The length of Browning’s The Ring and the Book — 21,000 lines, ten sections or “Books,” militates against an extensive, prose description of the work in a blog post. This, then, is an outline of salient features of the extended dramatic narrative poem.
As stated in Part 1, Browning was inspired by the lurid details of a 1698 Roman murder trial recorded in what became known as the Old Yellow Book, a collection of written testimony purchased by Robert for one lira in June 1860. Browning read the contents of the Old Yellow Book immediately and repeatedly right after the purchase, but circumstances forced him to put it aside.
He returned to the depositions in 1862 and spent much of the next six years turning their contents into a poetic tour de force. Nine of the Books are dramatic monologues.
Count Guido Franceschini, impoverished, middle-aged nobleman
Pompilia Comparini, his much-younger wife
Pietro and Violante Comparini, putative parents of Pompilia
Giuseppe Caponsacchi, a priest
Pope Innocent XII, to whom Franceschini appeals his conviction
1. The Ring and the Book — features a narrator (possibly Browning); explains how he came across the Yellow Book and provides a broad outline of the plot.
2. Half-Rome & 3.The Other Half-Rome – Views and gossip of the Roman public, divided over which side to support (Guido or Pompilia) in the famous case; differing accounts of the circumstances surrounding the case and the events which took place.
4. Tertium Quid — Spoken by a lawyer who has no connection with the case; he gives, according to himself, a balanced, unbiased view of the case.
5. Franceschini — The accused murderer gives his side of the story; claims that it was a matter of honor; accuses Pompilia and Caponsacchi of adultery.
6. Caponsacchi — The young priest swears that no adultery took place; he simply tried to help Pompilia escape her abusive husband.
7. Pompilia — Gravely-wounded and dying Pompilia presents her account of the story.
8. & 9. Dry, pedantic depositions by the opposing trial lawyers; filled with legal bickering and discussion of tiny, irrelevant points.
10. Pope Innocent — Considers Franceschini’s appeal against a wider view of moral issues; reflects on the nature of good and evil; rejects the appeal.
11. Franceschini in his cell the night before his execution — Veers from near-psychotic fury to begging for this life.
12. The narrator (Browning?) returns; wraps up the aftermath of the trial and ends the poem.
The Ring and the Book was the best-selling of Browning’s works during his lifetime. The work’s deep philosophical, psychological and spiritual insights outstripped anything the poet had produced earlier or would produce later. It restored Browning’s reputation as among the first rank of English poets, which he had lost nearly thirty years before when the difficult, obscure Sordello was published.
Sources: Poetry Criticism, Gale Cengage, 2005 and “The Ring and the Book,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.