Friday, October 10, 2014

"One might wait years and never find the chance which now finds me!" Browning, at work and play

Where am I in The Ring and the Book? I'm in Book IX, I see, which means that I've finished Book VIII, the tale of Dominus Hyacinthus de Archangelis, the "protector of the poor," the lawyer Guido Franceschini has hired to defend him against multiple murder charges. Hyacinth is spending the day writing up his initial notes for the brief he'll submit to the court, lining up his arguments, marshalling some pithy and poetical Latin phrases. He tries to focus on the job at hand, which is a difficult task because it is the eighth birthday of his son, a boy the lawyer dotes upon, and all sorts of festivities and foodstuffs are planned for the evening. But Hyacinth is glad to have this case
Now, how good God is! How falls plumb to point
This murder, gives me Guido to defend
Now, of all days i’ the year, just when the boy
Verges on Virgil, reaches the right age
For some such illustration from his sire,
Stimulus to himself! One might wait years
And never find the chance which now finds me!
The fact is, there’s a blessing on the hearth,
A special providence for fatherhood!
Here's the opportunity to shine, to show his son How It's Done, a chance to face off against Johannes-Baptista Bottinius, the advocate for the prosecution and Dom Hyacinth's adversary. Hyacinth has a low opinion of Bottinius and Guido's case is a public stage whereon Hyacinth can show his brilliance at law and rhetoric, outfoxing and outarguing Bottinius, who will of course look a real fool when Hyacinth is done with him. Oh, what larks for our Protector of the Poor! Does it matter that Guido is guilty as charged? No, it does not, because Hyacinth will argue for an acquittal despite all the facts of the case. He plans to be brilliant and witty and dazzling and thus win the field. That Guido has actually admitted to hiring four armed thugs and with them butchering his estranged wife (and her adopted parents into the bargain) is beside the point. Dom Hyacinth will walk the court through the morality of the case, and show them their obligation to set the perpetrators free. This case can all be assembled in an afternoon, and then there will be birthday cake and roast porcupine and games for the children. This victory, in fact, will be dedicated to Hyacinth's son. So there, old Bottinius!
I defend Guido and his comrades — I!
Pray God, I keep me humble: not to me —
Non nobis, Domine, sed tibi laus!
How the fop chuckled when they made him Fisc!
We’ll beat you, my Bottinius, all for love,
All for our tribute to Cinotto’s day!
The heart of Hyacinth's defense is a complicated argument that says, essentially, that because Christ forbids the stoning of adulterous wives, and because Canon law forbids the divorcing of adulterous wives, and because Roman civil law forbids the slaying of adulterous wives, there is no legal recourse for poor Count Guido, an otherwise upstanding citizen who believes his wife has had an adulterous affair with a handsome young priest (and it doesn't matter if this belief is untrue, because Guido acted on his beliefs, as do we all and what choice have we?). The law leaves Guido no way to defend his honor! What's a dishonored nobleman to do? Friends, Romans, countrymen, et alia, there was nothing for it but for Guido to step beyond the bounds of the law, to do the work of the law in preserving civil order, to execute the bawd and her lying parents since nobody else was going to do it. Yes, gentlemen, Guido was forced to take this drastic step; you can't really blame him.
Why cite more? Enough
Is good as a feast —(unless a birthday-feast
For one’s Cinuccio: so, we’ll finish here)
My lords, we rather need defend ourselves
Inasmuch as for a twinkling of an eye
We hesitatingly appealed to law —
Rather than deny that, on mature advice,
We blushingly bethought us, bade revenge
Back to the simple proper private way
Of decent self-dealt gentlemanly death.
Judges, there is the law, and this beside,
The testimony! Look to it!
Hyacinth spends some time working out the best poetic language in which to couch his argument, which is important here because one of the three judges bases his decisions more upon the beauty of the language than on the facts of the case, but the law must be actually addressed because a second judge cares nothing for the prose style and everything for the form of the law if not the spirit of it. So Hyacinth must think this all through. "Virgil is little help to who writes prose." Cicero, though, is a great aid, we learn.

We also learn more facts about the case. Guido, it turns out, had a loaded pistol with him when he followed Pompilia's flight away from his castle. Malice aforethought. And those four henchmen, to whom Guido had promised payment in gold once the deed was done? They were, at the time of their arrest, planning the murder of Guido himself, Guido who it turns out had decided not to pay them after all. You might say that Guido is a dishonest old dog, but Dom Hyacinth will argue the opposite:
What fact could hope to make more manifest
Their rectitude, Guido’s integrity?
He, dreaming of no argument for death
Except the vengeance worthy noble hearts,
Would be to desecrate the deed forsooth,
Vulgarise vengeance, as defray its cost
By money dug out of the dirty earth,
Mere irritant, in Maro’s phrase, to ill?
What though he lured base hinds by lucre’s hope —
The only motive they could masticate,
Milk for babes, not stong meat which men require?
The deed done, those coarse hands were soiled enough,
He spared them the pollution of the pay.
Oh, wise Guido, to keep his henchmen so morally upright! All of this sideways logic is part of Hyacinth's overall tactic, "You perceive, the cards are all against us. Make a push, kick over table, as our gamesters do!" Hyacinth keeps kicking over the table, keeps claiming that the game is different from the one the court thought it was playing, and that the pieces were not set up on the board the way we supposed they were. He can't argue the law, or the evidence, but Dom Hyacinth can certainly argue. And he does. Great, great fun. The bit where he claims that Pompilia is dead because the Court didn't lock her up to protect her from her vengeful husband, that's good stuff.


  1. Great piece - I loved this chapter, yet wrote almost nothing about it. Just poked at it.

    1. Thanks. This is probably the last Ring and the Book post I'll write. When Browning is finished with me, I plan to retreat immediately into Chekhov and Ruskin.

    2. The chapter after this, the Bottinius brief, starts strong with the image of a painter making studies for a large work, but the prosecutor lacks the focused energy of Hyacinthus and he runs out of steam after he confesses that he can only give us Pompilia, the whole family being beyond his capacity to portray. There is, after that, page upon page of him stipulating to all kinds of facts that you'd think would weaken his case but actually don't. I thought he'd be boring after Hyacinthus' crackling wit, but he turns out to be a lot brighter than the procurator of the poor.

      What's impressive is Browning's strategy with these two characters: Hyacinth, who talks mostly about the legal profession (that is, how impressed he is with his own cleverness), manages to fill in the reader's picture of Guido and situates him culturally within a still-violent Italy; Bottinius alleged focus is how saintly Pompilia is, but he manages to fill in the reader's picture of the way good lawyers work. So that's a nifty sort of inverted parallel narrative structure in the two lawyers' chapters.