Browning and the intelligent uses of anger in The Ring and the Book.
I hold it probable-- With something changeless at the heart of me To know me by, some nucleus that's myself: Accretions did it wrong? Away with them-- You soon shall see the use of fire! Till when, All that was, is; and must forever be. Nor is it in me to unhate my hates,-- --Count Guido Franceschini (1)
When Browning began writing The Ring and the Book in late 1864, his critical reputation was still unsteady. Criticized for his obscurity, dense allusiveness, and supposed lack of lyricism, he was often described as a poet of "weighty sense" who "neglects the form," (2) a supreme analyst and vivisectionist whose psychological insight precluded aesthetic merit. His self-professed interest in "morbid cases of the soul" (3) drew accusations that the sordid or repugnant held for him a macabre fascination. To many of his contemporaries, Browning's dramatis personae were not sympathetic characters. Now, of course, with the work of Langbaum and successive critics (4) behind us, we realize that the tension between sympathy and moral judgment is part of the aesthetic of the dramatic monologue, a dialectic that Browning exploited to the fullest. For Victorian readers, however, the unsympathetic--indeed, grotesque--nature of Browning's speakers proved, at least initially, a significant hindrance. Browning became "increasingly angry about his still-equivocal critical reputation, and began attacking his reviewers in print.'"' and in 1864 channelled much of this burgeoning rage into his immense project, The Ring and the Book. (6)
Numerous critics have noted Browning's famous invocation to "lyric Love," the spirit of EBB (1.1391). Less frequently cited, however, is the preceding apostrophe, "Such, British Public, ye who like me not, / (God love you!)--whom I yet have laboured for, / Perchance more careful whoso runs may read / Than erst when all, it seemed, could read who ran" (1.1379-82). Thus writes the Poet-speaker, charging the unseeing, judgemental "British Public" that neither likes nor understands him. Anger is the prevailing tone here: Browning's anger against his critics, the public for whom he "labours," and the uncomprehending readers who he mistakenly thought would understand his verse. Is it coincidence, then, that he chooses to frame a poem about a murder-trial with this invocation? Browning, the object of critical antagonism, is accused of violating accepted poetic practice and on trial, defending himself and his art before the British Public. In these circumstances, he makes use of an intelligent anger: anger as a rhetorical device, tool of revenge, creative force, and, ultimately, instrument of self-definition. In this, he bears similarities to the hero-villain of the piece, Guido Franceschini, also on trial. But the poet's anger refracts throughout The Ring and the Book, "deformed, transformed, reformed, informed, conformed" (XI.2063) in monologues offering a prismatic view of this emotive and cognitive force. Like so many lenses, Guido, Pompilia, Caponsacchi and the Roman public in the shapes of Half-Rome, Other Half-Rome, and Tertium Quid, produce different images of anger. While it is "wolf-nature[d]" Guido (XI.2318) whose rage has received most attention, Browning's other characters, Pompilia especially, contribute to his interpretation of anger in its many, colourful forms. Recognizing anger as one of its design elements opens up a fresh approach to The Ring and the Book which connects it with other works by Browning and other aspects of his poetics.
The Ring and the Book exaggerates qualities for which Browning was earlier attacked. He was accused of obscurity, and decided to write on a virtually unknown Renaissance murder-trial; his language was considered dense and unpoetic, so he filled his epic with difficult legal terminology, anatomical descriptions, (7) and inaccessible Latin; his characters were deemed unsympathetic and monstrous, and in response he formed, in the person of Count Guido, a character so filled with hatred that he would eventually become the ultimate villain of Browning villains, "an anthology of Browning's other haters." (8) John Woolford in Browning the Revisionary has argued that The Ring and the Book is the poet's attempt to explain himself and his aesthetics, that every linguistic or thematic obscurity is clarified in conscientious fashion. Some contemporary reviewers agreed: "In The Ring and the Book we so far meet fewer of those wilful extravagances, crabbedness verging to obscurity, and carelessness of expression, ... which in Mr. Browning's earliest poems so marred the form of the thought." (9) I argue that Browning's preoccupation with explaining himself goes hand in hand with his frustration at being misunderstood, and is offset by a perverse desire to thwart his interlocutors. (10) His art on trial, The Ring and the Book is part justification, part gesture of defiance towards his critics, in which he "fused [his] live soul and that inert stuff' (1.469) of history to create an alloyed tale of the language and uses of anger.
