Such, then, the final state o' the story. So
Did the Star Wormwood in a blazing fall
Frighten awhile the waters and lie lost:
So did this old woe fade from memory,
Till after, in the fullness of the days,
I needs must find an ember yet unquenched,
And, breathing, blow the spark to flame. It lives,
If precious be the soul of man to man.
So, British Public, who may like me yet,
(Marry and amen!) learn one lesson hence
Of many which whatever lives should teach:
This lesson, that our human speech is naught,
Our human testimony false, our fame
And human estimation words and wind.
Why take the artistic way to prove so much?
Because, it is the glory and good of Art,
That Art remains the one way possible
Of speaking truth, to mouths like mine, at least.
How look a brother in the face and say
"Thy right is wrong, eyes hast thou yet art blind,
Thine ears are stuffed and stopped, despite their length,
And, oh, the foolishness thou countest faith!"
Say this as silverly as tongue can troll –
The anger of the man may be endured,
The shrug, the disappointed eyes of him
Are not so bad to bear – but here's the plague
That all this trouble comes of telling truth,
Which truth, by when it reaches him, looks false,
Seems to be just the thing it would supplant,
Nor recognizable by whom it left –
While falsehood would have done the work of truth.
But Art, – wherein man nowise speaks to men,
Only to mankind – 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 the Andante dived, –
So write a book shall mean, beyond the facts,
Suffice the eye and save the soul beside.
Robert Browning, The Ring and the Book, Book XII, lines 823 - 863
This excerpt starts with "the final state o' the story" so I will now give you the beginning. In 1860, when the forty-eight-year-old Browning was still living in Florence with his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, he was browsing through an open-air market when he came across a book (generally referred to as the Old Yellow Book) containing records of a sensational murder trial held in Rome in 1698. In that time and place, court cases were conducted through written arguments rather than through in-person cross-examination, as in England. In addition to the legal briefs, there were some pamphlets and letters about the case, which was spicy enough to be the talk of the Eternal City: an impoverished nobleman, Count Guido Franceschini, nearing fifty, unprepossessing and unsuccessful, had married Pompilia, thirteen at the time of the marriage (although the age difference might be snickered at, it was not culturally out of line – remember that Shakespeare's Juliet is fourteen, and that raises no eyebrows in Verona). She had, after three unhappy years, run off with the help of Giuseppe Caponsacchi, a young priest. The count had pursued and caught them as they fled to her parents in Rome; the courts had sent the priest into temporary and local exile, and sent her first to a convent that took in wayward women and then back to her parents, where she gave birth to a son. It sounds so far as if it might be a ribald medieval tale about old cuckolds, beautiful and wily young wives, and lusty priests. But then the count gathered four of his peasants, went to Rome, and stabbed to death both Pompilia and her parents. The older couple died immediately, but she lingered for four days, during which time she was deposed for the court case. The count was convicted and then revealed that he belonged to some minor order of clergy (one without a vow of celibacy, obviously) and that therefore he could appeal to the Pope for a final verdict. To the general astonishment, the Pope sided not with the aristocrat but the runaway wife, and he sent the count and his confederates to a public execution.
Browning was immediately gripped by this forgotten scandal but wasn't quite sure what to do with it. Elizabeth Barrett Browning died the next year, and the year after that Browning moved back to London. Somewhere along the way he clearly figured out what to do with this fascinating lump of facts, because from this lurid true-crime story he produced an epic-length poem in blank verse (that is, unrhymed five-beat lines), published in four installments from November 1868 to February 1869, that is one of the most astonishing of Victorian novels.
I've given the basic plot in some detail (omitting a few key twists, but even those are revealed fairly early) because this is a case in which spoiler alerts are beside the point: it is actually essential that you know the whole story from the beginning, because what we have here is a series of dramatic monologues in which various participants state their case, giving their views, Rashomon-like, of what happened. The power of the poem comes from comparing what gets said (or left unsaid) by each person and understanding the limits of each person's perception. It's not so much that the Truth (or even just small-t truth) is unknowable as that some lack the openness and comprehensive understanding to see beyond either the commedia dell'arte or the sentimental-rescue-romance aspects of the story. For example, the reader comes away pretty certain that the wife and the priest were not having an affair, at least physically – but, in one of the many ironies of this epic, there is definitely real love between them; a profound, instantaneous, and chivalrous love, as of a knight for his lady.
