Friday, October 17, 2014

Perversely 'neath the tower

So what exactly is The Ring and the Book? A very very long poem, but it's also similar to a novel in the way it develops, the story told over time with flashbacks and new information coming in each chapter. It's also similar to a theatrical drama, each "act" being a long dramatic monologue delivered by one of the central characters. That might be the best way to look at this thing. The story each of these characters tells is more or less the same story, and the individual variations and interpretations of that story are not important because of what we might learn of the crime and subsequent trial upon which the whole poem is based, but because of what we might learn of the characters who deliver these monologues. This is a work about people, not about jurisprudence.

I'm in the middle of Book X, the dramatic monologue delivered by Pope Innocent XII, and it's here where Browning finally really tips his hand. The subject of The Ring &cet is not the crime story, but rather it's the relationship of man to God, of how one chooses to live in the world. The Pope has judged against Guido, and will not overturn the court's death sentence. Why? Because Guido should've known better--no, did know better--than to place his greed and pride above the commandments of Christ:
Wherein I see a trial fair and fit
For one else too unfairly fenced about,
Set above sin, beyond his fellows here,
Guarded from the arch-tempter, all must fight,
By a great birth, traditionary name,
Diligent culture, choice companionship,
Above all, conversancy with the faith
Which puts forth for its base of doctrine just
"Man is born nowise to content himself
But please God." He accepted such a rule,
Recognised man’s obedience;
Guido is only able to appeal his case to the Pope because Guido has taken a few vows--he's a member of a minor religious order, a lay minister of a sort. The irony is that Guido is appealing to a man who sees through the hypocrisy of Guido's sham religious leanings, a Pope who condemns Guido for being a hypocrite:
Professed so much of priesthood as might sue
For priest’s-exemption where the layman sinned —
Got his arm frocked which, bare, the law would bruise.
Hence, at this moment, what’s his last resource,
His extreme stray and utmost stretch of hope
But that — convicted of such crime as law
Wipes not away save with a worldling’s blood —
Guido, the three-parts consecrate, may ’scape?
This is the man proves irreligiousest
Of all mankind, religion’s parasite!
This may forsooth plead dinned ear, jaded sense,
The vice o’ the watcher who bides near the bell,
Sleeps sound because the clock is vigilant,
And cares not whether it be shade or shine,
Doling out day and night to all men else!
Why was the choice o’ the man to niche himself
Perversely ’neath the tower where Time’s own tongue
Thus undertakes to sermonise the world?
Why, but because the solemn is safe too
Pope Innocent XII is an old man, 86 years, and he is tired. He doesn't look forward to writing the note that will affirm Guido's execution, but he knows he will do it. He puts off writing this little sentence, tells himself that he knows he might be mistaking the character of Guido but he's only got as much sense as God has given him and he's using that sense as well as he can and what else can he do? He thinks about sin, and goodness, and good Pompilia who was murdered by prideful, greedy Guido and the Pope transforms the dishonest, legalistic briefs of the lawyers into some kind of truth about real humans. He brings Guido and Pompilia back to life for the reader of the poem, working the same sort of magic Browning himself works for us. This might be my last post about The Ring and the Book. You'll be glad to hear that.


  1. Some people might be glad, I'll grant that.

    The Pope chapter is amazing - but Book 11, hoo boy!

    1. “On receipt of this command, acquaint Count Guido and his fellows four they die to-morrow: could it be to-night, the better, but the work to do, takes time."

      That's a pretty damning and powerful little note the Pope scribbles at the end of his chapter. The directness of it is shocking after the long philosophical musings. I was delighted, I must say.

      Guido, yeah, he's a real piece of work, ain't he? A real monomaniac. "I will tell His Holiness what His job is, and he will do it, by God." Hohoho, Guido. What fantastic lack of self awareness that guy's got. His chapter's long, too. I don't know if I can survive 50+ pages of Guido's self-righteous anger.

    2. I finished Guido's second book last night. Hoo boy is right. I especially loved his offer to murder the first six cardinals in line to the papacy in exchange for cardinal number seven's help in escaping. That was a nice touch. The bit about how he hopes he can torture Pompilia in the next world was good, too. Good and creepy. What a piece of work.

  2. Glad to hear that? Ney, not so, good sir. I've enjoyed your postings about one of my favorite poets. But I confess that I have not summoned up the kind of commitment you have had for Browning's long, long, poem. Although I am tempted to follow your lead, I admit that I am more of a short-attention-span reader these days. And that reminds me of students who would complain about reading "My Last Duchess." For them, they said, it was too long. Ah, the perspectives of undergraduates. Yikes. In any case, I've enjoyed your postings. Well done!

    1. It's not like I've spent the last month and a half exclusively in Browning's company. I've been reading him in the evenings, mostly. In the afternoon I read Benito Perez Galdos' 1859 novel Nazarin, at lunch I read short stories in German, and this weekend I read the first half of Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King. That's a book I might post about. It's a wild cross between Nabokov, Rabelais, John Hawkes (who, yes, came later) and H. Rider Haggard. Really it is. Sheer lunacy in exploding prose. We'll see. Ta for reading about Browning, though. I've written a lot more about this book than I thought I would. This is what comes from blogging while one reads rather than after one finishes a book: a lot of long and wandering wondering.