The Ring and The Book - Conception and Analysis

Conception and 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 adultery 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.

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