The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Ring and the Book (An Appreciation.)
by E. A. Skurray
[from Wikipedia: Browning's The Ring and 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. Having been found guilty despite his protests and sentenced to death, Franceschini then appeals—unsuccessfully—to Pope Innocent XII to overturn the conviction." Pompilia, the divinely angelic child-bride, had been abused by her husband and was fleeing from him for the sake of her unborn baby with the help of the cleric.] [Readers of The Love Letters of Mr. and Mrs. Browning will discover whence the poet drew his inspiration for Pompilia.]
A Human Document! such it does indeed deserve to be called, with its marvellous knowledge of the human heart. Once attack it boldly, and it cannot fail to command the most intense interest of thoughtful minds. We feel it is destined to immortality: "It lives—if precious be the soul of man to man." In it we find the keenest analysis of character and motive, the most subtle of psychological dissertations.
When it first appeared, Swinburne tells us, it was received with a burst of surprise and wonder: to quote his own words—and we remember he is himself a master of form—"The greatness of so colossal a masterpiece, the masterpiece of so great a genius! As the whole world of English readers rose to acclaim on the appearance of The Ring and the Book."
"The masterpiece of a master" describes it exactly; yet it is quite possible we may have shrunk from the study of it as a whole, partly because it is so long, and long things get crowded out; then, the method of Browning employs is so entirely original and the average reader shrinks from the unfamiliar, for it is neither a drama nor an epic. He takes the story, the tragedy, and give us types of the world's opinion from different sides and points of view: it is a style which, in a master's hand, can be made intensely dramatic.
This is the poet's way of sifting the truth, and then he pronounces a final judgment, which is virtually done in the person and office of the grand old Pope. As Dean Church says, [in his Life, by his Daughter.] "In such piercing insight into human realities, such magnanimity, there is the awfulness and certainty of Divine judgment."
Another obstacle is that old cry about "obscurities," of which some of us are a little tired. Obscurities no doubt there are, but they are by no means so numerous as many would have us believe. A great portion of this poem is quite clear, and reminds us of a mighty river flowing on until it mingles with the ocean of eternal verities. It demands our close attention from the very fullness of its flood-tide. There are also the many side issues, with which readers of Browning are so familiar—more especially in Books VIII and IX, when the nimble-witted counsel dart off into all kinds of allusions, personal and otherwise. That parts are unequal, that it may sometimes be possible to criticize the rhythm, is no doubt true, but the dramatic power is so great that you are simply carried away—you forget to criticize, for you are in a master's hand who plays on your heart-strings as he will.
We purpose to follow the story in the poet's own way. First, we have the well-known facts of the old book, picked up in Florence—the effect it had on Browning—how it took possession of him:—
A spirit laughs and leaps in every limb
How quaint the conception of the ring—the gold of Truth wrought into form through the alloy of Fancy. He bids us "hold that figure fast." His passion—the fire which melted the gold ore, his genius—the artificer who moulded, transformed it, till
Fancy with fact is just one fact the more,
But we must be prepared for the usual Browning eccentricities; as Dean Church has told us, he not only does not always sing with his poet's robes about him, "but even sometimes in his shirt-sleeves, making faces at us "1; like Dante, he uses words however uncouth if they best express his meaning. Many passages might be quoted. Take these:—
"The broken sword has served to stir a Jakes." . . . "Mimic the tetchy humour, furtive glance." . . . "Lay fitful in a tenebrific time." . . . "Marmoreal neck and bosom uberose."
Our sympathy is demanded for no fleeting passion of a day, but rather for one of the eternal wellsprings of human nature—the old story of "The Mother and the Child."
His tragedy is a contrast of Tennyson's "Idylls of the King," that story of the unfaithful wife not sufficiently noble to live up to her husband's high ideal, with the dire confusion which was its direct issue. For no guilty passion or the power of a great temptation is our interest invoked, but for the innocent child-wife married to a middle-aged, repulsive man. It might be called the apothesis of innocence and motherhood, for it is with this last her soul awakes:—
The strange and passionate precipitance
In teeth of circumstances we are asked to believe in Pompilia's innocence, and we do believe it.
In Book I [called The Ring and the Book] we have the statement of facts of the "Roman Murder Case," and are shewn how "Action now shrouds, now shews the informing thought." The characters, though only sketched in with a few bold graphic strokes, are done in so masterly a way we know them at once; more especially is this the case with the Pope, who knew the hearts of men because he had first searched his own. At the end of this book we have that exquisite dedication of Browning to his wife:—
O lyric love, half angel and half bird,
Briefly told, the story is this. We have the old couple, the Comparini; Violante the wife tells Pietro the husband that late in life she is going to give birth to a child, Pompilia. When she is only about thirteen Violante marries her to Count Guido Franceschini without the knowledge of her husband. It is a purely worldly transaction on both sides: Violante thinking thereby to promote her child in life; Guido, a pauper nobleman who has failed to achieve success as a hanger-on in the train of the Pope (for which purpose he has taken minor orders), looking to retrieve his fortunes by the promised dowry. The Comparini accompany the newly married couple to Guido's home, but ill-treated and mulcted [defrauded]by him, they leave in disgust. Pompilia is left behind, as a lamb exposed to the fury of a wolf. They return to Rome, and hope to break up the marriage by spreading the story that Pompilia is not their child, but the "illicit offspring of a common trull." Then the tragedy begins: the miserable life Guido leads his wretched wife, who submits to it with a death-like patience, until she feels another life depends on her own, then tries to save herself by escaping from him in an appeal to those who should uphold the law—first to divine authority in the person of the Archbishop, then to civil in the Governor. Neither will help her, and the final escape comes through the very trap her husband placed for her in the Canon Caponsacchi. She flies from her home under his protection; Rome is nearly reached when they are over-taken at the inn. Guido, too cowardly to fight Caponsacchi, who is in semi-secular attire, appeals to law, which gives no decided answer, but banishes the former for a time and send Pompilia to the Convent of the Convertites. After a time she is allowed to return to the Comparini to a villa outside Rome, where she gives birth to her son, whom she places in safety. There Guido comes with four accomplices; the door is opened, when he treacherously asks in the name of Caponsacchi; all three are murdered.
