The Ring and the Book: Robert Browning’s Masterwork, part one

The Ring and the Book is generally conceded to be Robert Browning’s masterwork. It was inspired by what became known as The Old Yellow Book. Its depositions, written testimony for a murder trial in 1698 Rome, were covered in soiled, yellowing vellum. Browning came upon the collection of written testimony while browsing in the “flea market” of the Piazza di San Lorenzo on a June day in 1860. In the Piazza, “pushed by the hand ever above my shoulder,” his eye caught the volume, crowded among its insignificant neighbors. “One glance at the lettered back,” declares the poet, “and… a lira made it mine.” All the way home and all day long, he pored over these pages, until by nightfall he had mastered the facts of the case and the whole tragedy lay plain before his mind’s eye. No one knows how the once official Roman documents came to be in a stall in this Piazza in Florence two hundred sixty-two years after the trial ended.

Due to Elizabeth’s death and Browning’s return to England with Pen, he did not return to the Old Yellow Book until 1862. From that year to the publication of his artistic, poetic reinterpretation of the story and trial, (1868-69, in four installments), he worked almost continuously on what became the 21,000-line The Ring and the Book.

Daniel Karlin, an eminent Browning scholar, says this of the murders and the trial in a 2001 review of a  new edition of The Ring and the Book:

Part 1: “In September 1693, Guido Franceschini, an improverished middle-aged count, originally from Arezzo in Tuscany but living in Rome in the retinue of a cardinal, married 14-year-old Pompilia, putative daughter of Pietro and Violante Comparini, a moderately wealthy middle-class couple. Shortly after the marriage, Guido, his wife and his parents-in-law moved from Rome to Arezzo. Subsequently the Comparini returned to Rome, claiming ill-treatment by Guido; Violante then publicly  confessed that Pompilia was not really her child, but a prostitute’s whom she had passed off as hers to secure an inheritance in which Pietro held only a life-interest. The  Comparini sued Guido for the return of the dowry; he counter-sued, claiming that the story of Pompilia’s illegitimacy was a fabrication. Meanwhile Pompilia, unhappy in Arezzo, eventually fled in the company of a priest who had befriended her, Giuseppe Caponsacchi. Guido pursued the couple, caught up with them just before they reached Rome, and had them arrested. The subsequent hearing satisfied nobody. The charge of adultery was not sustained , but Caponsacchi was ‘relegated’ to Civita Vecchia for three years and Pompilia was placed in the care of a convent that also acted as a reformatory for fallen women. Guido was told to go home…

(Later), it was found that Pompilia was pregnant. She was released from the convent into the custody of her supposed parents, and a few weeks later bore Guido–or Caponsacchi–a son. This was in December 1697. On the night of January 2, 1698, Guido and four accomplices–farm workers from his Aretine estate–arrived at the Comparini house…claiming that they brought a letter from Caponsacchi… Once they entered the house…Guido killed Pietro and Violante and thought he had killed Pompilia, too, — she lay still after being repeatedly stabbed. As neighbors rushed to the scene, Guido and his accomplices fled…on foot because Guido had not…secured the necessary permit to hire horses in the city. The murderers…planning to escape Roman jurisdiction by going to Arezzo…covered twenty miles…before collapsing, exhausted…at an inn where the posse caught up with them. When the bewildered Guido asked how they knew who to look for and where to find him, and was told that his wife was still living, he fainted…Pompilia lived four more days — long enough for a death-bed confession and deposition.

At the subsequent trial Guido’s lawyers claimed that the murder of his wife was a matter of honor, and that Guido had acted under extreme provocation. Already maddened by his wife’s adultery and by the Comparini’s cynical chicanery, the birth of (according to Guido) Caponsacchi’s bastard had tipped the noble cuckold over the edge. The prosecution argued that Guido’s real and ignoble motive was money…(with the Comparini and Pompilia dead)…all the lawsuits would end and Guido as the legal father of the one remaining heir would walk away with the jackpot.

Guido was found guilty and condemned to death. But he had one card left to play — an appeal to the Pope, Innocent XII — on the grounds that he was in minor orders and subject to the jurisdiction of the Church.  (It was thought that he would be let off)…but the Pope to everyone’s surprise confirmed the sentence and Guido, together with his four accomplices, was executed in February 1698.


Hodell, Charles W. Introduction to The Old Yellow Book: Source of Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1911. Reprint, 1917.

