The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
"The Ring and the Book." No. I
[William Osborne Brigstocke edited an edition of Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well in 1904 and helped translate Dietzel's Retaliatory Duties. He was a member of the Unionist Free Trade Club]
[Wikipedia says, "The book tells the story of a murder trial in Rome in 1698, whereby an impoverished nobleman, Count Guido Franceschini, is found guilty of the murders of his young wife Pompilia (Comparini) and her parents, having suspected his wife was having an affair with a young cleric, Giuseppe Caponsacchi. . . . Browsing in a flea market in Florence in 1860, Browning came across a large volume of these written [witness] statements relating to the 1698 Franceschini case, and bought it on the spot. This volume -- later known as the Yellow Book, after the colour of its aged covers -- struck Browning as an excellent basis for a poem . . ."]
The Cloud Scene in Hamlet (III., 2) is one of the most beautiful illustrations of the difference in the eyes, both bodily and mental, of human beings. The fact that the cloud might be equally well described as being in shape like a camel, a weasel, or a whale, accounts for, thought it does not explain, the perplexing difficulties we invariably encounter when we try to dogmatise; or, to put it another way, when we try to get a foothold on truth. The truth exists, we know. It is the best thing in the world, better than our dearest friend. This we know intuitively. But it is only experience can teach us that truth is beyond our grasp. We discover sooner or later that truth lies nowhere "absolutely." "Wahrheit und Dichtung" might be taken for the definition of man's intellectual achievements, and this is the keynote of "The Ring and the Book." "Prime nature with an added artistry," is Browning's way of expressing it. He who knows this book will be able to recall many other sentences clothing the same idea--it is, as we have said, the keynote not only of this wonderful book, but of all Browning's poetry. We have been told that "The Ring and the Book" is never likely to be widely read, generally read. Perhaps not. But it is hardly credible that such a mine of wisdom should remain unexploited. Nay, more--it is quite impossible. The truth will be extracted--how and by whom it matters not--but to the surface it will be brought and turned into the current coin of English thought. Much has already been written on this most engrossing subject, but much still remains to be said, and, if we may venture to say so, more than enough will be said. Writing is a vice of this age of criticism. Not being able to produce, men turn their hands to writing about what has already been produced: often, we acknowledge, bestowing much valuable information upon their fellow-men; often, we regret to note, to no apparent purpose whatever, if it be not a warning to all would-be critics. Let us, at any rate, consider it a warning, and refrain from criticism of any sort. Our object will be to lead our readers down into the galleries of this mine, where they will, perhaps, allow us to show them the treasures we have discovered, and to give them in that way an incentive to dig in other directions for themselves. They to whom the precious stones of this book already belong will, we hope, follow us also, not unwilling to revisit the familiar road from Arezzo to Rome.
The title is a striking one, explained, as we shall find, in Book I. A description is there given of the finding of the old Yellow Book, containing a detailed account of "a Roman murder case." It was in this yellow book that Browning detected gold, and this same gold he turned into a ring such as we all may wear. We have a book before us--a long book--and if we read it carefully we will find that when we reach the end we shall be at the point from which we started--the "C major of this life"--the level of to-day. We shall have been led "to the summit of so long ago," whence we shall have seen "the wide prospect round." It will have been our privilege once more to accompany a poet to a higher platform and obtain a better view of life. We shall have watched life as in a camera obscura, with Browning for our showman. We shall "go feast again on sward, though cognizant of country in the clouds higher than wistful eagle's horny eye ever unclosed for, . . . and he died, heaven, save by his heart, unreached." (Book I., line 1340.) "Save by his heart." True. Heaven is reached by the heart; and Browning is not the first whose heart was strong enough to bear himself and others to heaven. Shakespeare and Goethe--how many thousands have been taught to reach heaven by these men? But why consider mortals? Do not we know that
Turn now to those well-known lines which close the first Book, beginning, "O Lyric Love, half angel and half bird," . . . . and with these words ringing in your ears set out with us towards the summit of so long ago.
