Classics

Robert Browning - The Ring and the Book

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Robert Browning - The Ring and the Book

Paperback, 610pp, 9x6ins

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If Sordello is a book-length poem, then The Ring and the Book — in its day regarded as Browning's greatest achievement, but today out of fashion — is something different. It is in fact a great novel, but one presented in blank verse, almost 21,000 lines of it, and in twelve books, each representing a different view of the action (in a court case involving adultery and murder) — by the author, by the protagonists themselves, and by the public. Why it has been described as an "epic poem" is a puzzle; it is epic only in length; it is a poem only because it is in verse. Pushkin's Yevgeny Onegin (Eugene Onegin) is everywhere regarded as a novel, although it is in verse. The Ring and the Book is the greatest of all English verse novels; it is one of the great English novels of the 19th century; it is a remarkably modern novel in terms of narrative technique; it is, by any standards a great work of English Literature. It is offered by Shearsman in the author's bicentenary year, as it simply should not be out of print…

 

The book tells the story of a murder trial in Rome in 1698, in which a nobleman of limited means, one Count Guido Franceschini, is found guilty of the murder of his young wife Pompilia Comparini, and also of her parents, after coming to believe that Pompilia was having an affair with a young priest, Giuseppe Caponsacchi, with whom she had left the family home in Arezzo and headed for Rome.

Having been found guilty despite his protests and sentenced to death, Franceschini then appeals for clemency to the Pope. The poem consists of twelve books, several of which are monologues by different narrators from the case, offering different views of the central events, and two books (the first and the last) in the voice of the author. The voices of the public, pro and contra, and of an educated occupier of the middle ground, are also heard at length.

The poem is based on a real-life case. Under Roman law at the time, trials were not held in open court but rather by correspondence, whereupon each witness was required to submit a written statement for future adjudication. Browning came across a large volume of these written statements relating to the Franceschini case in a Florentine market in 1860, and bought it. This volume — later known as The Yellow Book, after the colour of its aged covers — struck Browning as an excellent basis for a novel or a poem, but he was unable to get any further than the basic idea and often offered it as a subject to other writers, notably Tennyson, upon which to base a work. Following the death of his wife, Elizabeth Barrett, and his return to England, Browning revived his old plan for a long work based on the case, some eight years after the notion had first occurred to him.

The first book is in the voice of the narrator, who tells the story of how he came across the source documents in the market and gives a broad outline of the plot. Books 2 and 3 offer the voices of the Roman public, giving differing accounts of the events in the case. Book 4 is spoken by a lawyer, Tertium Quid, who is not involved in the case but gives an unbiased and professional third-party view of the trial. Book 5 gives us the testimony from the accused; Book 6 is the statement of the young priest accused of being Pompilia's lover, who claims that no affair took place, and that he only tried to help Pompilia escape her abusive husband; Book 7 is the account of the dying Pompilia, mortally wounded but not killed in the attack. Books 8 and 9 are depositions by the opposing trial lawyers, and are filled with legal points and discussions of the minutiae of the case. Book 10 is a monologue by Pope Innocent XIII, who assesses Franceschini's appeal for clemency against a wider backdrop of moral issues, and a reflection on the nature of good and evil, before rejecting the condemned man's plea for clemency. Book 11 features Franceschini in his cell on the night prior to his execution, tormented and raging against his sentence. Book 12 returns to the voice of the narrator, describing the aftermath of the trial.

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