Karlin, Danny (Daniel), Resurrection Man, Review of Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book, eds. Richard Altick and Thomas Collins.  London Review of Books 24, no. 10 (23 May 2002) 13-16.

Part II will consider Browning’s use of the depositions in The Old Yellow Book: His poetic design, sections, etc.





Elizabeth before Robert: A Brief Chronology

1806: EB was born on March 6, probably at Coxhoe Hall, Durham, England (the residence of her father and mother for some time after their marriage in 1805.)

Her father was Edward Moulton Barrett (who added the Barrett surname on the death of his maternal grandfather, whose estates in Jamaica he inherited).

EB’s mother was Mary Graham-Clarke, daughter of J. Graham-Clarke of Fenham Hall, Newcastle-on Tyne.

1808: EB was christened on February 10, 1808, leading to some later confusion as to her actual birth date and age.

At about this time, Edward Moulton Barrett, quite rich due to the estates in Jamaica, bought 500 acres at Hope End (a “hope” is an enclosed valley), near the Malvern Hills; EB was still an infant. He had a splendid new mansion built there, in the “Turkish style.” EB enjoyed an active, largely happy childhood at Hope End.

EB was the eldest of 11 surviving children (one died in infancy); she lived at Hope End until she was 26 years old.

She began writing at a very early age, creating short plays for herself, her brother Edward (“Bro”, born 1807), sister Henrietta (born 1809) and other siblings to perform.

ca. 1812: Determined to become a poet, the precocious EB read widely in English literature, and began at six or seven to study French, Latin and Greek. Delighting in learning, she ignored the tradition that the “learned languages” were reserved for boys. Her parents encouraged her efforts.

1818: EB, at twelve, was writing short novels and plays, translating, and experimenting with different forms of poetry.

1820: EB wrote “The Battle of Marathon,” a long poem on the ancient war between the Greeks and Persians. Her father had the poem privately printed for her fourteenth birthday.

1821: In April all three of the Barrett sisters, EB, Henrietta and Arabel (born 1813) became ill with headaches and convulsions. Henrietta and Arabel quickly recovered; EB did not. In July of that year EB also developed measles; she was sent to recover at the Spa Hotel, Gloucester. She stayed there for ten months while the doctors disagreed on diagnoses and treatment. She was forced to rest and was prescribed the alcoholic tincture of opium poppies, laudanum. At that time, it was not understood how addictive laudanum was.

Early 1820’s: Despite her health problems, EB continued to write poetry, much of which was published in periodicals.

1824: The Goodin-Barretts (cousins of Edward Moulton-Barrett) successfully sued for ownership of the estates and slaves in Jamaica. The Moulton-Barretts remained wealthy but not as extraordinarily wealthy as they had been.

1825, spring: EB completed the ambitious poem “An Essay on Mind.”  It and other of her poems were published in 1826 to critical acclaim.

1832: EB’s father had to sell Hope End.

1832, August: The Moulton-Barretts moved to Sidmouth on the Devon coast.

1835: The family moved to London, to 74 Gloucester Place.

1836, May:  EB met fellow writer Mary Russell Mitford and, despite Mitford’s being 18 years older, they became good friends.

1837, autumn: EB’s health began to decline once more. Her father sent her to Torquay to recover. Her beloved brother Edward (“Bro”) accompanied her.

1838: The Moulton-Barretts moved to 50 Wimpole Street in April.

1838: (EB continued to publish widely). Her collection The Seraphim and Other Poems was published in this year. Her reputation as a fine poet continued to develop.

1840, July: “Bro”, three friends and a boatman went sailing on Tor Bay in perfect conditions and were drowned. EB was seriously ill for several months. Mary Russell Mitford gave her Flush, a cocker spaniel and son of Mitford’s dog of the same name.

1841, autumn: EB finally convinced her father to let her return to Wimpole Street by easy stages. Despite her frailty, she continued to write poems and prose studies.

1842: EB produced two extensive, intelligent prose studies–Some Account of the Greek Christian Poets and The Book of the Poets (English poets since the middle ages).

1843: EB’s health began to improve steadily.

1844: EB’s two-volume Poems was published to critical acclaim and general popularity. Robert Browning read and was enthusiastic about EB’s collection of poems. This and the encouragement of John Kenyon led him to write his first letter to EB (January 1845).

