Wednesday, October 1, 2014

so many names for one poor child: more from The Ring and the Book

Even though the "testimony" of the three principal characters in The Ring and the Book is addressed directly to three judges, and even though these judges do not get to speak in the book, the reader is not put in the place of those judges and given the task of evaluating the testimony and deciding what is true. Browning takes it as given that the court eventually made the correct move, condemning Guido and his henchmen to death for the violent murder of Pompilia and her parents. A search for truth, or even a realization on the part of the reader that truth might be provisional, is a newfangled moral relativistic idea that is not part of Browning's project. What I think Browning is doing is giving life to his characters--the same thing he does in his other "ventriloqism" poems. Browning actually does more than bring life to these historical figures: he makes them individuals, with distinct voices; they are not puppets of the poet, mouthing mere ideas. That individual life, that unique soul walking the stage once again, is Browning's art. He says so, there in Book I. He might say it again in Book XII, but I've only skimmed a couple of passages of that and I must wait impatiently for my slowly reading self to make my way to the end of the book.

Today, though, I can see how Browning's characters are unique, alive, full of spirit. Here are the three principals, in order of appearance:

Count Guido Franceschini:
Softly, Sirs!
Will the Court of its charity teach poor me
Anxious to learn, of any way i’ the world,
Allowed by custom and convenience, save
This same which, taught from my youth up, I trod?
Take me along with you; where was the wrong step?
If what I gave in barter, style and state
And all that hangs to Franceschinihood,
Were worthless — why, society goes to ground,
Its rules are idiot’s-rambling. Honour of birth —
If that thing has no value, cannot buy
Something with value of another sort,
You’ve no reward nor punishment to give
I’ the giving or the taking honour; straight
Your social fabric, pinnacle to base,
Comes down a-clatter like a house of cards.
Guido maintains that tone throughout his speech, the tone of a nobleman done wrong, or at least misunderstood, a defense of his pride, his pride being a defense of his actions. If nobility--which is what he shares with the three men who sit as his judges--means nothing, if upholding the meaning of "nobility" means nothing, if nobles can be hoodwinked by the vulgar, then civilization must fall. Guido's argument is that to convict him is to bring ruin to the world itself. Guido imagines that the world is a mere reflection of Guido. Pride is the first sin, you know. Today is the feast day of St Thérèse of the Child Jesus, the "Little Flower." Guido would've hated Thérèse.

Giuseppe Caponsacchi:
How shall holiest flesh
Engage to keep such vow inviolate,
How much less mine — I know myself too weak,
Unworthy! Choose a worthier stronger man!
Thus exclaimed Giuseppe before he took his priestly vows, because he knew himself to be a weak man, a nobleman also, a pampered son of pampered sons, not a man with a holy calling. He was advised not to worry, to put on cassock and collar and spend his days writing sonnets and entertaining wealthy noblewomen, enjoying the easy life and acting the public image of the church. Giuseppe lived this life, flirting and courting and dressing like a man of God, leading a harmless and empty existence. Then he met Pompilia, who he did not seduce; the holiness and purity of Pompilia seduced the priest, or rather touched his inner (dormant) sense of the holy, and Giuseppe loved her as a saint, as an angel, not as a woman. That is why he helped to free her from captivity in Guido's house. "In rushed new things, the old were rapt away; Alike abolished — the imprisonment Of the outside air, the inside weight o’ the world That pulled me down."
I am a priest
Duty to God is duty to her: I think
God, who created her, will save her too
I stand here guiltless in thought, word and deed,
To the point that I apprise you — in contempt
For all misapprehending ignorance
O’ the human heart, much more the mind of Christ —
That I assuredly did bow, was blessed
By the revelation of Pompilia. There!
Such is the final fact I fling you, Sirs,
To mouth and mumble and misinterpret: there!
"The priest’s in love," have it the vulgar way!
Unpriest me, rend the rags o’ the vestment, do —
Degrade deep, disenfranchise all you dare —
Remove me from the midst, no longer priest
And fit companion for the like of you —
For Pompilia — be advised,
Build churches, go pray! You will find me there,
I know, if you come — and you will come, I know.
Why, there’s a Judge weeping! Did not I say
You were good and true at bottom? You see the truth —
I am glad I helped you: she helped me just so.
Love, yes. Love of goodness, of innocence. Giuseppe will take whatever punishment is handed him, for God will judge him better than man, so be it, etc.

