Seeing Many Beautiful Things: Ruskin’s Social and Political Letters

By Melinda Creech
Graduate Assistant, Armstrong Browning Library

In addition to his importance as an art critic, Ruskin was also a prominent social thinker and philanthropist. The Armstrong Browning Library owns several letters from Ruskin to correspondents who shared his social and political concerns.

John Ruskin to Octavia Hill. 4 Oxtover 1888

John Ruskin to Octavia Hill. 22 November 1865.

John Ruskin to Octavia HIll.

John Ruskin to Octavia HIll. 22 November 1865.

In this letter to Octavia Hill, artist and social reformer, Ruskin gives his permission for Hill to “make her offer.” He warns her “not to be rash and to be as sure as good counsel can make you of your game,” advising her that he “had much rather go very slowly, than have failures to your account or to others.”  Based on the date of the letter, Ruskin is probably referring to his lease of three houses of six rooms each in Paradise Place, Marylebone as residences for the poorest of the working class. Ruskin placed these houses under the management of Hill, who had a deep concern for housing for the poor.

*****

John Ruskin to Elizabeth Gaskell.

John Ruskin to Elizabeth Gaskell. [ca. 1865].

This letter from John Ruskin to Elizabeth Gaskell, English novelist and short story writer, is likely a response to Gaskell’s letter of February 1865. In that letter Gaskell asked Ruskin to pull whatever political strings that he could to make sure that her friend, Alfred Waterhouse, architect of the Assize Courts, had his name among those to be considered as architects for the new Law Courts in London, a position to be appointed by William Cowper. The appointment was prolonged and contentious. The judges wanted George Edmund Street to design the exterior, with the interior designed by Charles Barry. A special committee of lawyers favored Alfred Waterhouse’s designs, Elizabeth Gaskell’s choice. The appointment was eventually won by George Edmund Street, who died in 1881 before the project was completed. This letter suggests that Ruskin had contacted William Cowper and was able to assure Gaskell, “you will see by the enclosed the affair is not so petulantly forward yet, then men of course never make any promises—but I have good hope that he means at least as much as he says.”

*****

John Ruskin to John Henry Chamberlain. 6 December 1869.

John Ruskin to John Henry Chamberlain. 6 December 1869.

Ruskin apologizes for not thanking John Henry Chamberlain, architect from Birmingham, for his kind note. Ruskin later chooses Chamberlain to be a trustee of St. George’s Guild. St. George’s Guild is an Educational Trust created by John Ruskin to oppose modern, industrial capitalism and the ugliness, poverty, and pollution it produced. He hoped to establish communities that would oppose profit-driven industry and provide alternatives to mass production.

*****

John Ruskin to John Pakenham Stilwell. 14 February [ny].

John Ruskin to John Pakenham Stilwell. 14 February [ny].

John Ruskin to John Pakenham Stilwell. 14 February [ny].

John Ruskin to John Pakenham Stilwell. 14 February [ny].

The Armstrong Browning Library also owns eight letters of correspondence between Ruskin to John Pakenham Stilwell, British banker, Navy Agent, and Chairman of the Board of Management of the London Homeopathic Hospital. In the letters Ruskin thanks Stilwell for his gifts to St. George’s Guild and apologizes for his mistakes in accounting. In this letter Ruskin laments the plight of the poor:

I am truly helped by your kind letter, and entirely feel with you as to the quantity of good heart left in England. But as far as I have seen in history the innocent suffer with the guilty . . . . And when Revolution comes, as it must, distress will be everywhere.

*****

John Ruskin to William Cowper-Temple.

John Ruskin to William Cowper-Temple. 23 July 1876.