Caponsacchi the priest is young, handsome, well-born, and skilled at versifying; he is sent by his superiors to insinuate himself with wealthy ladies, so that the Church may exert its influence over them. He is discontented with this socially elevated but spiritually lacking life when he sees Pompilia (it's a sign that he feels elevated devotion rather than merely physical longing that he compares the first sight of her to a first sight of a Madonna by Raphael – the art of painting, so associated with Italy at this time, makes frequent appearances and keeps us aware of the theme of Art as a repository of deeper truths). They have an immediate emotional and spiritual connection. He ends his emotionally restless monologue a deeply torn man, recognizing that he has lost an ideal and is back in "the old solitary nothingness." She ends her death-bed deposition saying she will be reunited with him: "Through such souls alone / God stooping shows sufficient of His light / For us i' the dark to rise by. And I rise." And I rise are her last words: words of calmly defiant assurance. Yet some (such as her husband, or her own defense attorney) are incapable of grasping a relationship as idealistic as this. The Pope does grasp it, which is one reason he condemns the husband: he sees who is moving humanity forward spiritually, and who is incapable of comprehending that. (And yet, and yet . . . some insist that he's a feeble old man hanging on to the Church's power, insulating the clergy from the just anger of a wronged – and aristocratic! – husband.)
The poem is divided into twelve books as follows:
Book I, The Ring and the Book: The Narrator speaks, telling us how he discovered the Old Yellow Book, what the story is as revealed in the documents, and the combination of factual research and imaginative insight that produced the poem. The symbol of this combination is a ring, one that belonged to his late wife (this reference to her, occurring at the very beginning of the poem, functions as the traditional invocation to the Muse that opens an epic; she hovers over what follows and re-appears explicitly at the very end). Forged by art and skill from natural ore, the ring combines elements of art and natural existence. He then previews, book by book, what we are about to read. There's a novel by Trollope in which he tells you the outcome on the first page because, he says, the outcome is not the point; it's how the characters get there. That's true here too – what's important is not the surprises of the story, but noticing what each speaker does with it. The revelations are not of plot but of psychology and insight.
Book II, Half-Rome: Gives the buzz and gossip and speculation on the streets, generally on the pro-husband side. He's seen as defending orderly family life from his disorderly victims – it's an honor killing.
Book III, The Other Half-Rome: More buzz and gossip and speculation, but generally pro-wife. Her beauty (mostly unnoticed while she was alive), her youth, and her sweet gravity of spirit – along with the attractions of taking sides in a juicy scandal, and the romance of her story – lead some to call her a saint, and definitely a woman justified in fleeing a brutal husband.
Book IV, Tertium Quid: Tertium Quid is "an undefined or indefinite thing distinct from, but somehow related to, two other entities which are known and distinct." So in this book an influential and gossipy courtier fills in a cardinal on what the gossip is, with some twists of his own.
Book V, Count Guido Franceschini: The husband/murderer speaks. He is rich in family pride but little else. He's been treated rather unfairly by the world (but there also doesn't seem much reason he should have received better treatment). He feels sorry for himself; he keeps bringing up ways the world has let him down, but he's pointed and sometimes satirical on the subject, which is rather appealing; failure has given him a clearer eye and brisker tongue than might be risked by those who have more worldly success to lose. He is also menacing; underlying his tale is a sardonic and even sadistic cruelty exercised in particular on his wife (yet to him, that's just how married life is; the man, particularly one of an ancient name who marries a commoner, is in charge, and if he needs to get a little rough with his wife to prove this, well, so be it! – that's his stated view, but we, knowing what we do, can also see a bully's need to treat someone defenseless the way he feels the world has treated him). And he's also a bit ridiculous (which is the traditional role of ugly old men who marry beautiful young wives: the story keeps sliding from what the participants experienced to how it looks to the outside world: after all, all these monologues are spoken as part of a legal case, attempting justification of their behavior and condemnation of their enemies). He is not the one who brings up his sexual relations with his wife, she is. For months after the marriage he pleads and scolds and blusters, and then eventually he forces himself on her: he looks both ineffectual, almost silly, and brutal.
