriage, as a sanctuary from the violent pressures of an increasingly competitive and impersonal outside world.8 The middle-class family's ideological role as a virtuous counter to the traditional aristocratic vices of excess and profligacy refused to accommodate the possibility of violence in the home, no matter how common an historical reality.9 Hence domestic violence, especially as it was associated with sexual conflict, became a subject of nervous inquiry throughout the nineteenth century, as well as an important subject of literary representation. Some of Victorian literature's most viscerally memorable scenes, such as Nancy's murder in Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist (1838), feature domestic abuse.

Scenes of sexual violence in Victorian novels, however, tend to be brief. More importantly, they tend to avoid scrutinizing the psychological motives and effects of such violence. Representations of violence outside the domestic sphere generally portray it as clearly prompted by specific and external social factors; consider William Makepeace Thackeray's satiric treatment of the Napoleonic wars in Vanity Fair (1847-48), Thomas Carlyle's overwrought descriptions of the Terror in The French Revolution (1837), or the more poignantly described abortive violence of the displaced mill strikers in Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South (1855). While war, revolution, and class conflict are depicted as disturbing, these forms of violence are not portrayed as psychologically inexplicable or acutely transgressive. Depictions of domestic violence, by contrast, are. Representations of sexual conflict in novels show it to be particularly troubling and mysterious, a subject demanding delicate handling or oblique treatment, both of which forestall any deeper investigation into its psychological motivation. Indeed, scenes of domestic abuse frequently threaten to halt the plot altogether: witness the narrative rupture that occurs after Dempster's beating his wife in George Eliot's “Janet's Repentance” (1857). Even the prominent scrutiny of unhappy marriages so often featured in sensation novels, such as Caroline Clive's potboiler Paul Ferroll (1856) or Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Aurora Floyd (1863), generally and strikingly fail to explore the psychological aims and effects of sexual and domestic conflict with any real intensity.

Enter Browning. Acute depictions of sexual conflict within the domestic sphere—from the coarse physical brutality of Porphyria's lover to the carefully controlled aesthetic and sexual domination of Duke Ferrara—not only fundamentally shape the tone and character of Dramatic Lyrics (1842), Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845), Men and Women (1855), and Dramatis Personae (1864), but, of course, also structure Browning's longest and most important work, The Ring and the Book. Throughout his career, Browning persistently portrays the dynamics of the home as deeply painful for both men and women, and focuses especially on the various forms of masculine violence occurring in the struggle for sexual dominance between husbands and wives. His poetry explores the psychology of domestic strife with an unrelenting fierceness, luring his readers into intimate contact with speakers whose transgressive sexual fantasies and disruptive familial behavior profoundly violated nineteenth-century domestic norms and immensely troubled his contemporaries.

I will suggest that the generic logic of Browning's dramatic poems—the very form of the dramatic monologue itself—not only allows for a sustained examination of the psychology of domestic violence unavailable in other mid-century genres, but actually leads Browning to engage the disquieting and outlandish (for the period) subject of domestic conflict in the first place. The literary concerns of the monologue lure Browning and his readers to the theme of sexual brutality and intimate violence, giving a voice to the inner secrets of sexual dominance.


Beginning with S. S. Curry's 1908 monograph, academic critics have repeatedly explored the strategies by which Browning attempts to reassert the cultural preeminence of the increasingly jeopardized lyric voice.10 New genres—the novel and the theater—threatened to usurp poetry's once dominant position in nineteenth-century society, and Browning, like so many other Victorian poets, struggled to prove the lyric voice capable of confronting modern social problems. “From the beginning, Browning … raised the question of whether poetry was marginal to its culture,” remarks Gibson.11

In his effort to avoid the social isolation of the traditional lyric voice, Browning thus created, in the dramatic monologue, a version of poetic lyricism dependent on an awareness of both the socio-historical and rhetorical dimensions of human identity.12 “In these historical poems,” says Robert Langbaum, “the extraordinary moral position and the extraordinary emotion become historical phenomena.”13 Or, as Armstrong observes more economically, in Browning, “psychological states are rooted in history” (p. 146). Browning's dramatic monologues inherently bridge or create a generic slippage between the social setting of the novel and the subjective utterance of the Romantic lyric, featuring speakers who firmly locate themselves historically and rhetorically. The power—indeed, the very existence—of Browning's speakers originates in their ability to manipulate an audience and craft rhetorical transactions.

Hence Browning's dramatic speakers demand attention. Expressing themselves with a rhetorical violence that, as Armstrong suggests, “spurts in the language of even the most subdued of Browning's poems” with “deranged intensity” (p. 289), they force upon their readers a wide array of intimate obsessions, fantasies, and pathologies. The Bishop's self-absorbed preoccupation with his tomb; the monk's crazy fixation on his fellow brother; the inability of the speaker of “Garden Fancies” (1845) to throw away an old book: all express an obsessive energy which repeatedly foregrounds the aesthetic challenge inherent in finding an audience for the lyric voice in mid-Victorian society. Even the hostile landscape of “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” (1855), a surreal world in which “nothing thr[ives]” (l. 56), commands a rhetorical force.14

Browning thus harnesses rhetorical violence to his lyric project from the outset, as he repeatedly creates speakers who are less concerned with truth than they are with “trying to impress it on the outside world” (Langbaum, p. 146). The urgent need to find an audience for the poetic voice manifests itself in Browning's graphic images of speech as a grossly physical struggle. Gismond forces Gauthier to tell the truth by literally hacking it out of him, “Cleaving till out the truth he clove” (“Count Gismond” [1842] l. 96). Confession results in extreme torture and death in “The Confessional” (1845). Even the good news “which alone could save Aix from her fate” (l. 46) exacts a physical price, when, out of the three messengers who leave, two horses die en route and the third barely finishes the journey “With his nostrils like pits full of blood to the brim, / And with circles of red for his eye-sockets' rim” (ll. 47-48). The relation between these broken and battered bodies and the rhetorical violence with which they are portrayed suggests the desperation inherent in Browning's attempts to reclaim lyric authority, as the very act of self-expression exacts a physical toll. As Dorothy Mermin observes, Browning, more than any other poet, “considers the exercise of imaginative power as a form of covert aggression.”15

What Langbaum, Mermin, and others have not considered is how Browning's efforts at augmenting the power of the lyric voice through rhetorically violent, demanding speakers leads him directly to an exploration of domestic violence and sexual domination that lasts throughout his career. The rhetorical dynamics of his monologues, which metaphorically force themselves on their readers, parallel the dynamics of sexual violence. Sexual conflict is, of course, largely about domination, and Browning's sustained preoccupation with how to force readers to listen to his highly personal lyric outpourings echoes the structures of one of the most intimate forms of violence. In short, Browning's monologues create a dynamic of forced intimacy.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that those poems which focus on domestic conflict are both the most visceral and the most famous of Browning's oeuvre, with “My Last Duchess” (1842) leading the race and “Porphyria's Lover” (1842) coming in a close second. Not only did Browning's fascination with sexual violence resonate in the Victorian social scene, a culture in which the power dynamics of married life were fiercely scrutinized and debated, but also, in so many of his dramatic monologues, sexual violence becomes a particularly extreme version of the longing to dominate and to define oneself through domination. Hence those monologues which prominently feature wrecked or destroyed domesticity (the psychic counterpart to Childe Roland's hostile landscape) highlight the relation between social authority, rhetorical violence, and sexual conflict: “See a word, how it severeth! / Oh, power of life and death / In the tongue” (ll. 89-91), exclaims the speaker of “A Lover's Quarrel” (1855).

Of those many early monologues which conjoin lyric violence with acts of domestic abuse, especially resonant are Browning's expressions of masculine failure within the domestic sphere. The painful loss of traditional patriarchal power portrayed in “Andrea del Sarto” (1855) surfaces persistently, as do representations of violently brutal masculine sexual authority which fall well outside the boundaries of conventional male and domestic power. Porphyria's lover is just one voice among a crowd of male speakers who, in relating to their readers literal or imagined violence toward the women they believe have failed them, unite rhetorical violence and sexual cruelty. In his explorations of the pleasures inherent in domestic and sexual domination, Browning effectively transforms the occasional allusions to domestic abuse that crop up in Victorian novels—Mr. Dombey's momentary fantasy in Dickens' Dombey and Son (1846-48), for example, of “beating all trace of beauty out of [Edith's] triumphant face with his bare hand”—into a poetic form in which imagined violence bears the same visceral impact as the real thing.16 The fantasized murders of “The Laboratory” (1845)—“[A] mere lozenge [of poison] to give, / And Pauline should have just thirty minutes to live! / But to light a pastille, and Elise, with her head / And her breast and her arms and her hands, should drop dead!” (ll. 21-24)—possess a rhetorical force equal to the literal murder described in “Porphyria's Lover.”