Ruskin had appointed William Cowper-Temple, a British Liberal Party statesman and politician and family friend, as trustee for St. George’s Guild. In this letter he thanks Cowper-Temple for his note and cheque. “Grannie,” referred to in the letter, is Lady Georgiana Cowper-Temple. He variously addressed her as “Phile,” “Isola,” “Mama,” and “Grannie.” In the letter Ruskin tells William to tell Grannie he is working on an edition of Sir Philip Sidney’s psalter, which was published the next year as Rock Honeycomb: Broken Pieces of Sir Philip Sidney’s Psalter. Laid Up in Store for English Homes. Ellis and White, 1877.

 

 

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An Article on the “Two Poets” and the Library & Museum in the Fort Hood Sentinel

We at Armstrong Browning thank Erin Rogers for featuring the Library & Museum in one of her Traveling Soldiers articles! In a recent publication, the ABL&M is called one of the 50 most beautiful university libraries in the world.

Pair of famous poets alive through collection

EMAIL   PRINT   SHAREBy Erin Rogers, Sentinel Leisure Editor
APRIL 11, 2013 | LEISURE
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The English rosewood bracket clock, on display in the library’s Hankamer Treasure Room, was owned by three generations of Brownings – Robert’s grandfather, father and then finally by Robert Browning himself. Erin Rogers, Sentinel Leisure Editor
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A view of the far wall of the Hankamer Treasure Room shows bookcases full of famous authors, treasures owned by Robert Browning and the library’s famous stained glass. Erin Rogers, Sentinel Leisure Editor
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This stained-glass window on the main floor has a quote from Elizabeth Barrett Browning on the top, and a quote from Robert Browning on the bottom. It is part of a series of windows telling the story of their courtship. Erin Rogers, Sentinel Leisure Editor
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A painting by Egisto Manzuoli, who painted during the time the Brownings wrote, called “Angel of Annunciation” hangs in the Hankamer Treasure Room. Erin Rogers, Sentinel Leisure Editor
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A view of the Jones Research Hall on the library’s main floor. The windows in this room illustrate 10 of Brownings most famous poems. Erin Rogers, Sentinel Leisure Editor
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The McLean Foyer of Meditation is at the back of the library’s main floor. This room is often used for concerts, lectures and ceremonies of Baylor’s organizations because of its beauty. Erin Rogers, Sentinel Leisure Editor
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The alcove at the front of the McLean Foyer features a bronze sculpture of Robert and Elizabeth’s clasped hands. There are poems inscribed on the walls of the alcove by the Brownings written for one another. Erin Rogers, Sentinel Leisure Editor
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A collection of original work by Robert Browning is on display in the Hankamer Treasure Room. Erin Rogers, Sentinel Leisure Editor
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A view of the front of the Armstrong Browning Library. Erin Rogers, Sentinel Leisure Editor
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One of two 19th-century palace jars sits on display in the McLean Foyer of Meditation. Erin Rogers, Sentinel Leisure Editor
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The Dotson Wedgewood Collection is on display in the library’s bottom floor, along with the library’s newest stained-glass windows. There are 333 pieces of Wedgewood in the collection. Erin Rogers, Sentinel Leisure Editor
WACO – When I took a trip through Baylor University’s campus this month, I found a lot of places I could absolutely write Traveling Soldier Stories about.Last week’s Traveling Soldier story was about my walk through the Mayborn Museum Complex, but when I left there, I found the Armstrong Browning Library.This “library” has so much more to it than just any old library’s collection of books – the Armstrong Browning Library has the largest collection of Robert Browning’s poetry in the world.

Along with housing and protecting Robert’s famous words, the library also houses and protects the largest poetry collection of Robert’s equally-famous poet wife, Elizabeth Barrett.

I spent a good portion of my time in college studying different kinds of poetry and different poets, and while I might not consider myself a romantic person, I can’t help but smile a goofy, romantic smile while reading poetry from either of these poets (especially their poems to each other).

The Armstrong Browning Library is not only impressive, but the entire building could soften even the most stoic heart with how Barrett and Browning’s poems are on display.

Not to mention, this library houses the largest collection of secular stained glass in the world – 62 stained-glass windows in all. And even the stained glass oozes romantic lines from either the Bible, Browning or Barrett.

