The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

III. Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning

§ 14. The Ring and the Book

Browning was at the height of his power during this period. Nowhere is his poetic work so uniformly great as in Dramatis Personae (1864); and there is no doubt that The Ring and the Book is the most magnificent of all his achievements, in spite of its inequalities. Critics miss in Dramatis Personae something of the lightness and brightness and early morning charm of Pippa Passes and of some of his earlier Men and Women; and they find in it, not any trace of the pathetic fallacy, yet a lingering echo of the brooding sorrow for his life’s loss. It was later in the day; the world was more commonplace; the outlook more desolate and man’s failure less tinged with glory; women were more homely, love was less ethereal; and the stuff to be idealised through being better known by a wiser love was more stubborn. “The summer had stopped,” and “the sky was deranged.” But the autumn had come, bringing a richer harvest in Dramatis Personae. The significance of man’s life, and of the clash of circumstance which elicited it, was deeper as well as more grave. The world’s worn look disappears when it is seen in the great context in which it stands—“All we have willed or hoped or dreamed of good shall exist,” says Abt Vogler. Man has himself “a flash of the will that can,” for he can use its distraught elements of life to a moral purpose, and weld them in a spiritual harmony—out of three sounds make, “not a fourth sound, but a star.” Prospice, Rabbi Ben Ezra, A Death in the Desert, even Mr. Sludge, “The Medium” and Caliban upon Setebos, are strong with a controlled ethical passion for what is real and true as things stand, and by interest in the issues which are ultimate; and, with realism, natural and spiritual, in both kinds, there is blended an imaginative splendour which transfigures even “the least of all mankind,” when we “look at his head and heart”; and

  • see what I tell you—nature dance
  • About each man of us, retire, advance,
  • As though the pageant’s end were to enhance
  • His worth, and—once the life, his product, gained—Roll away elsewhere.
  • It is a permanent theme, its echoes are to be heard all the way to Asolando—this wash of circumstance around man’s soul which yet maintains its mastery over all the play of the waves; and nowhere is it rendered more finely than in Dramatis Personae and its Epilogue.

    The Edinburgh Review found it a “subject of amazement that poems of so obscure and uninviting a character should find numerous readers”; and there were other critics besides Frederick Tennyson who still thought Browning’s poetry “the most grotesque conceivable.” But the situation had, in truth, changed. Browning’s admirers were no longer confined to pre-Raphaelites and “young men at the Universities.” A second edition of Dramatis Personae was called for within the same year as the first. And the reception accorded to The Ring and the Book was still more favourable. At last, Browning was coming into his kingdom. It had taken long: so late as 1867, he spoke of himself as “the most unpopular poet that ever was.”

    There was an interval of four years between Dramatis Personae and The Ring and the Book. But the theme had interested him from the moment when he came upon the “old, square, yellow book” on an old bookstall in Florence—the parchmentbound tale of the trial of an Italian noble for the murder of his wife. He saw its dramatic possibilities when he stood on the balcony of Casa Guidi, in June, 1860, at night, watching the storm. But it lay long working in his mind, and the sorrow of the following year led him to abandon the idea of writing, and he suggested the subject to two of his friends. In September, 1862, he recurred to it, spoke of “my new poem that is about to be,” “the Roman murder story.” He began to write it about 1864, and the poem grew steadily, for it became his crowning venture and he gave it regularly every day “three quiet, early morning hours.” It was published in four volumes, the first of which appeared in November, 1868; and the others during the three months following.

    Many things concurred to make the story attractive to Browning. He had inherited a taste for tales of crime from his father; the situation was ambiguous and, as regards the priest and the girl-wife, it left room for a most beautiful, as well as for a sordid, explanation, and, therefore, it appealed both to Browning’s love of argument and to his ethical idealism; moreover, opinion in Rome was divided, and the popular mind was on its trial; there was the possibility that the truth “told for once for the church, and dead against the world, the flesh, and the devil”; and the story, in its essence, was not a common drab, but glorious—the romance of the young priest and Pompilia was “a gift of God, who showed for once how he would have the world go white.”

    It was inevitable that such a theme should set free all the powers of Browning’s spirit; but it borrowed sublimity and a sacred loveliness from another quarter. For, undoubtedly, the “poem which enshrined Pompilia was instinct with reminiscence.” “With all its abounding vitality it was yet commemorative and memorial.” When he wrote of “the one prize vouchsafed unworthy me”; of “the one blossom that made me proud at eve”; of a “life companioned by the woman there”; of living and seeing her learn, and learning by her, can there be doubt as to who lent to these utterances their pathetic beauty?

    Nor is it fanciful to find in Caponsacchi something of the poet himself—more, perhaps, than in any other character he created. There was his own tempestuousness, much that a wise old pope could find “amiss,” “blameworthy,” “ungainly,” “discordant,” “infringement manifold” of convention; but there was also a “symmetric soul within,” “championship of God at first blush,” “prompt, cheery thud of glove on ground,” answering “ringingly the challenge of the false knight.” What are these qualities, with the ardour of a great love and the headlong and utter devotion of a large-hearted manhood, except the poet’s own? Caponsacchi’s

  • I am, on earth, as good as out of it,
  • A relegated priest; when exile ends,
  • I mean to do my duty and live long,
  • is inspired by the manly recoil of Browning and his refusal to be crushed by his sorrow. But the dream of having his “Iyric Love” by his side has been broken; and the bereaved poet is not perceptible in the “drudging student,” who “trims his lamp,” “draws the patched gown close” and awakes “to the old solitary nothingness.” The last words are a promise of this priest to “pass content, from such communion”; and Browning would fain have come back into the world of men as if his wound had healed. But the truth breaks out—
  • O great, just, good God! Miserable me!
  • There was, for both priest and poet, the rule in the world of a love that wrapped all things round about, and yet, somehow, also, there were sorrows that knew neither shores nor shoals.

    To pass all the parts of this great poem under review is not possible, and to estimate the relative poetic worth of its several parts—Caponsacchi, Pompilia, The Pope and Guido—is not necessary; there are kinds as well as degrees of perfection, and comparison is sometimes absurd. The possibility of justifying the structure of the poem as a whole will remain doubtful; and the macaronic speeches of the lawyers, and some parts of what Rome said, have no real artistic value. But the poem is unique in its excellence as well as in its defects.