The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
"The Ring and the Book." No. II

by W. Osborne Brigstocke.
Volume 13, 1902, pg. 788-797

[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 Ring and the Book is a long dramatic narrative poem" by Robert Browning that "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 . . ."]

    "The World
    All ear and eye, with such a stupid heart
    To interpret ear and eye, and such a tongue
    To blame its own interpretation . . . . ."

The ashes of a judicial controversy which recently impassioned the greater part of Europe are hardly quenched, and the ins and outs of that celebrated trial are still fresh in our memories. Many men have formed an opinion, after weighing the reliable evidence for and against. But eminent thinkers and judges have apparently not been able to extract absolute truth, for opinion is still divided and the sentence was a compromise. No doubt the truth is educible, but no one has succeeded in persuading popular opinion that his solution is the true one.

[Perhaps the "judicial controversy" was the burglary trial of Harry Jackson, the first case where a suspect was convicted on the evidence of fingerprints in September 1902? This Parents Review article was published in October.]

In the same way, the events connected with the murder of Pompilia and her parents stirred up a discussion which might never have been settled had not the Pope ended it by condemning Count Guido and his accomplices. Public opinion was, as it always has been and always will be, apt to draw the wrong inferences from alleged facts, or else to assume a partial truth to be the whole truth, and then colour all the other facts to suit the first postulate. Others again of wider views and broader comprehension are able to see more or less of both sides of the question, which is the only road to take if truth be the goal sought after. But taking the right road will not lead us to the destination, if we have not strength to walk to the end. Thus it is not everyone can grasp truth even if the road thereto be discovered. The majority of mankind is liable to lay too much stress on one of the aspects of every debated question. One side of the argument is almost sure, for some reason or another, to appeal to their sense of justice or what they are pleased to consider their sense of right and wrong. Many factors conspire to produce this bias, and they may consist of the natural bent of character and of the mind, influences of passion or emotion, prompting of pity or sympathy, or even the chance guidance of fancy.

    "Because a fancy fit inclined that way."

Education is the most effective counterpoise to this tendency. The larger a man's views the better will he be able to sift the evidence, and the surer his judgment, the quicker will the chaff in the evidence disappear.

Besides this bias, which is quite innocent, there is an influence which leads us actually to distort facts without our fully realizing what we are doing. We all have met men who turned to facts in such a way as to be able to use them as proofs of some pet theory or assertion. The modification of truth is so slight and the conscience prick is so soon stilled as to be almost imperceptible. It is a subtle form of lying, if you will, but it is what Oliver Wendell Holmes called truth with the sharp corners rubbed off. We rub the hard blocks of truth into shapes that suit our purposes.

    "'Tis there--
    The instinctive theorizing whence a fact
    Looks to the eye as the eye likes the look."

Perhaps few would be so hard-hearted to accuse Tristram Shandy's father of wilfully distorting facts to prove his favourite theories, but no one can fail to see the point of the anecdotes of Trim's mortars and Dr. Slop's bridge. The same words or facts have not always the same meaning to different men. The subtleties of character, experience and environment must be thoroughly examined if we wish to reveal the hidden causes of the "difference in minds and difference in eyes that see the minds." This, however, is not what we wish to consider at present. We wish to look into the second, third, and fourth parts of "The Ring and the Book," and see what is to be found therein. These three books, "Half Rome," "Other half Rome," and "Tertium Quid," give the judgment of the population of Rome--the three verdicts, guilty, innocent, and not proven. The three books contains what Browning calls "The world's outcry."

    "Around the rush and ripple of any fact
    Fallen stonewise, plump on the smooth face of things;
    The world's guess, as it crowds the bank of the pool,
    At what were figures and substance by their splash:
    Then, by vibration in the general mind,
    At depth of deed already out of reach."

The last three lines contain the pith of the matter. "Half Rome," and "Other half Rome," are the judgments formed by the splash, "Tertium Quid" is the mere summing up of the general opinions, the review of the vibration in the general mind. The verdict of the Pope we purposely omit, for although it can be considered a part of the world's guess, it is the correct guess, and we shall therefore turn to the Pope after considering the erroneous or incomplete judgments.

We pointed out in a former essay that Browning intends us to look at the facts through other men's minds. It is not the facts that are the essential thing--it is the way in which they are seen. If our assertion was right we ought to be able to discover the tenor of the minds which express themselves in these three books. Let us therefore turn to "Half Rome" (Book II). The summary is given in Book I., line 847, &c.:--

    "Half Rome's feel after the vanished truth;
    Honest enough as the way is: All the same,
    Harbouring in the centre of its sense
    A hidden germ of failure, shy but sure,
    To neutralize that honesty and leave
    That feel for truth at fault, as the way is too. . . . ."