Browning's lyric project leads him, then, into a sustained examination of sexual violence. Although occasionally love survives in the ruins, as in the lead poem of Men and Women, that the expression of love even requires ruins at all illustrates the close relationship between domestic intimacy, violence, and rhetorical power structuring so much of Browning's work. And, unlike the happier outcome of “Love among the Ruins,” most of Browning's domestic relationships dissolve into the obsessive, distorted outpourings featured in “Love in a Life” and “Life in a Love” (1855), or the shipwrecked marriage of “James Lee's Wife” (1864). This work suggests that achieving social authority for the lyric voice is, at best, extremely difficult. At worst, as Browning's rhetorically disintegrating speakers imply, it is impossible.

Browning's highly transgressive explorations of domestic brutality agitated his Victorian readers, who felt violated at having been lured into contact with sexually transgressive speakers who rejected bourgeois norms of domestic behavior. While J. Skelton wryly observed that Browning “is not the poet to be perused with profit in the nursery or in a railway-carriage,”17 other, more overtly hostile reviews attacked him for being “really insane” or “perverse.”18 The English Review declared Browning's preoccupation with murderers his most “serious” error as a poet: “We know that there are enthusiastic Churchmen and earnest Christians who applaud the murderous deed of Tell and warmly sympathize with, if they do not sanctify the memory of, Charlotte Corday. We do not belong to this class of thinkers: in our eyes, murder is always murder.”19

But in a culture in which the reading public repeatedly clamored for Dickens' performances of the violent death of Nancy, what, exactly, proved so troubling about Browning's subject matter?20 What upset Victorian readers about Browning's sexually transgressive, violent voices is not so much that they violate bourgeois norms (though that was indeed troubling), but that they draw heavily on the claim for sympathetic identification traditionally demanded by the Romantic lyric speaker. As Langbaum notes, the dramatic monologue requires a certain degree of reader identification no matter how perverse or abnormal the speaker, for the “willingness of the reader to understand the duke, even to sympathize with him as a necessary condition of reading the poem, is the key to the poem's form” (p. 85). Ultimately, the monologue's truth, Langbaum continues, will emerge from the reader's vacillation between “sympathy and moral judgment” (p. 85)—a movement between understanding and repulsion, empathy and distance, or what Tucker describes as a “balancing act” (in his reading of “A Toccatta of Galuppi's” [1855]).21 Browning's readers, in other words, are unable to find truth in his monologues simply by identifying with the speaker's experiences.

If, for Browning, truth is much more than an issue of sympathetic identification, then it is no surprise that his use of domestic violence as a vehicle for solving and strengthening the lyric voice hit a cultural nerve. In a society preoccupied with the constant reevaluation of domestic norms, Browning's demand that his readers identify with the morally monstrous “I” of his early lyric voice, and, moreover, that they sympathize with speakers whose actions pose a threat to conventional domesticity and whose pleasures and satisfactions violate accepted norms of domestic behavior, was identified as the ultimate “perversity.”22

Hence critics resentfully and repeatedly attacked not only Browning's content, but, more specifically, criticized his rhetorical technique. Margaret Oliphant rather generously described Browning's style as “rugged,” but David Masson and others complained that his monologues featured “strokes of the hard imagination where we expect nothing but unconscious melody and cadence.”23 The Eclectic Review ominously warned against “a sensual trait about his writings which will bring him one day a bitterness” (BCH, p. 113), and, by the same token, an Athenaeum reviewer disappointedly asked of Men and Women:

Why one who can pour out his thoughts, fancies, stores of learning, and emotions, with an eloquent and direct sincerity such as this, should, so often as Mr. Browning has here done, prefer to rhyme the pleadings of a casuist, or the arguments of a critic, or the ponderous discoursings of some obsolete schoolman … is an enigma. … The riches and the ability are there, but the employment and the expression of them seem to us, on the whole, more perverse, personal, and incomplete.

(BCH, p. 157)

Perhaps most economical was Eliot's claim that although “we admire [Browning's] power, we are not subdued by it.”24

The widespread critical agitation at the prospect of being “subdued” by Browning's rhetoric points to a specific cultural anxiety about the power of his dominating lyric speakers to force their readers to identify with deeply transgressive sexuality, an identification prominently absent in the descriptions of marital conflict in other literary genres. Eliot's own “Janet's Repentance,” for instance, also features a husband who, in his coarse physical abuse of Janet, echoes the masculine brutality displayed by Porphyria's lover. But while Porphyria's lover forces his confession upon his unsuspecting reader, Eliot's third-person descriptions of Dempster's violence render it relatively oblique, not to mention decidedly unsympathetic. Occurring only at night under the cover of darkness, Dempster's abuse registers as no more than “a hideous blank of something unremembered, something that must have made that dark bruise on [Janet's] shoulder.”25 Janet's own descriptions of her beatings are marked by uncharacteristic pauses and gaps, signified by ellipses: “But he began to be angry with me for little things and … I don't want to accuse him … but he drank and got more and more unkind to me, and then very cruel, and then he beat me” (p. 356).

Eliot further erects a formidable barrier around the most explicit moment of violence in the story by describing it through the eyes of a fictional witness:

There was a portrait of Janet's mother, a grey-haired, dark-eyed old woman, in a neatly fluted cap, hanging over the mantelpiece. Surely the aged eyes take on a look of anguish as they see Janet—not trembling, no! it would be better if she trembled—standing stupidly unmoved in her great beauty, while the heavy arm is lifted to strike her. The blow falls—another—and another. Surely the mother hears that cry—‘O Robert! pity! pity!’

(p. 285)

This portrayal, filtered through the consciousness of an imaginary onlooker, mediates, contextualizes, and ultimately frames Dempster's brutality, cushioning the shocking violence that might otherwise stop the narrative dead in its tracks (and even then it occurs at the end of a chapter, providing a respite). If there is any specific point of identification established for Eliot's reader, it is the shadowy self of Janet's own mother, which conveys a vague sense of parental horror.

Eliot's evident reluctance to explore the psychological subtleties of Dempster's violent behavior exemplifies the treatment of domestic violence in Victorian novels, suggesting that readers resisted close contact with the unsettling motives behind domestic transgression. Dickens' blow-by-blow description of Nancy's murder, for instance, achieves a certain visceral intensity but also refuses to grant the violence the idiosyncratic individualism evident in Browning's speakers. Nancy's sudden lapse into anonymity as Dickens abruptly stops using her name—referring to her only as “the girl”—in the moments leading up to her death, is ultimately comforting, as the traumatic murder of a specific character metamorphoses into a more familiar Victorian narrative of the prostitute reaching her inevitable demise.26 As Amanda Anderson and others have pointed out, the tonal shift into generic language—and thus the shift into wholly familiar narrative territory—suggests that this has been the only possible outcome for Nancy all along.27 This rhetorical strategy, teetering precariously on the edge of pure objectification, effectively prevents readers from participating in the specific psychology of either murderer or victim. The scene's popularity with the Victorian public thus stems from its familiarity, its very rejection of the intimate contact with violence so prevalent in Browning's murderous or sexually transgressive speakers.

Compare further Dempster's dying string of vitriol in “Janet's Repentance” to the violent fantasizing in Browning's “A Pretty Woman” (1855). When excerpted, Dempster's last words to Janet sound remarkably like those of Browning's speaker: Dempster's threat to “hunt you down like a hare … I'll make a fire under you, and smoke off the whole pack of you … I'll sweep you up … I'll grind you to powder … small powder” (p. 381) parallels Browning's “Shall we burn it up, tread that face at once / Into tinder, / And so hinder / Sparks from kindling all the place at once? / Or else kiss away one's soul on her?” (ll. 53-57). Browning's monologue provides an uninterrupted connection between his audience and a sexually transgressive speaker for whom violence and love yield similar satisfactions, whereas Eliot's story firmly checks the reader's sympathies. Lying on his deathbed, surrounded by members of the community who judge him, Dempster's impotent final threats do not permit the reader identification invited by Browning's rhetorically aggressive speaker.

The contrast between novelistic representations of domestic violence and Browning's poems thus helps to account for the persistent critical complaint that Browning's intense, first-person outpourings were invasive, abnormal, and immoral. As G. Brimley suggested, it was not so much that Browning chose to examine vice and violence (though his subject matter certainly remained a problem for other critics), but, more importantly, that he failed “to solve the moral problems” and questions that he raised.28 As far as reviewers were concerned, the lyric “I” of Browning's early work withheld an appropriately overt moral perspective. With what proved a profoundly disturbing rhetorical intensity, Browning's monologues lured their readers into intimate contact with sexual corruption and then left them there, trapped within the monologue's form.