1845, May 20: EB and RB finally met in her rooms at Wimpole Street– to discuss poetry. Over the next 20 months, RB visited more than 90 times, and the two poets exchanged 574 letters.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was one of the most prominent poets of the Victorian era. Her poetry was widely popular in both England and the United States during her lifetime.[1] A collection of her last poems was published by her husband, Robert Browning, shortly after her death. Her Sonnets from the Portuguese remain well-known. Scholarly interest in her life and poetry has undergone a great resurgence in the last 30 to 40 years.


Pied Piper cartoon

 New Yorker Cartoon Premium Giclee Print

The Pied Piper of Hamelin is RB’s best known poem. He wrote it for Willy MacReady (10 years old; son of a good friend), who had to stay at home due to a terrible cough–and who was VERY bored. RB wrote this and “The Cardinal and His Dog” and asked Willy to illustrate them–which he did. (Illustrations now owned by the ABL&M)

John Kenyon, Robert and Elizabeth’s “Guardian Angel”

John Kenyon (bust by William Wetmore Story, 1841)

Why is an original marble bust of John Kenyon, Esq., displayed in Armstrong Browning’s Entrance Foyer with busts of Robert, Elizabeth and Robert Barrett Browning (“Pen”)?

John Kenyon (1784-1856), a distant cousin of Elizabeth’s and  friend of both Elizabeth and Robert, was destined to play an important role in their lives both individually and as a couple. John Kenyon was born in Jamaica, son of a wealthy landowner, but came to England as a boy. His wealth and his noted generosity and kindliness made him an eminent patron of the literary establishment during the second quarter of the 19th century. Kenyon was, in fact, best known for his friendships with many eminent literary men and women. He was, as well, a poet who published some volumes of minor verses.

John Kenyon introduced Eilzabeth to the important literary figures of the time, among them William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Thomas Carlyle, and Mary Russell Mitford, who was to become a good friend.

In 1841,  the Barrett family moved to 50 Wimpole Street in London. By this time, Elizabeth’s health had become fragile and she spent most of her time in her rooms upstairs, seeing only family, her dog, Flush–and John Kenyon. Although frail, she continued to write and publish her poetry. She became so popular that Robert Browning, six years her junior and much less well-known at the time, became enamored of her poetry. On her part,she was already well-acquainted with Browning’s few published works.

In 1844 Barrett’s collection “Poems” was published and became a tremendous popular success. Robert raved about the poems in the presence of John Kenyon and Kenyon urged him to write to her and tell her how he felt. Robert did, indeed, write and his praise was fulsome. In fact, his enthusiasm led him to startle Elizabeth somewhat–at that point they had never met: “I do, as I say, love these Books with all my heart–and I love you, too.”  When Robert expressed a desire  to meet her, through the agency of John Kenyon, she refused–several times. She could not believe the robust Browning really wanted to meet her. Finally, though, she relented and Kenyon arranged for Browning to meet Elizabeth on May 20, 1845.

Robert met Elizabeth in her rooms at Wimpole Street and so began one of the most famous courtships in literature. During the twenty months of the courtship, the two met regularly and exchanged 574 letters as well. During this period, too, Elizabeth secretly wrote the works that became her most famous: A cycle of 44 sonnets celebrating her growing love for Robert; later to be given the title “Sonnets from the Portuguese.”   The courtship and their marriage at St. Marylebone parish church on September 12, 1846 were kept secret from her father, Edward Moulton-Barrett, who had forbidden his 11 children to marry. When he did learn of their elopement he disinherited Elizabeth.

John Kenyon remained quite close to Robert and Elizabeth’s  for the remainder of his life. At the birth of their only child, Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning (nicknamed, Pen), Kenyon supplemented the poets’ modest income with the gift of 100 pounds a year.  At his death, in1856, Kenyon bequeathed 11,000 pounds to Robert and Elizabeth.

Elizabeth completed Aurora Leigh, her most ambitious work, while she and Robert were staying with John Kenyon. Elizabeth dedicated the verse-novel to Kenyon:

“The words  ‘cousin’ and ‘friend’ are constantly recurring in this poem, the last pages of which have been finished under the hospitality of your roof, my own dearest cousin and friend…

Ending, therefore, and preparing once more to quit England, I leave in your hands this book, the most mature of my works, and the one into which my highest convictions upon Life and Art have entered; that as, through my various efforts in literature and steps in life, you have believed in me, borne with me, and been generous to me , far beyond the common uses of mere relationship  or sympathy of mind, so you may kindly accept, in sight of the public, this poor sign of esteem, gratitude, and affection, from          Your unforgetting EBB

The life-sized head and shoulders bust of Kenyon at 57 was done by Thomas Crawford in 1841. It eventually belonged to the Brownings. A generous donor gave it to the Browning Collection in 1944.