The first passage which calls for comment begins at line 698 of Book I. and ends at line 772. With this we must read lines 1308 to 1450 of Book X. These will suffice to show us a portion of the prospect round.
Why did Browning write the poem? Granted the story he found in the old Yellow Book contained gold, why did Browning trundle us back to that so distant past? The answer is not far to seek.
Browning here found a half burnt-out wick; he breathed on it and mimicked creation. He did so because man is formed to try and make, else fail to grow: formed to rise, reach at, if not grasp and gain, the good beyond him--which attempt is growth. Let us pause and consider. We have here a definition of the law of man's being. Browning has elsewhere told us that we are on the earth to grow. Here he tells us what this growth is. Reach at the good beyond us--it is an old message, no doubt--the pure Gospel of Jesus, and it would not be difficult to cite from all the moral teachers who have comprehended the Christian ideal, passages containing the same truth in other setting. Truth? Yes, but only partial truth; for, mark, it is an attempt: it involves a failure. The attempt is growth, and it is a mystery of our nature that we must ever attempt and never succeed. Anything worth striving for is impossible. "Den lieb' ich, der Unmögliches begehrt!" exclaims Manto to Faust and it is "the heroic for earth too hard" which constitutes the superiority of those few whom God whispers in the ear. Who are those few? Let us describe them as men with "surplusage of soul." Poets, musicians, artists, Christians--these are the few whose duty it is to use their surplusage of soul--their ten talents--for making new beginnings, starting the dead alive, completing the incomplete. "The poet should be as vigorous as a sugar maple, with sap enough to maintain his own verdure besides what runs in the troughs," says Thoreau, expressing the same idea. Browning tells us that he has chanced upon this fragment of a whole--even the old Yellow Book. Why a fragment? Because forgotten and almost dead, half burnt out. After reading "The Ring and the Book," go and read the old Yellow Book (it is, if we mistake not, at Balliol College, Oxford), and you will obtain a forcible illustration of the risen book, the breathed-on wick. The story of Elisha will be sure to rise in your minds, and your heards will endorse the sentence,--
Here then we have clearly enough a desciption of the law which must guide all who possess "more insight and more outsight and more will to use both of these than boast other men." They are the prophets. But what of the rank and file? Does the foregoing also apply to those with five talents or one talent? Yes, and No. What do we mean by man? Ask Sir William Hamilton: "In the world there is nothing great but man; and in man there is nothing great but mind." We mean by man his mind, and to understand what we mean by mind, let us turn to the well-known lines of George Herbert:--
to complement which, find the following in Paracelsus [Part V., 691. Dent & Co. 1898.]: "some point where all those scattered rays should meet convergent in the faculties of man." And with these two passages in our heads, let us turn to the words of The Pope, line 1311, already alluded to:--
Want of space constrains us to refrain from quoting further. But you must not stop there: read on, read the whole of that inspired passage ending at line 1332. And while you are busy reading, we appeal to those friends of Browning's who know the words by heart. Is it not one of the finest things he ever wrote? Is it not a living example of what it propounds? All the world's riches lie in that song of praise--that wonderful epithet of the vocative "O thou!" Do we not deal here with a power which is gigantic, a conception which sweeps from pole to pole and embraces the whole galaxy of "our known unknown," a guess at what shall be known hereafter, such as brings round the heart "a most dizzy pain." Yes; we may here recall Aprile's longing wish:--
Yes. "Conjecture of the worker by the work."