In this story Browning's object is to justify the sentence of the Pope and vindicate Pompilia's innocence; this he does by each aspect of the story, either directly or indirectly, bringing something forward to elucidate the mystery.
In Books II and III, Half Rome and The Other Half Rome, we have the "for" and "against" Guido; in Book IV, Tertium Quid, the worldly opinion as it strikes an average. There is also the counsel for and against and at the end, Book XII, The Book and the Ring.
From this stand out four characters, drawn with that perfect art which is truer than actual life, for it is life translated and transmuted by its process through the brain of man. [cf., the same idea in 'The Winter's Tale':
. . . this is an art
Browning has himself given us a vivid description of a sister art, how a great picture is painted. You make your sketches from the life, a face here, a hand or a body there, yet you do not give them to the world in that crude condition, but
Filtered through the eye
and thus you produce a picture more really true to life.
Standing out from the accessories of his picture we have four great portraits—Caponsacchi, Pompilia, Guido and the Pope.
Book II.—Half Rome. In this the husband's side is fairly put, and is an instance of how entirely dramatic Browning can be, and how completely he can sink his personality in that of his subject. We have Guido as the injured middle-aged husband whose wife has left him for a young and handsome lover. To do so she has drugged Guido—possibly the household—has taken his money and valuable, and is discovered at the inn near Rome with Caponsacchi. Guido produces the letters she and the former were supposed to have written to each other: they are self-condemnatory. It is all told with keen incision, and a kind of cynical fairness.
Book III.—The Other Half Rome inclines toward the wife. The twice-told tale never wearies, for it is given from a different point of view, and so vivid and dramatic is it we are carried along. Guido now stands out for what he is—"The ignoble noble, the unmanly man, the beast below the beast in brutishness."
Towards Pompilia all our sympathies go out, wounded to death, yet lingering on by a miracle, it is said in answer to prayer—"Which seems to have been the single prayer she ever put up that was granted her."
This book begins with those exquisite lines,—
Another day and finds her living yet,
Pompilia herself is a creation most characteristic of the optimism of Browning's genius: none can be so damned by heredity as to be past redemption. In this base-born child we have good brought out of evil.
The sudden existence, dewy clear.
Why moralist the sin has saved a soul." (Book IV)
Besides, it did good to Pietro, and arrested him as he was getting into evil ways: to Violante, for it softened her, and profitably filled her life. Yet sin is sin, and though bad actions may turn out to have done good, yet the penalty must be paid. Violante's confession of her deceit in palming off Pompilia as her own child, right in itself as a reparation to Pietro and of restitution to his heirs, is made a wrong act by her motive of revenge and spite towards Guido, and by forgetting the effects it might have on Pompilia:—
Woman, confessing crime is healthy work,
It is an instance of Browning's keen spiritual penetration, that he shows us the impossibility of any reparation: evil must "dree its weird," the penalty be paid to the full. Witness the miserable married life of Pompilia:—
Chase her about the coop of daily life;
and the tragedy of the three-fold murder. The fact of the vile letter Guido produced is explained thus: Pompilia traced over Guido's characters without understanding them, for she could neither read nor write; while those to, and from Caponsacchi, were forged. There are lovely lines such as—
So i' the blue of a sudden sulphur blaze,
and the description of her escape, which begins—
Ghost-like from dark room to great dark room,
Also where Pompilia gives her account of the journey just before the meeting at the inn, between herself, Caponsacchi and Guido:—
Then something like a huge wave of the sea
I submit myself.
How dramatic the description, when, confronted by her husband and Caponsacchi in the bedroom where she had been thus suddenly aroused from sleep, she seizes Guido's sword and uses it against him in defence of her companion, their innocence, and her unborn child.
On Pompilia's relationship with Caponsacchi read these glowing words:—
Oh, called innocent love, I know!
As an expression of hate, these on Guido:—
Self-sentenced and self-punished in the act,
This book moves us with a strange pathos—a very passion of pity. Even through this partial appreciation of her, we learn to know and love this exquisite creation of Browning's.
Book IV.—Tertium Quid.
This part of the business,
The weak point in Guido's story is pointed out. Had he, when he found his wife and Caponsacchi together, killed them both in hot blood, "one had recognised the power of the pulse." But, instead of the despised cleric, he finds a man, armed and formidable, so he chokes down his indignation, has the two secured by the help of others, and appeals to law, so that the world's verdict is—
Oh, let us have no syllable o' the rage!