The monologues of Guido, Caponsacchi, Pompilia, and the public embody various iterations of such anger (and hatred), with Guido's (both his first--anxious but arrogant, and his second--desperate) in particular suggesting a parallel with Browning's own. But while Guido's anger is that of the writer at his most snarling, ironic, and raw, Pompilia's burns like the "pale electric sword" she wields against her husband (VI.1603), an instrument of self-definition and self-righteousness. These qualities are equally present in the poet's intelligent anger--a rage that I am suggesting is as alloyed as the book itself--composed in equal parts of pain, rejection, lost love, frustrated elitism, sarcasm, self-righteousness, determination, self-definition and, in the final reckoning, the possibility of transubstantiation. Wrought as it is in the forge of his own anger, The Ring and the Book is both Browning's defence and an analysis, suggesting his insights on the nature of anger itself, as emotion, cognition, and vehicle.
Daniel Karlin has already written extensively on the representations of hatred in The Ring and the Book, most strongly in relation to Caponsacchi and his hatred for Guido, as well as the latter's hatred for Pompilia. What remains, however, is to place anger in juxtaposition to this hatred. Aristotle distinguishes the two by suggesting that "anger arises from things related to the subject," whereas hatred "can ... arise without personal involvement." More, "the angry man is in pain, but not the hater" (Rhetoric, 2.4, 1382a, pp. 152-153). Anger, then, is intensely individual, felt more at "some nucleus that's myself' (XI.2395) than diffusely, impersonally, like hatred. For Nussbaum, "the roots of anger, hatred, and disgust lie very deep in the structure of human life, in our ambivalent relation to our lack of control over objects and the helplessness of our own bodies." (11) Aristotle, too, argued that anger stems from perceived slights, blows suffered by our egos, our "injured self-esteem." (12) Both imply that anger is the result of a self-evaluative process; there is a causal relationship between what we experience (a slight, an injury) and what we think/emote. Moreover, the depth and intensity of our emotional response depends on our preconceived ideas about those qualities that have been slighted. So, "the slight is most keenly felt if that aspect in which we think ourselves most worthy consideration is treated slightingly"(Campbell, p. 178).
Victorian psychiatry took, however, a rather different view. Anger ranked among the feelings as an impulse or irresistible force that manifested itself in actions (for example, anger found its corollary in violence). Poetry figured "as a self-reflective science of feelings"; (13) poets, particularly those considered as analytical as Browning, were expected to navigate the territory between irrational desires/ passions and reflective thought, forming along the way a "science" that allowed them to retain spontaneity and poetic effusiveness while laying bare the anatomical structure of these feelings. In widening circles, psychiatry had increasing impact, as in murder-trials, when "prosecutors and judges favored judgments in terms of traditional morality, where testifying alienists might try to engage the jury's sympathy by pleading a murderer's moral insanity, irresistible impulse, or lack of proper motivation" (Faas, p. 165), a testimonial-form similar to the dramatic monologue. Guido himself uses the argument that violent action was the result of "moral insanity" or impulse wholly divorced from cognition, testifying that he was found "sound sleeping as a child" after murdering Pompilia and the Comparini (V.1673). This, he insists, proves that he is not guilty, for he "was my own self, had my sense again" (V.1677), no longer subject to the conquering frenzy of passion that provoked him to kill. This idea, that passion transforms one out of oneself into something else, and that its diminishment returns one to sense, is quite obviously borrowed from prevailing Victorian psychiatric thought (Browning, the scientifically "conscious psychologist," (14) was well aware of such theories). But it is a ploy, yet another of Guido's rhetorical devices as he attempts to convince his audience; Browning is poking a sly finger at those "testifying alienists" who try to engage sympathy by affirming such a radical split between the passions and judgement. Guido knows exactly what he is doing, and it is his very anger (and aristocratic self-esteem)--considered and deliberate--that gives him the audacity and cunning to think he will evade punishment, despite the bloody evidence demonstrating his guilt. Browning, we will see, upends the Manichean split between irrational and rational, passions and judgment, contradicting these prevailing binaries and positing a more coherent, rational model of anger.
If Browning is borrowing from an Aristotelian tradition of intelligent anger, rather than a midcentury Victorian view of passionate impulse, he also owes much to the Stoics and most particularly to the Senecan tradition, which provides him with a rich outlying source. This contrasts with most "pro-compassion" philosophers, who, while acknowledging and cataloguing anger, nevertheless believed its result, vengeance, to be ultimately destructive, and that "the virtuous person will be more likely to err in the direction of deficient than of excessive retributive anger" (Nussbaum, p. 393). Indeed, Senecan anger is one of the governing principles in The Ring and the Book, and provides a productive entrance to one of the principal outcomes of anger in the work: vengeance.