But stop; you must not read the passage a second time now, or we shall never reach our destination. At the earliest opportunity learn it by heart--you will then be allowed to know what we and Browning's friends have been talking about. You, no doubt, found much in that short passage, but we cannot stop to consider everything. Let us only take the following points. Instead of reconsidering the Pope's reflection on man's mind, turn to Hamlet, II., 2:--"What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason," . . . etc.--you known the rest; but instead of terminating the thought in the same way as did Hamley, let us return to the old Pope who will suggest two noteworthy ideas in the following lines--
Later on we will revert to the lines--"Why live except for love: how love unless they known?" But for the present let us limit ourselves to the first two thoughts. In our quiet moments when we stand face to face with the dark mystery of our being--we who are in the midst of the sandy waste which lies between the two great unknowns, no longer blessed with the lingering aureole of heaven which hovered round our childish heads, not yet able to smile the sweet smile of second childhood when the breakers of the further shore are faintly heard--we who sometimes almost lose sight of the "Sinking Star" and hear a laughing ghost giggle "In vain,"--have we not acquired a habit of waiting till the sandstorm of doubt be passed and then seek refreshment
And what does this mean, if not that we who have been made in the image of God must live our atom lives in fellowship with God, must mimic God in as far as our conceptions of God allow, and, like Him, look at the world as a whole, to the extent of our length and breadth--"due facet of reflection." The image already quoted--"The country in the clouds," furnishes an excellent illustration. Twice a day the clouds are transfigured, they put on a heavenly apparel of exquisite loveliness, and though during the day an artist's eye loves to gaze on the subtleties of colour which adorn the meanest cloud, "the general" is unable to see anything but what might be termed every-day clouds. Thus it is in spiritual things--once or twice a day we are permitted to wander in those cloudlands which are so real--amongst those "battlements that on their restless fronts bear stars"--and, although drudgery may seem divine to the eyes that can see, the world loves the level, corn and wine, and seldom stays to think, so the unsuspected flowers droop in God's sight only, earth's greatest work unseen, and until man goeth to his long home he is still toiling, toiling, toiling in the darkness, still learning the hard lesson which he mutters with his dying breath--
If Browning has mimicked creation he will have given us in this book a diminutive world, to enable us to grasp the whole, and he will have taught us to realize that--"so we are made, such a difference in minds, such difference too in eyes that see the mind." We hasten to explain what we mean by a diminutive world in the case of Browning. It is a world entirely different to Shakespeare's. In Shakespeare's world we see the people act, in the "Ring and the Book" we see them look--we look at the world through their eyes. Shakespeare leads us through the world and shows us type after type--never the same type twice--live and move as if living indeed. Browning leads us into men's and women's minds, we can almost fancy we see the works, and the world is seen successively through different coloured glass. Here then are the two thoughts suggested by the Pope--the diminutive world, and the different coloured glass.
But before leaving these suggestions to watch the course of that tragic history through a dozen pair of eyes--the same history seen differently, let us revert to that sentence--"Why live except for love--How love unless they know?" Which naturally recalls the parallel:
and the many other passages in which Browning speaks of love. It would perhaps seem superfluous to recall these well-known passages did we not have in view another part of Book X, namely: Lines 1357, etc., down to "An isoscele deficient in the base"; the deficiency is owing to a want of goodness--a want which, as Browning often reminds us ["Other Half Rome," lines 100-102: "Gold Hair, etc."], will exist to the end of time.
He then asks:
That is very lovely and is surely a sufficient guarantee to any earnest enquirer after truth if he can form an estimate of the way in which Browning is likely to have developed this idea. Suffice to say that we have found the book so full of riches that the more we read it the more we love it--the more we find in it what can be considered the very essence of Browning's spirit--an essence which has perhaps been hidden away in this case more than in the more popular (and deservedly popular poems) but for that very reason all the more precious when found.
The canvas on which the poet has embroidered is the story of the murder of Pompilia and her reputed parents, Pietro and Violante, by Count Guido, the husband of the young bride and mother after her abduction by Canon Caponsacchi. These five, together with two priests, relations of Count Guido's, four murderers, his accomplices, and the Pope, are the leading actors in the drama. We live the tragedy over again, but, as has already been pointed out, Browning's chief object is to show us how different people saw the events and what they thought of them and of the motives of the actors.
The atmosphere in which the Pope moves--the colour of the glass through which he looks, is pure white--the white which comes from the combination of all colours. His eyes will show you the case in its best and wisest light. It is the ultimate judgment save yours.