In Tertium Quid we are shown how the story on either side can be twisted this way or that. It is, besides, a strong instance of Browning's Shakespearean breadth: (A parallel case might be found in Shylock) even so despicable a wretch as Guido, is still within the pale of human justice, if not sympathy; therefore the weakness on the other side is pointed out, also the deception practiced on him by the Comparini, and we are made to feel he has a real cause of complaint. Tertium Quid is clear, shrewd, cynical, full of verve, a little long, yet we recognise Browning's motive: it is to serve as a relief to the strain of what has gone before and is to follow; it is also to give us that average judgment, with which every great issue has to deal, yet in spite of its worldly tolerance the impression it leaves on the mind may be summed up in these words:—
Hell broke loose on a butterfly,
This introduces Book V, Count Guido Franceschini.The first of the four great portraits, Guido. He is drawn at length, and even his setting is carefully arranged, he, the unattractive, the accused, is the first brought before the bar of judgment, as if to give him a fair chance, and not to unduly prejudice us against him. In Book XI he comes once more, after the others.
This portrait shows the power of the master's hand at its ablest; the others appeal to us of themselves, Guido arrests us in spite of ourselves, and is purely dramatic; for the time the poet is Guido, and makes us fully enter into the subtilties of that crooked mind. Brought to a bar more clerical than lay, he begins with the ingenious plea of devotion to the Church. Then he draws a picture which borders on the pathetic, of his poverty linked with his nobility so that we feel almost sorry for him; he contrasts it with the rise of parvenus, which rise he insinuates is due to the useful service of their well-filled purses.
Browning is too great an artist to let him play the hypocrite at first, or openly, nor would he put him altogether outside our sympathies; besides, having confessed under torture, Guido is too clever a rogue to begin by actual falsehood. He keeps in the main to the bare facts of the case, though he suits them to the low level of the audience to which he appeals; while by slight variations he cleverly works out a story which tallies much with that of Half Rome. With cynical candour he lays bare his motives for trimming with the Church and the world,—
Bat like bide, 'twixt flesh and fowl with neither privilege.
Had he whined and snivelled, he would put himself out of court at once, but by a kind of hypocritical frankness, his effrontery does him good, in spite of our loathing for his wickedness. Note his terse and brutal account of his marriage arranged by his brother, Paulo the Abate.
A match, said I,
He adroitly turns the tables on his judges, by hinting that their motives are quite as worldly as his own.
How plausible a description he also gives of the base motives of the Comparini, their selling their daughter for position, and their subsequent discontent with the poverty which was a part of it—just bearable to him, has he not pride, is he not noble?—and which places him above these "cits" who move in the lower sphere of consideration for material comfort.
We feel something like admiration for the ascetic endurance portrayed. Then he contrives to put Pompilia ingeniously in the wrong, by showing how her conduct might appear from his, the injured husband's point of view; nor does he disown his harshness towards her, he likens it to the Church's punishment of offenders, who should take it meekly, not cast mud at their superiors.
Guido cleverly drops a hint that he was poisoned, which was the cause of his want of promptitude at the inn, but he contradicts this by his flimsy excuse of respect for law, and that he only resorted to force when law failed:—
No more of law, a voice beyond the law,
With such subtilty is this part worked out, that Guido succeeds in half deceiving us that he does believe himself to be injured, and that, long the prey to evil passions, "for lies breed lies," he persuades himself that the murder of Pompilia and the Comparini is a rough kind of justice. He defends his brutality in the execution of those murders, by the plea that the sight of Violante threw him into a condition of ungovernable rage.
Even while we are convinced the murders are most deliberate and cold-blooded, we can admire the cleverness with which Guido brings forward as proof of the indignation which forgets, his carelessness in not providing for his own safety after the crime is committed; yet in the end Guido is unconsciously a self-revealer, and we see him as the poltroon he really is, who pleads for bare life; yet, how well he sometimes does it! With an eloquence worthy of a better cause,—he asks, why kill "a soldier bee"—
That yields his life, excuterate with the stroke
See also how he exposes one of his motives, hatred for Caponsacchi, when, dissimulation laid aside, he says:—
I thought some of the stabs were in his heart,
It is in such instances that Browning's knowledge of human nature, his analysis of character are shown. There is also the adroit skill by which Guido brings in his relations, the service he would do the Church; is all this to be cut short, he the last of a noble house? But no! he is not the last for he has a son, then follows a passage which would be magnificent from a really injured husband; he argues first, that the child is none of his, and our blood runs cold at such lines as,—
This bastard then, a rest for him is made,
While even more hateful is his sudden change when he claims the child as his, and that he longs to have him,—
Give me—for last best gift—my son again,
Consider the power of such a passage as that beginning,—
All along you have nipped away just inch by inch.
Book VI.—Giuseppe Caponsacchi. In a few lines instinct with life and fire, Caponsacchi draws a contrast between his first trial and this one, touches on the facts of the case, and on Pompilia,
Gasping away the latest breath.
Mark how keen the rapier point of his satire, his comparison of himself as the watch-dog kicked to kennel while he left his charge to the protection of the law; and is this the end?
At the close of the book he returns to the same charge with a fine scorn, enlarges on the incredulity with which his explanation was first received, while he exposes the low worldly wisdom of his judges' advice to turn his "peccadillo" into a travesty for the amusement of his Eminence the Cardinal, and so win his favour.
But now he is a St. George who has rescued the princess; surely the flight itself was a proof of innocence? Had he, as alleged, been so free of the place, what need had they to barter—
Private bliss for public reprobation.
He feels he has persuaded his present audience, does he not see the judge weeping? "Did I not say you were good and true at bottom." He was glad that he had helped them to see the truth as he had himself been enabled to see it through Pompilia.
But to return, once again will he, Caponsacchi,
Burn my soul out in showing you the truth,
What beauty as well as satire in the lines,
Saints to do us good must be in heaven,
While there follows that exquisite passage, "He is the fool here," in which, in a strong flame of pure light, he sets forth "The snow-white soul that angels fear to take untimely."
