The Ring and the Book
The Ring and the Book is a poem of twelve books by Robert Browning, running to over 21,000 lines (twice the length of Paradise Lost), in which nine different characters relate or review the events of a 17th century murder case from their own perspective. Each has a book of the poem devoted to his or her monologue, one of the characters speaking twice. Browning, in his own voice, adds introductory and concluding books, making up the twelve.
The source of the poem
In Book I Browning describes how he purchased the "old square yellow book" from a stall in Florence in June 1860. It was a compilation, put together (probably) by a Florentine lawyer, of printed law-pleadings, pamphlets and hand-written material, partly in legal Latin, partly in Italian. According to him, he read it straight through without a pause.
As for the ring, Browning describes how a ring of "slivers of pure gold" is made by mixing gold with an alloy to support it while working it, but once that is done, "just a spirt/O' the proper fiery acid o'er its face/And forth the alloy unfastened flies in fume", leaving the ring - an analogy for the work done in producing poetry from "pure crude fact" of the book.
Book I. The Ring and the Book Following his explanation of the title (see above), and his account of purchasing the book, Browning sets out some facts of the case. The impoverished Count Guido Franceschini of Arezzo marries the supposed daughter of a Roman bourgeois couple, Pietro and Violante Comparini, Francesca Pompilia (the legal documents call her Francesca throughout, Browning always uses her second name Pompilia). Pietro and Violante go to Arezzo to live in the Franceschini family house, but after falling out with him return to Rome and start proceedings for the return of the dowry, alleging that Pompilia is actually a prostitute's daughter. Later, Pompilia flees Arezzo in the company of Canon Giuseppe Caponsacchi. Guido catches up with them, but not before they have reached the Roman jurisdiction. In the trial that follows, Caponsacchi is ordered into internal exile for three years, and Pompilia is confined to a convent, though later allowed to return to the home of the Comparini for the birth of her son. Here Guido, with four followers, gets entry to the house, kills the Comparini and mortally wounds Pompilia. He and his followers are captured, tried and executed.
Book II. Half-Rome While the trial is pending, an anonymous speaker, being also, like Guido, an older man with a younger wife, interprets the events as a partisan of Guido.
Book III. The Other Half-Rome Someone who has been to see Pompilia on her death-bed and has been captivated by her, tells the story as her supporter.
Book IV. Tertium Quid A fashionable social climber tries to impress his superiors with his knowledge of the case and his balanced judgment on it.
Book V. Count Guido Franceschi appearing before his judges (having been tortured), cunningly vindicates himself.
Book VI. Giuseppe Caponsacchi before the same judges, attacks them for their previous judgment on the case, following Pompilia's flight, and gives a bold account of events and Pompilia's purity.
Book VII. Pompilia dying, much concerned about her new-born son, gives her own account of events, not totally consistent with Caponsacchi's. For Browning one of the key documents in the Old Yellow Book was the attestation of various priests attending Pompilia's death-bed, as to her virtuous and modest nature. From this he builds up his depiction of her character.
Books VIII and IX. Between the two high points of the poem comes the comic interlude of the two lawyers, Dominus Hyacinthus de Arcangelis for the defence, and Doctor Johannes-Baptista Bottinius for the prosecution, both made ludicrous, often by literal translation of the pleadings in the Old Yellow Book.
Book X. The Pope Guido, on condemnation, pleaded clerical privilege. The Pope, Innocent XII, who overruled this, is depicted as reflecting on the case, on his own nearness to death, and on Pompilia's saintliness.
Book XI. Guido in the condemned cell on the eve of execution, tries to persuade himself that there is hope of reprieve, revealing more and more of himself, to the horror of his confessors, and finally appealing to God and Pompilia.
Book XII. The Book and the Ring wraps up the loose ends of the story. Browning ends by alluding to the inscription which the poet Tommaso Tommasei wrote for the villa where the Brownings had lived in Florence: "Here wrote and died Elizabeth Barrett Browning . . . who made of her verse a golden ring linking Italy and England."
With the same story being repeated so many times, Browning demonstrates his ability to depict character through monologue, as well as illuminating different facets of the tale. Books II, III, IV, VIII and IX are largely satirical in character, and occasionally in them the poet gets carried away into an excess of words, but each does add a new perspective. The more remarkable books are those which depict believably virtuous people: Caponsacchi, Pompilia, and the Pope.