"Honour of birth,--/ If that thing has no value, cannot buy / Something with value another sort, / You've no reward nor punishment to give / I' the giving or the taking honour," states Guido early in his first monologue (V.439-443). Guido's obsession with his family name is pervasive, yet simultaneously problematic. He summons his nobility to impress his judges and to impress upon them the fact that, should they condemn him, they will be sentencing the scion of an ancient family. By condemning Guido, they are condemning much that was once valued, and setting a precedent that could topple the aristocracy. In typical fashion, however, Guido's language undercuts the value of this aristocracy, as he states that honor is a privilege "worth what? / Why, worth the market-price" (V.461-462). Devaluing where he seems to value, Guido rates honour as an economic tool. In fact, it becomes a rhetorical bargaining chip through which he tries to convince his judges. With such an exalted honor to defend, how could he be blamed for murdering Pompilia and her parents, who deceived him and besmirched his name? Upon discovering Pompilia's true parentage, he exclaims, "Dust o' the street! ... but--oh--ah--assuredly/ A Franceschini and my very wife!" (V.773-775). This ignominy, that the daughter of a prostitute should bear the Franceschini name, is one of the slights that Guido claims sullied his reputation and provoked his anger.
That Guido is an aristocrat makes him a particularly compelling incarnation of the Senecan avenger:
Revenge is the aristocratic right of private justice, contested and socially stigmatized by the new monarchies but neither decisively suppressed nor purged from the general social imagination: both sanctioned and interdicted, a recurrent point of crisis in the indeterminate character of the aristocratic identity. (15)
The Senecan tradition displays many such examples of "private justice," cases in which aristocratic vigilantes enforced vendettas. The adulterous wife revenge plot is recurrent and often central, and a husband killing his unfaithful wife an example of a right "both sanctioned and interdicted" by public morality. The Ring and the Book is, however, a vexed portrayal of such Senecan revenge. Guido's title is little more than a remnant of former aristocracy, and this is in part his tragedy, that he is "the poet of shabby nobility, of the shifts and miseries of the hard-up, unlucky, ill-favoured toff" (Karlin, p. 228). Renaissance Italy, too, proves itself to be a society that "interdicts" rather than "sanctions" his vengeance (although the testimony of characters such as Half-Rome shows that some private citizens applaud Guido's actions). Guido's is a thwarted revenge, and he is baffled (and angered) by it:
All honest Rome approved my part; Whoever owned wife, sister, daughter,--nay, Mistress,--had any shadow of any right That looks like right, and, all the more resolved, Held it with tooth and nail,--these manly men Approved!" (XI.39-44).
He figures himself as an avenger of Rome's masculinity, a dispenser of justice who sacrificed himself to defend the rights of other honest men. In this regard, he is "the avenger ... much more fully and consciously a member of the society whose restraints he violates than is the villain hero," a position that could arguably be occupied by Caponsacchi (Braden, p. 114).
If Guido is more reflective of his society than alien to it, his vengeful anger lends a new meaning to the vox populi that Browning endeavors to represent. Isobel Armstrong remarks, "If vox populi is not vox dei it is not, as [Walter] Bagehot called it, vox diaboli either. That is the prerogative of Guido, the decayed aristocrat who has married and murdered to save his family fortunes." (16) Armstrong conceives of Browning's Roman masses as a mixed crowd, less morally certain than multiple, relative, and representative. This is a fair view, given the structure of The Ring and the Book, which encircles the central, private monologues with differing, public viewpoints--the vox populi of Browning's Rome. It is worth considering, however, that Guido's "diabolic" anger finds parallels in the crowd: Half-Rome is the most important example. His private fear of being cuckolded manifests itself in rancorous bloodlust, a fantasy of revenge that imagines Guido hewing down Caponsacchi and Pompilia "by some Rolando-stroke, / In one clean cut from crown to clavicle" (II.1495-96). Rather than condemning Guido's actions, Half-Rome simply wishes he had "Summed up the reckoning" earlier and thereby exacted a quicker, cleaner vengeance (II.1489). This is retribution fantasized as a heroic act, a masculine prerogative of cutting, slashing, and carving that gives Half Rome a voyeuristic thrill and--most importantly--sense of security. His cowardice is manifest, yet he concludes his monologue with an indirect threat to the man he believes might be seducing his wife: "The rod hangs on its nail behind the door, / Fresh from the brine" (II.1541-42). The rod, an obvious image of potency, is also an image of readiness and watchfulness, a symbol of retributive rage lying dormant until it is needed again.
