Sunday, August 28, 2005

BOOK: Robert Browning, "The Ring and the Book"

Robert Browning: The Ring and the Book. Charlotte Porter and Helen A. Clarke. New York and Boston: Thomas Y. Crowell & Company, 1897.

Browning is probably one of the greatest masters of blank verse in English literature, and this is his longest blank-verse narrative poem. It is based on the true facts of a murder and the subsequent trial that took place in Rome in the 17th-century. The basic facts are simple enough and Browning gives them all away in the very first book of the poem; each of the subsequent books is then narrated from the perspective of one of the people involved in the case, and of course each of them views the situation in his or her own way.

This was quite an interesting read, although like many other people I also often wished that the poem had been somewhat shorter; it's over 20000 lines long. Browning is very good at writing dramatic monologue, the text flows very nicely and is highly readable. The poet is very careful about all sorts of little details specific to the narrator of each book, so that each of them stands out as a character different from the others. Thus the narrator of book 2 is obsessed with the unfaithfulness of wives and the necessity of the husband's dominion over his wife; the narrator of book 4 is constantly trying to present himself as clever and keeps on fawning on the aristocratic listeners to whom his speech is being addressed; the lawyer in book 8 keeps thinking about his family and domestic matters, especially his son and the son's eighth birthday. Books 8 and 9 are quite amusing as the two lawyers (one for the defence, one for the prosecution) are preparing their speeches and thinking aloud, partly in English and then translating into Latin on the fly. The murderer, Count Guido, an impoverished nobleman well past his prime, is a most annoying character, arrogant and pompous and he keeps thinking as if the wife had been his property, and seems to think that his cold-blooded and well premeditated murder of her was a reasonable reaction to her imaginary unfaithfulness; he also keeps claiming that the minor religious orders he had taken at some point in the past should be sufficient cause for him to escape the sentence. Hopefully this view of wives as almost property is now gone for good, although jealousy and possessiveness are still common human traits. But anyway the fact is that Guido murdered her and her parents out of greed rather than jealousy.

Here are a few interesting passages from the poem.

That's all we may expect of man, this side
The grave: his good is — knowing he is bad:

This passage (6.142–3) caught my attention because of its grim view of human nature, which is much in agreement with mine. (One thing I disagree with in the above lines, of course, is the implication of a life after death.) I am reminded of the passage from The Brothers Karamazov (book IV, ch. 1), where the monk Zossima says:

Because we have come here and shut ourselves within these walls, we are no holier than those that are outside, but on the contrary, from the very fact of coming here, each of us has confessed to himself that he is worse than others, than all men on earth...

And here's another quote from The Ring and the Book that I can sympathize with:

All poetry is difficult to read.

(This was Pompilia in 7.1144.)

          I wonder, all the same,
Not so much at those peasants' lack of heart;
But — Guido Franceschini, nobleman,
Bear pain no better! Everbody knows
It used once, when my father was a boy,
To form a proper, nay, important point
I' the education of our well-born youth,
That they took torture handsomely at need,
Without confessing in this clownish guise.
Each noble had his rack for private use,
And would, for the diversion of a guest,
Bid it be set up in the yard of arms,
And take thereon his hour of exercise, —
Command the varletry stretch, strain their best,
While friends looked on, admired my lord could smile
'Mid tugging which had caused an ox to roar.
Men are no longer men!

The quote above is from 8.397–413. It's an interesting piece of information, if true; but surely it's patently ridiculous to claim that this sort of “exercise” can have been any use whatsoever. In a real torture situtation, the torturers would not hesitate to ruin his joints, disable him for life, and eventually risk killing him. The varlets certainly didn't dare to go that far, and therefore we cannot reasonably infer that, because he could bear this, he could also bear the sort of torture he would get in a real interrogation.

And in the next quote, 8.1368–72, our family-friendly lawyer is preoccupied with thoughts of dinner:

There is a porcupine to barbacue; [sic]
Gigia can jug a rabbit well enough,
With sour-sweet sauce and pine-pips; but, good Lord,
Suppose the devil instigate the wench
To stew, not roast him? Stew my porcupine?
If she does, I know where his quills shall stick!

Poor woman.

And here's a fine contribution to my growing collection of anti-lawyer quotes: the pope in 10.372–5, fulminating against lawyers and their foul abuse of language.

Therefore these filthy rags of speech, this coil
Of statement, comment, query and response,
Tatters all too contaminate for use,
Have no renewing:

Finally, a splendid piece of sarcasm from 12.182–6:

Or glancing at Saint Mary's opposite,
Where they possess, and showed in shrine to-day,
The blessed Umbilicus of our Lord,
(A relic 't is believed no other church
In Rome can boast of)

Not only does somebody dare to claim they possess god's navel, but the idea that there could exist several such navels in existence is treated as something that could conceivably be true needs to be explicitly denied... :-)

I wonder if there exists an anthology of mentions of preposterous relics and similar relic-related trivia. It would make for pleasantly bizarre reading. Here are a few contributions to the genre:

  • The ones mentioned in my post about Eça de Queiros' The Relic.
  • The piece of charcoal on which St Lawrence had been grilled, mentioned in the Decameron 6.10.
  • The quote attributed to Luther: “How is it possible that Jesus only had 12 apostles, when <number-greater-than-12> are buried in <country> alone!” I searched around the web a bit, but couldn't find any precise reference for this quote. The number is usually 18 but sometimes 23, and the country is usually either Spain or Germany.
  • William in The Name of the Rose (Sixth Day, Prime, p. 425): “I have seen many other fragments of the cross, in other churches. If all were genuine, our Lord's torments could not have been on a couple of planks nailed together, but on an entire forest.”

There is nothing special about the particular edition (Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1897) that I read; I just bought it because it had a few explanatory glosses and footnotes and because a nice copy was offered on eBay for a low price. It has a few plates with illustrations showing various locations connected to the story; they are nice, but nothing terribly impressive; but this must have been a nice feature of the book a hundred years ago when few people could afford to travel to Italy, and when it wasn't possible to see it in numerous TV documentaries like today. The introductory essay by the editors is quite nice. Another nice thing is that the book includes line numbers, which is convenient if you want to refer to a particular passage. The copy I bought has a bookplate of “Mr. and Mrs. E. L. Winterberger” and a gift inscription in beautiful handwriting, “To Emil L. Winterberger | from | One who rejoices in his success. | June 27, 1900.” I'm always interested to see bookplates and gift inscriptions in old books like this. I can't help wondering who Mr. Winterberger was; what sort of success he had achieved back in 1900; what sort of a place was New York or Boston back then, or whatever city he lived in; how many years he's been dead, what sort of people owned the book since then, etc. Books have their fate, as the saying goes; too bad they usually keep silent about it.

The explanatory footnotes provided by the editors contain many interesting pieces of information:

“The Romans used to open their Virgil at random for guidance” (p. 154).

Est-est: a wine so called because a nobleman once sent his servant in advance to write ‘Est,’ it is! on any inn where the wine was particularly good. At one inn it was so superlatively good that he wrote Est-est.” (P. 283.) Sounds like a dream assignment... :-)

On p. 342, cubiculum is glossed as “sleeping-room”. I wonder if the poor wretches that inhabit the cubicles of present-day corporations would agree.

On a few occasions the choice of things to be annotated is somewhat surprising; thus on p. 291 we learn that Aristotle was the “celebrated Greek writer on philosophy, ethics, physics, etc., 384-323 B.C.”.

All in all, this book was a pleasant read and I hope to eventually read some more of Browning's narrative poetry.


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