Book VI, Giuseppe Caponsacchi: The young priest speaks. Though he seems smooth and conventional and headed for worldly success (like the priest in a bawdy tale), he is discontented and hungers for more. Guido can't see and probably wouldn't understand this spiritual hunger, but he does see the outside: how much of his anger is that of an ugly, failed, aging man towards an attractive, promising, and young one? And Caponsacchi is more of a match for Guido than the count expected: when he catches up with the fleeing couple outside of Rome, he thinks contemptuously of both priest and woman. Instead he finds the priest is a strapping young man dressed in the mufti of a nobleman, with a sword he knows how to use: and once his henchmen subdue the priest, he is stunned that his wife, hitherto so seemingly passive, grabs a sword and would have run him through if she hadn't been stopped by his companions just in time. (Is it love that motivates her? Or has she just found the opportunity to off him that she's been longing for?) At this point he takes them to law: is this prudence, and respect for social mores, as he claims? or is this cowardice, as the priest (among others) thinks?
Book VII, Pompilia: Here, at the central hinge of the work, the wife speaks from her death-bed. The effect is somewhat similar to listening to the Brahms German Requiem and hearing, near the middle of the performance, the only movement with soprano solo, a profound, searching statement of consolation after grief. Since she is dying as she speaks, she is the only speaker freed from earthly concerns, able to move (to some extent) beyond positioning her argument to win her case and towards a more comprehensive view of her life. It's an interesting indication of Browning's skill that, as you might expect from an illiterate young woman whose wisdom comes from a life of suffering, Pompilia's speech requires less editorial annotation than those of the flashier, more educated speakers. It occupies a central place, structurally and emotionally, in the work. Yet even here there are ambiguities, questions, omissions: she does not mention that she drugged her husband and took jewels and money to make her escape. Does she simply feel that these were obviously necessary things to do, almost a mechanical part of the escape like hiring the carriage? Yet to several other participants, these things are further demonstration of her guilt.
Book VIII, Dominus Hyacinthus de Archangelis: He is the court-appointed speaker for the defense. He has little personal involvement in the case, but wants to impress the judges and show up his rival on the prosecution. He talks us through his brief, which is studded with legal Latin and classical allusions to dazzle the court. But he keeps thinking about his beloved young son (an interesting contrast to all the bad parents we see in the poem) and the boy's birthday dinner that night (for he also loves his food, prepared just so).
Book IX, Juris Doctor Johannes-Baptista Bottinius: The prosecutor speaks. Though he maintains Pompilia's innocence of adultery, he doesn't really believe it, and thinks Guido would have been wiser to let the young filly run a bit before he bridles her.
Book X, The Pope: This is Pope Innocent XII, arbiter of the final appeal. He is near the end of his life himself. His speech contains profound and searching evaluations of the participants as well as of the clergy who turned a deaf ear to Pompilia's early pleas for help against her cruel husband, which leads him to wonder what Christianity has accomplished on earth. Caponsacchi stepped up to help the weak, but his motivation was almost certainly not his Christian beliefs but an atavistic and even instinctive male need to protect the defenseless (particularly a defenseless woman he's attracted to). What then has been accomplished by the Church the Pope has spent his life serving? Has it served to move humanity forward, or has it just created another false, worldly, and cowardly social structure that protects the powerful and ignores the weak?
Book XI, Guido: Once again we hear from Count Guido; this time, it's the night before his execution. He ranges widely over life and philosophy, often in a way that sounds skeptical and appealing to modern readers. He renounces and denounces Christianity to the high-ranking clergy who have come to prepare him for death; he is rooted instead in ancestral lands and family honor – to him the classical gods make some sense, since they are linked to the natural forces that control the earth, but what have Jesus and his followers done? (His thoughts here provide an interesting accompaniment to the Pope's musings on the same subject.) But as we read these lines we should also keep in mind his failed attempts to rise in the world by serving Church officers, and his malicious urge to needle people. Perhaps these are his true thoughts, though we are told later, at second-hand, that at the end he repented and confessed like a good Catholic – did he? Or is this reported because it suited the needs of those reporting it? In the last lines we hear in his own voice, he cries out in agony to have his life saved; he calls on the Pope, on the clergymen attending on him, on Christ, Mary, God – and finally on Pompilia, whose ultimate victory over him he has (apparently, despite his constant sneers at her) been forced, in a final humiliation, to realize.