Guido's wish for revenge is often couched in legal language, as, like Shylock, he "crave[s] the law," and the "penalty and forfeit of [his] bond" (Merchant of Venice, IV.201-202). Guido's "bond" is in fact the right to exact vengeance. He calls upon the law to give him this due, the "forfeit" of his wife's life for her crimes against him. Because the law was lax in the first instance, he argues,
Word for word, there's your judgment! Read it, lords, Re-utter your deliberate penalty For the crime yourselves establish! Your award-- Who chop a man's right-hand off at the wrist For tracing with forefinger words in wine You mete out punishment such and such, yet so Punish the adultery of wife and priest! (V. 1226-37)
and that he was compelled to take its place. "Here, then, I clutch my judges,--I claim law," cries Guido, in a grand rhetorical flourish (V. 1761). Passages like this confirm why Browning's supporters considered him second only to Shakespeare, the "direct heir of the Elizabethan playwright" in dramatic subtleties of tone and shading (Faas, p. 105). Guido claims moral anger, born of moral rectitude. As an upstanding citizen, he argues that his anger should be sanctioned and that its corollary action, revenge, be facilitated by the law. The recurring word "punish" is juxtaposed with "award," suggesting the subtle connection between a punishment meted out and a prize gained--a "forfeit" made good--an award. The punishment is awarded both to the guilty and, perversely, the avenger. Such slippage is typical of Browning, an unveiling of "the linguistic artifice which underlies all speech." (17) It also occurs when Guido envisages a scenario that might have been, in which he could have "with the vulgarest household implement, / Calmly and quietly cut off, clean thro' hone, / But one joint of one finger of my wife" (V.952-954). This taking of a pound of flesh is scrupulously qualified, as a mere diagram of the vengeance he could have exacted, had he chosen not to turn to the law. There is a sense, however, of calm, deliberate violence, of calculated anger, not passionate impulse. To his judges, Guido claims that his anger seeks a prescribed outlet, the legal structures and retribution of the law, but his speech reveals the many measured ways in which he desires vengeance.
Guido's anger and hatreds are so compelling that critics often neglect other sources of anger in The Ring and the Book, a gap that Karlin has accurately revealed by pointing to Caponsacchi, another inveterate hater: "The most powerful expression of hatred in the poem is that of Caponsacchi for Guido. Caponsacchi indulges in a reverie of revenge, in which Guido is not formally punished, but left alone, shunned by the community" (Karlin, p. 220). If "emotions have an intentional content" (Nussbaum, p. 172), then Caponsacchi's vengeful anger is certainly directed towards a specific object. Indeed, his anger seems even more targeted than Guido's, which is often diffuse though violently, anatomically imagined. In a rearrangement of the Senecan constellation, Caponsacchi envisions himself as avenger and Guido as hero-villain, an evildoer embodied in a multitude of animal forms: "a hawk, a cat, a hear, a spider, an adder, a scorpion, a viper, a beast, a mad dog, a snake, and a cockatrice ... Guido comes alive as a kind of threatening beast." (18) But Caponsacchi's vengeance fantasy is thoroughly purged of touch or contact; he imagines himself distant, watching Guido's misery as if from a different plane of existence. His is no firsthand revenge, carving off Guido's fingers or dissecting his joints. Caponsacchi does not conceal his disgust for Guido, the strange, dark "lurking" creature whose ugliness sets him apart both from the priest and Pompilia (VI.414). This repugnance might indeed color Caponsacchi's vision of retribution; he wants nothing to do with Guido, and even the thought of touching him to inflict violence is loathsome. He conflates Judas Iscariot and Guido, combining them into a grotesque, two-headed body, clawing and eternally rending itself only to remain one. Most significant is Caponsacchi's dismissal of Guido's (and Judas's) emotions: "Let them love their love / That bites and claws like hate, or hate their hate / That mops and mows and makes as it were love!" (VI.1938-40). Implied here is a lack of authenticity, of love that mimics hate and hate that "makes as it were love." Caponsacchi inflicts Senecan vengeance, moving "through ... widening spheres of destruction to arrive at these irreducible last scenes where conquerors strut before their victims" (Braden, p. 61). Although Caponsacchi maintains that Pompilia is the victim, Guido is in fact the victim of this particular fantasy. Through denying the legitimacy of Guido's emotions, Caponsacchi consigns him to eternal indeterminacy, a place where neither love nor hate hears any truth.
