Ring and the Book

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A poem in blank verse, in twelve books, by R. Browning, published 1868–9.

The ‘Ring’ of the title is a figure for the process by which the artist transmutes the ‘pure crude fact’ of historical events into living forms; the ‘Book’ is a collection of documents relating to the Italian murder trial of the late 17th cent. on which the poem is based. Browning found the volume on a market stall in Florence.

Pietro and Violante Comparini were a middle‐aged childless couple living in Rome whose income could only be secured after Pietro's death if they had a child; Violante bought the child of a prostitute. This child, Pompilia, was eventually married to Count Guido Franceschini, an impoverished nobleman from Arezzo. The marriage was unhappy, and the Comparini returned to Rome, where they sued Guido for the restoration of Pompilia's dowry on the grounds of her illegitimacy. Pompilia herself eventually fled from Arezzo in the company of a young priest, Giuseppe Caponsacchi. Guido pursued them and had them arrested on the outskirts of Rome; as a result, Caponsacchi was exiled to Civita Vecchia for three years, and Pompilia was sent to a convent while the lawsuits were decided. But then, because she was pregnant, she was released into the custody of the Comparini. A fortnight after the birth of her child, Guido and four accomplices murdered her and her putative parents. They were arrested and sentenced to death.

In Browning's poem, the story is told by a succession of speakers—citizens of Rome, the participants themselves, the lawyers, and the pope—each of whose single, insufficient perceptions combines with the others to form the ‘ring’ of the truth.

In its immense but ordered size and scope and in its rich evocation of time and place, the poem stands at the centre of Browning's achievement.

Subjects: Literature.

Reference entries

Robert Browning (1812—1889) poet

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