The fear that readers would be corrupted—or at least profoundly unsettled—by their contact with Browning's transgressive speakers also surfaced in the reviews of The Ring and the Book, though not nearly to the same degree. Some critics raised the issue more obliquely, evident in their proclaimed relief at Browning's decision to publish the poem in installments. Not having to read The Ring and the Book all at once, suggested a Spectator reviewer, prevented the disturbing subject matter from overwhelming its audience:

We may well suppose that [Browning] wishes it to be read, and studied, and conceived in instalments; … Four small volumes about a tragedy so rich in picture and passion as this do not strike us as too much for any one. … A public that has once tasted will not be satisfied to desist till it has drunk off all it can get of the draught, and this little volume is certainly in itself by no means alarming, offering as it does two separate pauses to the reader, and rising in fascination as it travels round each separate wind of the spiral in which the narrative mounts upwards towards a complete view of the tragedy on which it is based.29

Such comments reveal the anxiety that the intense darkness of Browning's raw material would prove disturbing, “alarm[ing],” or, even worse, completely overpowering. Browning's investigation of sexual violence in The Ring and the Book threatened to be just as troubling as that of his earlier work.

But aside from a few isolated objections that the poem's subject matter was “low and mean, … vice pure, unadulterated, and unrelieved,” the critical response to The Ring and the Book abruptly contrasts with the reviews of Browning's earlier monologues.30 Despite its thematic similarities to “Porphyria's Lover” or “My Last Duchess,” Victorian reviewers generally greeted the poem with effusive praise. The Ring and the Book “as a whole, contains perhaps more of Mr. Browning's brilliant intellectual flashes of many-coloured light than almost any of his hitherto published works,” enthused the Spectator (BCH, p. 291), while another deemed it “deeply, intensely, human.”31 R. W. Buchanan went so far as to compare Browning to “a messenger from heaven, sent to teach the highest of all lessons to rashly-judging men.”32 Given both the poem's subject matter and its self-proclaimed emphasis on the lyric force of rhetorical testimony—the very same rhetorical force to which critics previously objected—its enthusiastic reception, which decidedly clashes with the reception of Browning's earlier work, creates a striking dissonance not adequately attended to by literary scholars. If The Ring and the Book's subject matter continued to unsettle Browning's Victorian readers, what explains the public praise of the poem?

I suggest that the surprising shift in Browning's public reception depends upon the poem's courtroom setting, and the resulting transformation of rhetorical lyricism into testimony. On the one hand, Browning's conversion of the dramatic monologues into courtroom testimony intensifies his rhetorical force, but on the other hand, the idea of testimony also accommodates the overtly moral perspective readers found lacking in Browning's earlier work. Browning's trial model, in which lyric utterance functions as legal declaration, inherently contains an ethical invitation to judge his speakers; hence poetic lyricism demands a social response extending beyond reader identification. When poetry is not only pure self-expression but testimony, it moves away from a concern with the “private or meditative intimacy of the sole self” (Tucker, Browning's Beginnings, p. 150) and toward a view of the self as integrally connected to communal norms. As Alexander Welsh observes, The Ring and the Book “elevates testimony over managed circumstantial evidence,” suggesting that rhetorical utterance is the most important dimension of social authority.33

In other words, The Ring and the Book's courtroom dynamic brings together the concerns of the lyric and the social as never before. If identity is an ongoing rhetorical transaction, then a trial becomes not only a test of the specific moral and legal valence of one's acts, but also the ultimate test of one's very existence. Guido's claim to rhetorical authority becomes his claim to social authority. His two monologues encourage readers not only to weigh his actions, but also to judge Guido himself: his status as a husband and, consequently, a particular set of expectations about marriage and power. The rhetorical force of The Ring and the Book thus bears an important ethical framework noticeably more muted in Browning's previous work. When Browning casts lyric expression as testimony, he augments the social authority of his lyric voice without raising the troubling specter of reader identification which haunted his early monologues. Thus, Victorian readers affirmed Browning's representations of transgressive sexual violence knowing that they were meant to judge it—unlike their resistance to the disconcerting reader identification invited by “Porphyria's Lover” or “The Laboratory.” The Ring and the Book effectively puts domestic violence—its motivation, its reasons, its justification—on trial.

Hence the most vivid, rhetorically aggressive passages within the monologues of The Ring and the Book invite scrutiny rather than submission. When read as testimony, the visceral intensity of Guido's violent rhetoric demands an ethical judgment. Take, for instance, Guido's sudden, disruptive lapse into a startling echo of Porphyria's lover in his second monologue, a lapse at once extraordinarily similar to yet importantly different from Browning's earlier representations of sexual violence. Beginning to unravel, Guido digresses into an obsessive and violent recollection of Pompilia's hair:

The long black hair was wound now in a wisp,—
Then, she lay there, mine:
Now, mine she is if I please wring her neck,—
A moment of disquiet, working eyes,
Protruding tongue, a long sigh, then no more—
As if one killed the horse one could not ride!
Had I enjoined ‘Cut off the hair!’—why, snap
The scissors, and at once a yard or so
Had fluttered in black serpents to the floor:
But till I did enjoin it, how she combs,
Uncurls and draws out to the complete length,
Plaits, places the insulting rope on head
To be an eyesore past dishevelment!


Despite the resemblance to “Porphyria's Lover” in both tone and theme, Guido's violent fantasizing fundamentally contrasts with the expression of transgressive sexual violence in that poem because its role as testimony invites the judgment and subsequent rejection of such violence. Guido's lyric violence engages—rather than retreats from—the larger social world.

Throughout The Ring and the Book, the rhetorical force of lyric violence demands a social response: consideration and likely condemnation. In rewriting the rhetorically violent, self-absorbed expressions of Porphyria's lover or Duke Ferrara as testimony, Browning creates a subtle shift in the imaginative force of his lyric rhetoric, situating his speakers' efforts to “subdue” their audiences within a larger social context. The courtroom dynamic of The Ring and the Book allowed Victorian readers to experience and appreciate the poem's rhetorical intensity without the disturbing fear that they would be sympathetically swept away by its darker elements.

Even more importantly, in inviting his readers to condemn Guido and his transgressive sexual and domestic brutality, Browning also moves toward a version of rhetorical force which suggests alternative subject matter—other than sexual violence—for authorizing the lyric voice. If sexual domination is, in Browning's earlier monologues, a particularly extreme version of the longing to define oneself, then the version of rhetorical energy manifested in Pompilia's monologue suggests Browning's interest in exploring modes of achieving lyric self-expression without dominating his readers. Though Pompilia is a victim of sexual violence, she defines her rhetorical authority by withholding her victim testimony and directing her rhetorical force toward more productive themes, a rhetorical distinction between her monologue and Guido's that was appreciated by Browning's contemporaries but has generally disappointed modern academic critics.

Instead of writing Pompilia's testimony as a chronicle of the individual wrongs against her, Browning fills her monologue with metaphors and ellipses, blank spaces, and oblique references where the reader must imagine violence rather than (as in so much of Browning's early work) experience its painfully intimate details. Pompilia's marriage is a “blank” (7.574, 594); she is the lamb to Guido's wolf, the ox to his butcher, the wild briar bud caught on the wild beast. She even converts marital rape into an absence:

Remember I was barely twelve years old—
A child at marriage: I was let alone
For weeks, I told you, lived my child-life still
Even at Arezzo, when I woke and found
First … but I need not think of that again—
Over and ended!


Pompilia's indirect descriptions of her abusive marriage lead up to her most telling omission, the gap between “The night and the tap” (6.1695) and Guido's attempt to murder her. Her refusal to narrate the worst act of violence against her thwarts the traditional role of courtroom plaintiff, and points to Browning's investigation into modes of achieving lyric self-expression without forcing violence upon his audience.

Indeed, in Pompilia's monologue Browning rewrites the act of rhetorical domination as an expression of rhetorical energy, the full lyric force of which surfaces in those passages involving her pregnancy:

                                                                                                    Up I sprang alive,
Light in me, light without me, everywhere
Change! A broad yellow sun-beam was let fall
From heaven to earth,—a sudden drawbridge lay,
Along which marched a myriad merry motes,
On the house-eaves, a dripping shag of weed
Shook diamonds on each dull grey lattice-square,
As first one, then another bird leapt by,
And light was off, and lo was back again,
Always with one voice,—where are two such joys?
The blessed building-sparrow! I stepped forth,
Stood on the terrace,—o'er the roofs, such sky!
My heart sang, ‘I too am to go away,
I too have something I must care about,
Carry away with me to Rome, to Rome!’


Resembling the productive rhetorical energy of “Fra Lippo Lippi” (1855), Pompilia's monologue thus achieves lyric and social authority by imagining language as a creative force. She reworks the pain of her marriage along the imaginative framework Elaine Scarry describes as the productive expression occurring when “the wholly passive and acute suffering of physical pain becomes the self-regulated and modest suffering of work.”34 In Pompilia's monologue, Browning thus portrays the violence of the lyric voice as creative energy, achieving a rhetorical intensity that hinges on production rather than destruction.