Enormously influential as the Senecan tradition is upon Browning, it is followed by an equally important legacy: Biblical versions of righteous anger. Old Testament wrath is well-documented, and God's anger is "of course closely connected" to God's hatred, a "persistent motif in the Bible" (Karlin, p. 116). Jehovah is an angry God, whose rage against evil exemplifies human anger against sin. But what of Christ, whose character shapes a New Testament paradigm of mercy and love? Although radically different from Jehovah, Christ, too, exhibits anger. His reaction to the moneylenders in the temple appears in several of the Gospels: "when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers' money, and overthrew the tables" (John 2.15). Jesus manifests anger through violence, transforming himself into the "scourge" that delivers punishment to the iniquitous and scours clean the House of God. Many find this episode theologically problematic, as they have "trouble fitting it into their normative picture of Jesus's character," praised as it is for "his lack of anger" (Nussbaum, pp. 159, 160). How does such anger accord with a benevolent worldview? His indignation is fundamentally directed at hypocrisy, the "surface, mask, and make-believe" (XI.625) that Browning finds--and Guido claims to find, though he employs it constantly--troubling and, at times, enraging. Jesus's anger is the necessary counterpart to his love, as awareness of things hateable throws into sharp relief that which is worthy of love. This is now a conventional view: that we must understand evil to comprehend good.
Caponsacchi employs a similar rhetorical mode in his anger at Guido; this anger only intensifies his love of Pompilia, and in fact he voices his "unspeakable physical passion" for her in his indignant language about her husband (Karlin, p. 222). By drawing a rigid demarcation between Guido's bestiality and Pompilia's purity, Guido's ugliness and Pompilia's beauty, Guido's violence and Pompilia's benignity, Caponsacchi finds a moral equation that allows him to cope, not only with Pompilia's death, but also his own aching solitude. A priest, he is all the more capable of worshipping her saintliness; he feels himself "blessed / By the revelation of Pompilia" (VI.1865-66). This transfiguration of Pompilia, from woman to martyr to saint (and finally, to a Christlike figure of revelation) takes place in Caponsacchi's imagination alongside the contrary degeneration of Guido, from man to beast and finally to grotesque monster. "His analysis of Guido's behaviour ... is in the end ... emotive" (Karlin, pp. 224-225). Guido the villain is not possible without Pompilia the saint. For Caponsacchi, Pompilia's goodness shines most in contrast to Guido's malevolence, but as Browning is at pains to show us, neither evil nor good is unalloyed, and it is quite possible for a creature such as Pompilia--a creature presented, in fact, as a touchstone of some form of moral certainty within the book (19)--to express quite as much anger as her masculine counterparts.
Although Caponsacchi voices disgust at evil, just like Jesus in the temple, it is Pompilia whose inexplicable outburst really aligns her emotions with New Testament righteous anger, and indeed with Christ himself. Both Caponsacchi and Guido describe the episode, followed by Pompilia's own telling:
She sprang at the sword that hung beside him [Guido], seized, Drew, brandished it, the sunrise burned for joy O' the blade, "Die," cried she, "devil, in God's name!" No matter for the sword, her word sufficed To spike the coward through and through: he shook, Could only spit between the teeth-- (VI.1544-52, "Giuseppe Caponsacchi") They braved me,--he with arrogance and scorn, She, with a volubility of curse, A conversancy in the skill of tooth And claw to make suspicion seem absurd, Nay, an alacrity to put to proof At my own throat my own sword, teach me so To try conclusions better the next time,-- (V.1119-25, "Count Guido Franceschini") --and I saw him, master, by hell's right, And saw my angel helplessly held back By guards that helped the malice--the lamb prone, The serpent towering and triumphant--then Came all the strength back in a sudden swell, I did for once see right, do right, give tongue The adequate protest: for a worm must turn If it would have its wrong observed by God. (VII.1586-93, "Pompilia")
Guido is utterly taken aback, diverted from his mission of preventing Pompilia's and Caponsacchi's escape. This behavior is highly unusual in a character remarkable for her meekness and mildness, for Guido a bleating lamb, capable of "neither bark nor bite" (XI.2304). Other speakers (Other Half-Rome, for example) also describe Pompilia as a lamb trapped in the maw of the wolf, Guido, an image that evokes the innocence of Christ. Caponsacchi's entire beatific myth is predicated on her "sad sweet" purity (VI. 1994). The larger public of The Ring and the Book derives comfort from picturing Pompilia as the passive victim to Guido's malign (or, for Half-Rome, potent) violator. What, then, is the meaning of this righteous rage? There has been virtually no critical attention devoted to this passage, perhaps because it is so anomalous to Browning's general depiction of Pompilia. This incident brings her out of the circular structure of the poem, which can easily be read as a tale in which masculine evils are "'loosed' on a central, 'golden-hearted' figure" (Karlin, p. 218). So wrote Julia Wedgwood to Browning, shortly after The Ring and the Book was published. Wedgwood's reading is not thoroughly inaccurate, as Pompilia is certainly the victim of much anger and hatred. Furthermore, she possesses a luminous quality, as a "central" source of goodness embedded within a "ring" of evils.
