The Ring and the Book Part 1
Robert Browning
17:08 h
Level 8
The Ring and the Book is a long dramatic narrative poem, and, more specifically, a verse novel, of 21,000 lines, written by Robert Browning. It was published in four volumes from 1868 to 1869. The book tells the story of a murder trial in Rome in 1698, whereby an impoverished nobleman, Count Guido Franceschini, is found guilty of the murders of his young wife Pompilia (Comparini) and her parents, having suspected his wife was having an affair with a young cleric, Giuseppe Caponsacchi. Having been found guilty despite his protests and sentenced to death, Guido then appeals—unsuccessfully—to Pope Innocent XII to overturn the conviction.

The Ring and the Book

Part 1

Robert Browning


This, the most long sustained of Browning’s writings, was published originally in four volumes, successively in November, December, 1868, January, February, 1869. Mrs. Orr has given so circumstantial an account of the inception of the work, that the main facts are here reproduced from her Hand-Book.

“Mr. Browning was strolling one day through a square in Florence, the Piazza San Lorenzo, which is a standing market for old clothes, old furniture, and old curiosities of every kind, when a parchment-covered book attracted his eye, from amidst the artistic or nondescript rubbish of one of the stalls. It was the record of a murder which had taken place in Rome, and bore inside it an inscription [in Latin] which Mr. Browning transcribes [on block # 1.2].

“The book proved, on examination, to contain the whole history of the case, as carried on in writing, after the fashion of those days: pleadings and counter-pleadings, the depositions of defendants and witnesses; manuscript letters announcing the execution of the murderer, and the ‘instrument of the Definitive Sentence’ which established the perfect innocence of the murdered wife: these various documents having been collected and bound together by some person interested in the trial, possibly the very Cencini, friend of the Franceschini family, to whom the manuscript letters are addressed. Mr. Browning bought the whole for the value of eightpence, and it became the raw material of what appeared four years later as The Ring and the Book.

In another place Mrs. Orr states that the subject was conceived about four years before the poet took it actually in hand, and that, before he wrote it himself, he offered the theme for prose treatment to Miss Ogle, the author of A Lost Love.

The Ring and the Book

Do you see this Ring?

’T is Rome-work, made to match
(By Castellani’s imitative craft)
Etrurian circlets found, some happy morn,
After a dropping April; found alive
Spark-like ’mid unearthed slope-side figtree-roots
That roof old tombs at Chiusi: soft, you see,
Yet crisp as jewel-cutting. There’s one trick,
(Craftsmen instruct me) one approved device
And but one, fits such slivers of pure gold
As this was, — such mere oozings from the mine,
Virgin as oval tawny pendent tear
At beehive-edge when ripened combs o’erflow, —
To bear the file’s tooth and the hammer’s tap:
Since hammer needs must widen out the round,
And file emboss it fine with lily-flowers,
Ere the stuff grow a ring-thing right to wear.
That trick is, the artificer melts up wax
With honey, so to speak; he mingles gold
With gold’s alloy, and, duly tempering both,
Effects a manageable mass, then works:
But his work ended, once the thing a ring,
Oh, there’s repristination! Just a spirt
O’ the proper fiery acid o’er its face,
And forth the alloy unfastened flies in fume;
While, self-sufficient now, the shape remains,
The rondure brave, the lilied loveliness,
Gold as it was, is, shall be evermore:
Prime nature with an added artistry —
No carat lost, and you have gained a ring.
What of it? ’T is a figure, a symbol, say;
A thing’s sign: now for the thing signified.

