Robert Browning is now viewed by many literary critics as one of the most prominent English poets and playwrights. Among his most famous works, it is possible to mark out the following ones: “My Last Duchess”, “Sordello”, “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” and many others. Yet, the dramatic poem “The Ring and the Book” is still considered the author’s masterpiece.
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As regards the peculiarities of Brownings style, it should be pointed out that he mostly gave preference to soliloquies, or in other words dramatic monologues, which give the most concise characterization of the person, who is uttering this monologue. Although some scholars believe that such poetic presentation takes its origins directly from John Donne, we may still say that Browning took a very interesting approach to monologue and its role in a poetic work (Herford, 34).
The themes, explored by the poet, may be interpreted from various standpoints. On the one hand, we may discuss them within the context of the then Victorian society, because Browning clearly identified the most stressing problems of nineteenth-century England. However, such an approach can hardly reflect all the complexity of his poems, because Browning often gives deep insights into the inner world of his characters and their psychological development. Apart from that, the author analyzes moral dilemmas, which have always been vital, irrespective of time or location.
His poem “The Ring and the Book” is a work that should be analyzed from various perspectives. First, we should pay extra attention to its structure, because Bowring organizes it in a very unique manner. Secondly, it is of crucial importance to identify major symbols and their functioning in the poem. Finally, we need to speak about the major themes of this work.
While discussing the structure of the poem, we should first mention that it is composed of twelve parts or it would be better to say books. To a certain degree, Browning makes his poem look as if it were a closed circle. In order to substantiate this statement, we should refer to its plot. At the very beginning (the first book), the narrator gives an overview of the events, which will be described later, and at the end, (the twelfth book), the storyteller virtually repeats himself, summarizing the trial. Apart from that, we may also say that the title of the last book is the reversed version of the first one.
The question arises why the author wants to organize the poem in such away. Probably, he wants to arouse certain associations, for instance, the symbol of the vicious circle, which is almost impossible to break. Judging from the plot development, we should place emphasis on the continuity of evil and violence. Browning shows that cruelty can give rise only to cruelty and nothing else. This is by far the most important message that the poet wants to convey to the reader. Franceschini is resolved to revenge himself on his wife, Pompilia, for her adultery, but he fails to understand that his violence will eventually result only in violence, aimed against him.
Certainly, we cannot limit this highly complex poem only to this issue, because there are many other questions that Browning raises. For instance, it is necessary to discuss his attitude towards the law and the state in general. Overall, we may say that Browning as a representative of romanticism holds slightly ironical and sometimes even disdainful views on this law machinery (Litzinger, 77).
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One of the characters Tertium Quid says,
Law’s a machine from which to please the mob,
Truth the divinity must needs descend (Browning, 139).
The fact that law often exists only to represent stereotypical views, established in society is also one of the main themes of this work. Moreover, the author compares it with the machine or soulless mechanism, which attaches primary importance only to the letter of law but not to its spirit.
As concerns the symbolism of this poem, we should first mention such a symbol as the ring. To a certain extent, it is reflected even in the structure of the novel. Though, it appears throughout the text. It may embody not only some vicious circle, which produces only negative associations, on the contrary, but it may also symbolize the unity of the family, its connectedness. The author eloquently demonstrates what happens when these ties are broken. Franceschini kills his wife, believing that he is entitled to do it but he does not realize that husband and wife are equal parts of the family and none of them can be looked down upon or treated as inferior.
This poem may also be interpreted from a modern feminist perspective. Certainly, the author does not explicitly air his views on the position of women in the family, yet we draw certain inferences from the narrator’s words, particularly, when he introduces the case. For example, he says, “husband and wife” and “wife and husband” (Browning, 12). It should be taken into consideration that such formulation was untypical for the then British society (though even now it seems very unusual), because, traditionally, a man is viewed as the head of the family, the decision-maker, etc.
Browning wants to attract the reader’s attention to this issue though in a very implicit manner. He sets stress on the equity between the two sexes. At the time the poem was published (1868-1869) such views were rather unorthodox, to say the least. At that moment, the feminist movement was not even beginning to shape (Rigg, 122).
It is impermissible for us to limit this poem only to social issues because Browning also explores the relationships between art and reality, art and truth. According to a widely held opinion, rooted in Western philosophy, art cannot fully reflect reality, because human perception is always inclined to change, transform and even distort the real world. Thus, art, itself is not able to render truth, because it is liable to error or prejudice in its very core. It seems that the author is in total disagreement with this statement (Slinn, 211). He says,
“It is the glory and good of Art,
That Art remains the one way possible
of speaking truth, to mouths like mine, at least” (Browning, 618)
This aspect seems one of the most important ones. Throughout the text, the poet explores the notion of truth and the way it is perceived by different people. The author believes that art is the most expedient way, to tell the truth, because a good artist makes the viewer, reader, or listener form his or her own conclusions. Besides, people are often disinclined to know the truth. Browning says,
Thy right is wrong, eyes hast thou yet are blind:
Thine ears are staffed and stopped despite their length (Browning, 618)
The poet places emphasis on the fact that people are not willing to learn the truth, particularly, if it may seem offensive to them, whereas art tells the truth in an “oblique” manner, without giving direct instructions or even commands and thus, a person can learn it on his or her own.
In this respect, we should say that Browning explores several peculiarities of our consciousness, namely, the way people perceive reality and subsequently truth. In his opinion, the truth should never be imposed on them, because any human being, consciously or subconsciously, resists commands or compulsion. Even if this person is told the truth he or she may easily distort it or even reject it. Browning describes this phenomenon in the following way,
“All this trouble comes of telling truth,
Which truth, when it reaches him looks false
Seems to be just the thing it would supplant” (Browning, 618)
The main advantage of poetry or art, in general, is that it is not categorical or commanding, it gives certain liberty to the reader; the author may guide him or her without giving instructions. In this case, entertainment and education are consistent with each other, they create a single entity.
Thus, we may arrive at the conclusion that in his work Robert Browning explores such issues as the position of women in the family and society; he stresses the importance of equity and unity. The author shows that cruelly can breed only cruelty, the symbol of the circle and the development of the plot clearly indicate it. In addition to that Browning is firmly convinced that art is the only possible way, to tell the truth without offending another person; it successfully combines education and entertainment, moreover, it is based on persuasion but not on compulsion.
Boyd Litzinger, Donald Arthur Smalley. “Robert Browning: The Critical Heritage”. Routledge, 1995.
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C. H. Herford. “Robert Browning” Kessinger Publishing, 2005.
E. Warwick Slinn. “The Discourse of Self in Victorian Poetry”. University of Virginia Press, 1991.
Henry Jones. “Browning As a Philosopher and Religious Teacher”. READ BOOKS, 2007.
Patricia Diane Rigg. “Robert Browning’s Romantic Irony in The Ring and the Book” Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 1999.
Robert Browning. “The Ring and the Book” Kessinger Publishing, 2004.