Read CHAPTER XVI of The Poetry Of Robert Browning, free online book, by Stopford A. Brooke, on


When Browning published The Ring and the Book, he was nearly fifty years old. All his powers (except those which create the lyric) are used therein with mastery; and the ease with which he writes is not more remarkable than the exultant pleasure which accompanies the ease. He has, as an artist, a hundred tools in hand, and he uses them with certainty of execution. The wing of his invention does not falter through these twelve books, nor droop below the level at which he began them; and the epilogue is written with as much vigour as the prologue. The various books demand various powers. In each book the powers are proportionate to the subject; but the mental force behind each exercise of power is equal throughout. He writes as well when he has to make the guilty soul of Guido speak, as when the innocence of Pompilia tells her story. The gain-serving lawyers, each distinctly isolated, tell their worldly thoughts as clearly as Caponsacchi reveals his redeemed and spiritualised soul. The parasite of an aristocratic and thoughtless society in Tertium Quid is not more vividly drawn than the Pope, who has left in his old age the conventions of society behind him, and speaks in his silent chamber face to face with God. And all the minor characters of whom there are a great number, ranging from children to old folk, from the peasant to the Cardinal, through every class of society in Italy are drawn, even when they are slashed out in only three lines, with such force, certainty, colour and life that we know them better than our friends. The variousness of the product would seem to exclude an equality of excellence in drawing and invention. But it does not. It reveals and confirms it. The poem is a miracle of intellectual power.

This great length, elaborate detail, and the repetition so many times of the same story, would naturally suggest to an intending reader that the poem might be wearisome. Browning, suspecting this, and in mercy to a public who does not care for a work of longue haleine, published it at first in four volumes, with a month’s interval between each volume. He thought that the story told afresh by characters widely different would strike new, if each book were read at intervals of ten days. There were three books in each volume. And if readers desire to realise fully the intellectual tour de force contained in telling the same story twelve times over, and making each telling interesting, they cannot do better than read the book as Browning wished it to be read. “Give the poem four months, and let ten days elapse between the reading of each book,” is what he meant us to understand. Moreover, to meet this possible weariness, Browning, consciously, or probably unconsciously, since genius does the right thing without asking why, continually used a trick of his own which, at intervals, stings the reader into wakefulness and pleasure, and sends him on to the next page refreshed and happy. After fifty, or it may be a hundred lines of somewhat dry analysis, a vivid illustration, which concentrates all the matter of the previous lines, flashes on the reader as a snake might flash across a traveller’s dusty way: or some sudden description of an Italian scene in the country or in the streets of Rome enlivens the well-known tale with fresh humanity. Or a new character leaps up out of the crowd, and calls us to note his ways, his dress, his voice, his very soul in some revealing speech, and then passes away from the stage, while we turn, refreshed (and indeed at times we need refreshment), to the main speaker, the leading character.

But to dwell on the multitude of portraits with which Browning’s keen observation, memory and love of human nature have embellished The Ring and the Book belongs to another part of this chapter. At present the question rises: “What place does The Ring and the Book hold in Browning’s development?” It holds a central place. There was always a struggle in Browning between two pleasures; pleasure in the exercise of his intellect his wit, in the fullest sense of the word; pleasure in the exercise of his poetic imagination. Sometimes one of these had the upper hand in his poems, sometimes the other, and sometimes both happily worked together. When the exercise of his wit had the upper hand, it tended to drive out both imagination and passion. Intellectual play may be without any emotion except its delight in itself. Then its mere cleverness attracts its user, and gives him an easily purchased pleasure. When a poet falls a complete victim to this pleasure, imagination hides her face from him, passion runs away, and what he produces resembles, but is not, poetry. And Browning, who had got perilously near to the absence of poetry in Bishop Blougram’s Apology, succeeded in Mr. Sludge, the Medium, in losing poetry altogether. In The Ring and the Book there are whole books, and long passages in its other books in which poetry almost ceases to exist and is replaced by brilliant cleverness, keen analysis, vivid description, and a combination of wit and fancy which is rarely rivalled; but no emotion, no imagination such as poets use inflames the coldness of these qualities into the glow of poetry. The indefinable difference which makes imaginative work into poetry is not there. There is abundance of invention; but that, though a part of imagination, belongs as much to the art of prose as to the art of poetry.