Do you see this square old yellow Book, I toss
I’ the air, and catch again, and twirl about
By the crumpled vellum covers, — pure crude fact
Secreted from man’s life when hearts beat hard,
And brains, high-blooded, ticked two centuries since?
Examine it yourselves! I found this book,
Gave a lira for it, eightpence English just,
(Mark the predestination!) when a Hand,
Always above my shoulder, pushed me once,
One day still fierce ’mid many a day struck calm,
Across a Square in Florence, crammed with booths,
Buzzing and blaze, noontide and market-time,
Toward Baccio’s marble, — ay, the basement-ledge
O’ the pedestal where sits and menaces
John of the Black Bands with the upright spear,
’Twixt palace and church, — Riccardi where they lived,
His race, and San Lorenzo where they lie.
This book, — precisely on that palace-step
Which, meant for lounging knaves o’ the Medici,
Now serves re-venders to display their ware, —
’Mongst odds and ends of ravage, picture-frames
White through the worn gilt, mirror-sconces chipped,
Bronze angel-heads once knobs attached to chests
(Handled when ancient dames chose forth brocade),
Modern chalk drawings, studies from the nude,
Samples of stone, jet, breccia, porphyry
Polished and rough, sundry amazing busts
In baked earth (broken, Providence be praised!)
A wreck of tapestry, proudly-purposed web
When reds and blues were indeed red and blue,
Now offered as a mat to save bare feet
(Since carpets constitute a cruel cost)
Treading the chill scagliola bedward; then
A pile of brown-etched prints, two crazie each,
Stopped by a conch a-top from fluttering forth
— Sowing the Square with works of one and the same
Master, the imaginative Sienese
Great in the scenic backgrounds — (name and fame
None of you know, nor does he fare the worse:)
From these ... Oh, with a Lionard going cheap
If it should prove, as promised, that Joconde
Whereof a copy contents the Louvre! — these
I picked this book from. Five compeers in flank
Stood left and right of it as tempting more —
A dogs-eared Spicilegium, the fond tale
O’ the Frail One of the Flower, by young Dumas,
Vulgarized Horace for the use of schools,
The Life, Death, Miracles of Saint Somebody,
Saint Somebody Else, his Miracles, Death and Life, —
With this, one glance at the lettered back of which,
And “Stall!” cried I: a lira made it mine.

Here it is, this I toss and take again;
Small-quarto size, part print, part manuscript:
A book in shape but, really, pure crude fact
Secreted from man’s life when hearts beat hard,
And brains, high-blooded, ticked two centuries since.
Give it me back! The thing’s restorative
I’ the touch and sight.

That memorable day,
(June was the month, Lorenzo named the Square),
I leaned a little and overlooked my prize
By the low railing round the fountain-source
Close to the statue, where a step descends:
While clinked the cans of copper, as stooped and rose
Thick-ankled girls who brimmed them, and made place
For marketmen glad to pitch basket down,
Dip a broad melon-leaf that holds the wet,
And whisk their faded fresh. And on I read
Presently, though my path grew perilous
Between the outspread straw-work, piles of plait
Soon to be flapping, each o’er two black eyes
And swathe of Tuscan hair, on festas fine:
Through fire-irons, tribes of tongs, shovels in sheaves,
Skeleton bedsteads, wardrobe-drawers agape,
Rows of tall slim brass lamps with dangling gear, —
And worse, cast clothes a-sweetening in the sun:
None of them took my eye from off my prize.
Still read I on, from written title-page
To written index, on, through street and street,
At the Strozzi, at the Pillar, at the Bridge;
Till, by the time I stood at home again
In Casa Guidi by Felice Church,
Under the doorway where the black begins
With the first stone-slab of the staircase cold,
I had mastered the contents, knew the whole truth
Gathered together, bound up in this book,
Print three-fifths, written supplement the rest.
“Romana Homicidiorum” — nay,
Better translate — “A Roman murder-case:
Position of the entire criminal cause
Of Guido Franceschini, nobleman,
With certain Four the cutthroats in his pay,
Tried, all five, and found guilty and put to death
By heading or hanging as befitted ranks,
At Rome on February Twenty Two,
Since our salvation Sixteen Ninety Eight:
Wherein it is disputed if, and when,
Husbands may kill adulterous wives, yet ’scape
The customary forfeit.”

Word for word,
So ran the title-page: murder, or else
Legitimate punishment of the other crime,
Accounted murder by mistake, — just that
And no more, in a Latin cramp enough
When the law had her eloquence to launch,
But interfilleted with Italian streaks
When testimony stooped to mother-tongue, —
That, was this old square yellow book about.