Enough: let us discover this hidden germ of failure before proceeding. It will be found in lines 209, 210, and 247.

    "Here's the worm i' the core, the germ
    O' the rottenness and ruin which arrived--
    . . . . . She (Violante) is the mischief."

Here is a judgement deliberately formed and it will be found to colour all the subsequent facts.

    "Some prepossession such as starts amiss
    By but a hair's breadth at the shoulder blade
    The arm o' the feeler, dip he ne'er so bold."

We might compare the verdict thus obtained to the doom in tragedy. It is the one fatal error which makes the catastrophe inevitable and the false start in an argument leads one inevitably far from the truth. Fatality in any guise is fascinating. But in this case it has all the charm of actuality. We experience the same thing ourselves every day. No true problem can be built on a false axiom or postulate, no true philosophy can be deduced from mistaken hypotheses, and no true life can be lived without the true foundation. In geometry we can, by inaccurately bisecting an angle, prove the truth of impossibilities. It was assumed that the earth was the centre of the universe; it followed that the sun went round the earth. Half the schisms in the church have sprung from the misinterpretation of a few words. In the same way Half Rome jumped at the conclusion that Violante was the mischief--a partial truth--and consequently failed to reach the truth.

The first fact we find distorted by this false assumption is the marriage of Pompilia. Whatever may have been the cause which urged it it is evident that Half Rome must find some motive which will discredit Violante. It comes to his mind readily--honest enough as it goes. It will be noticed that there is a slight inaccuracy in the account of Pietro's rainy days. These occurred before Pompilia's birth and not before her marriage--we can take Tertium Quid's word for it,

    "Pietro . . . . . this gift of God flung in his lap from over Paradise steadied him in a moment . . . . . all sort of self-denial was easy now for the child's sake . . . . . the debts were paid . . . . . the dowry set to grow."

This misinterpretation of the truth is very slight, but it was done on purpose (perhaps half unconsciously) in order to furnish some motive for the marriage which would throw all responsibility on Violante. Anyone failing to detect the error in the assertion must accept the deduction.

    "Her minnow was set wriggling on its barb
    And tossed to mid-stream."


    "Who but Violante sudden spied her prey?"

The next distorted fact is the secrecy of the marriage. The actual truth is almost given--only one fact transposed.

    "The Count was made woo, win, and wed at once."

Transposed is hardly the right word. The events in question admit of two interpretations. Either Guido made Pompilia marry him or Guido was made to marry her. It is clear which view "Half Rome" will take. It was all Violante's doing and the haste and secrecy were to be ascribed to her will also.

    "This did she lest the object of her game
    Guido the gulled one . . . . .
    Might count the cost before he sold himself."

One would think some allowance ought to be made for Violante's love for Pompilia. But there is no room for that here. If Violante is all the mischief--Pompilia is her bait; that is an inevitable deduction.

Equally inevitable is the account of the "Four months' probation" at Guido's house. Clearly the Comparini must be the party at fault and "Half Rome" ascribes to them all sorts of stuff and nonsense for which he probably ransacked his own brains.

How delightfully clear it is that the Comparini "Left their heart's darling, treasure of the twain" in that purgatory which they themselves could not endure. It is so evident and sweeping a conviction of Violante and her spouse that our friend "Half Rome" passes it over casually in order to pass on to still more convincing proofs, which will help us to "learn the Violante nature!" It is all plain sailing.

    "She got pricked in conscience . . . . . . confessed . . . . . why? . . . . prove they but Pompilia not their child--no child, no dowry . . . . . . the biter bit, do you see? . . . . . . us this your view? 'Twas Guido's anyhow and colourable . . . . ."

Colourable? Yes, and proven, if the postulate at the beginning were correct. It is quite pathetic to see "Half Rome" progressing so easily and smoothly; the facts are all there and so easily shaped to his sends. It is a smooth road to Hell--all down hill. "Half Rome" might almost have guessed he was going down hill and remembered that he had heard once that the only things worth doing were uphill work. But there is no hope for him. He told us at the beginning,

    "Case could not well be simpler--mapped, as it were
    We follow the murder's maze from source to sea,
    By the red line, past mistake: one sees indeed
    Not only how all was and must have been
    But cannot other than be to the end of time."

But does not the Pope say the same thing? Certainly.

    "Ungefähr sagt das der Pfarrer auch,
    Nur mit ein bischen andern Worten."

By true sweat of soul he (the Pope) has tried the question and now he says with confidence:

    "A mere dead man is Franceschini here . . . . .
    Therefore there is not any doubt to clear . . . . .
    Irresolute? . . . . Some surmise,
    Perchance, that since man's wit is fallible
    Mine may fail here? Suppose it so--
    What other should I say than 'God so willed.'
    Call ignorance my sorrow not my sin."