Pompilia's maternal, feminine rhetoric deeply appealed to Victorian reviewers, who heralded her monologue as exhibiting a “changeful and moon-like beauty” and “heavenly purity and glamour” (Buchanan, BCH, p. 318). Pompilia, claimed Buchanan, “fearlessly lay[s] bare the strangest secrecies of matrimonial life, and with so perfect an unconsciousness, so delicate a purity, that these passages are among the sweetest in the poem. … So subtle is the spell she has upon us, that we quite forget the horrible pain of her story” (BCH, p. 319). Contemporary academic readers will undoubtedly note in Buchanan's overwrought rhapsodizing the presence of a troubling desire to deny the ugliness of marital conflict; his eagerness to “forget the horrible pain” inflicted upon wives betrays a larger, patriarchal investment in affirming a passive, relatively silent role for the suffering woman in the domestic sphere. But Buchanan's attention to Pompilia's rejection of her role as plaintiff also intimates Browning's underlying artistic project, a project in which he rewrites lyric domination as a restorative, less-coercive form of rhetorical energy.

Browning's efforts to explore alternative techniques for registering lyric force in Pompilia's monologue have been oversimplified by modern academic readers, who, in their efforts to avoid the Victorian, patriarchal admiration of feminine purity celebrated by Buchanan, have largely assumed that Pompilia's lack of rhetorical aggression reveals a rather uncomplicated investment on Browning's part in reaffirming the basic logic of Victorian patriarchy.35 Clearly yearning for a version of the modern Lyotardian plaintiff, who “has incurred damages and who disposes of the means to prove it,” critics from the past several decades have repeatedly fretted about Browning's vexed portrayal of Pompilia's rhetorical and social agency.36 Hence much recent work on The Ring and the Book either attacks Pompilia's passivity or performs critical acrobatics to rescue her from wilting-flower syndrome. “Like Guido and the lawyers, Pompilia has well-defined motives for speaking, she can be ironic and sarcastic, and she is conscious of addressing an audience,” declares William Walker in a 1984 Victorian Poetry article.37 “To insist on Pompilia's agency,” follows Susan Brown some twelve years later in the same journal, “is to redefine agency not as a fixed category but as the product of particular social and linguistic parameters—in this case, paradoxically, the construction of woman through the discourse of female passivity” (p. 30).

Though these somewhat laborious attempts to emphasize Pompilia's agency effectively highlight questions of gender and power within Victorian cultural constructions of heterosexuality and domesticity, they also obscure Browning's emerging preoccupation with the productive dynamics of lyric authority. In Pompilia's monologue, Browning strives for a lyric power (and hence a social authority) which stands outside the hermeneutics of domination and submission so common to his early work. If the Duke of Ferrara exemplifies a speaker whose violent rhetorical aggression is permanently enmeshed within his own acts of sexual violence, Pompilia, by contrast, represents the achievement of self-definition through a creative energy, a lyric power which seduces rather than coerces the reader. Her full voice appears in the representation of her pregnancy, and in directing the force of her lyric energy toward her body in its most productive form, Pompilia rejects Guido's violent rhetorical tactics.

Browning thus uses Pompilia to suggest alternative lyric strategies to the dynamic of forced intimacy created by his earlier poems (and, indeed, attempted in both of Guido's monologues). If lyric representation is the ultimate test of one's existence, Pompilia secures her social authority by refusing the distorted, obsessive, transgressive rhetoric of Browning's most culturally suspect and rhetorically aggressive speakers, productively harnessing and externalizing her internal physical pain.38 The theme of sexual transgression thus takes on new forms in The Ring and the Book, as Browning not only continues the exploration of the relation between sexual domination and lyric power, but also probes the limitations of sexual violence as adequate material for stabilizing social authority.

As a work which conjoins an investigation of domestic transgression with the search for lyric authority, The Ring and the Book offers a sustained exploration of sexual violence which rivals the representation of cultural dynamics in those middle-class novels we have come to think of as the ultimate portrayals of Victorian domestic life. Browning's version of cultural and rhetorical testimony serves as one of Victorian poetry's most culturally visible claims to social authority, as he creates a world in which rhetorical expression not only becomes the sole evidence of the self, but also the only determinant of a verdict.


Some of the richest and most provocative Victorian poetry occurs at the nexus between domestic conflict and lyric imagination, as poets, groping for a new use for lyricism in the modern age, increasingly treat sexual violence as an issue of representation, imagination, and psychology. What is Matthew Arnold's “Dover Beach” (1867) if not a meditation on violent lyric energy linked to sexual conflict? Or the poetry of George Meredith or Algernon Charles Swinburne, laced with lyric metaphors of poison and decay which amplify the slow misery of domestic dissolution? From the wife's sobs “like little gaping snakes, / Dreadfully venomous” (1.5-6) in the bedroom of Meredith's Modern Love (1862), to “the little snakes that eat at my heart” (ll. 112) in Swinburne's “The Triumph of Time” (1866), mid-century Victorian poets repeatedly use the lyric form to register sexual violence and domestic destruction. Their use of intense lyric language rivals the novel's claim to the representation of domestic psychology. The sexual anguish and violence in Modern Love—“he went mad, / And raged deep inward” (2.8-9)—follows the prominent staging of domestic violence in Browning's monologues as a means of achieving new insights into both domesticity and poetry.

Hence the sexual violence of modern domestic life, a problem so often alluded to in theater and novels but scrutinized only superficially, lent itself to the struggle of Victorian poetry, as Victorian poets discovered that poetic forms permitted a greater attention to—and expression of—the inner psychology of sexual transgression. But it was Browning who most successfully folded the theme of violent heterosexuality into the project of Victorian poetry, suggesting that the plight of the lyric voice mirrored the desperate violence of sexual domination. Further investigation into the relation between Browning's representation of rhetorical violence and sexual violence enriches both our historical understanding of the predicament of Victorian poetry, and, moreover, highlights a psychological dimension of Victorian domestic life sometimes obscured by other literary genres and lines of modern historical research.


  1. Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), p. 49. That is not to say that issues of domesticity and gender in poetry have been completely ignored. Indeed, over the past two decades, literary scholars have increasingly attended to Browning's poetry as a means of achieving a broader understanding of the intersection between Victorian cultural problems and Victorian literary history, especially in terms of gender. The number of recent essays devoted to The Ring and the Book's Pompilia, for example, provides ample evidence of literary approaches which focus on Browning's awareness of gender and domesticity as important social preoccupations. These essays often aim to illustrate “the active participation of [poetic] texts in historical debate and social change” (Susan Brown, “Pompilia: The Woman (in) Question,” VP 34 [1996]: 31). For two important studies of gender, Browning, and Victorian culture, see Nina Auerbach, “Robert Browning's Last Word,” VP 22 (1984): 161-173, and Mary Ellis Gibson, “The Criminal Body in Victorian Britain: The Case of The Ring and the Book,BIS 18 (1990): 73-93.

  2. Richard D. Altick and James F. Loucks, II, Browning's Roman Murder Story: A Reading of “The Ring and the Book” (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1968), p. 1.

  3. Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 11.

  4. See James A. Hammerton, Cruelty and Companionship: Conflict in Nineteenth-Century Married Life (New York: Routledge, 1992); Lawrence Stone, Broken Lives: Separation and Divorce in England, 1660-1857 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993).

  5. Maeve E. Dogget, Marriage, Wife-Beating and the Law in Victorian England (Columbia: Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1993), pp. 106-107.

  6. See Elaine Hadley, Melodramatic Tactics: Theatricalized Dissent in the English Marketplace, 1880-1885 (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1995); Mary Poovey, Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988).

  7. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and Other Essays, ed. John Gray (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1991), p. 485.

  8. See Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987).

  9. See Catherine Hall, “The Early Formation of Victorian Domestic Ideology,” in Fit Work for Women, ed. Sandra Burman (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979), pp. 15-32.

  10. S. S. Curry, Browning and the Dramatic Monologue: Nature and Interpretation of an Overlooked Form of Literature (Boston: Expression Company, 1908).

  11. Mary Ellis Gibson, “Introduction,” Critical Essays on Robert Browning, ed. Mary Ellis Gibson (New York: G. K. Hall and Co., 1992), p. 3.

  12. See Herbert Tucker, “Dramatic Monologue and the Overhearing of Lyric,” in Critical Essays, ed. Gibson, p. 33. Tucker observes that although most literary scholars agree that Tennyson actually published the first dramatic monologues, Browning truly refined the genre. “One good reason why the dramatic monologue is associated with Browning's name rather than Tennyson's, who technically got to it first,” remarks Tucker, “is that in Browning the lyrical flight from narrative, temporality, and identity appears through a characteristic, and characterizing, resistance to its allure” (p. 24).