The Other 200th Birthday Being Celebrated in the British Isles–and elsewhere in the world

Robert Browning and Charles Dickens were both born in 1812: Dickens on the 7th of February and Browning on the 7th of May of that year. Browning and Dickens became good friends. The first paragraph of an article in Wikipedia says this about Browning: “…an English poet and playwright whose mastery of dramatic verse, especially dramatic monologues, made him one of the foremost Victorian poets.” The first paragraph of the Wikipedia article on Charles Dickens says: “…an English writer and social critic who is generally regarded as the greatest novelist of the Victorian period and the creator of some of the world’s most memorable fictional characters. During his lifetime Dickens’s works enjoyed unprecedented popularity and fame, and by the twentieth century his literary genius was fully recognized by critics and scholars. His novels and short stories continue to enjoy an enduring popularity among the general reading public.”

For more information on the worldwide celebration of Dickens’ life, novels, short stories, films of Dickens novels, and festivals and outdoor events dealing with Dickens and his works, go to the Dickens 2012 web site:

“God bless us, every one” (Tiny Tim, A Christmas Carol)



The Armstrong Papers in the Texas Collection, Baylor

This portrait of Dr. Armstrong hangs in the Foyer of Meditation, Armstrong Browning Library.

The A. Joseph Armstrong papers are housed in Baylor’s Texas Collection along with the  rest of the University Archives. (The information below is drawn from the Texas Collection website.)

Information on the AJA Papers:I

Andrew Joseph Armstrong Papers #0449 1
Descriptive Summary:
Creator: Andrew Joseph Armstrong and Mary Maxwell Armstrong
Title: Andrew Joseph Armstrong Papers
Inclusive Dates: 1869-1960, undated
Bulk Dates: 1910-1950
Abstract: The Andrew Joseph Armstrong Papers consist of correspondence,
literary productions, and other materials collected during his tenure
as Chairman of the English Department at Baylor University. His
wife Mary’s genealogical records comprise the final series of the
Accession #: 0449
Extent: 4.05 linear feet (9 document boxes)
Language: Collection is in English.
Repository: The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, Texas.
Biographical Note:
Andrew Joseph Armstrong and his wife Mary Maxwell Armstrong were
influential members of the Baylor University community. They are most famous for their
efforts to establish the Browning Library (later named Armstrong-Browning Library) as
the premier collection of Browning materials in the world.
Andrew Joseph Armstrong, the son of Andrew Jackson Armstrong and Lotta
Forman Armstrong, was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on 1873 March 29. He graduated
with a Bachelor of Arts in 1902 and a Master of Arts in 1904 from Wabash College in
Indiana. For six months, he taught at East Texas Baptist Institute in Rusk, where he met
Mary Maxwell.
Mary Maxwell, the daughter of Wilder Richard Maxwell and Melissa Anne
Williams Maxwell was born in Buena Vista, Texas. She attended Baylor University and
the University of Chicago. In 1902, she became a teacher at the East Texas Baptist
Institute in Rusk, Texas, where her brother was the president. Although she only knew
Armstrong for six months, their relationship blossomed.
Armstrong continued his education at the University of Pennsylvania, earning a
doctoral degree. He once again took up the mantle of teaching at Wesleyan University in Illinois (1904-1907), Baylor University in Texas (1908-1909), and Georgetown College in Kentucky (1909-1912). Armstrong married Mary Maxwell on Janurary 24, 1911 Their only child, Richard Maxwell Armstrong, was born in December of that year.