Equally pure and ethereal is the atmosphere of Pompilia and Caponsacchi. We are here treading on holy ground. The feeling is sublime, just as the spiritual wisdom of the Pope is supreme. A distinction might be drawn between the natural innocence of Pompilia--a lovely blossom struck so suddenly by such a withering blast--and the conscious purity of the priest "drunk with truth" and scathed to the depth of his soul by emotion. Who has read "Pompilia" and has not given that poor child a prominent place in his or her affections? Was the critic expressing a private experience who said that the touching beauty of that book dazzled him, or was he only one of the first to notice what all after him would feel? We ourselves can turn to many parts of "The Ring and the Book" when no other book can tempt us, and the tender resignation and peaceful plaint of that dying girl are a ceaseless charm. We see that pathetic figure whose "sorrows change into not altogether sorrow like"; we watch the sun set and hear her whisper,--
--(a lovely echo of Gaunt's dying words.--Rich. II., Act II., I), and we watch the slow ebb of that life--not in privacy, but in peace--of one who is used to bear and only unused to the brotherly look, to any kindness save from that one soul who was her spring. We listen to the confession of the first dawn of Motherhood, and how it lent new energy blent with absolute trust in God. And then the looking back and seeing all one milky way--everything shining in the light of Caponsacchi--such an exquisite purity of love without congener--a most perfect spiritual union.
and ever and anon the plaintive cry of weakness--"We poor weak souls, how we endeavor to be strong!" The atmosphere of that death-bed was as appalling as is the face of virtue. The nobility and purity of that girl's feeling is such that few can realize its beauty--how beautiful must have been the mind that conceived it!
Equally rarified, though differently so, is the tone and feeling in Caponsacchi. He is what now takes the place of Saint George and the white-winged angels which we see no more. His is the hand which is put into another's hand--"Which leads one forth gently towards a calm and bright land so that one looks no more backward" . . . . (Silas Marner, ch. XIV.) He was a true disciple of Christ, "whose form of worship was self-sacrifice," a man who had been trained to live on beauty and spendour solely at their source--God, Who saw at the first glance
And his were the words whose power cowed even those worldly judges of the court:--
We leave these "human forms divine" to hear what the world of average scope of minds thinks of them. We are not surprised to find that the spiritual intensity is quite beyond its comprehension. We follow with sympathy the overshot opinions of laymen and lawyers, for and against, and also the opinion of the refined aristocracy of the world, serving as a foil to the aristocracy of the mind, as represented by the Pope. Lastly, we shall look through Count Guido's coloured glass, the subtle analysis of whose mind has given ample rein to Browning's psychological powers. Browning's sympathy for wrong-doers was intense--the sympathy not of weakness but of strength. He leads us through the intracacies of that murderer's soul, making us realise that "one heart lies beneath and that is good, as are all hearts when we explore their depth." We are made to grasp the motives which lead to the crime; we watch the deed begin and see the inevitableness of the end growing clearer. His individuality is bolted to the bran when we reach the words--
We cannot now stop to consider the full meaning of that analysis--that wonderful story of a dark life from which we part in the dungeon cell, where, in the dim light and filthy straw, stood Count Guido's proud relatives--two ecclesiastics--come to wring a full confession from him. As the curtain falls we hear the psalms of those who have been waiting outside to lead him he knows whither. We leave the scene with his agonized groans sounding in our ears:--
We leave these harassing thoughts, and, after listening to the sermon of the bare-foot Augustinian in the church of San Lorenzo--which you will have noticed contains the keynote not only of his own life but also of Pompilia's--return to the level of to-day, wearing, if you care to, the ring in which are set so many lovely stones, clipping about the central constellation--the Pope and Caponsacchi--peerless diamonds on either side of Pompilia, the "stone which, dewdrop at the first, sucks, by dint of gaze, blue from the sky and turns to sapphire so."
Typed by Noella M. April 2021, Proofread by LNL, April 2022
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