  13. Robert Langbaum, The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition (New York: Random House, 1957), p. 96.

  14. All quotations from Browning's poetry are from Robert Browning: The Poems, ed. John Pettigrew and Thomas J. Collins, 2 vols. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1981) and The Ring and the Book, ed. Richard D. Altick (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1990).

  15. Dorothy Mermin, The Audience in the Poem: Five Victorian Poets (New Brunswick: Rugters Univ. Press, 1983), p. 49.

  16. Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (London: Penguin Books, 1985), p. 756.

  17. J. Skelton, “Robert Browning,” Fraser's Magazine (February 1863): 240-256, in Browning: The Critical Heritage, ed. Boyd Litzinger and Donald Smalley (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970), p. 207. All quotations from nineteenth-century reviews of Browning's work are from Litzinger and Smalley and are cited as BCH.

  18. Review of Bells and Pomegranates [B&P], Eclectic Review (April 1846): 421-426, in BCH, p. 113; review of Men and Women [M&W], Athenaeum (November 17, 1855): 1327-28, in BCH, p. 157.

  19. Review of B&P, English Review (June 1846): 354-386, in BCH, p. 126.

  20. See Fred Kaplan, Dickens: A Biography (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1988), p. 532.

  21. Herbert F. Tucker, Browning's Beginnings: The Art of Disclosure (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1980), p. 191.

  22. Review of M&W, Spectator (December 22, 1855): 1346-47, in BCH, p. 163.

  23. Margaret Oliphant, review of M&W, Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (February 1856): 135-137, in BCH, p. 188; David Masson, review of M&W, British Quarterly Review (January 1856): 151-180, in BCH, p. 180. This is a version of what a Dublin University Magazine reviewer identified as “rough wild etching” (review of M&W [June 1856]: 667-681, BCH, p. 189). He further remarked that he would prefer “more delicate pencilling, without losing bold reality” (p. 189).

  24. George Eliot, review of M&W, Westminster Review (January 1856): 290-296, in BCH, p. 177.

  25. George Eliot, Scenes of Clerical Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), p. 333.

  26. Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist (London: Penguin Books, 1966), p. 421.

  27. Amanda Anderson, Tainted Souls and Painted Faces; The Rhetoric of Fallenness in Victorian Culture (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1993). “Nancy's latent purity,” remarks Anderson along these lines, “is proven by the fact that she knows she cannot be saved” (p. 90).

  28. G. Brimley [with T.C.C.], review of M&W, Fraser's Magazine (January 1856): 105-116, in BCH, p. 168.

  29. Review of The Ring and the Book [R&B], Spectator (December 12, 1868): 1464-1466, in BCH, p. 288, emphasis added.

  30. Review of R&B, Saturday Review (December 26, 1868): 832-834, in BCH, p. 298.

  31. Richelieu [pseud.], review of R&B, Vanity Fair (November 28, 1868): 46-47, in BCH, p. 285.

  32. R. W. Buchanan, review of R&B, Athenaeum (March 20, 1869): 399-400, in BCH, p. 296. That is not to say that Victorian critics natively demanded of Browning an unsophisticated didacticism. Indeed, Moncure D. Conway commended Browning for avoiding “moral monotony” (review of R&B, Atlantic Monthly [February 1869]: 256-259, in BCH, p. 313). Both Frederick Greenwood and Walter Bagehot remarked on the poem's moral subtlety: Greenwood, for instance, observed that only the poem's most delicate aesthetic nuances revealed Browning's moral perspective—”It is noticeable … that we have a generally better workmanship when the poet speaks for those who are on the right side than when he speaks for those who are in the wrong” (review of R&B, Cornhill Magazine [February 1869]: 249-256, in BCH, p. 313)—while Bagehot praised Browning for refusing “to take sides” (review of R&B, Tinsley's Magazine [January 1869]: 665-674, in BCH, p. 306).

  33. Alexander Welsh, Strong Representations: Narrative and Circumstantial Evidence in England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1992), p. 206.

  34. Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1985), p. 171.

  35. Auerbach, for instance, argues that Browning kills his female speakers as a substitution for the aggression he bears his wife.

  36. Jean-François Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele, eds. Wlad Godzich and Jochen Schulte-Sasse, Theory and History of Literature 46 (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1988), p. 8.

  37. William Walker, “Pompilia and Pompilia,” VP 22 (1984): 47.

  38. See Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain.

Norman Friedman (essay date May 2000)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5630

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 Saved?”;2 so I will begin by dealing with his view of the matter.


Langbaum sees The Ring and the Book as a “relativist poem,” but what he means by that term is not entirely clear. Normally, it refers either to a position which says that, although there is objective truth, there is no one way of formulating it that is more true than any of the others, or to the belief that there is no single objective truth to begin with. The first refers to approaches to truth, while the second refers to the question of truth itself.3 It seems to me that Langbaum does not take sufficient care to observe this distinction.

On the one hand, he says that no one of the characters can be taken as speaking the truth of the poem, and that therefore we must induce its truth from a serious consideration of what each one says from his or her own particular point of view. The ambiguity here is that, although the characters may differ, the reader may induce the truth for himself. Thus there is an overall interpretation which is not relative in the first sense at all, and it is based on an aesthetic rather than an epistemological distinction, an observation about how Browning decided to present his theme rather than about the theme itself.4

On the other hand, Langbaum concedes that Browning's meaning is determinate but claims that it is “relativist,” nevertheless, in the sense that it privileges passionate spontaneity over the logic of official morality: we must judge what is being said in terms of who is saying it and what his or her motives are—not by fact and reasoning but by talent, intuition, insight, and character. There “can be sufficient difference among the points of view to make repetition interesting and important as a psychological fact.”5 Thus we have moved from epistemology and aesthetics to psychology: “What we arrive at in the end is not the truth, but truth as the worthiest characters of the poem see it.”6

We might point out that there is a serious begging of the question going on here, as he seems to be bypassing the problem of just how we are going to judge which are the “worthiest characters” without some notion of the truth to begin with. Further, if we should object that Browning himself, or his poetic persona, speaks directly and at length in the first and last Books of the poem, Langbaum replies that this is an aesthetic flaw in the work, which is rather a too convenient way of disposing of a fact not consistent with one's theory.

Further, his argument hinges precariously on the either/or fallacy. He poses the question thus: “whether the poem is relativist, whether its moral judgments are to be understood as conditioned by the people who make them and the historical period in which they are made; or whether the poem is absolutist in that it renews and reinforces the received Christian concepts of good and evil.”7 But what he actually seems to mean by “relativist” is simply that the poem—as indeed any poem—must be read in context, and he minimizes the plausible alternative position that Browning was both convinced of his truth and yet at the same time aimed to have us realize it for ourselves. Browning is surely the most conspicuous beneficiary of Keats's famous sayings about negative capability and truth not being truth until it is tested on our pulses.

It is not necessarily the case, then, either that Browning believed “moral judgments are … conditioned by the people who make them and their historical period,” or that he held “the received Christian concepts of good and evil.”8 There is indeed a third possibility: he believed in a set of moral principles that was his own but that was not, in his view, historically conditioned. Langbaum's point about history is especially difficult to grasp since it is generally agreed that Browning's judgments are more characteristic of the Victorian era than the seventeenth century—and especially that the Pope's judgments themselves come from Browning rather than the Vatican.

We might indicate the flavor of Browning's principles by recalling—and here we can only agree with Langbaum—that he favored passionate action as opposed to endless hesitation, but that his notion of passionate action, although it could supersede mere legalities when they have become empty and formal, was not without some legitimizing principle, because of his belief in the truth of the human heart. Thus Andrea del Sarto and the couple in “The Statue and the Bust,” for example, are condemned for not realizing their full natures, while Fra Lippo Lippi and Rabbi Ben Ezra are admired for their whole-hearted commitment to life.

Just as Browning favors Pompilia and Caponsacchi for daring to escape from evil, so too does he ask us to engage in the poem's many-sidedness so that we may live through it for ourselves. And it is generally acknowledged, of course, that this story is another re-telling of Browning's own rescue of Elizabeth Barrett from her domestic prison, thereby reinforcing by personal example the principle of passionate action flowing from the truth of the human heart.

The whole point about Guido, on the other hand, is that he hesitated, and that therefore when he finally decided to act, he did so in a destructive way, going to the other extreme and becoming mad. The tragic result, then, was not only the murders but also the emergence within himself, as he says, of his wolfish nature. And by “hesitated,” I refer not only to the murders but also to his prior years of service at the Vatican, waiting in vain for advancement. What we are dealing with here, as I shall spell out later in this paper, is the tragedy of a divided psyche: he discovers his repressed self, but it is too late to integrate it. Guido, we recall, regrets that his act fell short of “perfection,” claiming that it could just as well have succeeded, whereas Browning, as we know, glories in accepting imperfection as a sign of one's commitment to growth. Thus he portrays Guido as being caught up in his own polarities, with no middle ground between perfection and imperfection, wolf and sheep.