Then he tells his own history, the awakening of his soul when he understood the nature of the vows he, as priest must take; while he exposes the worldly cynicism of his spiritual superiors, they show him how he can juggle his conscience, for the Church did not need confessors and martyrs, but accomplished men of the world. Following this advice, he lived for pleasure with his idle intellectual Epicureanism, and refined sensualism, whilst he just conformed to the letter of his duties; his chief ambition to please the fine ladies amongst whom he dallied.
In this mood, at the theatre, he saw "Rafael-like," a "lady, young, tall, beautiful, strange and sad." A friend with him throws comfits on her lap, thereby drawing upon the Guido's lynx-eyed attention. The friend, alarmed, begs Caponsacchi to beware for the sake of the lady, Guido's wife. Haunted by this memory, other pleasures disgust, he neglects them, and when remonstrated with as to the reason, he with fine satire retorts, "What if I turned Christian? It might be."
Pompilia's pure sad face has made him pause and think how far is his life severed from hers; in this mood there comes to him Margherita, "the masked and muffled mystery," who purported to bring him a love-letter from Pompilia, making assignations, and is the first of many such. It shows that Caponsacchi was noble at heart, for he knew at once they were false, knew they were traps set by Guido, and that his wife could have had nothing to do with them. He fears the court may be incredulous at this confidence, they did not know her, or see how such an act was as impossible for her as it would have been for Rafael's Madonna to have been found with a scorpion in her mouth; still he wishes to stop this persecution for—
One does Madonna service making clowns
At last he so far consents that he goes and stands beneath the terrace where she lived; he sees Pompilia framed in the window as a picture over an altar, yet he still feels it is some trap set by Guido, then she speaks, explains she can neither read nor write, repeats the lies the woman had invented about him, and tells her story, the attempts she made to obtain help by which to escape; failing others she throws herself on the generosity of one she feels must be noble, for, he proffers her assistance "all unprompted save by your own heart."
Further on he points out how the pure mind of Pompilia had seized on the idea of using the devotion he, Caponsacchi, professed towards her, thus turning it from a bad use to a good one, as with the thief,—"Christ took the kindness and forgave the theft." When, however, she saw him she knew at once that all she had been told was false, for he always had been, always would be true:—
She by the crystalline soul knew me,
The whole of Pompilia's speech is a masterpiece of beauty and quiet dignity, and shows how profoundly Browning understood human nature at its noblest; shows us also how the child-wife was first seared into knowledge through her own sufferings, and the sin of others "in fire which shrivelled leaf and bud away," then blossomed into life once more, through the mystery of that other life within her: so, she prays him, "Take me as you would a dog I think masterless left." Note the delicacy with which she touches upon the vile love of Guido's brother; and the faith she retains in the Comparini, in the face of neglect.
Under her influence the soul of Caponsacchi undergoes the throe and ecstasy of birth, and rises "with something of a rosy shame, into immortal nakedness"; he dedicates himself to her service, her true knight errant, in those lovely lines which begin, "I have been lifted to the level of her." (We have the same idea in Balaustion's Adventure, when Aklestes is rescued from death by Heracles.) It shows how pure his motives are, for he believes "duty to God is duty to her," and that he serves her best by first attending to his daily work.
We come across such exquisite passages as that description of sunset:—
Turned as into a skirt of God's own robe,
and, the one on Pompilia:—
The white I saw shine through her was her soul's;
while here is one of Browning's root ideas:—
All pain must be to work some good in the end.
The flight is at last begun; shut up with her, listening to her conversation, Caponsacchi realises more and more than she is—
As God's sea glassed in gold.
Gradually we notice by delicate subtle touches that this heart is also awakening; half unknown to himself, a very pure and noble love is born; we see the transparency of her soul when she asks if there be in her any sin to confess; surely it was none to leave her husband? for she did it not to save her life, but to save him from further sin, that she, the lamb, should no longer be left as a decoy for the wolf.
Then we have the encounter with Guido at the inn. All this part is powerful, vivid and dramatic beyond description. There was that supreme moment missed, when Caponsacchi could have killed him with his hands on his throat, and so "a spittle wiped off from the face of God."
Together with the officers of the law they go up to "the chamber, late my chapel," where Pompilia is awakened suddenly from her heavy sleep of exhaustion. How magnificent the lines from—"She started up, stood erect, face to face" to—"He shook."
Caponsacchi cannot believe she is dead even now, death could not touch one like her "with that leap to life of the pale electric sword Angels go armed with." He appealed to the Church, thinking to save her, and instead he sent her to her doom. The Church had punished him also, yet was he blameless of any sin:—
I never touched her with my finger tip,
Yet in the end he shows how well he could have loved and how it would have ennobled them, had they been free:—
We rush each on each,
until he saw—
There was no duty patent to the world,
Through the revelation of Pompilia and the knowledge of a human soul, he was led to a comprehension of Christ, and the seed from which this sprung was self-knowledge, for "Man's good is knowing he is bad."
In Caponsacchi, Browning shews us that pure disinterested service, noble friendship and guardianship of man for woman is no myth; that love freed from passion can approach the Divine in its selfless abnegation. We see how a generous trust was the spark which kindled latent greatness and goodness until it transmuted the dilettante worldling into the ideal man, in whom a defenceless woman can trust, on whom she may lean.