With hardly any light inside the museum that isn’t natural, even the ornate architecture is lit up beautifully.

Needless to say, I was walking around with my jaw on the floor in awe of how beautiful this place is.

Even the front doors – each weighing in at one full ton – are embossed with pictures and quotes of the love between a man and a woman, a father and his son, a mother and a daughter, and so on – all kinds of love are portrayed and appreciated at the library.

But Elizabeth and Robert’s love story is the most prominent thing in the library, telling how their romance was initiated after they were already well-published poets.

The Armstrong Browning Library has the original first letter Browning wrote to Barrett that states, “I love your verses with all my heart.”

That one line, written by Browning Jan. 10, 1845, initiated their romance, which resulted in their secret marriage and departure to Italy in 1846.

I was so lost in looking at original sketches and works by Barrett and Browning that it didn’t even occur to me to ask why the name “Armstrong” is part of the library’s name until it was almost time to leave.

Turns out, Dr. A.J. Armstrong, head of Baylor’s English Department from 1912-1952, started the Browning collection at the library from his own personal collection – a collection he had devoted his life to from studying the Victorian poet, Robert Browning.

Armstrong has said he most admired Browning’s “boundless optimism and commitment to spiritual values,” and that admiration for Browning gave Armstrong the vision and energy to obtain the world’s largest Browning collection and, ultimately, the elegant, Victorian-style building on Baylor’s campus where the collection resides.

So for the past 50 years, the collection has continued growing in the library, along with other rare 19th-century research materials and numerous pieces of fine art from all over the world.

Each piece of art has a story that the staff at the library can tell in detail. Everything from Wedgwood to an impressive replica of the original Portland Vase is housed at the library on the bottom floor.

The third floor has the Pen Browning Gallery with four of his paintings
hanging in the stairwell up to the third floor. I found a room at the end of the hall on the third floor dedicated to portraying the Brownings’ lifestyle and personal taste.

There are actual items in the room that belonged to the Brownings, such as a kneeling bench, a writing table where they both wrote poetry, a portrait of their son, Pen, when he was a child, and the stained glass windows in the room
that illustrate Elizabeth’s poetry about she and Robert’s courtship.

Along with the massive art collections and original pieces of poetry from

both Browning and Barrett, the library also hosts weddings and other events in the McLean Foyer of Meditation on the main floor. In the alcove, there is a bronze sculpture of the poets’ clasped hands, with Elizabeth’s famous “Sonnet 43” to Robert written on one side and Robert’s soaring tribute to Elizabeth on the other.

Group tours are given by reservation at the library, but admission is free to daily guests. Hours are 9 a.m.-5p.m. Monday-Friday and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday. Research hours are the same, but can only be done by appointment on Saturdays.

Don’t forget to check out their gift gallery for souvenirs and books from the library.

Chronology of Victorian England

Drawn from “Victorian Era” in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia:

Events

1832
Passage of the first Reform Act.[10]

The 1843 launch of theGreat Britain, the revolutionary ship of Isambard Kingdom Brunel

1837
Ascension of Queen Victoria to the throne.[10]
1840
Queen Victoria marries Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfield. He had beennaturalised and granted the British style of Royal Highness beforehand. For the next 17 years, he was known as HRH Prince Albert.
1840
Birth of the Queen’s first child The Princess Victoria. Within months she was granted the title Princess Royal.
1840
New Zealand becomes a British colony, through the Treaty of Waitangi.
1841
Birth of the Queen’s heir-apparent The Prince Albert Edward, Duke of Cornwall (Duke of Rothesay). He was swiftly made Prince of Wales. Sir James Brooke founds the White Rajah dynasty of Sarawak.[11]

The last stand of the survivors of Her Majesty’s44th Foot at Gandamak, Afghanistan