Now, as the ingot, ere the ring was forged,
Lay gold, (beseech you, hold that figure fast!)
So, in this book lay absolutely truth,
Fanciless fact, the documents indeed,
Primary lawyer-pleadings for, against,
The aforesaid Five; real summed-up circumstance
Adduced in proof of these on either side,
Put forth and printed, as the practice was,
At Rome, in the Apostolic Chamber’s type,
And so submitted to the eye o’ the Court
Presided over by His Reverence
Rome’s Governor and Criminal Judge, — the trial
Itself, to all intents, being then as now
Here in the book and nowise out of it;
Seeing, there properly was no judgment-bar,
No bringing of accuser and accused,
And whoso judged both parties, face to face
Before some court, as we conceive of courts.
There was a Hall of Justice; that came last:
For Justice had a chamber by the hall
Where she took evidence first, summed up the same,
Then sent accuser and accused alike,
In person of the advocate of each,
To weigh its worth, thereby arrange, array
The battle. ’T was the so-styled Fisc began,
Pleaded (and since he only spoke in print
The printed voice of him lives now as then)
The public Prosecutor — “Murder’s proved;
With five ... what we call qualities of bad,
Worse, worst, and yet worse still, and still worse yet;
Crest over crest crowning the cockatrice,
That beggar hell’s regalia to enrich
Count Guido Franceschini: punish him!’’
Thus was the paper put before the court
In the next stage, (no noisy work at all,)
To study at ease. In due time like reply
Came from the so-styled Patron of the Poor,
Official mouthpiece of the five accused
Too poor to fee a better, — Guido’s luck
Or else his fellows’, — which, I hardly know, —
An outbreak as of wonder at the world,
A fury-fit of outraged innocence,
A passion of betrayed simplicity:
“Punish Count Guido? For what crime, what hint
O’ the color of a crime, inform us first!
Reward him rather! Recognize, we say,
In the deed done, a righteous judgment dealt!
All conscience and all courage, — there’s our Count
Charactered in a word; and, what’s more strange,
He had companionship in privilege,
Found four courageous conscientious friends:
Absolve, applaud all five, as props of law,
Sustainers of society! — perchance
A trifle over-hasty with the hand
To hold her tottering ark, had tumbled else;
But that’s a splendid fault whereat we wink,
Wishing your cold correctness sparkled so!’’
Thus paper second followed paper first,
Thus did the two join issue — nay, the four,
Each pleader having an adjunct. “True, he killed
— So to speak — in a certain sort — his wife,
But laudably, since thus it happed!’’ quoth one:
Whereat, more witness and the case postponed.
“Thus it happed not, since thus he did the deed,
And proved himself thereby portentousest
Of cutthroats and a prodigy of crime,
As the woman that he slaughtered was a saint,
Martyr and miracle!’’ quoted the other to match:
Again, more witness, and the case postponed.
“A miracle, ay — of lust and impudence;
Hear my new reasons!’’ interposed the first:
— “Coupled with more of mine!’’ pursued his peer.
“Beside, the precedents, the authorities!’’
From both at once a cry with an echo, that!
That was a firebrand at each fox’s tail
Unleashed in a cornfield: soon spread flare enough,
As hurtled thither and there heaped themselves
From earth’s four corners, all authority
And precedent for putting wives to death,
Or letting wives live, sinful as they seem.
How legislated, now, in this respect,
Solon and his Athenians? Quote the code
Of Romulus and Rome! Justinian speak!
Nor modern Baldo, Bartolo be dumb!
The Roman voice was potent, plentiful;
Cornelia de Sicariis hurried to help
Pompeia de Parricidiis; Julia de
Something-or-other jostled Lex this-and-that;
King Solomon confirmed Apostle Paul:
That nice decision of Dolabella, eh?
That pregnant instance of Theodoric, oh!
Down to that choice example Ælian gives
(An instance I find much insisted on)
Of the elephant who, brute-beast though he were,
Yet understood and punished on the spot
His master’s naughty spouse and faithless friend;
A true tale which has edified each child,
Much more shall flourish favored by our court!
Pages of proof this way, and that way proof,
And always — once again the case postponed.

Thus wrangled, brangled, jangled they a month,
— Only on paper, pleadings all in print,
Nor ever was, except i’ the brains of men,
More noise by word of mouth than you hear now —
Till the court cut all short with “Judged, your cause.
Receive our sentence! Praise God! We pronounce
Count Guido devilish and damnable:
His wife Pompilia in thought, word and deed,
Was perfect pure, he murdered her for that:
As for the Four who helped the One, all Five —
Why, let employer and hirelings share alike
In guilt and guilt’s reward, the death their due!”