Book VII.—Pompilia. In the beginning a deep human chord is struck, out of the very heart of womanhood and motherhood, when Pompilia says that her one claim to remembrance is "she was mother to a son." "Oh, how good God was that my babe was born!" while it is with intense relief that, at the end of her short tragic life, she gives that one exultant cry of joy, "All women are not mothers to a boy." Wounded to death with twenty-two thrusts, five deadly, all her thoughts are with the baby she saw for two days only, but the quickening of whose life had given her courage to fight for her own.
How pathetic it all is about this son, Gaetano, her choice for him of a patron saint whose name was new, because he may be "carefuller perhaps to guard a namesake than those old saints grow." We see how it broke her heart to learn the Comparini were not her parents: that she was instead "the careless crime of an unknown man . . . of a woman known too well." Almost every line deserves a quotation for its beauty and power:—
The day when one is dying, sorrows change
In that we have a deep truth, in this a pathetic sigh,—
To me at least was never evening yet,
or, the comparison of herself at her marriage, to a lamb who
Only lay down to let herself be clipped,
so young, so childlike that she compares her husband with the ugly physician who cured her in sickness; in the same way, marriage will work some mysterious change, "but neither scarecrow will return."
pg 858-872 (Continued from page 759.)
The secret kept from Pietro is only revealed when Guido, and the priest his brother, come to claim her, and with her
The value of the victim's blood;
for, as Pompilia says, "I was the chattel that had caused the crime."
The sum settled, the agreement is made that they shall all live together at Arezzo. She says, "All since is blank . . . a terrific dream . . . I say blank, this is the note of evil, for good lasts." (As he also says in Abt Vogler—"There shall never be one lost good! The evil is null, is nought.")
At first only two things stand out at all: the friend who helped her, and the promise of the child; then memory returns: she confirms Caponsacchi's account of the letters and the trap laid by Guido. With great delicacy and dignity she speaks of her miserable married life, the natural shrinking of the pure mind from the evil and the vile. She could get no help from man, spurned by those to whom she turned,—
God's glimmer that came through the ruin-top
Equally fine is what follows to—"dipt and drank." Her child she has given "outright to God: what guardianship could be safer?" Sent away into the country for security by that unselfish mother love. He does not need her now, so her remaining strength shall be used in defence of her champion, that "lustrous and pellucid soul"; to each the purity of the other stands revealed so clearly, they wonder the world cannot see it also:—
Shot itself out in white light, blazed the truth,
Made for each other, though in a sense separated, they had for each the trust of perfect knowledge:—
Could he be here, how he would speak for me.
Even when she saw him first at the theatre, she knew he would not have thrown the comfits; knew also that he was a man on whom she could have leant, with whom she would have been safe.
Two things are noteworthy: one is, how wonderfully the accounts coincide, the separate conclusions of each being verified by facts; the other, the perfect goodness of Pompilia. Learning through bitter experience that she is beset on all sides by temptations the most vile, she never once, even in thought, sought solace in sin. Tormented by cruelty the most bitter and galling, at which she only hints, for she will not harm Guido, we feel for her a reverence as towards a saint, and bow our heads as before the sanctity of a shrine.
Then we come to her own wonderful awakening in the springtime, to which, with its sweet common sights and sounds, she likens it; but the passage itself should be read from "How good to sleep" down to "leave all woes at once." With it comes the wish to escape, to save this other life; so that when that vile wretch Margherita just then appears, Pompilia says—
Tell Caponsacchi he may come.
All day I sent prayer-like incense up
for she will use the professed devotion for good. It shall be like the fire which that virgin who had faith in God used wherewith to destroy her enemies; [Tracked to the cave where she has taken refuge, they kindle a fire to burn her out. She, by prayer, turns the fire on her would-be destroyers.] so will she "gasp the lightning and be saved." Instead of a false light, she found in Caponsacchi a star like that which led to the Holy Babe. How beautiful all that passage—"He was thy saint" to "this one heart brought me all the spring." What a human touch we have, when during their flight, a woman with true instinct lays the new-born babe in her arms: that mystery which is as "the sudden hole through earth that lets in heaven." Her action at the inn—when she flew at Guido with uplifted sword in defence of her deliverer, but "her angel held her back"—she exults in, for she says, that one time she saw the right, and fought for it. Though she was dying of cruel wounds she feels she is saved, because her soul was restored to her; for in the calm retirement of the convent she had been "traced round about with white to front the world."
The she passes judgment on all—herself, to whom this Christmas-tide had brought realisation of God's birth. She compares herself with Mary: "I had my babe lying a little on my breast like hers." She feels sure her parents, in spite of "flippery," are safe; moreover, it was well for her to have been rescued by Violante; yet the deed wrongly done always pricked, and was bound to work out the consequences of all wrong-doing. Even for Guido she is not without hope, for her blood "washes the pavement white," while how deep this truth—
But where will God be absent? In His face
His soul and hers never touched: "I could not love him; but his mother did." Towards him she is more than fair: she recognises the injustice with which he had been treated, and forgives with the passionlessness of a divine forgiveness.
At last she has done with earth, and will "compose herself for God." How can she do so better than by thought for that noble friend, who taught her through human love what was the love of God, and showed her as only a good man can how divine woman may be to such a one? Nor shall this love die—it is immortal:—
O lover of my life, O soldier saint,
It awaits its completion in that heaven where "we have the real and true and sure."
In this Book, the heart of womanhood, motherhood, is laid bare. Of all the twelve it is the most perfect, both in conception and in execution: it is the one in which Browning most completely identifies himself with his subject; and we should wonder that a man so virile as he could so perfectly have drawn and understood a woman, had not Shakespeare and other geniuses taught us that it is from such pens that we must expect the purest, noblest, and most feminine types. Its pathos gives us a catch at the heart, and as we close, pity and admiration struggle for mastery, until we hardly know which is the stronger.