1842
Treaty of Nanking. The Massacre of Elphinstone’s Army by the Afghans inAfghanistan results in the death or incarceration of 16,500 soldiers and civilians.[12] The Mines Act of 1842 banned women/children from working in coal,ironlead and tin mining.[10] The Illustrated London News was first published.[13]
1843
Birth of The Princess Alice
1844
Birth of The Prince Alfred
1845
The Irish famine begins. Within 5 years it would become the UK’s worst human disaster, with starvation and emigration reducing the population of Ireland itself by over 50%. The famine permanently changed Ireland’s and Scotland’s demographics and became a rallying point for nationalist sentiment that pervaded British politics for much of the following century.
1846
Repeal of the Corn Laws.[10]

The last of the mail coaches at Newcastle upon Tyne, 1848

1846
Birth of The Princess Helena
1848
Death of around 2,000 people a week in a cholera epidemic.
1848
Birth of The Princess Louise
1850
Restoration of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Britain.
1850
Birth of The Prince Arthur
1851
The Great Exhibition (the first World’s Fair) is held at the Crystal Palace,[10] with great success and international attention. The Victorian gold rush. In ten years the Australian population nearly tripled.[14]

The Great Exhibition in London. The United Kingdom was the first country in the world to industrialise.

1853
Birth of The Prince Leopold
1854
Crimean War: The United Kingdom declares war on Russia.
1857
The Indian Mutiny, a widespread revolt in India against the rule of the British East India Company, is sparked by sepoys (native Indian soldiers) in the Company’s army. The rebellion, involving not just sepoys but many sectors of the Indian population as well, is largely quashed within a year. In response to the mutiny, the East India Company is abolished in August 1858 and India comes under the direct rule of the British crown, beginning the period of the British RajPrince Albert is given the title The Prince Consort
1857
Birth of The Princess Beatrice
1858
The Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, responds to the Orsini plot against French emperor Napoleon III, the bombs for which were purchased in Birmingham, by attempting to make such acts a felony; the resulting uproar forces him to resign.
1859
Charles Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species, which leads to various reactions.[10] Victoria and Albert’s first grandchild, Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, is born — he later became William II, German EmperorJohn Stuart Mill publishes On Liberty, a defense of the famous harm principle.

Governor-General of IndiaLord Canning meets MaharajaRanbir Singh of Jammu and Kashmir, 1860

1861
Death of Prince Albert;[10] Queen Victoria refuses to go out in public for many years, and when she did she wore a widow’s bonnet instead of the crown.
1863
The Prince of Wales marries Princess Alexandra of Denmark at Windsor.
1865
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is published.
1866
An angry crowd in London, protesting against John Russell‘s resignation as Prime Minister, is barred from Hyde Park by the police; they tear down iron railings and trample on flower beds. Disturbances like this convince Derby and Disraeli of the need for further parliamentary reform.
1867
The Constitution Act, 1867 passes and British North America becomes Dominion of Canada.
1875
Britain purchased Egypt‘s shares in the Suez Canal[10] as the African nation was forced to raise money to pay off its debts.
1876
Scottish-born inventor Alexander Graham Bell patents the telephone.
1877
The Princess Alice becomes Grand Duchess of Hesse when her husband succeeds as Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse
1878
Treaty of Berlin (1878)Cyprus becomes a Crown colony. The Princess Alice dies. Princess Louise‘s husbandThe Marchioness of Lorne is appointed Governor-General of Canada. First incandescent light bulb by Joseph Wilson Swan.
1879
The Battle of Isandlwana is the first major encounter in the Anglo-Zulu War. Victoria and Albert’s first great-grandchild, Princess Feodora of Saxe-Meiningen, is born.