These side-lights ought to show up "Half Rome's" mind to some extent. We have followed his estimate of Violante far enough to prove that all facts are bound to issue from his mind bearing the stamp of this view, even to the ridiculous assumption that Violante had been stabbed in the face because "It was Violante gave the first offence, got therefore the conspicuous punishment." Such puerile inferences would seem very ridiculous did we not become accustomed to finding them in every chapter of history. "Half Rome's" narrow-mindedness is another characteristic, and we may infer that the stuff and nonsense ascribed to the Comparini was but a reflection of his own vulgar tastes.

Our friend reveals himself still further when he gives us "a touch of the daughter's quality," and an estimate of the man with the aureole--Canon Caponsacchi. It is not surprising that the dazzling purity of these two souls should be quite out of his ken. His opinions only reveal himself and have no other value for us. "Against their will men exhibit those decisive trifles by which character is read. But who judges? And what? Not our understanding. We do not read them by learning or craft. No; the wisdom of the wise man consists herein, that he does not judge them; he lets them judge themselves, and merely reads and records their own verdict." [Emerson--"Over Soul."] Let us take this advice and listen to "Half Rome" judging himself, merely keeping in mind the lines with which he ends up:

    "A matter I commend
    To the notice . . . . .
    Of a certain what's his name
    Somewhat too civil of eves, with lute and song
    About a house here, where I keep a wife."

This trivial fact gives the clue to many strange suppositions of his, such as the back-wounding calumny with which he strikes the white virtue of Canon Caponsacchi.

    "What with his daily duty at the church
    Nightly devoir where ladies congregate."

It is not difficult to see glimpses of his character at intervals during his description of "The incidents of flight, pursuit, surprise, capture, with hints of kisses all between." The whole thing is to him a broad farce and he would have praised Guido had he slain outright the Canon and Pompilia. He is one of those shallow-minded so-called harmless people. His false supposition about Violante leads him wrong to the very end--it was as we have seen inevitable. The scheme of the Comparini he supposed to have been to keep Guido's misery raw, and when they took Pompilia to their country house it was to "Trail the gauze wings yet again in the way of what new swimmer passed their stand." He begins to get out of his depth here, but he cannot stop. It is clear enough that the birth of Pompilia's child could not be a premeditated last drop of corrosive in Guido's wound. And yet he has the courage to call it "One master squeeze from screw. . . . . " What a preposterous idea! Had he not that goading view of the Violante nature he would hardly have failed to reflect that men cut free their souls from care in such a case, fly up in thanks to God, and he would have acknowledged that it would have been more natural if Guido had softened at the thought of the child.

We pity poor blind "Half Rome." It is so wide of the truth and unfortunately for himself has chanced on the ugly side of the feel for truth. "Other Half Rome" is more lucky. He has a glimpse of the true beauty of Pompilia--a vision he will remember all his life. His is the "opposite feel for truth with a like swerve, like unsuccess, or if success, but no skill but more luck this time through siding rather with the wife." "Other Half Rome" is a bachelor who has known worries of the same sort as those which forced Silas Marner [from the book by George Eliot] to migrate to Raveloe. He is an ardent and not narrow-minded Roman Catholic with worldly wisdom of a kind, flavoured with sentimentality. His attitude towards Pompilia smacks of bachelorhood. Book III. differs from Book II. mainly in that the guess at truth of "Other Half Rome" is almost correct, whereas "Half Rome" is on the wrong track from the very beginning. The mere fact of assuming the purity of Pompilia leads "Other Half Rome" to the first essential truth. This assumption corresponds to "Half Rome's" notion concerning Count Guido, and Browning takes pains to lay stress upon the fact that neither one judgment or the other is much more than the result of some chance influence. "Other Half Rome"--a pious sentimental bachelor--is carried away by the story Pompilia relates on her death bed. That he is quite unable to gauge the depths of that soul is proved by the fact that he entirely misunderstands Canon Caponsacchi. All is plain sailing until Caponsacchi meets him on the road and demands a judgment. This is to him "the tenebrific passage of the tale" and he loses his way in the dark. He struggles hard to reconcile Pompilia's purity with what he conceives to have Canon Caponsacchi's motives, but he can get no further than

    "Oh called innocent love I know!
    Only such scarlet fiery innocence
    As most folk would try to muffle up in shade."

