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Sep 26, 2010

The Ring and the Book

The Ring and the Book is a long dramatic narrative poem, and, more specifically, a verse novel, of 21,000 lines written by Robert Browning. It was published in four installments from 1868 to 1869.

Plot:
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. The poem comprises twelve books, each a dramatic monologue spoken by a different narrator involved in the case, usually giving a different account of the same events.
Total Books with Names:
   1. The Ring and the Book
   2. Half-Rome
   3. The Other Half-Rome
   4. Tertium Quid
   5. Count Guido Franceschini
   6. Giuseppe Caponsacchi
   7. Pompilia
   8. Dominus Hyacinthus de Archangelis
   9. Juris Doctor Johannes Baptista Bottinius
  10. Pope Innocent XII
  11. Guido
  12. The Book and the Ring

Major characters
    Count Guido Franceschini
    Pompilia Comparini, his wife
    Pietro and Violante Comparini, her parents
    Giuseppe Caponsacchi, a priest
    Pope Innocent XII


Analysis:
The poem is based on a real-life case. Under Roman law at the time, trials were not held in open court but rather by correspondence, whereupon each witness was required to submit a written statement for future adjudication. Browsing in a flea market in Florence  in 1860, Browning came across a large volume of these written statements relating to the 1698 Franceschini case, and bought it on the spot. This volume - later known as the Yellow Book, after the colour of its aged covers - struck Browning as an excellent basis for a poem, but he was unable to get any further than the basic idea and often offered it as a subject to other writers, notably Alfred Tennyson, upon which to base a poem or novel. Luckily for posterity, there were no takers, and following his wife's death and his return to England, Browning revived his old plan for a long poem based on the Roman murder case almost eight years after the idea had first struck him.

The first book features a narrator, possibly Browning himself, who relates the story of how he came across the Yellow Book in the market and then giving a broad outline of the plot. The next two books give the views and gossip of the Roman public, apparently divided over which side to support in the famous case, who give differing accounts of the circumstances surrounding the case and the events which took place. Book 4 is spoken by a lawyer, Tertium Quid, who has no connection to the case but gives what he claims is a balanced, unbiased view of proceedings. Book 5 sees the start of the testimony from the trial, allowing the accused murderer Franceschini to give his side of the story, Book 6 is the young priest who was accused of being Pompilia's lover, and who asserts no affair took place, that he simply tried to help Pompilia escape her abusive husband; Book 7 is the account of the dying Pompilia, mortally wounded but not killed in the attack. The next two books are dry, academic depositions by the two opposing trial lawyers, and are filled with pedantic legal bickering and infinite discussion of tiny, irrelevant points; these are darkly humorous attacks by Browning on the quibbling, unproductive legal system, and have practically no bearing whatsoever on events. Book 10 is perhaps the best-known of the monologues in the poem, as Pope Innocent considers Franceschini's appeal against a wider backdrop of moral issues, and a deep reflection on the nature of good and evil, before rejecting the condemned man's plea. Book 11, which features Franceschini in his cell on "death row" the night before his execution, is similarly well-regarded, with the narrator veering from near-psychotic spleen to begging for his life. Book 12 returns to Browning's own voice, wrapping up the aftermath of the trial and ending the poem.

Reception and reputation

The Ring and the Book was, by some margin, the best-selling of all Browning's works during his lifetime. The depth of its philosophical, psychological and spiritual insight is a step up from anything Browning produced before or since, and the poem was almost universally hailed as a work of genius, restoring the pioneering reputation among the first rank of English poets which Browning had lost with Sordello nearly thirty years previously. The book lost popularity with readers during the 20th century, but has recently been reprinted and sold reasonably well.[citation needed]

Facsimile copies of the Yellow Book (the source documents for the poem) are also available, and they reveal the extent of conjecture and invention Browning used when writing the poem. After Browning's death, a cache of documents relating to the case almost twice the size of the Yellow Book was found in an Italian library in the 1920s; the true story of the murder is told in Derek Parker, 'Roman Murder Mystery', London, Sutton, 2001.

The actual ring and book which inspired Browning—and which are described at the start and end of the work—are preserved at Balliol College, Oxford University, having been donated by Browning's son Pen.

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