Browning could write thus, out of his intellect alone. None of the greater poets could. Their genius could not work without fusing into their intellectual work intensity of feeling; and that combination secured poetic treatment of their subject. It would have been totally impossible for Milton, Shakespeare, Dante, Vergil, or even the great mass of second-rate poets, to have written some of Browning’s so-called poetry no matter how they tried. There was that in Browning’s nature which enabled him to exercise his intellectual powers alone, without passion, and so far he almost ceases to deserve the name of poet. And his pleasure in doing this grew upon him, and having done it with dazzling power in part of The Ring and the Book, he was carried away by it and produced a number of so-called poems; terrible examples of what a poet can come to when he has allowed his pleasure in clever analysis to tyrannise over him Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, The Inn Album, Red Cotton Nightcap Country, and a number of shorter poems in the volumes which followed. In these, what Milton meant by passion, simplicity and sensuousness were banished, and imagination existed only as it exists in a prose writer.

This condition was slowly arrived at. It had not been fully reached when he wrote The Ring and the Book. His poetic powers resisted their enemies for many years, and had the better in the struggle. If it takes a long time to cast a devil out, it takes a longer time to depose an angel. And the devil may be utterly banished, but the angel never. And though the devil of mere wit and the little devils of analytic exercise devils when they usurp the throne in a poet’s soul and enslave imaginative emotion did get the better of Browning, it was only for a time. Towards the end of his life he recovered, but never as completely as he had once possessed them, the noble attributes of a poet. The evils of the struggle clung to him; the poisonous pleasure he had pursued still affected him; he was again and again attacked by the old malaria. He was as a brand plucked from the burning.

The Ring and the Book is the central point of this struggle. It is full of emotion and thought concentrated on the subject, and commingled by imagination to produce beauty. And whenever this is the case, as in the books which treat of Caponsacchi and Pompilia, we are rejoiced by poetry. In their lofty matter of thought and feeling, in their simplicity and nobleness of spiritual beauty, poetry is dominant. In them also his intellectual powers, and his imaginative and passionate powers, are fused into one fire. Nor is the presentation of Guido Franceschini under two faces less powerful, or that of the Pope, in his meditative silence. But in these books the poetry is less, and is mingled, as would naturally indeed be the case, with a searching analysis, which intrudes too much into their imaginative work. Over-dissection makes them cold. In fact, in fully a quarter of this long poem, the analysing understanding, that bustling and self-conscious person, who plays only on the surface of things and separates their elements from one another instead of penetrating to their centre; who is incapable of seeing the whole into which the various elements have combined is too masterful for the poetry. It is not, then, imaginative, but intellectual pleasure which, as we read, we gain.

Then again there is throughout a great part of the poem a dangerous indulgence of his wit; the amusement of remote analogies; the use of far-fetched illustrations; quips and cranks and wanton wiles of the reasoning fancy in deviating self-indulgence; and an allusiveness which sets commentators into note-making effervescence. All these, and more, which belong to wit, are often quite ungoverned, allowed to disport themselves as they please. Such matters delight the unpoetic readers of Browning, and indeed they are excellent entertainment. But let us call them by their true name; let us not call them poetry, nor mistake their art for the art of poetry. Writing them in blank verse does not make them poetry. In Half-Rome, in The Other Half-Rome, and in Tertium Quid, these elements of analysis and wit are exhibited in three-fourths of the verse; but the other fourth in description of scenes, in vivid portraiture, in transient outbursts out of which passion, in glimpses, breaks rises into the realm of poetry. In the books which sketch the lawyers and their pleadings, there is wit in its finest brilliancy, analysis in its keenest veracity, but they are scarcely a poet’s work. The whole book is then a mixed book, extremely mixed. All that was poetical in Browning’s previous work is represented in it, and all the unpoetical elements which had gradually been winning power in him, and which showed themselves previously in Bishop Blougram and Mr. Sludge, are also there in full blast. It was, as I have said, the central battlefield of two powers in him. And when The Ring and the Book was finished, the inferior power had for a time the victory.