My own view of the poem's overall artistic form and purpose, therefore, is as follows. The organizing principle of the whole is to arouse our sympathy and admiration for Pompilia who, although young and inexperienced, and surrounded by conniving and self-seeking adults, somehow manages to emerge as morally triumphant over those adults, even on her very deathbed. Thus it is her purity, innocence, humility, and bravery which redeem in our eyes the otherwise painful spectacle of a virtuous person suffering undeserved misfortune. She accepts her fate and forgives those who have wronged her. And the underlying motive is, as we have seen, to eulogize the recently departed Elizabeth.

It is interesting if not essential to check this hypothesis against the voluminous source material, much of which Browning studied, and some of which was discovered later. It is artistically necessary that Guido, Pompilia's antagonist, be made evil so as to bring out her goodness; and indeed, as the records show, the poet made him much more of a villain than he actually was. To be sure, Browning also made Pompilia—and Caponsacchi as well—more virtuous than they actually were. Thus his claim that he was merely sticking to the facts cannot be taken very seriously; what he probably meant was that he tried to recreate the historical milieu as accurately as possible, but even here, as we have seen and others have pointed out,9 the theology and psychology are Browning's own and of his own time. It is much more appropriate to praise Browning for his enormous creativity rather than for his ostensible historical accuracy.


Let us proceed now to an outline and analysis of Guido's two monologues. Book V, as has been noted,10 is more coherent and organized than Book XI. In Book V, Guido is pleading his case before the Court and is therefore presenting himself in what he hopes is a sympathetic and convincing manner, while in the latter, he has already been condemned to death and is awaiting his execution, and is therefore mortally desperate—terrified and defiant by turns.

Book V falls naturally into five sections. In the first, he puts the case in the context of his life story so as to show his motives in a favorable light and excuse himself from responsibility. His family name and fortune were in decline because of his father's neglect. What Guido did grew out of his aristocratic background: it was how he was raised, and this taught him that it was permitted to take advantage of—or even kill—people of the lower classes. In searching out a career for himself, he did not want to go into the military, so he sought a career in the Church as a minor official in Rome. But, since he never was really advanced, he returned after thirty years to his family estate in Arezzo.

In the second section he explains that all that was left for him was to marry and raise a family. Thus he set about to look for a bride, and he claims that it was not unusual in that milieu for an older man to marry a young girl. His explaining his actions in this way, according to external standards and necessities rather than personal choices and responsibility, is his basic defense strategy, and I believe that it works in two directions: rhetorically, it represents his attempt to align himself with his judges and so be exempted from culpability; and psychologically, it embodies his pathology, as we shall see, as one who sees his problems as coming from outside himself rather than from within.

He continues rationalizing: if her parents didn't get what they bargained for—that is, the sparkle of the aristocratic lifestyle—neither did he—that is, a wealthy and obedient wife. Besides, everyone really knew what the common procedure was: they only lied a little to each other, as is customary in these matters. If they were disappointed in his lifestyle, he was disappointed in their daughter. He was supposed to get compliance, but she was put off by his age and appearance. The apparent symmetry of his argument here is illusory, however, as he doesn't acknowledge the fairness of their shortchanging him in the same way that he lays claim to the fairness of his shortchanging them. In other words, it is all right for them to be disappointed, but not for him. But if they should have known what was going on, why shouldn't he?

The third section shows her parents leaving his household and criticizing him in public. Then, if any one thing could be said to have precipitated the ensuing tragedy, it is their unforgivably stupid and spiteful act in the hope of reclaiming the dowry, of telling it abroad that Pompilia was illegitimate. This leaves Pompilia, of course, in a completely untenable position, as they have now abandoned her to Guido's devices; and so she naturally seeks outside aid and, when that fails, she tries to escape. She would not have done so, claims Guido, had he been stricter with her; even after he intercepted her, he should have been harsher, and no one would have blamed him. He claims that her subsequent punishment and his reward under the law were not truly just, but at least he could have gone home then and lived in peace.

But it was not to be, and the fourth section shows how he heard she had given birth to a son, and, suspecting that Caponsacchi was the father, he went off in a rage back to Rome. The Christmas holidays gave him pause but failed to cool him down. Nevertheless, he might not have harmed anyone had not Violante been the one who came to the door, for she was the one he hated most of all. This drove him over the edge, and he went berserk. Thus the attack was not a premeditated act, which may make it legally less culpable, but morally and psychologically it is more, for it is another way Guido has of avoiding responsibility.

Finally, he concludes in the fifth section by appealing directly to his judges. Where did he go wrong? The previous judges had ruled in his favor, why not these? Having been given a favorable judgment only made things worse! Let's get back to those good old values: wasn't he the agent of punishment for the Comparinis' sin?

As we can see, most of his defense rests upon his portrayal of himself as having been double-crossed by the very values he believed in and lived by, first in his career, then in his marriage. It is this crack in the system, this disparity between what he was led to expect and what actually happened, that destroyed him. He has been, in sum, unable to adapt to changing circumstances and can only yearn for a return to the old ways: This inability to learn and grow—prime values in Browning's own moral system—made him approach dealing with people of the middle class as if they shared his own aristocratic values, so it is no wonder that they were speaking at cross-purposes. He is a dinosaur who had outlived his own epoch; even his knowing, “old boy” winks and nods at his judges are catastrophically miscalculated, for these worthies cannot really be expected to agree that self-advancement justifies murdering those who get in one's way. Furthermore, it is not coincidental that the action takes place during the last days of the seventeenth century, at the end of the Church's uncontested rise to power, and on the brink of the historical emergence of the middle class.


We come now to Book XI. Guido is talking in his cell before the dawn of his execution to the Cardinal Acciaiouli and Abate Panciatichi, who have come to hear his confession. He is therefore in a much more desperate situation, and he behaves accordingly—as already noted, terrified and defiant by turns. This monologue, then, rather than following any coherent logical, rhetorical, or narrative line, heaves and tosses in the ebb and flow of his desperation. On the one hand, he still wants to defend himself and be rescued from Mannaia; and, on the other, he needs to pour out his hatred, bitterness, and cynicism on all concerned, including his two auditors. In the process, he reveals his true nature and thereby produces the ultimate justification for Pompilia's virtue and innocence: there can be no particle of doubt, if there ever was any, that she did what she absolutely had to do.

Thus the argument that Browning went too far in devoting two full books to his villain can be answered by pointing out that it is artistically necessary to portray this change in Guido, as it parallels and counterpoints the opposite changes in Pompilia and Caponsacchi, the former maturing and becoming saint-like under duress, the latter growing in character and stature as he rises to meet the challenge of his destiny. Indeed, it is precisely these changes which Browning added to his original materials, as we have seen. The original documents portray Guido as being much less villainous and Pompilia and Caponsacchi as not quite so superhumanly saint-like. It is therefore these changes which most clearly reveal Browning's artistic purpose.

Surely the growth of character under duress is one of Browning's favorite themes not unlike Hemingway's formula of grace under pressure. These two otherwise very diverse writers share a common obsession with the existential moment of crisis, choice, and daring to shape one's destiny in the face of adversity. Clearly, however, Hemingway had a much less sanguine feeling about the results than Browning, much less faith in ultimate meaning—although Browning does, in this poem, point out how hazardous it all is for us mortals here on earth.

I do not believe, though, as is commonly said, that Guido has been hiding his true self in Book V and finally revealing it in the face of death in XI.11 If that were the case, it would be more plausible to say that Browning went too far in devoting so much space to his villain. It seems to me, however, that Guido is discovering something about himself in the shadow of Mannaia, and therefore that he is changing from the previous Guido. As suggested above, his growth parallels and counterpoints the growth in Pompilia and Caponsacchi. This does not lead me to conclude with Langbaum, however, that he is on his way to salvation; it leads me, on the contrary, to conclude that he is in the process of coming into contact with his rageful and hostile self.

Guido is a tragic figure precisely because he has discovered something about himself when it is too late to do anything about it—too late because he has murdered three people, and because he is about to pay the final price. It is just this mismatch between Discovery and Fortune which creates the tragic effect, with the notable exception that in this case the tragic figure's hubris is not counterbalanced by any nobility of character—a parody of which is found in Guido's boasting about his animal nature and existential freedom. But he is at bottom a snivelling and spiteful wreck of a human being, and the key to his character is his usual habit of avoiding responsibility by claiming that he is merely a product of his circumstances, which is exactly the opposite of the true tragic hero's acceptance of the horror of what he has done.