The defence of Rorke’s Driftduring the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879

1882
British troops begin the occupation of Egypt by taking the Suez Canal, in order to secure the vital trade route and passage to India, and the country becomes a protectorate.
1883
Princess Louise and Lord Lorne return from Canada
1884
The Fabian Society is founded in London by a group of middle class intellectuals, including Quaker Edward R. PeaseHavelock Ellis, and E. Nesbit, to promote socialism.[15] Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany dies.
1886
Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone and the Liberal Party tries passing the First Irish Home Rule Bill, but theHouse of Commons rejects it.
1888
The serial killer known as Jack the Ripper murders and mutilates five (and possibly more) prostitutes on the streets of London.[10] Victoria’s eldest daughter, the Princess Royal, becomes German Empress when her husband succeeds as Frederick III, German Emperor. Within months, Frederick dies, and their son becomesWilliam II, German Emperor. The widowed Vicky becomes the Dowager Empress as is known as “Empress Frederick”.
1870 – 1891
Under the Elementary Education Act 1870, basic State Education becomes free for every child under the age of 10.[16]
1891
Victoria and Albert’s last grandchild, Prince Maurice of Battenberg, is born.
1892
The Prince of Wales’ eldest son Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence dies of influenza.

Workmen leaving Platt’s Works, Oldham, 1900

1893
The Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh succeeds as Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha when his uncle dies. The Duchy skips over The Prince of Wales due to his renunciation of his succession rights to that Duchy.
1898
British and Egyptian troops led by Horatio Kitchener defeat the Mahdist forces at the battle of Omdurman, thus establishing British dominance in the Sudan. Winston Churchill takes part in the British cavalry charge at Omdurman.
1899
The Second Boer War is fought between the British Empire and the two independent Boer republics.
1900
Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha dies. His nephew Prince Charles Edward, Duke of Albany succeeds him, because his brother Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught and nephew Prince Arthur of Connaught had renounced their rights.
1901
The death of Victoria sees the end of this era. The ascension of her eldest son, Edward, begins the Edwardian era; albeit considerably shorter, this was another time of great change.

The Guardian Angel — The Painting and the Poem and Window it inspired

RB saw the painting the Guardian Angel while visiting Fano on the Adriatic. He was inspired to write the poem “The Guardian Angel –A Picture at Fano.” The window was placed in the Browning Room in 1924, along with two other windows.

The Guardian-Angel by Robert Browning
A PICTURE AT FANO.
I.
Dear and great Angel, wouldst thou only leave
That child, when thou hast done with him, for me!
Let me sit all the day here, that when eve
Shall find performed thy special ministry,
And time come for departure, thou, suspending
Thy flight, mayst see another child for tending,
Another still, to quiet and retrieve.

II.

Then I shall feel thee step one step, no more,
From where thou standest now, to where I gaze,
—And suddenly my head is covered o’er
With those wings, white above the child who prays
Now on that tomb—and I shall feel thee guarding
Me, out of all the world; for me, discarding
Yon heaven thy home, that waits and opes its door.

III.

I would not look up thither past thy head
Because the door opes, like that child, I know,
For I should have thy gracious face instead,
Thou bird of God! And wilt thou bend me low
Like him, and lay, like his, my hands together,
And lift them up to pray, and gently tether
Me, as thy lamb there, with thy garment’s spread?

IV.

If this was ever granted, I would rest
My bead beneath thine, while thy healing hands
Close-covered both my eyes beside thy breast,
Pressing the brain, which too much thought expands,
Back to its proper size again, and smoothing
Distortion down till every nerve had soothing,
And all lay quiet, happy and suppressed.

V.

How soon all worldly wrong would be repaired!
I think how I should view the earth and skies
And sea, when once again my brow was bared
After thy healing, with such different eyes.
O world, as God has made it! All is beauty:
And knowing this, is love, and love is duty.
What further may be sought for or declared?

VI.

Guercino drew this angel I saw teach
(Alfred, dear friend!)—that little child to pray,
Holding the little hands up, each to each
Pressed gently,—with his own head turned away
Over the earth where so much lay before him
Of work to do, though heaven was opening o’er him,
And he was left at Fano by the beach.

VII.

We were at Fano, and three times we went
To sit and see him in his chapel there,
And drink his beauty to our soul’s content
—My angel with me too: and since I care
For dear Guercino’s fame (to which in power
And glory comes this picture for a dower,
Fraught with a pathos so magnificent)—

VIII.