To sum up then, there are books in the poem where matter of passion and matter of thought are imaginatively wrought together. There are others where psychological thought and metaphysical reasoning are dominant, but where passionate feeling has also a high place. There are others where analysis and wit far excel the elements of imaginative emotion; and there are others where every kind of imagination is absent, save that which is consistent throughout and which never fails the power of creating men and women into distinct individualities. That is left, but it is a power which is not special to a poet. A prose writer may possess it with the same fulness as a poet. Carlyle had it as remarkably as Browning, or nearly as remarkably. He also had wit a heavier wit than Browning’s, less lambent, less piercing, but as forcible.

One thing more may be said. The poem is far too long, and the subject does not bear its length. The long poems of the world (I do not speak of those by inferior poets) have a great subject, are concerned with manifold fates of men, and are naturally full of various events and varied scenery. They interest us with new things from book to book. In The Ring and the Book the subject is not great, the fates concerned are not important, and the same event runs through twelve books and is described twelve times. However we may admire the intellectual force which actually makes the work interesting, and the passion which often thrills us in it this is more than the subject bears, and than we can always endure. Each book is spun out far beyond what is necessary; a great deal is inserted which would be wisely left out. No one could be more concise than Browning when he pleased. His power of flashing a situation or a thought into a few words is well known. But he did not always use this power. And in The Ring and the Book, as in some of the poems that followed it, he seems now and then to despise that power.

And now for the poem itself. Browning tells the story eight times by different persons, each from a different point of view, and twice more by the same person before and after his condemnation and, of course, from two points of view. Then he practically tells it twice more in the prologue and the epilogue twelve times in all and in spite of what I have said about the too great length of the poem, this is an intellectual victory that no one else but Browning could have won against its difficulties. Whether it was worth the creation by himself of the difficulty is another question. He chose to do it, and we had better submit to him and get the good of his work. At least we may avoid some of the weariness he himself feared by reading it in the way I have mentioned, as Browning meant it to be read. Poems being the highest product of the highest genius of which man is capable ought to be approached with some reverence. And a part of that reverence is to read them in accordance with the intention and desire of the writer.

We ought not to forget the date of the tale when we read the book. It is just two hundred years ago. The murder of Pompilia took place in 1698; and the book completes his studies of the Renaissance in its decay. If Sordello is worth our careful reading as a study of the thirteenth century in North Italy, this book is as valuable as a record of the society of its date. It is, in truth, a mine of gold; pure crude ore is secreted from man’s life, then moulded into figures of living men and women by the insight and passion of the poet. In it is set down Rome as she was her customs, opinions, classes of society; her dress, houses, streets, lanes, byeways and squares; her architecture, fountains, statues, courts of law, convents, gardens; her fashion and its drawing-rooms, the various professions and their habits, high life and middle class, tradesmen and beggars, priest, friar, lay-ecclesiastic, cardinal and Pope. Nowhere is this pictorial and individualising part of Browning’s genius more delighted with its work. Every description is written by a lover of humanity, and with joy.

Nor is he less vivid in the mise-en-scene in which he places this multitude of personages. In Half-Rome we mingle with the crowd between Palazzo Fiano and Ruspoli, and pass into the church of Lorenzo in Lucina where the murdered bodies are exposed. The mingled humours of the crowd, the various persons and their characters are combined with and enhanced by the scenery. Then there is the Market Place by the Capucin convent of the Piazza Barberini, with the fountains leaping; then the Reunion at a palace, and the fine fashionable folk among the mirrors and the chandeliers, each with their view of the question; then the Courthouse, with all its paraphernalia, where Guido and Caponsacchi plead; then, the sketches, as new matters turn up, of the obscure streets of Rome, of the country round Arezzo, of Arezzo itself, of the post road from Arezzo to Rome and the country inn near Rome, of the garden house in the suburbs, of the households of the two advocates and their different ways of living; of the Pope in his closet and of Guido in the prison cell; and last, the full description of the streets and the Piazza del Popolo on the day of the execution all with a hundred vivifying, illuminating, minute details attached to them by this keen-eyed, observant, questing poet who remembered everything he saw, and was able to use each detail where it was most wanted. Memories are good, but good usage of them is the fine power. The mise-en-scene is then excellent, and Browning was always careful to make it right, fitting and enlivening. Nowhere is this better done than in the Introduction where he finds the book on a stall in the Square of San Lorenzo, and describes modern Florence in his walk from the Square past the Strozzi, the Pillar and the Bridge to Casa Guidi on the other side of the Arno opposite the little church of San Felice. During the walk he read the book through, yet saw everything he passed by. The description will show how keen were his eyes, how masterly his execution.