The point, though, is that The Ring and the Book is not organized around Guido as the tragic hero; it is, as implied above, an Admiration Plot, with Pompilia and Caponsacchi as the chief protagonists. Guido's misfortune is that it is not only too late to avoid the tragic deed, it is also too soon for him to be able to acknowledge his tragic error. Far from becoming repentant, he becomes stuck in self-justification, and his cry to Pompilia at the end is mere cringing in the face of his death.12 He does not appeal to her to forgive him, thereby acknowledging his culpability; he begs her, on the contrary, to save his life.

Let us look a bit closer, on the other hand, at Guido's self-discovery and self-analysis. He sees his newfound appetite for truth as unmanly, making him, ironically, like Pompilia. The irony is, as I understand it, that she was not content to pretend that she liked him, never mind love him, so why should he keep on pretending now. No longer does he see himself, as in his previous arguments, as having been left behind in the march of history away from the supposed aristocratic values; rather, he views himself as seeing the realistic truth beneath the thin veneer of Christianity, the truly operative values being utilitarian, pragmatic, and expedient—everything that Browning himself deplored. These values, it would seem, are not historically conditioned, and so Guido feels he has reached his bedrock.

He calls himself a pagan, then, claiming that what actually motivates people is self-interest, pleasure and pain, and survival. Then he turns this argument into a justification for his case: he cannot be expected to know more than his experience tells him, and if you go against the law of impulse and pleasure, you are naturally going to get this violent reaction. If he has been a sheep, he has now become the wolf. It is not simply that Pompilia did not live up to expectations, it is more that her very being rubbed him the wrong way. Which reminds us of the natural hatred Satan felt for Adam and Eve in Milton's Paradise Lost—the repugnance Evil feels for Good. He then explains to his would-be confessors that the question does not depend upon whether he is telling the truth or not; what matters is that it seems true to him—and it is ironic also that Langbaum's relativism and perspectivism are put into the mouth of Browning's most despicable villain.


We turn now to my psychiatric diagnosis of this character. I am arguing that, if he is not a different Guido in Book XI, he has at least gone through a significant major change. And it is not simply that the veneer has been stripped off; I believe that he has moved from one level of being to another and come into contact with a part of himself that he has hitherto repressed.13 His presentation of self in Book V is not merely a calculated piece of theater. To be sure, that is part of it, and of course he does openly draw attention to his own rhetorical stratagems, as if to disarm his judges by his “frankness.” But this very maneuver itself is part and parcel of his character rather that anything he has conscious control over, and therefore it is a symptom of the personality disorder from which he is suffering. He is compelled, in other words, to behave this way.

Let me now define briefly the three major diagnostic categories in order to clarify my meaning here. The personality disorders come in between the neuroses and the psychoses. The neuroses are emotional disorders which cause more inner unease than outer disturbance: a neurotic person, that is, is generally able to function fairly well in the world, although he or she characteristically doesn't feel fulfilled, comfortable, or content. The psychoses, on the other hand, seriously interfere with a person's functioning in the world and are marked by specific impairments in thought and feeling. The personality disorders resemble the neuroses, in that the person's functioning is in some ways relatively intact; but they also resemble the psychoses, in that there are serious deficits in thought and feeling, with the result that functioning becomes—if not impaired—at least constricted, fixated, and stereotypical.

An additional feature of the personality disorders is that the person's observing ego—objective sense, sense of perspective, self-awareness—is undeveloped, and therefore that the person is not aware that anything is wrong with her or him; he or she feels, on the contrary, that other people are to blame for one's personal troubles, or that the world is not what it used to be, and so on. This defensive externalization can be broken in on, if it all, either by skillful, careful, and long-term psychotherapy, and/or by some sort of severe external crisis which seriously damages the customary defenses. The former is called “working through,” while the latter is “acting out.”

When either or both of these things happen, there is a palpable danger of a violent eruption of the feelings which the personality disorder was originally constructed to defend against—feelings of unworthiness, rage, terror, and abandonment. The person is, in fact, in danger of going crazy and descending to the level of psychosis, which represents the next available level of defense. It is, of course, eminently preferable that this descent take place within the protective environment of psychotherapy, so that the proper safeguard and supports are available. But that would certainly make it difficult to create tragic drama—which is, in the end, however, something which the audience experiences within the protection of an artistic frame, the protagonist's acting out becoming the audience's working through.

Guido did in fact go mad, as he himself tells it, when he saw Violante come to the door, and it brought him in some pathological way to a feeling of calm after the killing. It is not uncommon, if one has let go of one's practical, careful side, to feel an excess—however short-lived—of energy and relief, as a result of lifting the repression and contacting the wild, aggressive side. But as Guido speaks to his confessors in Book XI, he has come back somewhat to a borderline state between personality disorder and psychosis, and he is as much trying to integrate the elements of his new experience as seeking to free himself from the threat of Mannaia. He is thus in a very fluid and unstable state.

If we were to attempt a psychiatric diagnosis, the first symptom which would come into view, as we look back over Guido's own account of his history, is an obsessive-compulsive disorder, in that he has difficulty in settling on a career, and that when he does, he waits for thirty years of frustration before deciding to chuck it. In this, he may remind us of T. S. Eliot's “The Hollow Men,” one of the most memorable literary depictions of this sort of disorder—and also of that Victorian precursor, Arthur Hugh Clough's Amours de Voyage. This disorder is characterized by an abnormal difficulty in making decisions, accompanied by a need to keep going over the same ground again and again.

Accompanying this symptom is another which Helene Deutsch termed the “as-if” personality disorder,14 wherein the person, in the absence of a real sense of self, will take in and emulate some admired person's self—but without really integrating it, and with a propensity to shift selves arbitrarily as the wind blows. Anna Freud noticed that, while this may be a healthy feature of adolescent development, in adults it is dysfunctional.15 And Guido, as we have noticed, has this propensity for externalizing his self-image by constantly appealing to what he was taught and led to believe, as a justification for his destructive behavior. He seems unaware of the healthy adult ability to judge for oneself and to internalize one's standards.

We do not get a very detailed picture of the origins of these disorders in his childhood experience, but we do get three basic pieces of information: first, that his father let slide the family fortunes; second, that he is responsible for the care of his aging mother; and third, that he has felt burdened by the need to maintain and restore that shaky sense of aristocratic power and privilege. It is thus reasonable to hypothesize that the obsessive-compulsive disorder represents a too-early attempt to take on a burden too large for him to handle, the need to do, re-do, and over-do arising from the lack of fit between the task and the doer.

We might also hypothesize a more Freudian interpretation by showing that an obsessive-compulsive disorder could arise from a lack of resolution of the oedipal conflict, in that he had an ineffectual father with whom to identify and a too-dependent mother to separate from, thus creating the need for an excessively brittle defensive structure against the incest-wish. This interpretation could also throw light upon his sadistic treatment of his young bride, intimacy with whom may have been too much of a threat to this defensive structure. It could also account for the strength of his hatred of Violante, the very sight of whom drove him into a murderous rage, thereby releasing his suppressed anger toward his mother and giving him a momentary sense of release.

Accompanying these symptoms, not surprisingly, is a narcissistic personality disorder, where the person feels an exaggerated sense of entitlement as a reaction against a too-severe feeling of deprivation. Narcissism, as it is commonly understood, refers more to the entitlement than to the deprivation, but it is important to realize that its psychodynamic basis is in the latter. Thus such a person cannot really take responsibility for any harm his actions may cause, for fear of arousing the anxiety of unworthiness against which this inflated self-regard is defending.

It is also reasonable to assume, then, that Guido literally cannot accept any responsibility for his murders because he is unable to face that damning judgment within, and that therefore he must present himself as the one who has been more severely wronged, and hence the one most entitled to redress. That he argues this point on the basis of those “lost” aristocratic values merely points up the narcissistic wound he suffered as a child because of his father's neglect.

This is what we see of Guido in Book V. Book IX begins on a similar note but then rapidly degenerates into that borderline state outlined above. Under the unbearable pressure of the inescapable knowledge that he is going to die within a few hours, he is no longer able to rely on his old defense-system: it has lost its point. Remembering the madness he experienced at the murders, and aware now that he has perforce descended into the next level beneath his characteristic personality disorders, he is engaged simultaneously, as already suggested, in a process of self-discovery and of self-defense. In fact, he must even be aware of the incongruity between these two motives when he confesses several times that he doesn't know what he is talking about. The best he can do is accuse his confessors of hiding their wolves under sheep's clothing, whereas he has come to such a point of honesty and integrity as not to need such a disguise any longer.

Sheep and wolf, in fact, become convenient metaphors for our diagnosis: an “as-if” personality, enfolding the obsessive-compulsive and narcissistic disorders, is the sheep, while the newly emerging borderline Guido is, of course, the wolf. Although he says, appropriately enough from a psychotherapeutic point of view, that he must play out the wolf part to the full before he can come back and integrate the sheep part, there is that tragic difference between acting out as opposed to working through which stands in his way.

