Our book today is Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book (the first version of the work its author called his magnum opus, that is, the one which appeared in three volumes from 1868 to 1869, not the later version that resulted from Browning indulging in the fad of the times and going back to fiddle with his own work), the title of which alone will provoke groans in certain quarters; a beautiful young poet of my acquaintance, while striding sylphlike across the greenery of Amherst College, used to say, “Dryden! Kipling! Tennyson! Longfellow! Browning! All your favorite poets have fallen into disregard!” Then he’d stop, draw himself up in mock alarm, and intone, “But I’m one of your favorite poets … ergo?” Certainly none of his Amherst classmates – then or now – would have had any trouble answering the question posed in James Milne’s great essay “Were the Victorians Dull?” – and pace Tennyson, Browning – with his immense beard and his Italianate affectations and his air of mustiness – can often seem like the echt-Victorian. Following the Victorian pattern: a volley of smart, sensitive, immortal poems, followed by a long epic and ironclad obscurity.
Such, certainly, for Browning’s epic. It has a nifty origin story: the forty-something poet, browsing in the book stalls of Florence’s Piazza di San Lorenzo in 1860, comes across an old book collecting documents relating a dramatic murder case that came to court in 1698 Rome, bought it for chump change, brought it back to Casa Guidi, where he’d been staying with his wife and son, and almost immediately conceived a large work of poetry centering on this old, forgotten murder trial involving an unfaithful wife and her vengeful, nobleman husband who hunts her down and kills both her and her parents, is put on trial for his life, appeals to the Pope, is denied, and is executed.
Browning eventually conceived a big multi-voice work in which each of the main characters would tell the story from their own perspective, Rashomon-style, and some 20,000 lines later, he had his epic – and near-universal praise for creating the greatest work of poetry, said the critics, since Shakespeare.
Sic transit, and all that. Only a hundred years later, a standard-bearing critic like George Saintsbury could write an essay about Browning that he probably intended to be even-handed but that’s instead off-handedly, monstrously insulting:
A large, much the largest, part of Browning’s work is simply what has been called a ‘record’ – run straight off the plate or roll or whatever anybody likes to call it, of one part of the min, as it has received the action of another. It is doubtful whether much of it (The Ring and the Book for instance) could have been produced in any other way. A poet who worked in any other fashion must have got sick of, or confused in, that extraordinary maze of going over the same ground from different starting points. Even Browning must (appropriately enough to the subject) have had to get up his brief on it with unusual care. But, that once done, he had only to adjust the machine, and Murderer-Browning, Martyred-wife Browning, Pope-Browning, were ready to reel off their impressions as the different rolls or wheels were inserted.
Yep, the Browning-Bot 2000, being fed pertinent data and clanking into high gear, no art involved – just a whirring mechanism, churning out reams and reams of verse, some of which just statistically has to end up being good. I’d call it unequalled disparagement – if the same kind of thing weren’t handed out to a long list of poets I like.
Fortunately, there’s always The Ring and the Book to turn to for solace. In its rolling, brilliant pages, Browning dramatizes dozens of facets of the story he uncovered that day in Florence, often expertly playing on the multiplicities those many points of view create, even down to what his characters look like. Poor Guido, at his trial, describes himself as a fish out of water – but a basically good-looking one:
Therefore I must make move forthwith, transfer
My stranded self, born fish with gill and fin
Fit for the deep sea, now left flap bare-backed
In slush and sand, a show to crawlers vile
Reared of the low-tide and aright therein.
The enviable youth with the old name,
Wide chest, stout arms, sound brow and pricking veins,
A heartfelt desire, man’s natural load,
A brainful of belief, the noble’s lot, -
All this life, cramped and gasping, high and dry
I’the wave’s retreat …
But much, much later in the poem, when characters are brought on-stage to talk about witnessing his execution, we get a playfully different account:
The headsman showed
The head to the populace. Must I avouch
We strangers own to disappointment here?
Report pronounced him fully six feet high,
Youngish, considering his fifty years,
And, if not handsome, dignified at least.
Indeed, it was no face to please a wife!
Such antic game-playing with his audience happens throughout The Ring and the Book, off-set by deep insights into the nature of truth and honor, and all of it mixed with character-insights as knowingly and confidently sketched as anything being done by any of Browning’s famous novel-writing contemporaries. It all adds up to an extremely satisfying reading experience, a modern-day verse epic fit to stand in the same crowd as Jerusalem Delivered or Paradise Lost, regardless of the fickle nature of poetic fame – a fickle nature that in the 21st Century finds Browning’s popular reputation down at the very bottom of the well, right alongside Longfellow and Kipling and Tennyson, as poets it’s no longer ‘cool’ to know. So the young poets strolling their various campuses flock to other names and wouldn’t touch The Ring and the Book with a ten-foot pole.
And that young poet walking the flagstone pathways at Amherst? He wrote a volley of smart, sensitive, immortal poems, followed them with a long epic, and now lies in ironclad obscurity. Ergo indeed.