That memorable day,
(June was the month, Lorenzo named the Square)
I leaned a little and overlooked my prize
By the low railing round the fountain-source
Close to the statue, where a step descends:
While clinked the cans of copper, as stooped and rose
Thick-ankled girls who brimmed them, and made place
For marketmen glad to pitch basket down,
Dip a broad melon-leaf that holds the wet,
And whisk their faded fresh. And on I read
Presently, though my path grew perilous
Between the outspread straw-work, piles of plait
Soon to be flapping, each o’er two black eyes
And swathe of Tuscan hair, on festas fine:
Through fire-irons, tribes of tongs, shovels in sheaves,
Skeleton bedsteads, wardrobe-drawers agape,
Rows of tall slim brass lamps with dangling gear,
And worse, cast clothes a-sweetening in the sun:
None of them took my eye from off my prize.
Still read I on, from written title page
To written index, on, through street and street,
At the Strozzi, at the Pillar, at the Bridge;
Till, by the time I stood at home again
In Casa Guidi by Felice Church,
Under the doorway where the black begins
With the first stone-slab of the staircase cold,
I had mastered the contents, knew the whole truth
Gathered together, bound up in this book,
Print three-fifths, written supplement the rest.

This power, combined with his power of portraiture, makes this long poem alive. No other man of his century could paint like him the to and fro of a city, the hurly-burly of humanity, the crowd, the movement, the changing passions, the loud or quiet clash of thoughts, the gestures, the dress, the interweaving of expression on the face, the whole play of humanity in war or peace. As we read, we move with men and women; we are pressed everywhere by mankind. We listen to the sound of humanity, sinking sometimes to the murmur we hear at night from some high window in London; swelling sometimes, as in Sordello, into a roar of violence, wrath, revenge, and war. And it was all contained in that little body, brain and heart; and given to us, who can feel it, but not give it. This is the power which above all endears him to us as a poet. We feel in each poem not only the waves of the special event of which he writes, but also the large vibration of the ocean of humanity.

He was not unaware of this power of his. We are told in Sordello that he dedicated himself to the picturing of humanity; and he came to think that a Power beyond ours had accepted this dedication, and directed his work. He declares in the introduction that he felt a Hand ("always above my shoulder mark the predestination"), that pushed him to the stall where he found the fated book in whose womb lay his child The Ring and the Book. And he believed that he had certain God-given qualities which fitted him for this work. These he sets forth in this introduction, and the self-criticism is of the greatest interest.

The first passage is, when he describes how, having finished the book and got into him all the gold of its fact, he added from himself that to the gold which made it workable added to it his live soul, informed, transpierced it through and through with imagination; and then, standing on his balcony over the street, saw the whole story from the beginning shape itself out on the night, alive and clear, not in dead memory but in living movement; saw right away out on the Roman road to Arezzo, and all that there befell; then passed to Rome again with the actors in the tragedy, a presence with them who heard them speak and think and act. The “life in him abolished the death of things deep calling unto deep.” For “a spirit laughed and leaped through his every limb, and lit his eye, and lifted him by the hair, and let him have his will” with Pompilia, Guido, Caponsacchi, the lawyers, the Pope, and the whole of Rome. And they rose from the dead; the old woe stepped on the stage again at the magician’s command; and the rough gold of fact was rounded to a ring by art. But the ring should have a posy, and he makes that in a passionate cry to his dead wife a lovely spell where high thinking and full feeling meet and mingle like two deep rivers. Whoso reads it feels how her spirit, living still for him, brooded over and blest his masterpiece:

O lyric Love, half angel and half bird
And all a wonder and a wild desire,
Boldest of hearts that ever braved the sun,
Took sanctuary within the holier blue,
And sang a kindred soul out to his face,
Yet human at the red-ripe of the heart
When the first summons from the darkling earth
Reached thee amid thy chambers, blanched their blue,
And bared them of the glory to drop down,
To toil for man, to suffer or to die,
This is the same voice: can thy soul know change
Hail then, and hearken from the realms of help!
Never may I commence my song, my due
To God who best taught song by gift of thee,
Except with bent head and beseeching hand
That still, despite the distance and the dark,
What was, again may be; some interchange
Of grace, some splendour once thy very thought,
Some benediction anciently thy smile:
Never conclude, but raising hand and head
Thither where eyes, that cannot reach, yet yearn
For all hope, all sustainment, all reward,
Their utmost up and on, so blessing back
In those thy realms of help, that heaven thy home,
Some whiteness which, I judge, thy face makes proud,
Some wanness where, I think, thy foot may fall!