She is not, however, simply the recipient of anger, as this episode makes evident. The three perspectives on her outburst shed light on different views of righteous anger in The Ring and the Book. Caponsacchi experiences a grand vision of inspired rage; "the sunrise burned for joy" he affirms, as Pompilia threatens to strike down the "devil" Guido in the name of God. He views her act through a sublime light, which burnishes the sword's blade and endows her with divine "strength." Pompilia's anger transforms her into St. George, slaying the dragon, or Perseus rescuing Andromeda (both allusions often critically used to describe Caponsacchi himself). Her mere words, he affirms, were enough to unman Guido, leaving him speechless, sputtering and "spit[ting] between the teeth." The power of her anger obviously has considerable effect on Caponsacchi; he is enthralled by the rhetorical force of her emotion and its implicit violence. This violence requires no sword at first, but "spike[s] the coward" in a deadly foreshadowing of Pompilia's own stabbing.
Guido, in contrast, experiences no such metaphysical thrill. Pompilia's outburst is, to him, an affirmation of animalism. She is converted from a lamb into a scrapping, almost feline creature, fighting against him with "tooth" and "claw." Harpy-like, she hurls imprecations and "curses" at him with a "volubility" and "skill" that suggest familiarity with such demonic language. Guido's vision is anti-divine, fitting for a character who admits in the fraught candor of his last speech, "I think I never was at any time / A Christian, as you nickname all the world" (XI.1916-17). He appropriates for himself "the wolf-nature" of ancient paganism and with it an earthiness alien to both Pompilia and Caponsacchi (XI.2318). While for Caponsacchi, Pompilia's righteous anger elevates, for Guido such emotion simply reveals the core anatomy of being. And for Guido, this being is physical, not metaphysical, the human animal, rather than the divine. His anatomizing of Pompilia's anger suggests Browning's own skepticism "of the concept of moral or righteous hatred"; human motives, as Browning is at pains to show us, are very rarely singular, and as such righteous anger can often disguise "personal hatreds and resentments" (Karlin, pp. 127-128). To Caponsacchi, she steps out of herself and becomes something different: a retributive figure endowed with divine might to execute worldly evil. Guido, however, identifies the "alacrity" with which she tests his own sword upon him, her desire to "put to proof' his blade against its master. In short, he sees some aspect of his own call for vengeance in her action.
Pompilia describes the incident as a moment of moral resolution, in which she "did for once see right, do right, give tongue / The adequate protest." This time, Caponsacchi is the lamb, cornered helplessly by the "serpent towering." Biblical and Miltonic images unite here, as Guido becomes Satan, looming menacingly above his victim and prevailing over Caponsacchi "by hell's right." The feminizing of Caponsacchi is integral to Pompilia's vision (he figures as Andromeda or St. George's Maiden); she feels compelled to defend her "angel," who cowers helpless. She seems to act out of love and a desire to protect her protector. More complexly, she acts as a way of testing her moral fibre, a righteous anger of sorts. "I did for once" make "adequate protest," she says, implying the numerous other times in which she remained silent, not "giving tongue" to her anger. Faced repeatedly with evil, Pompilia finally reacts. As she does so, however, her prevailing motivation is not, unlike Caponsacchi, a general hatred of Guido, but an assertion of moral integrity and love for another. This alliance of anger with love offers an interesting revision of righteous anger, particularly in light of Browning's own heated, frequently vitriolic written attacks upon critics who derided EBB after her death. (20) Browning seems to suggest that attacking (even violently) those who threaten evil, either to one's own person or to a loved one, is both truthful and human. Such retribution avoids, at the very least, the trap of hypocrisy, a common shortcoming of claiming divine justification for personal motives. Thus, although the situation provides a ready parallel to Christ's outburst--a mild and benevolent figure, infuriated by evil and hypocrisy, unleashes moral anger on the evildoers--Pompilia's own account points to a rather more composite emotional source.