It will be noticed that the germ which "Other Half Rome" takes to have been responsible for the whole tragedy is the fact that Comparini lacked an offspring, together with that reminder of this gnawing want--the yearly interest which Pietro possessed for lifetime. This is the real germ half suspected by "Half Rome," but not developed on account of the mistaken estimate of Violante. She was not wholly bad--not wicked--only weak and foolish, trying to obtain good by doing evil. The Comparini were as the Pope said, "sadly mixed natures, self-indulgent--yet self-sacrificing too." In "Other Half Rome's" case the real germ is not fully developed because Pompilia is over-rated. We do not mean that Pompilia was too highly praised by "Other Half Rome," but that the apparent grasp he has of that rarified purity is only the result of a swerve to that side of the truth. In the same way as "Half Rome" exaggerated Violante's defects, so did "Other Half Rome" happen to recognise as a swan which under ordinary circumstances he would have called a goose--see what he called the Canon! The greater portion of Book III. seems at first sight to be a correct guess--and so it is; but it is correct by mistake--the target was hit by a fluke.

Before passing on to Tertium Quid we would like to call attention to several beautiful passages which are worth of being noted again--our readers cannot have overlooked them. Lines 600 to 612 are more subtle than the greater part of "Other Half Rome's" reasoning. They show that the pious man who spoke the words, "She went to the best adviser--God," possessed also sufficient breadth of mind to say "But out of the world, who knows?"

We may hope that "Half Rome," who advised all whose wives are wooed "to take the old way, trod when men were men," heard the line,

    "Without revenge to humanize the deed."

If he did we have reason to trust that he never reiterated that advice! The many beautiful references to Pompilia we must not stop to consider to-day. There is however an epithet and also a simile which rightly belong to "Other Half Rome." We refer to the epithet "Unembarrassed as a fate" (Line 1079) which is a note fine enough by itself but of tragic grandeur in the chord in which it occurs. The simile refers to the dawning of motherhood in Pompilia and betrays a deep love of nature:

    ". . . . The strange and passionate precipitance
    Of maiden startled into motherhood
    Which changes body and soul by nature's law.
    So when the she-dove breeds, strange yearnings come
    For the unknown shelter by undreamed-of shores,
    And there is born a pulse in her heart
    To fight if needs be, though with flap of wing,
    For the wool-flock or the fur-tuft, though a hawk
    Contest the prize--wherefore, she knows not yet."

Lastly, comes Tertium Quid with the reasoned statement of the case. We have here, "Charity of candour history's soul," the critical mind in short, capable of grasping the whole question but not in every case able to draw the right inference. It should be remembered that this book serves as a foil to Book X., "The Pope." Tertium Quid and the Pope see both sides of the evidence, and when the latter claims to have toiled all day long over the pleadings and counter-pleadings, he has done no more than Tertium Quid who "knows as much about it as all of Rome." The difference lies in the results. It is a question of life and death for the Pope--he has God beside him and it is for Him he toils. Tertium Quid gives it his attention because it is the topic of the day, and confesses when he has finished "he has not so advanced himself." But it is not only in the minds of these two men that we find a marked contrast. It is also in the actual surroundings. The Pope is seen sitting in a bare room--nothing but a table, a chair, a few books, and a crucifix--with winter in his soul beyond the world's. We instinctively feel that the spiritual and intellectual world is the only reality on which he fixes his habitual gaze. The visible world is there, but it is only real in so far as it serves as an aid to guessing what shall be known hereafter. On the other hand Tertium Quid seems an essential factor of the world of fashion in which he moves. The whole scene is most vividly brought before us--it is perhaps the most attractive book from a histrionic point of view--and we are constantly reminded of Princes, Dukes, card tables, &c, by Tertium Quid's parenthetical remarks. There is a feeling of being hurried as we listen to the weighing of the evidence. We are reminded of the fixed time table of social engagements which prevents any of the more difficult questions from being pondered over. Half of them are left undecided, see lines 316 and 317, 632 and 633, 1114 to 1117, 1632 and 1633. Of course many of the doubtful questions are judged by the quick wit of Tertium Quid. He is free from the tendency of the populace to swerve to one side or other, and often hits the truth with nice exactitude, and when the question is left undecided he is usually on the right track.

Must we seek a moral in this book? Hardly. Besides we dislike looking for morals. If the book itself be not the moral, we would probably seek for one in vain. One might as well ask for the moral of an afternoon call. Browning no doubt had some very good reason for writing at length on one topic. No one can deny that he has done his part to make his book attractive. It remains therefore for us to give the book the leaven of our personality, without which it can never be of use to us. We all probably read it differently according to our education and mental faculties. To the store of facts which we all possess this book may add more or less, subject to our intellectual capacity. After reading the three books we have been discussing, we shall have had, so to speak, three long interviews--two out of doors and one in an aristocratic drawing room. Do you never return home after an afternoon's talking and feel that you might have employed your time better elsewhere? You will not close these books with the same feeling.

Typed by Noella M., Feb. 2021; Proofread by LNL, Apr. 2021