Book XII, The Book and the Ring: The narrator returns, reporting on the aftermath of the case, until the what is known gives way to uncertainty, speculation, and finally obscurity. He wonders whether Pompilia's son was as proud as the rest of the impoverished Franceschini, or whether he honored the memory of his mother – assuming he lived, that is; he finds no evidence one way or the other on the fate of the infant. And that leads into the somewhat arbitrarily chosen passage above – as I hope you've gathered by now, excerpting this poem is difficult, because everything gains meaning from comparison with the rest of the poem; even this passage affirming the ultimate power of Art should be read in conjunction with Guido's remarks when he talks about why a little hitch in his plot derailed him and his confederates:
Ask that particular devil whose task it is
To trip the all-but-at perfection – slur
The line o' the painter just where paint leaves off
And life begins, – puts ice into the ode
O' the poet while he cries, "Next stanza – fire!"
Inscribes all human effort with one word,
Artistry's haunting curse, the Incomplete!
The Ring and the Book, Book XI, lines 1553 - 1559
The passage begins with a reference to the Star Wormwood and its "blazing fall" (after the opening of the seventh seal, destruction is unleashed on the earth in various ways; see the Book of Revelation, chapter 8, verses 10 - 11 for the Star Wormwood, which falls flaming into the waters, making them bitter enough to kill many people). It's an image of cataclysmic (literally apocalyptic) destruction, yet Browning immediately qualifies and undercuts it: it frightens the waters "a while" and then it is "lost": so this massive, absorbing scandal, which hit Rome with such force, and which has revealed its deep significance to us, gradually faded from memory and was lost to time. His wife's great novel in verse, Aurora Leigh, which I discuss here, ends with a series of references to the Book of Revelation; I wonder if he deliberately worked in a reference from the same Biblical book here as an indirect tribute to her. As I mentioned earlier, a reference to her at the opening of the poem functions as the traditional epic appeal to the Muse, and the actual last lines of this very long poem, which appear after the passage excerpted above, are a tribute to her – his "Lyric Love" – and her poetry.
So the story is forgotten until "after, in the fullness of the days, / I needs must find an ember . . ." Fullness of the days continues the Biblical tone, and combined with needs must makes it seem predestined that he should find and revive this material. He breathes upon this ember – perhaps in this breath there is an echo of the "divine afflatus," the classical idea of inspiration as a heavenly wind suddenly striking you – and inspiration can also mean to inhale. Also, there may be an echo of Genesis chapter 2 verse 7: "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." Fire can also be a symbol of inspiration, creating light and warmth, and even a symbol of divine inspiration – recollect the combination of wind and flame that visited the followers of the crucified Jesus on Pentecost: "And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost. . . " (Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2 verses 2 - 4). So what seems like the simple image of blowing on an ember to revive a fire has deep implications of divine inspiration and of creating a new life (or revivifying the old one). Browning claims for the artist the powers of the gods, even of God.
He continues with a direct address to the "British Public, who may like me yet / (Marry and amen!)" – this echoes a reference in the opening to the "British Public, ye who like me not / (God love you!)" (Book I, lines 410 - 411). (Marry in the first example is an archaic exclamation of emphasis; it's frequent in Shakespeare.) Indeed Browning was never as popular and beloved as other Victorian poets, like his passionate wife or the gleaming Tennyson. He was considered a thorny and rather difficult author; there were Browning Societies for the same reason there were Wagner Societies: to discuss and propagate the works of a demanding but obviously important modern artist. His difficulties may have stood him in good stead with posterity: although The Ring and the Book was his biggest success with the public, possibly because of its sensational true-crime tale, he was never broadly popular – it was his complexity that continued to engage committed readers into the modern era. (Charles Rosen has a similar theory about composers: that it is not the widely popular and immediately appealing ones that end up lasting, but the ones seen in their own time as complicated, difficult, and demanding of attention – the Bachs, Mozarts, and Beethovens.)
Browning then moves on to one of the dueling lessons he is setting up as the meaning of the story: that all is vanity: "words and wind"; notice the re-appearance of blown air, this time as wind rather than breath, and as a symbol of oblivion, of being swept away, rather than of inspiration and new life. It's suitable that ambiguity and the double-edge of existence should continue into what seems like the moral of the poem. For his point is that our speech is always inexact and incomplete, and even if we do achieve some measure of accuracy, that, too, will sink unnoticed as time passes. This is a fairly obvious and ancient truth, though discouraging; why then write such a long poem proving something that "whatever lives should teach" us? ("Why take the artistic way to prove so much?") Because – here is the balancing and challenging alternate lesson – it is the triumph and moral purpose ("the glory and the good") of Art – always capitalized into significance in this passage, unlike "truth," which, as he has shown us, is malleable and ultimately unknowable – that it is the closest approach we can make to speaking truth to one another (yet he immediately draws back a bit from this grand statement: "to mouths like mine, at least"; even our one way of speaking truly is qualified, provisional, personal).