Books VIII and IX are occupied with the pleading of the counsel for and against Guido. First we have his, Dominus Hyacinthus de Archangelus, who gives us a rough sketch of the defence with all his motives exposed and the by-play so dear to Browning. Hyacinthus' thoughts are with his dearly loved son Giaciuto, whose birthday feast it is. He is intensely human, but he has no high aims: he never rises to a comprehension of the tragedy; his object rather is to outdo Bottinius, the Fisc, he so often apostrophizes—"A fico for your aggravations, Fisc," who, on his side, is only too ready with his retort, "Listen to me, thou archangelic swine"; or again, "whose feeding hath offuscated his wit," taunts to which his love of the table leave him vulnerable.
After the tragic tension of feeling caused by the last two characters, the drop to farce and by-play, jest and witticism, is so startling that it jars a little at first. Then we feel how large was Browning's humanity—that he was true to life, which is never all tragedy and gloom; comedy and farce, good and evil, tears and laughter, intermingle in infinite variety; so the heart of Browning was large enough to see this, and his intellect great enough to show this to us. Therefore he draws us Hyacinthus, brimful of life, with his jests and Latinisms, his plainly avowed worldly aims, his shrewd common sense.
A source of honest profit, and good fame,
The murder, unfortunately, has been confessed, otherwise he shows us how easily he could have twisted it round on Caponsacchi. Guido's presence at the villa he would have explained thus: he came at Christmas, the season of good-will, to pardon Pompilia, and finds the murder done.
These two Books are full of cleverness and smartness. There are, even in Book VIII, passages which almost rise to eloquence, as that one which begins,—
It should be always harder to convict,
only we feel it never rings quite true: both men are just typical lawyers of a low order.
Book IX Jures Doctor, Johannes Baptista Bottinus, follows. At the beginning he strikes a different note from that of his opponent, and we have that beautiful description of drawing a portrait and painting a picture to which reference has before been made. Special pleading, farce and gibe were all Guido's counsel could produce, but Bottinus feels that, in her, he has "a great theme, may my strength be adequate." In spite of this, he begins his argument ad hominem; even had her conduct been such as was supposed, surely it was but natural she should wish to escape from the harshness and cruelty of the ill-favoured husband, and that her choice of companion fell on the good-looking Canon, natural also to give him at least the semblance of love: "Thus would I defend the step, were the thing true which is fable." On Pompilia herself there are passages of the greatest beauty, e.g.:—
The innocent sleep soundly, sound she sleeps,
Both counsels play up to the authority of the day—the priestly, as the Fisc says,
This comes of being born in modern times,
Interspersed are examples of Browning's philosophy: "Since low with high and good with bad is linked"; also, in the moral he draws after telling the story of S. Peter and John, Judas Iscariot and the fowl.
O the merry thought in memory of the fact,
The Fisc has a wish to exculpate Pompilia, "to draw the true effigies of a saint," "do justice to perfection in the sex"; but, after all, he is only a clever lawyer who would outdo his opponent: not noble himself, he cannot see the nobility and purity of others. He is too cute not to acknowledge that his defence and Pompilia's confession of perfect innocence do not tally. How can they be reconciled? Well, honestly, he thinks her confession simply a mistake: it spoils his defence, and, moreover, he does not believe it, but
Confession at the point of death,
But it was done with a good motive to clear Caponsacchi and bring her husband to repentance, "so that sacrament obliterates the sin."
We have here another instance of Browning's artistic insight. Had the Pope followed the other two beautiful portraits, we should have been dazzled by want of shadow; whereas, through this interlude of the counsel, a neutral background is given as an appropriate setting for the next portrait, the Pope.
Book X.—The Pope. In this grand old Pope we have one of the finest conceptions in poetry. The Book may be divided into the soliloquy at the beginning, which contains the characteristic Browning philosophy: the Pope's judgment first of himself, of the events and the several actors in them; his meditations, analysis of his motives, and the final sentence. He will clear the ground by bringing himself first to that bar of judgment—his own conscience—so that he, the man, may be more fit in his official capacity "to speak, act, in place of Him—the Pope for Christ."
The statement that the truth lies in no portion, "yet evolvable from the whole," is characteristic of the method by which the poet has made the characters each add to the truth by degrees, whilst they only appear to tell their own version of the story. The Pope will not admit the fatalist theory. Guido is not a helpless puppet. It was the first deliberate act of wrong which made future ones easy; for there may be a time of which it could be said "making it harder to do wrong than right." None are given over to evil influences only. Guido had many chances, yet self-interest spoilt them all, and was the pivot on which he moved; even in his marriage, there was not one worthy or natural impulse, thus he is gradually drawn to crime, "the fine, felicity and flower of wickedness," so that, in the end, he subordinates "revenge, the manlier sin, to interest, the meaner." Unlike the other half-hearted advocates, the Pope sees through this mean soul, as he also recognises at once the white innocence of Pompilia: in one powerful line he exposes the iniquity of the forged letters, "but false to body and soul they figure forth."
He then goes on to show that Guido the astute is caught after the murder, like so many criminals, through his own oversight. We saw what a clever use Guido made of this in his defence; yet with great acumen the Pope points out that, even had he provided horses, he would not have escaped: his accomplices would have murdered him because of the promised pay withheld, for, to the end, his love of gain is his own hell and retribution.