The poem begins with the view that one half of Rome took of the events. At the very commencement we touch one of the secondary interests of the book, the incidental characters. Guido, Caponsacchi, Pompilia, the Pope, and, in a lesser degree, Violante and Pietro, are the chief characters, and the main interest contracts around them. But, through all they say and do, as a motley crowd through a street, a great number of minor characters move to and fro; and Browning, whose eye sees every face, and through the face into the soul, draws them one by one, some more fully than others in perhaps a hundred lines, some only in ten. Most of them are types of a class, a profession or a business, yet there is always a touch or two which isolates each of them so that they do not only represent a class but a personal character. He hated, like Morris, the withering of the individual, nor did he believe, nor any man who knows and feels mankind, that by that the world grew more and more. The poem is full of such individualities. It were well, as one example, to read the whole account of the people who come to see the murdered bodies laid out in the Church of Lorenzo. The old, curious, doddering gossip of the Roman street is not less alive than the Cardinal, and the clever pushing Curato; and around them are heard the buzz of talk, the movement of the crowd. The church, the square are humming with humanity.

He does the same clever work at the deathbed of Pompilia. She lies in the House of the dying, and certain folk are allowed to see her. Each one is made alive by this creative pencil; and all are different, one from the other the Augustinian monk, old mother Baldi chattering like a jay who thought that to touch Pompilia’s bedclothes would cure her palsy, Cavalier Carlo who fees the porter to paint her face just because she was murdered and famous, the folk who argue on theology over her wounded body. Elsewhere we possess the life-history of Pietro and Violante, Pompilia’s reputed parents; several drawings of the retired tradesmen class, with their gossips and friends, in the street of a poor quarter in Rome; then, the Governor and Archbishop of Arezzo, the friar who is kindly but fears the world and all the busy-bodies of this provincial town. Arezzo, its characters and indwellers, stand in clear light. The most vivid of these sketches is Dominus Hyacinthus, the lawyer who defends Guido. I do not know anything better done, and more amusingly, than this man and his household a paternal creature, full of his boys and their studies, making us, in his garrulous pleasure, at home with them and his fat wife. Browning was so fond of this sketch that he drew him and his boys over again in the epilogue.

These represent the episodical characters in this drama of life; and Browning has scattered them, as it were, behind the chief characters, whom sometimes they illustrate and sometimes they contrast. Of these the whitest, simplest, loveliest is Pompilia, of whom I have already written. The other chief characters are Count Guido and Giuseppe Caponsacchi; and to the full development of these two characters Browning gives all his powers. They are contrasted types of the spirit of good and the spirit of evil conquering in man. Up to a certain point in life their conduct is much alike. Both belong to the Church one as a priest, one as a layman affiliated to the Church. The lust of money and self, when the character of Pompilia forces act, turns Guido into a beast of greed and hate. The same character, when it forces act, lifts Caponsacchi into almost a saint. This was a piece of contrasted psychology in which the genius of Browning revelled, and he followed all the windings of it in both these hearts with the zest of an explorer. They were labyrinthine, but the more labyrinthine the better he was pleased. Guido’s first speech is made before the court in his defence. We see disclosed the outer skin of the man’s soul, all that he would have the world know of him cynical, mocking, not cruel, not affectionate, a man of the world whom life had disappointed, and who wishing to establish himself in a retired life by marriage had been deceived and betrayed, he pleads, by his wife and her parents an injured soul who, stung at last into fury at having a son foisted on him, vindicates his honour. And in this vindication his hypocrisy slips at intervals from him, because his hatred of his wife is too much for his hypocrisy.

This is the only touch of the wolf in the man his cruel teeth shown momentarily through the smooth surface of his defence. A weaker poet would have left him there, not having capacity for more. But Browning, so rich in thought he was, had only begun to draw him. Guido is not only painted by three others by Caponsacchi, by Pompilia, by the Pope but he finally exposes his real self with his own hand. He is condemned to death. Two of his friends visit him the night before his execution, in his cell. Then, exalted into eloquence by the fierce passions of fear of death and hatred of Pompilia, he lays bare as the night his very soul, mean, cruel, cowardly, hungry for revenge, crying for life, black with hate a revelation such as in literature can best be paralleled by the soliloquies of Iago. Baseness is supreme in his speech, hate was never better given; the words are like the gnashing of teeth; prayers for life at any cost were never meaner, and the outburst of terror and despair at the end is their ultimate expression.