In Browning, one of the richest uses of anger is as a creative and heroic force. This bears upon not only the characters in poem, but also the poet's anger, and hence Browning's larger preoccupations in The Ring and the Book. The work can be read as "in the narrowest sense a poem about poetry--context, writing, reading, criticism--and in the broadest sense about human understanding of these artistic elements." (21) It can be seen as a poem about the Poet's relationship to his art, audience, and detractors. Browning traces the evolution of poetry through threads of anger in this poem, "wrought" as an "arc" from its creative inception to its core, and finally out again, as the work becomes an entity ("justifiably golden, rounds my ring") apart from its creator (I.1386, 1387, 1389).
We must therefore consider anger as a creative wellspring. Browning was borrowing from a tradition "both classical and English, ranging from Aristophanes and Juvenal to Pope, Swift, Blake, and Byron," which offered "examples of fecund hatred, of hatred as a source of imaginative abundance" (Karlin, p. 72). Fecund hatred is closely allied to fecund anger, the powerfully creative, heroic rage of Achilles or the visionary, prophetic anger of "embittered" Moses, leading his "thankless people through the wilderness" (Karlin, p. 94). Anger is given a preeminent place in classical literature: "menis, the announced theme of the Iliad and the ruling emotion of the best warrior among the Greeks" (Braden, p. 10). The rage of Achilles is integral to his heroism, and "prowess in battle"(Braden, p. 10). His anger is not, as Victorian psychiatry might have it, an overpowering impulse, but the conscious reaction to a perceived slight. Agamemnon's theft of the slave girl Chryseis violates not only his personal, unwritten contract with Achilles, but also the invisible boundaries that maintain order in the chaos of war. Patroclus's death functions in a similar way. Just as the loss of Chryseis provokes Achilles to withdraw from battle, altering the course of the war, his anger at the death of his cousin spurs him to re-enter it, thereby ensuring Greek victory.
As the rage of Achilles shapes the trajectory of the Iliad, anger in The Ring and the Book is similarly formative. It is a creative device, not only spurring its practitioners to glorious feats of heroism (or notoriety), but also providing a source of literary inspiration. Guido, like Achilles, feels himself slighted, his honor offended, and social boundaries that he believed intact penetrated; "You know I am wronged!" he cries (XI.2234). His aristocratic self-esteem is wounded, and the individual, injured pain that Aristotle attributes to anger (as opposed to hatred) is palpably obvious here. Ignominious as Guido may be, Browning is nonetheless inviting us to consider the genuineness of anger that stems from such offences, whether real or imagined. Achilles's anger is enacted in the field of battle, in a time when it could be unleashed through war. Guido's, in contrast, manifests itself as an archaic and gruesome brutality that is incongruous and obsolete in his world. In this, he is much more a creature of Webster or Middleton than of Homer. More than those opaque villains, however, this devil discloses, and in disclosing to us his anger, "Guido is implicitly asking ... that the value of his life be acknowledged" (Karlin, pp. 236-237). His shame, violence and wounded pride, self-loathing and narcissism, irony and heterodoxy--indeed, his entire life--all spill out in a mass of truths and untruths, and we are left to pan out the dross. (22) So, harnessing to full effect the aesthetic of monologue, Browning asks us to peer past the stage property, Count Guido Francheschini, into the mind of the angry man, Guido.
Pompilia's anger is equally complex. Since anger for Browning is rich, generative, and creative, a tool to attack one's enemies and, in so doing, to assert one's selfhood, then the episode of Pompilia's rage stands alongside Guido's many rages. Where Guido's anger is multitudinous, even prismatic, Pompilia's seems as singular and directed as a shaft of light. She shows her rage--like Jesus in the temple--in order to purify and protect against a powerful perceived evil. Like Jesus, her anger is a single, glittering strand in an otherwise benevolent character. Guido is composed of his angers, which claw for precedence like the many-headed beast of Caponsacchi's vision, but it is Pompilia whose rage is described by Caponsacchi as heroic--"That erect form, flashing brow, fulgurant eye, / That voice immortal (oh, that voice of hers! / That vision in the blood-red day-break" (VI. 1600-03). Suddenly terrible in her desire for justice, she is the lamb who transforms into an avenging seraph. If aristocratic anger and vengeance are the purview of Count Guido, it is possible that righteous anger and its anarchic, transformative power belong to Pompilia. This power, of course, burns out, as she is struck down by Guido and his henchmen, "Dead-white and disarmed" (VI.1549). It is one thing for Jesus to purge the temple; it is quite another for a human being to undertake such acts of self-righteousness. Perhaps this is why Browning inflects Pompilia's anger by offering us three different viewpoints--Caponsacchi's awed love, Pompilia's own recollection, and Guido's recognition of a fellow animal--and suggesting, with typical irony, that her anger is not quite the disinterested righteousness of Jesus. Neither does she become a holy fury--her limits are human, and she is struck down by a human blade. Vexed as it is, Pompilia's self-defining rage, born of moral resolution, adds to the fabric of intelligent anger in The Ring and the Book.