The other actors are then reviewed, and so just is the Pope, that his deepest scorn is reserved for
This fox-faced horrible priest, this brother brute,
For a man may sink so low a to be unworthy of punishment because incapable of profiting by it. Girolamo, who adds lust to his crime—"Hell's own blue tint." Note how powerful the lines:—
The hag that gave these three abortive birth,
The Governor, worldly and supine, who treats Pompilia's wrongs with "a shrug of the shoulders and facetious word." The Archbishop, of whom he asks, was he the hireling who did turn and flee whilst the poor lamb was pressed by the wolf? Each are touched with a masterly hand until he comes to Pompilia. We must let the Pope's own words paint her:—
and his sentence, or rather benediction, on her,—
First of the first,
It is thus he interprets the old question always new—the position in which man stands towards woman:—
He is stirred to the depth by the contemplation of an innocence which has passed through the fiery furnace of knowledge. Her praise is that she was obedient to the light allotted, so she rose from law to law, and was found equal to the supreme demands made upon her: she did not despair of her own life, but, for the sake of the unborn child, had courage—
To worthily defend the trust of trust,
Consider how magnificent the humility of this grand old saint:—
Go past me
From Pompilia the natural sequence is, Caponsacchi, "my warrior priest." He does not spare his faults, but with the instinctive insight of one noble mind for another, he sees "how throughout all thy warfare thou wert pure," for he also had been able to rise to the greatness of the occasion: his breach of church discipline is blamed, his lay attire, the sword, while his chivalry is also recognised—
For catching quick the sense of the real cry.
Yet it was through temptation he was "pedestalled in triumph."
Thou whose servants are the bold,
Through this supreme ordeal, this trifler—
Whose sword-hand was used to strike the lute,
retrieved the day and therefore deserved the words,—
We come next to the Pope's judgment on the Comparini:—
Foul and fair,
Slide into silly crime at unaware.
It was through their honest love they were punished,
That looked most pure of speech,
for white will not neutralize black, and the penalty of sin must be paid.
The Pope's musings on the tragedy follow; and in the soliloquy which begins, "O Thou as represented here by me," we have Browning's criticism of life, the modern thoughts of an advanced thinker rather than those of an Italian Pope of the 17th century. That old question—the meaning of pain—is faced; why should it exist? Its object surely is to evolve—
The moral qualities of man, how else?
We are reminded how impossible it is for the lower intelligence to understand and judge the higher. He compares it with the argument of a child who says "the sea is angry, for it roars." We have these same metaphysics in Caliban upon Setebos; moreover, why try to discover the process of God's judgments.
So my heart be struck, What care I, by God's gloved hand or the bare?
Here is another thought familiar to students of Browning:—
Life is probation, and the earth no goal,
With another modern thinker, Ruskin, he, with a large-hearted humanity, marvels not so much at the mystery of the pain and suffering of life, as at what we lose by not recognising its end; for the object of pain is the development and training of man's soul. The Pope sees with sorrow how men miss this: they refuse their co-operation, so their natures do not expand as they were intended to. Failure is on all sides; humanity sins and grovels. What is the reason? With a large-minded candour, he blames the conduct of the faithful few, Christians, who ought to leaven humanity, but who, on the contrary, disgrace their profession.
Nor is it individuals alone who do this, but also the corporate Christian life, like the Convent of Convertites where Pompilia was placed. If it should be objected that this is due to the corruption of human nature, "No so," retorts the Pope: human nature can be influenced for good, if you only appeal to that which is noble in it. Witness Caponsacchi. It was not thanks to the Church, but in spite of her teaching, her worldliness and laxity, that he acted nobly through the guidance of his own heart; yet is the heart itself an unstable guide, for see how his evil heart led the Abate astray. Consider also what the old philosophy did for the world before Christ. How unfavourably we compare with it; for Euripides might argue,—
You have the sunrise now, joins truth to truth,
while the Pope replies,—
Dare we, who miss the plain way in the blaze of day,
vaunt ourselves against philosophy which did so much for the world, though it could only creep on the ground, not fly? The truth is,
We have become too familiar with the light.
Is our failure due to the old forms having worn out? Is it not rather that they require readjustment?
From philosophy in the abstract, he returns to Guido and weighs the for and against. If his judgment is adverse, will it not be siding with the uneducated classes against civilization? Moreover, the present is hardly the time to remove landmarks—lessen the authority of husband over wife. Besides, is he not an old man? Why not perform one act of mercy before he dies! Yes,
But a voice other than yours
For Guido's sake, more even than for that of abstract justice, his sentence must be death,
So may the truth be flashed out at one blow,
On receipt of this command,
What is our verdict on the Pope? Is it not that whilst he is one of Browning's most interesting creations, whilst there are passages of the greatest beauty and of the noblest sentiment, yet it is also less dramatic than the other portraits? The poet forgets his own individuality in a lesser degree. Some of the philosophizing is, at times, a little obscure, and by its length loses in power. Yet this is in itself more in accordance with the musings of an old man, with his slowly matured judgment, as one disposed to pause and consider—not to be carried away on a wave of enthusiasm. In all this, we are also reminded how we have listened to the judgment of a judge who is shortly, in his turn, required to appear before the bar of Eternal Justice.