The Armstrongs moved to Waco in 1912 due in large part to Dr. Armstrong’s new
position as Chairman of the English Department at Baylor University. He held this office
until 1952, attracting over 150 famous literary celebrities to visit Waco. During the
summers, the Armstrongs conducted tours to Europe through their traveling company.
One of the Armstrongs’ greatest shared passions was the poetry of Robert and
Elizabeth Browning. During their tours of Europe, the Armstrongs collected many
Browning materials. In 1918, Armstrong gave much of his collection to Baylor
University to encourage the development of a Browning museum. The couple’s efforts
culminated in the dedication of the Armstrong-Browning Library on December 1-3, 1951.
A.J. Armstrong died shortly after this dedication on May 31,1954. Mary Maxwell
Armstrong continued as the director of new library for five years. Near the end of her Andrew Joseph Armstrong Papers #0449 2
life, Mary moved to Pennsylvania to live with her son. She died in Philadelphia on 1971
September 1. The Armstrongs are still remembered today for their work at Baylor
University and the Browning collections there.
Coley, Betty A. “Mary Maxwell Armstrong.” In Handbook of Texas Online. Available
at Accessed
2012 April 18.
Edwards, Margaret R. “A. Joseph Armstrong.” In Handbook of Texas Online. Available
at Accessed
2012 April 18.
Herring, Jack. “Andrew Joseph Armstrong.” In The Handbook of Waco and McLennan
County, Texas. Ed. by Dayton Kelley. Waco, TX: Texian Press, 1972.
“Mary Maxwell Armstrong.” In The Handbook of Waco and McLennan County, Texas.
Ed. by Dayton Kelley. Waco, TX: Texian Press, 1972.
Scope and Content:
The Andrew Joseph Armstrong Papers range from 1869 to 1960. These materials,
including correspondence, financial papers, legal documents, literary productions, and
genealogical notes, are helpful to any researcher interested in the developments of Baylor
University’s English Department, Armstrong’s touring company known as Armstrong
Educational Tours and Armstrong’s Tours of Distinction, and Armstrong’s efforts to
develop a Browning Library at Baylor University. The final series contains genealogical
materials pertaining to Mrs. Mary Maxwell Armstrong’s ancestry.
Organization and Arrangement:
This small collection has been organized into five series: I. Correspondence, II.
Financial Documents, III. Legal Documents, IV. Literary Productions, and V. Genealogy.
The correspondence series is organized chronologically. The four remaining series are
organized according to the type of material. Series V. Genealogy pertains primarily to
Mary Maxwell Armstrong and has been set apart from the remainder of the collection.
Restrictions: The collection is open for research.
Literary Rights Statement:
Unpublished materials authored or otherwise produced by the creator (s) of this
collection are in the public domain. There are no restrictions on use. Copyright status for
other collection materials is unknown. Transmission or reproduction of materials
protected by U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.C.) beyond that allowed by fair use
requires the written permission of the copyright owners. Works not in the public domain
cannot be commercially exploited without permission of the copyright owners.
Responsibility for any use rests exclusively with the user.

Dedication of the Garden of Contentment, September 14, 2012

When the Armstrong Browning Library & Museum was completed and dedicated during the first three days of December 1951, there were no funds left for landscaping. Dr. Armstrong had hoped to create the Garden of Contentment beside the Library building at that time, but it was not to be. Finally, though, Dr. Armstrong’s dream has become reality.

Due to much-needed rain the dedication took place in the Library & Museum’s magnificent Foyer of Meditation. Pattie Orr, Dean of University Libraries and Vice President for Information Technology, presided and brought greetings to the nearly-two hundred guests, university librarians, teaching faculty and Baylor students who helped to celebrate the special occasion. Rita S.Patteson, Director of the Armstrong Browning Library & Museum, spoke of Dr. Armstrong’s  “Vision for the Garden of Contentment.” Dr. Kirstie Blair of the University of Glasgow and this year’s Margarett Root Brown Chair in Robert Browning and Victorian Studies, spoke winningly of the “Significance of the Armstrong Browning Library and Museum.” The Benediction ending the Dedication was a reading of “Pippa’s Song” from Robert Browning’s early play, Pippa Passes. Sue Wright, Chairwoman of the Library’s Board of Advocates, invited the audience to read “Pippa’s Song” with her.

Pippa’s Song

The year’s at the spriing

and day’s at the morn;

Morning’s at seven;

The hillside’s dew-pearled

The lark’s on the wing;

The snail’s on the thorn;

God’s in his Heaven –

All’s right with the world.

(Pippa Passes, 1841)




The three oldest stained glass windows in the ABL&M

The Guardian Angel window: One of the three windows placed in the Browning Room in 1924.

The Pied Piper window: Placed in the Browning Room (1924)
How they brought the good news from Ghent to Aix: One of the three oldest stained glass windows in the Library & Museum: Placed in the Browning Room in 1924.

These three windows, placed in The Browning Room of the old Main Library, began the tradition of stained glass windows in the ABL&M. There are now 62 stained glass windows in the building, most of which show scenes suggested by  Robert Browning’s poems..The Elizabeth Barrett Browning Salon has five windows representing five of her “Sonnets from the Portuguese.”