Where he has arrived by this time is best described in terms of a sociopathic personality disorder, a condition where sufficient super-ego strength is lacking, and one finds justification in simply meeting one's needs without regard for others. Guido has lost the framework with which his former attempt to play society's games had provided him, and he is now floating in that empty space between the games and an authentic existence which is inherent in the change process, and he is—without, of course, any therapeutic help—becoming destabilized. His pronouncements take the form of an exaggerated Benthamite Utilitarianism, but in Guido's mouth it sounds more like “the greatest good for mainly me” rather than “for the greatest number.” For the sociopath, personal gain is the only viable principle, and other people exist only in so far as they contribute to that goal, otherwise they can be pushed aside without a qualm.

Indeed, Guido has almost arrived at that existential moment which Gide was to write of later, in Lafcadio's Adventures, as “the gratuitous act,” a way of achieving total freedom by doing something—kind or cruel—without any motivation whatsoever—as if such a thing were even conceivable. But this journey is, in fact, too much for Guido, and he wavers, as we have noted, in and out of it. At the end, therefore, he collapses in a very unexistential terror of death, and loses all mental structure whatever, unable to engage further in the process and work toward integrating wolf and sheep, for he is literally about to lose his head, and “there's an end on't.” Psychologically, this is too bad, and we can imagine a further working through,16 and perhaps that's what keeps motivating Langbaum to see him as being somehow on the way to salvation, but morally and artistically—these categories supersede the psychological—he dies an unrepentant and unreformed villain, and he richly deserves his fate.


  1. Robert Langbaum, The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition (New York: Random House, 1957) 109-36.

  2. Robert Langbaum, “Is Guido Saved? The Meaning of Browning's Conclusion to The Ring and the Book,” Victorian Poetry 10 (1972): 289-305.

  3. Richard J. Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis (1983; Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1985) 8-16.

  4. Park Honan, “The Murder Poem for Elizabeth,” Victorian Poetry 6 (1968): 215-30 and Mary Rose Sullivan, “The Function of Book I in The Ring and the Book,” Victorian Poetry 6 (1968): 231-41.

  5. Langbaum, Experience 109.

  6. Langbaum, Experience 122.

  7. Langbaum, “Guido Saved?” 289.

  8. Langbaum, “Guido Saved?” 289.

  9. Roma A. King, Jr., The Focusing Artifice: The Poetry of Robert Browning (Athens: Ohio UP, 1968) 133-34.

  10. Roy Gridley, “Browning's Two Guidos,” University of Toronto Quarterly 37 (1967): 51-52.

  11. Mary Rose Sullivan, Browning's Voices in “The Ring and the Book”: A Study of Method and Meaning (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1969) 156-57.

  12. James F. Loucks, “Guido ‘Hope?’: A Response to ‘Is Guido Saved?’,” Studies in Browning and His Circle 2 (1974): 37-48 and Dalton H. Gross, “Browning's Positivist Count in Search of a Miracle: A Grim Parody in The Ring and the Book,” Victorian Poetry 12 (1974): 178-80.

  13. Gridley 51-68.

  14. Helene Deutsch, “Some Forms of Emotional Disturbances and Their Relationship to Schizophrenia,” Neuroses and Character Types: Clinical Psychoanalytic Studies (1934, 1938, 1942; New York: International UP, 1965) 265-78.

  15. Anna Freud, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, revised ed. (New York: International UP, 1966) 168.

  16. Boyd Litzinger, “The New Vision of Judgment: The Case of St. Guido,” Tennessee Studies in Literature 20 (1975): 69-75.

Further Reading

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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 of the Caponsacchi-Pompilia love story.”

Brown, Susan. “Pompilia: The Woman (in) Question.” Victorian Poetry 34, no. 1 (spring 1996): 15-37.

Considers The Ring and the Book in relation to the “Woman Question,” the Victorian debate over “gender definitions, roles, and practices.”

Cundiff, Paul A. “The Clarity of Browning's Ring Metaphor.” PMLA 63, no. 4 (December 1948): 1276-282.

Attempts to clarify Browning's use of the ring metaphor in The Ring and the Book.

Davis, Kris. “Browning's Caponsacchi: Stuck in the Gap.” Victorian Poetry 25, no. 1 (spring 1987): 57-66.

Provides a reading of Caponsacchi's “conversion” in the sixth section of The Ring and the Book, contending that he “becomes more intensely aware of his personal isolation, not of his salvation.”

DiMassa, Michael V. “‘Transformations of Disgust’: Guido, Metaphor, and the Search for Stability in Book XI of The Ring and the Book.Studies in Browning and His Circle 23 (May 2000): 136-56.

Maintains that Guido's “almost schizophrenic” use of metaphor evinces his fragile mental state in section eleven of The Ring and the Book.

Emerson, Oliver F. “Browning's Diction: A Study of The Ring and the Book.Modern Language Notes, no. 4(April 1889): 215-22.

Offers an analysis of the “peculiarities of diction” of The Ring and the Book.

Feinberg, Harvey. “The Four-Cornered Circle: Truth and Illusion in Browning's The Ring and the Book.Studies in Browning and His Circle 13 (1985): 70-96.

Finds parallels between the symbolism of the ring and the function of the poet in The Ring and the Book.

Going, William T. “The Ring and the Brownings.” Modern Language Notes 71, no. 7 (November 1956): 493-95.

Identifies Elizabeth Barrett Browning's “A Ring” as a source for the ring imagery in The Ring and the Book.

McNally, James. “Touches of Aurora Leigh in The Ring and the Book.Studies in Browning and His Circle, 14 (1986): 85-90.

Detects the influence of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh on The Ring and the Book.

Petch, Simon. “Equity and Natural Law in The Ring and the Book.Victorian Poetry 35, no. 1 (spring 1997): 105-11.

Asserts that “Browning's poetic recreation of a murder trial in seventeenth-century Rome explores the problematic relation of human justice and natural law in all its moral and legal complexity.”

Potkay, Adam. “The Problem of Identity and the Grounds for Judgment in The Ring and The Book.Victorian Poetry 25, no. 2 (summer 1987): 143-57.

Investigates the concept of identity and the lack of a center of authority in The Ring and the Book.

Rigg, Patricia D. “Legal ‘Repristination’ in The Ring and the Book.Browning Institute Studies 18 (1990): 113-30.

Maintains that “its commitment to represent in a work of art both the ‘facts’ of the murder story and the one ‘fact’ that history can never be represented adequately” makes The Ring and the Book “a fine example of Romantic irony.”

Roberts, Adam. “The Ring and the Book: The Mage, the Alchemist, and the Poet.” Victorian Poetry 36, no. 1 (spring 1998): 37-46.

Identifies the mage in the first section of The Ring and the Book as the infamous occultist Cornelius Agrippa.

Rundle, Vivienne J. “‘Will you let them murder me?’: Guido and the Reader in The Ring and the Book.Victorian Poetry 27, nos. 3-4 (autumn-winter 1989): 99-114.

Argues that an examination of Guido's monologues in The Ring and the Book provides “an insight into the demands and responsibilities inherent in the reader's experience of this remarkable work.”

Shaw, W. David. “Browning's Murder Mystery: The Ring and the Book and Modern Theory.” Victorian Poetry 27, nos. 3-4 (autumn-winter 1989): 79-98.

Applies the critical theories of deconstruction and hermeneutics to The Ring of the Book.

Slinn, Warwick. “Hegel and Browning.” Studies in Browning and His Circle 17 (1989): 91-8.

Finds an “affinity” between G. W. F. Hegel's Phenomenology and The Ring and the Book.

Thompson, Gordon W. “Authorial Detachment and Imagery in The Ring and the Book.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 10, no. 4 (autumn 1970): 669-86.

Deems The Ring and the Book “a study of perception.”

Tucker, Herbert F. “Representation and Repristination: Virginity in The Ring and the Book.” In Virginal Sexuality and Textuality in Victorian Literature, edited by Lloyd Davis, pp. 67-86. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Maintains that “images of virginity structure both the historical action of Browning's epic—a mythos of draconian oppression, virginal distress, and heroic rescue—and its hermeneutic activity of getting at the truth about that historical-mythical action.”

Walker, William. “Pompilia and Pompilia.” Victorian Poetry 22, no. 1 (spring 1984): 47-63.

Considers the truth of Pompilia's monologue in The Ring and the Book as well as efforts to designate her as the moral touchstone of the poem.

Additional coverage of Browning's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: British Writers, Vol. 4; British Writers: The Classics, Vol. 2; British Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 2; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 7; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1832-1890; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 32, 163; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Poets; Exploring Poetry; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Ed. 1; Literature Resource Center; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 19, 79; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 2; Poetry for Students, Vols. 1, 15; Poets: American and British; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Twayne's English Authors; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; World Literature Criticism Supplement; World Poets; and Yesterday's Authors of Books for Children, Vol. 1.

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