Pompilia Comparini:
I am just seventeen years and five months old,
And, if I lived one day more, three full weeks;
’Tis writ so in the church’s register,
Lorenzo in Lucina, all my names
At length, so many names for one poor child,
— Francesca Camilla Vittoria Angela
Pompilia Comparini — laughable!
Also ’tis writ that I was married there
Four years ago; and they will add, I hope,
When they insert my death, a word or two —
Omitting all about the mode of death —
This, in its place, this which one cares to know,
That I had been a mother of a son
Exactly two weeks.
She is simple, plainspoken, humble and honest. Browning would have us see in her a Christ figure, or at least a wounded saint, slandered and murdered but free of hate, bewildered at the violent mess life has become around her. We are, I think, intended to share Giuseppe's worshipful love of Pompilia, and perhaps Browning used these last two characters to show--indirectly--his love of Elizabeth, whose death left him, like Pompilia's priest, daily "awakening to the old solitary nothingness" in the absence of his beloved (he outlived her by 28 years). Maybe, and also beside the point of this rambling post.

I am not doing a good job showing how Guido, Giuseppe and Pompilia each breathes a different air, as it were. I keep getting distracted by the drama of the story, and by poetic turns of phrase. But these characters are distinct, remarkable, living beings. Honest.


  1. I made the odd choice - or error - of mostly ignoring these characters when I wrote about the book, in part because I was so amazed that even minor characters like the attorneys were made into "living beings." I took the protagonists for granted.

    I think I mentioned that in the big William Morris epic, there is no real change of voice from character to character or story to story, even when the verse form changed. Having read Browning so recently, the difference was obvious.

    1. I'm essentially riffing on Swingle's ideas that I parroted a week ago. Before that, I'd fallen into the trap of comparing the different versions of the truth. I had another theory going, about Pompilia being a metaphor for Christ, and all the speakers being metaphors for various ways the world treats Christ, but I don't think Browning's text supports that theory.

      If I was any good at this, I'd go through the poem and track exactly how Browning employs diction, vocabulary, usage and tone to differentiate his speakers. But that would be some real work I won't make time for (though the defense attorney's monologue, assembled as he writes his Latin court brief, would be easy enough to use as evidence). I assume that some bright scholars have already tackled that one, anyway.

      I'm reading the Browning because of you (and thanks, by the way), but I'm not fool enough to go after that Morris book.

  2. Browning had a marvelous skill at creating characters -- witness his dramatic monologues -- and I wonder what would have happened if he had turned his talents to prose fiction. In any case, where do you go now? Are you nearly finished with The Ring and the Book? Is more Browning on the horizon? (Note: I want to throw a not-so-completely unrelated question your way -- Have you read A. S. Byatt's Possession? It is an intriguing novel built around Victorian poetry. Even as I ask the question, I feel myself drawn to the bookshelf to give the book another reading. I last read it in 2001, so I may be overdue for a re-reading.)

    1. The Ring and the Book is not a quick read. I'm about 60% of the way through, though I admit to skimming pages all through the book. I already know how it ends (the butler did it). I don't know if I have any sort of Browning Project on the horizon; I'll probably read whatever is in whichever Norton poetry anthology I have on the shelf, and I've got assorted collections of Victoriana in which he can be found. But Ring might just fill me up on Browning for a while.

      I do know Possession. It was the first of many Byatt novels I read. One of the few I've read more than once. Brilliant and flawed, transcendent and goofy, insightful and cliched. Great writing about nature, and food. One of the best first chapters I can remember, too. Not quite a Dickens first chapter, but pretty darned good. You know that the male Victorian poet is modeled on Browning ("the Great Ventriloquist")? Though his wife is clearly not modeled on Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

      Byatt's essays about writing are all worth reading, by the way.

    2. It just occurred to me that The Ring and the Book must now make up, in lines or pages, about 2/3 of all of the Robert Browning I have ever read. It kinda tips the scale.

    3. Certainly after The Ring &cet one can say one has read Browning, even if that's all one has read. It's a darned big book. I like epic poetry, though, so I'm having a fine time with it. It will be strange after this, I think, to read his shorter works (of which I've read maybe all of 25 pages (and at least eight of those were "The Pied Piper" which is great but not great, if you know what I mean)).

      I never thought I'd say "I like epic poetry." I'm still not reading the Morris, though.