And since he did not work thus earnestly
At all times, and has else endured some wrong—
I took one thought his picture struck from me,
And spread it out, translating it to song.
My love is here. Where are you, dear old friend?
How rolls the Wairoa at your world’s far end?
This is Ancona, yonder is the sea.

Fano, Italy: An ancient causeway leading into the Adriatic.
next poem

 

The Dark Portrait of R. Browning

William Page was an American painter and portrait artist born in Albany, New York in 1811. In 1849 he went to Italy where he lived in Florence and Rome for eleven years, returning to New York in 1860. While he was in Italy, he painted the portraits of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and other well-known Englishmen and Americans.

The ABL&M owns Page’s portrait of Robert Browning. This was Elizabeth’s favorite portrait of her husband. Unfortunately, it is now so dark that it is difficult to see Robert’s face in the painting. Due to his painting methods, much of Page’s work darkened excessively. This darkening happened, apparently, because he mixed bitumen ( a cousin of asphalt) in his paints and glazes. At first, this gave his works a warm glow, but we are told that the portrait of RB began darkening four or five years after it was painted. Sadly, Elizabeth’s favorite portrait of Robert is now so dark that, just to make out his visage, one must stand at just the right angle with light coming from behind. (Visitors can see RB’s visage much clearer in the above photo than in person.)

 

A Sample of Some of the Beautiful Stained-Glass Windows in the Library & Museum

Recently, we are pleased to announce, the Armstrong Browning Library & Museum was named among the 50 most beautiful libraries in the world. Among the most beautiful items within the ABL&M are the sixty-two stained-glass windows. Below are photos of the three oldest windows in the building. Based on poems by RB, they were originally placed in the old main library’s Browning Room in 1924. 1) The Guardian Angel; 2) How they brought the good news from Ghent to Aix; 3) The Pied Piper.


One of three windows placed in the Browning Room (Old Main Library) in 1924

Influence on Popular Fiction of RB’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came painted by Thomas Moran in 1859.

“Childe Roland” has served as inspiration to a number of popular works of fiction, including: American author Stephen King for his The Dark Tower series of stories and novels (1978–2012).

Dr. A: Many and Varied Honors

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In her biography of Dr. Armstrong Lois Smith Douglas commented on some of the many awards Dr. A. received beginning in 1912:

“The year 1921 was the six-hundredth anniversary of the death of the great Dante. Dr. Armstrong  was named one of a national committee of fifty to arrange for proper commemoration of the date…

“With the recognition of Dr. Armstrong’s work on Robert Browning came invitations to membersip in various Browning Societies over the country, e.g., Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Pasadena, Kansas City and many others…

“The first listing of Dr. Armstrong in Who’s Who in America appeared in 1922 and the column space was expanded several times after that first date…

“Dr. Armstrong “collected” many honorary degrees. The most recent, Doctor of Humane Letteres, from Shurtleff College in Alton, Illinois…

“(In addition to all his other activities) Dr. A taught the Baraca Class (Men) at First Baptist Church for approximately thirty years… (Only) acceptance of the task of raising money for the construction of the “Browning library” forced him to relinquish his much beloved class…

“On October 23, 1935 the (women’s) Literature Survey Class presented a head and shoulders bust of Dr. A to Baylor University (He taught the group of nearly 100 women for almost 25 years). (The bust, by Bonnie MacLeary, now resides in the ABL&M’s Hankamer Treasure Room.)

“Carl Sandburg, poet and friend of the Armstrongs, wrote:

Dr. Armstrong is one of the sturdy and indefatigable figures in American cultural life, so it seems to some of us who know him and his work. His labors in the Browning field have a monumental dimension and will long endure. As a friend of American poets he is among the outstanding and significant, worthy of the bronze in which you memorialize him.”

 

 

 

Robert Browning’s Masterwork The Ring and the Book , part 2: An Outline

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.

Major Characters

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

The Books

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Sources:

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.