Over against him is set Caponsacchi, of noble birth, of refined manner, one of those polished and cultivated priests of whom Rome makes such excellent use, and of whom Browning had drawn already a different type in Bishop Blougram. He hesitated, being young and gay, to enter the Church. But the archbishop of that easy time, two hundred years ago, told him the Church was strong enough to bear a few light priests, and that he would be set free from many ecclesiastical duties if, by assiduity in society and with women, he strengthened the social weight of the Church. In that way, making his madrigals and confessing fine ladies, he lived for four years. This is an admirable sketch of a type of Church society of that date, indeed, of any date in any Church; it is by no means confined to Rome.

On this worldly, careless, indifferent, pleasure-seeking soul Pompilia, in her trouble and the pity of it, rises like a pure star seen through mist that opens at intervals to show her excelling brightness; and in a moment, at the first glimpse of her in the theatre, the false man drops away; his soul breaks up, stands clear, and claims its divine birth. He is born again, and then transfigured. The life of convention, of indifference, dies before Pompilia’s eyes; and on the instant he is true to himself, to her, and to God. The fleeting passions which had absorbed him, and were of the senses, are burned up, and the spiritual love for her purity, and for purity itself that eternal, infinite desire is now master of his life. Not as Miranda and Ferdinand changed eyes in youthful love, but as Dante and Beatrice look on one another in Paradise, did Pompilia and Caponsacchi change eyes, and know at once that both were true, and see without speech the central worth of their souls. They trusted one another and they loved for ever. So, when she cried to him in her distress, he did her bidding and bore her away to Rome. He tells the story of their flight, and tells it with extraordinary beauty and vehemence in her defence. So noble is the tale that he convinces the judges who at first had disbelieved him; and the Pope confesses that his imprudence was a higher good than priestly prudence would have been. When he makes his defence he has heard that Pompilia has been murdered. Then we understand that in his conversion to goodness he has not lost but gained passion. Scorn of the judges, who could not see that neither he was guilty nor Pompilia; fiery indignation with the murderer; infinite grief for the lamb slain by the wolf, and irrevocable love for the soul of Pompilia, whom he will dwell with eternally when they meet in Heaven, a love which Pompilia, dying, declares she has for him, and in which, growing and abiding, she will wait for him burn on his lips. He is fully and nobly a man; yet, at the end and he is no less a man for it the wild sorrow at his heart breaks him down into a cry:

O great, just, good God! Miserable me!

Pompilia ends her words more quietly, in the faith that comes with death. Caponsacchi has to live on, to bear the burden of the world. But Pompilia has borne all she had to bear. All pain and horror are behind her, as she lies in the stillness, dying. And in the fading of this life, she knows she loves Caponsacchi in the spiritual world and will love him for ever. Each speaks according to the circumstance, but she most nobly:

He is ordained to call and I to come!
Do not the dead wear flowers when dressed for God?
Say, I am all in flowers from head to foot!
Say, not one flower of all he said and did,
Might seem to flit unnoticed, fade unknown,
But dropped a seed, has grown a balsam-tree
Whereof the blossoming perfumes the place
At this supreme of moments! He is a priest;
He cannot marry therefore, which is right:
I think he would not marry if he could.
Marriage on earth seems such a counterfeit,
Mere imitation of the inimitable:
In heaven we have the real and true and sure.
’Tis there they neither marry nor are given
In marriage but are as the angels: right,
Oh how right that is, how like Jesus Christ
To say that! Marriage-making for the earth,
With gold so much, birth, power, repute so much,
Or beauty, youth so much, in lack of these!
Be as the angels rather, who, apart,
Know themselves into one, are found at length
Married, but marry never, no, nor give
In marriage; they are man and wife at once
When the true time is; here we have to wait
Not so long neither! Could we by a wish
Have what we will and get the future now,
Would we wish aught done undone in the past?
So, let him wait God’s instant men call years;
Meantime hold hard by truth and his great soul,
Do out the duty! Through such souls alone
God stooping shows sufficient of His light
For us i’ the dark to rise by. And I rise.

