Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"Push lines out to the limit": a lesson in writing fiction with Robert Browning

I'm reading Robert Browning's long verse epic The Ring and the Book. I don't read a lot of poetry, but Tom's posts on this work sparked my interest, and I managed to stumble across a fine old edition of the book while on vacation a few weeks back. The Ring and the Book is some fun, kids. Read Tom's posts for all the stuff (or a lot of the stuff) that I won't be talking about.

What I want to post about is Browning's framing device, which is a lecture on literary/poetic technique. The whole poem can be seen as a lesson on how to write historical fiction, if you like. Hell, the title The Ring and the Book is not about the story at all; it's about Browning's method and materials as the author of The Ring and the Book. Imagine Melville calling Moby-Dick something like, I donno, Elijah and the Wreck. (A better analogy will occur to me after I actually post this, of course.)

The Ring is a finely-worked gold ring Browning apparently gave to his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. A goldsmith had told Browning that in order to make elaborate designs in gold, which is a soft metal, smiths usually alloy pure gold with some stronger metal. The alloy is then able to be cast, drawn, filed, hammered, pried, cut et cetera. I see on the internets that if a smith alloys the gold with copper, placing the finished item in a nitric acid bath will remove the copper but leave the gold remaining. I'm not sure this is exactly the process Browning's unnamed goldsmith described, but here, let's let Browning tell it:
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
That's the ring, then: you take pure gold, perfect as nature created it, add something to stiffen it enough that you can work it into an artistic form, and then burn away that additive. What's left is nature's perfect substance, made into art. The added something I will get to in a minute. First, we must learn what Browning's gold is, in other words, the Book.

Browning's source material for his epic poem came from what became known as "The Old Yellow Book," a vellum-bound volume of written testimony and legal briefs relating to a 1698 Roman murder trial. Browning found the Old Yellow Book while trolling through the market stalls of the Piazza di San Lorenzo on a June day in 1860. "One glance at the lettered back, and a lira made it mine." He carried the book home, reading as he went, and stayed up all night reading until he'd followed the story of the trial to the end. It's not known how the official Roman court documents were collected, bound and put up for sale at a flea market, one hundred sixty-two years after the trial. But however it got there, Browning found it, bought it, read it, and a fire was lit in his imagination. He constructed, while reading the testimony of the accused and the accusers, the stories leading up to the triple homicide and five executions. He saw the houses, the streets, the victims and criminals, the murderous Guido and his henchmen knocking on a house door in the dead of night, ready to sweep in with swords drawn.
The untempered gold, the fact untampered with,
The mere ring-metal ere the ring be made!
The book, the Old Yellow Book, is Browning's lump of pure gold, precious material ready to be worked. His imagination and skill are the alloy mixed with the gold, and his 21,000-line poem The Ring and the Book is the finely-wrought artwork that results.

Browning spends some time building an argument in defense of historical fiction, his argument both an extension of the metaphor of goldsmithing and a lesson in the art of fiction:
From the book, yes; thence bit by bit I dug
The lingot truth, that memorable day,
Assayed and knew my piecemeal gain was gold,—
Yes; but from something else surpassing that,
Something of mine which, mixed up with the mass,
Made it bear hammer and be firm to file.
Fancy with fact is just one fact the more;
To-wit, that fancy has informed, transpierced,
Thridded and so thrown fast the facts else free,
As right through ring and ring runs the djereed
And binds the loose, one bar without a break.
I fused my live soul and that inert stuff,
This was it from, my fancy with those facts,
I used to tell the tale, turned gay to grave,
But lacked a listener seldom; such alloy,
Such substance of me interfused the gold
Which, wrought into a shapely ring therewith,
Hammered and filed, fingered and favoured, last
Lay ready for the renovating wash
O' the water. "How much of the tale was true?"
I disappeared; the book grew all in all;

[...] and so produced my book.
Lovers of dead truth, did ye fare the worse?
Lovers of live truth, found ye false my tale?
Well, now; there's nothing in nor out o' the world
Good except truth: yet this, the something else,
What's this then, which proves good yet seems untrue?
This that I mixed with truth, motions of mine
That quickened, made the inertness malleolable
O'the gold was not mine,—what's your name for this?
Are means to the end, themselves in part the end?
Is fiction which makes fact alive, fact too?

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.
For truth, and stopping midway short of truth,
And resting on a lie,—"I raise a ghost"?
"Because," he taught adepts, "man makes not man.
"Yet by a special gift, an art of arts,
"More insight and more outsight and much more
"Will to use both of these than boast my mates,
"I can detach from me, commission forth
"Half of my soul; which in its pilgrimage
"O'er old unwandered waste ways of the world,
"May chance upon some fragment of a whole,
"Rag of flesh, scrap of bone in dim disuse,
"Smoking flax that fed fire once: prompt therein
"I enter, spark-like, put old powers to play,
"Push lines out to the limit, lead forth last
"(By a moonrise through a ruin of a crypt)
"What shall be mistily seen, murmuringly heard,
"Mistakenly felt: then write my name with Faust's!"
I know, nobody's going to read through all of that verse, but I just couldn't stop myself from quoting so much of it. It's magnificent stuff. All of it is, the whole long poem as far as I can see (since the outcome of the trial is given right away in Browning's introductory passages, there's no reason not to skip about through the text, so I have been doing that very thing). Perhaps I should've summarized more, shown how well I can interpret Browning for my reader. But why? Why not just give you The Book itself, or pages therefrom?


  1. What have I done? I mean, I'm glad you're enjoying it.

    The "ring" part amazed me. What, the ring just refers to the structure of Browning's book? The ring is not even part of the story? And the structure is not even what we usually call a ring, like Finnegans Wake.

    The "book" is at least a book. More than one book, even. "Lovers of dead truth, did ye fare the worse?" Pretty funny, really.

    1. Yeah, the big jokes at the end, in "The Book and the Ring," where Browning announces that there is no dependable truth in historical documents, which are all merely claims about events made by men with with vested interests, etc. "Look at all these versions of the truth," he says. "How can you call them fact and mine fiction?"

  2. If I were forced to choose only one 19th century English poet for my introductory literature classes, Browning might be my choice. His dramatic monologues are superb, readable, and teachable. Bravo, Browning!

    1. Yes, Browning is the stuff. I've read some of his shorter things and loved them all. I love his Pied Piper, especially the parts about the rats. The Ring and the Book can be exhausting work (I'm only about 1/3 of the way along, so it's not exactly a thing one breezes through), but last night I couldn't stop myself from interrupting ma femme's reading to quote too-long passages from Browning.

      Also, Tim yet lives! Nice to see you again.

    2. Rumors of my blog's demise -- promulgated by yours truly -- were (again) premature, and my blog's burial (for reasons I cannot quite fathom now) have been reversed (again) for at least a while (for reasons I cannot quite fathom).

      As for other 19th century British poets, I would like to include Wordsworth in any syllabus, especially because of my fondness for his lyrical brilliance in his early years, but students (for reasons I cannot quite fathom) do not warm to Wordsworth, but --- to me relief -- they usually warm to Browning, which is due perhaps to Browning's relative darkness and sublime ironies. Students must see Browning as their Stephen King of 19th century poetry. Perhaps that is too harsh --- both to students and to Browning.