Book XI. Guido. In this Book, Guido once again comes on the scene. Past hope of saving his life, the real man is revealed in all his utter meanness of soul, with all his cynical brutality exposed. Cardinal Acciainoli and the Abate Parciatichi come, presumably to make him repent. "Repent? Will that assist the engine half-way back?" he cries, referring to the guillotine of which just before he has given so grim and ghastly a description. In the following couplet he gives his own criticism of life:—
For pleasure being the sole good in the world,
With great shrewdness he can unmask low and base motives, though he is as one colour-blind to greatness and goodness, even in the Pope. All the same, he is keen-sighted enough to detect the imperfections in religion, and of the hypocrites who profess it,—
The born baptized and bred Christian Atheist.
Like other sinners, he blames everyone and everything but himself: he pleads the excuse of heredity, the powerlessness of the will—the very little which turns the balance for good or evil:—
Do thou wipe out the being of me, and smear
What an awful power there is in these lines. He rails against religion, or rather the way in which it was represented to him; against the restraint his teachers imposed on him, which drove him to sin.
This Book is full of passages of extraordinary power. Once again, we have the story told, and with what consummate skill and dramatic force; it carries us away. How vivid the pictures he presents to us, as that, for example, of Pompilia's marriage, when he compares her with a heifer brought to the sacrifice, who,
Eyes tremblingly the altar and the priest.
Guido knew his audience, that he was speaking to hardened men of the world, who, only in degree or opportunity, differed from himself: he sees through the thin disguise of their clerical garb, and we can hardly forbear admiration at the keenness of his wit even when the sands of life are swiftly flowing out. Take his reply when the Abate corrects his mistake about Virgil:—
Right—thanks, Abate—though the Christian's dumb,
He unveils with contemptuous frankness, not only his own paganism, but that also of his companions. He turns with dramatic force to the Cardinal with a "You know me, I know you, and both know that!" They may profess Christianity, yet actually it is only a superstition, like the propitiations made to heathen gods,—
Pay toll here, there pursue your pleasures free!
The whole interview is most powerful: on the one hand, by reason of its learning—its intimacy with the classics—on the other, from its knowledge of the baser forms of human nature. Even the coarseness and sensualism we meet with in it—and it contains passages coarser than any we find elsewhere in Browning—are such as would be inevitable when a man like Guido unveils himself. Repent to men like these! Nay, rather does he glory in his baseness:—
I have bared, you bathe my heart—
It is when we compare the two Guidos that we see how great an artist Browning is at his best, and how both are needed for the moral he wishes us to draw for ourselves out of the tragedy. One of his motives for the two pictures is that Guido should, in spite of himself, nay, through his very vileness, bring out the purity and beauty of Pompilia's character. We are shown the instinctive hatred of evil for good, the impossibility of light dwelling with darkness. He hates his wife because there was,
No touch in her of hate,
What a testimony to her saintliness! Her meek submission when left by her parents, "her stone strength of dumb despair," infuriates him,—
For this new game of giving up the game,
Still there is no touch of remorse, far less of repentance. See how he gloats over the details of his crime, his cruel stabs on Pietro's body, the denying him time for repentance. He shows us how plausible a tale he could have told, had not Pompilia lingered those four days,
As if she held God's hand,
Browning has, moreover, another object in this second portrayal of Guido: it is to vindicate the Pope's sentence of death; not only that it was a just one, but also to show that it was the only means by which awakening could come to one so base, so self-centered as he was. For, in spite of his brag—in spite of occasional glimpses that he still retains traces of noble birth—he is, in the end, only an abject coward, who cries out for bare life. The Pope saw that it was only by facing death sudden and ignominious that there was any hope that awakening could come for him: so, we have just a break in the clouds, a hint that even he is not quite beyond the pale in his last cry, which is to the wife he has murdered, the God in Whom he had boasted he had no belief,—
Christ, Maria, God . . .
Book XII.—The Book and the Ring. The Book and the Ring contains letters and part of a sermon in which we are given an account of the events after they are over, with the varied gossip of the day, from "the Venetian" and our old friends the counsel. According to the former, Guido died penitent, "and, with the name of Jesus on his lips, received the fatal blow." The monk's sermon is quoted by the Fisc. In his mouth Browning puts one of those sentiments which show his insight into the power of ennobling motive:—
How human love in varied shapes might work,
wherein students of the poet recall his rooted belief of the mighty power of all love as an educator.
We may ask, why, after the tragic end of Book XI., these letters with their jests and trivialities? One reason, Browning tells us, was—to complete the story:—
To make the Ring that's all but round and done.
Another was to bring out still more clearly the perfect integrity of the Pope's judgment. Even her own counsel turns against Pompilia: she, whom he had sainted last week, is now "a person of dishonest life." The sisters at the convent condemn her, because her human mother-heart thought first of her son Gaetano, for whom she left her wealth in trust, instead of endowing the convent with it. Yet, in the end, the Pope's judgment is confirmed:—
In restitution of the fame
The poet ends by giving us his own motif. He told his story "Art's way," because it alone is a real representation: it makes the truth a living thing, and wins its entrance into the mind; in art, by dramatizing truth:—
Man no wise speaks to man,
This is Browning's way of showing us, not only how good triumphed over evil, but even a deeper truth, viz., how evil, as represented by Guido, was necessary to bring out and develop the good in Pompilia and Caponsacchi. Had these three not been brought together, "one might have died a misused wife, one a poor noble of dubious character, one a high-bred but self-indulgent priest." [See Nettleship's Essays on Browning.]
Do we not feel, as we put the book down, that he has succeeded? That he has indeed told us a great truth; that a human document has been outspread before us, the very well-spring of human nature exposed: the heart of our common humanity, quivering, living, laid bare. The conception of four years' growth has come to full birth: his aim has been accomplished,—
To write a book shall mean beyond the facts,
Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, Mar 2009
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