Last of these main characters, the Pope appears. Guido, condemned to death by the law, appeals from the law to the head of the Church, because, being half an ecclesiastic, his death can only finally be decreed by the ecclesiastical arm. An old, old man, with eyes clear of the quarrels, conventions, class prejudices of the world, the Pope has gone over all the case during the day, and now night has fallen. Far from the noise of Rome, removed from the passions of the chief characters, he is sitting in the stillness of his closet, set on his decision. We see the whole case now, through his mind, in absolute quiet. He has been on his terrace to look at the stars, and their solemn peace is with him. He feels that he is now alone with God and his old age. And being alone, he is not concise, but garrulous and discursive. Browning makes him so on purpose. But discursive as his mind is, his judgment is clear, his sentence determined. Only, before he speaks, he will weigh all the characters, and face any doubts that may shoot into his conscience. He passes Guido and the rest before his spiritual tribunal, judging not from the legal point of view, but from that which his Master would take at the Judgment Day. How have they lived; what have they made of life? When circumstances invaded them with temptation, how did they meet temptation? Did they declare by what they did that they were on God’s side or the devil’s? And on these lines he delivers his sentence on Pompilia, Caponsacchi, Guido, Pietro, Violante, and the rest. He feels he speaks as the Vicegerent of God.

This solemn, silent, lonely, unworldly judgment of the whole case, done in God’s presence, is, after the noisy, crowded, worldly judgment of it by Rome, after the rude humours of the law, and the terrible clashing of human passions, most impressive; and it rises into the majesty of old age in the summing up of the characters of Pompilia, Caponsacchi, and Guido. I wish Browning had left it there. But he makes a sudden doubt invade the Pope with a chill. Has he judged rightly in thinking that divine truth is with him? Is there any divine truth on which he may infallibly repose?

And then for many pages we are borne away into a theological discussion, which I take leave to say is wearisome; and which, after all, lands the Pope exactly at the point from which he set out a conclusion at which, as we could have told him beforehand, he would be certain to arrive. We might have been spared this. It is an instance of Browning’s pleasure in intellectual discourse which had, as I have said, such sad results on his imaginative work. However, at the end, the Pope resumes his interest in human life. He determines; and quickly “Let the murderer die to-morrow.”

Then comes the dreadful passion of Guido in the condemned cell, of which I have spoken. And then, one would think the poem would have closed. But no, the epilogue succeeds, in which, after all the tragedy, humour reigns supreme. It brings us into touch with all that happened in this case after the execution of Guido; the letters written by the spectators, the lawyer’s view of the deed, the gossip of Rome upon the interesting occasion. No piece of humour in Browning’s poetry, and no portrait-sketching, is better than the letter written by a Venetian gentleman in Rome giving an account of the execution. It is high comedy when we are told that the Austrian Ambassador, who had pleaded for Guido’s life, was so vexed by the sharp “no” of the Pope (even when he had told the Pope that he had probably dined at the same table with Guido), that he very nearly refused to come to the execution, and would scarcely vouchsafe it more than a glance when he did come as if this conduct of his were a slight which the Pope would feel acutely. Nor does Browning’s invention stop with this inimitable letter. He adds two other letters which he found among the papers; and these give to the characters of the two lawyers, new turns, new images of their steady professional ambition not to find truth, but to gain the world.

One would think, after this, that invention would be weary. Not at all! The Augustinian monk who attended Pompilia has not had attention enough; and this is the place, Browning thinks, to show what he thought of the case, and how he used it in his profession. So, we are given a great part of the sermon he preached on the occasion, and the various judgments of Rome upon it.

It is wonderful, after invention has been actively at work for eleven long books, pouring forth its waters from an unfailing fountain, to find it, at the end, as gay, as fresh, as keen, as youthful as ever. This, I repeat, is the excellence of Browning’s genius fulness of creative power, with imagination in it like a fire. It does not follow that all it produces is poetry; and what it has produced in The Ring and the Book is sometimes, save for the metre, nothing better than prose. But this is redeemed by the noble poetry of a great part of it. The book is, as I have said, a mixed book the central arena of that struggle in Browning between prose and poetry with a discussion of which this chapter began, and with the mention of which I finish it.