How can we look even our closest relations in the face (he offers "a brother," and uses the intimate thy, thou, and thine in this speech – those words seem formal to us because they are archaic, but they were originally the English equivalent of the intimate French tu). He tells his brother that he (the brother) has eyes but is blind and ears but is deaf: the language here is again Biblical, perhaps as part of the poem's continued questioning of the influence of organized religion. (The reference to the length of the ears is presumably a reference to the long ears of a donkey – in other words, your beliefs are those of an ass). He advises that "say this as silverly as tongue can troll" it will still be met with anger or indifference, and this comes of trying to speak truth – indeed, as the words leave your mouth, they not only seem false to the recipient, but to the speaker. (Troll means to sing in a happy or carefree way, as in "troll the ancient Yuletide carol" – it does not have its current implication of a deliberate and usually mean-spirited anonymous provocateur. He's saying that you can speak unpleasant truths as eloquently (silverly) and as open-heartedly as possible, but the speech will still seem limited and false.)
So if the truth seems false once spoken, then paradoxically "falsehood would have done the work of truth" – here is an excellent example of the ambiguity of trying to speak truth. Does this mean "speaking falsehood would have been just the same as – would have met with as big a failure as –speaking truth" or does it mean "an apparent falsehood – that is, Art, which is the lie that tells the truth – can do the work that truth fails at"? Browning doesn't make explicit the connection between "falsehood" and "Art," but it does seem to lie implicit in the segue to the next line, which begins the explanation of how Art can speak truth by creating an intermediary pseudo-reality. Art is impersonal, speaking not to men (not to the brother berated in the lines above), but to humanity in general: in Biblical terms, "who hath ears to hear, let him hear." As with Dickinson advising us "Tell all the truth but tell it slant," Browning tells us that Art can work obliquely by presenting a picture, a series of sounds, or a series of words that will "do the thing shall breed the thought" – that is, create an image/emotion/understanding that will, in the mind of the attentive recipient, give rise to the same truth the artist is trying to convey. There is again an impersonal quality here; not only is the artist speaking to humanity in general rather than to an individual (thereby removing the work of art, at least to some extent, and protecting it, at least to some extent, from the complex and entangling webs of personal relations and circumstances), but it is also removed from the clumsiness and limitations of spontaneous speech and action – the inevitable failure to include the "mediate word" (that is, the reconciling, connecting, perfectly used and positioned words) as we stumble towards expressing what we see as the truth (think of The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock: " 'That is not it at all, / That is not what I meant, at all.' " – poets are of course especially conscious of the gap between what we intend to say and what we end up saying). The labor of the artist is to create the object that will re-create the artist's truth in the mind of the beholder.
He then offers some specific examples: a painter is producing something more than an image on a wall; he or she is showing forth truth twice: first on the canvas, then in the viewer's mind. Composers bring music from their mind that can dive ever more deeply in the minds of the listeners. The writer can produce a book that has meaning beyond a bare recital of facts, that will not only please the reader ("suffice the eye") but – a tall order – save the soul, though it is left open whether the soul is the writer's, the reader's, or both.
I've barely scratched the surface of everything that's going on in this profound and elusive epic-novel-poem, which has as many interconnections and ironies and insights and beauties as Ulysses (in fact I first read it in a class at Berkeley on Victorian literature taught by John Bishop, best known for his studies of Finnegans Wake). I hope I've encouraged at least a few readers to pick up a copy of The Ring and the Book, and here's where I would normally link to a source, but – and I know these are days of easy outrage, but this really is outrageous – it appears to be out of print in a reasonably priced and annotated edition. (Given the sometimes obscure vocabulary, the wide range of historical, classical, and Biblical references, and the frequent Latin quotations, annotation seems called for.) The version I have, which was apparently the first fully annotated version, was edited by Richard Altick and published by Yale University Press, though I think Penguin published the same edition at some point. You may be able to find it used; Abe Books has some, in prices ranging from minimal to ridiculous.
Any quotations I used from the Bible are from the King James version, which is the one Browning would have known.