Browning's resentment against the British Public that has condemned him to obscurity and critical murkiness finds voice in both his invocation and in his characters' anger. It is always tricky to assign poetic voices, as even the ostensible Poet-speaker is sometimes not exactly Browning, while many of his characters retain aspects of him. He is fond of "playing to the gallery, giving an exaggerated portrait of himself as people like to think of him--the unpopular, expatriate, inspired poet who is so lost in reverie that he scarcely knows what is going on around him." (23) This ironic exercise is part of Browning's crafting of a poetic persona, the guise to which the public is accustomed. Anger, however, underpins the irony that is so often Browning's discursive mode. Take for example his snide aside, "Perchance more careful whoso runs may read / Than erst when all, it seemed, could read who ran" (I.1381-82). Claiming to take the blame for his verse's alleged inaccessibility and difficulty, he professes his fault to be one of ignorance. Not realizing he should write poetry that "whoso runs may read," he made the mistake of assuming that "all ... could read who ran." In his inversion of the proverb (something that is easy to read can be read by a man running), he sneers at the dense and unworthy public, who prefer simple, light verse to the complex writing that might edify.
Karlin has identified an elitist impulse in Browning that recurs in his letters and much of his writing about the role of the poet, as teacher and voice of truth: "It is not just 'people' (most people, people in general) who hate to be taught, but 'the people': the definite article stresses the poet's relation to a collective audience, a tribe, a nation" (Karlin, p. 109). The people, Browning suggests, are angered by the poet's mission of disclosure and instruction. No one wishes to see the ugliest aspects of human nature, and it is precisely this task to which Browning has set himself. (24) The poet shares much with the prophet: solitude, heroism, and above all, anger. For the poet, just as much as the prophet, is the object of mass anger; one recalls Moses, facing the wrath of the Israelites in the desert (Exodus 32.4). At the same time, Browning is a poet of the people, and the isolation of the prophet generates a great loneliness (and anger). For this reason, his elitism sits uneasily within the wider political context of his writing. The tension between the word of the poet and the voices of the multitude is never resolved, for the poet of the people must plunge into the mob and suffer their scorn, all the while bearing prophetic witness from exile.
No wonder, then, that at the heart of the swelling masses in The Ring and the Book, lies Browning's implicit distrust of the vox populi. He has been celebrated as a poet of pluralism, whose innovations on the dramatic monologue reflect his abiding interest in presenting truth through multiple perspectives. Often neglected, however, is Browning's lingering skepticism about these viewpoints, his uncertainty that we can find truth in "an immense babble of voices endlessly discussing and pleading." (25) For Browning, truth is so complex that sheer quantity and diversity are not sufficient to get at its multifaceted nature, and one of the poem's chief methods is dramatizing "the way in which interpretation works in an arena where no final truth is available." (26) All that the artist can do, he affirms, is "tell a truth / Obliquely" or "note by note, bring music from your mind" (XII.859-860, 864). This, then, is the poet-as-prophet.
In The Ring and the Book the "immense" public exhibit anger and rage just as much as the central speakers. And although each narrator presents his or her species of truth, this is truth irrevocably alloyed, altered into something uniquely individual. All members of the Roman public have a vested interest in the murder-trial, whether it is Half-Rome's fear of cuckolding or Tertium Quid's social climbing. All evaluate the central characters' fates as they in some way relate to their own; in this process they reveal the often quotidian reasons for particular emotional reactions. For Half-Rome, it is the obscure belief that the cousin of his interlocutor is seducing his wife. Tertium Quid regales an aristocratic company with the entire story of Guido and Pompilia, only to disgustedly conclude that "I have not so advanced myself, / After my teaching the two idiots here!" (IV.1639-40). His purposes thwarted, he is angry at his apathetic listeners, but mostly at himself for squandering time in amusing such petty company. Guido's anger, which gives him a "penetrative vision of social and moral hypocrisy" finds a skewed parallel in Tertium Quid's contemptuous aside, a glimmer of moral truth within Tertium Quid's largely self-propagating rhetoric (Karlin, pp. 227-228). The avaricious lawyer Arcangeli peppers his monologue with visions of rich dishes and family inheritances, a series of greedy speculations that reveals his pragmatic, sometimes ruthless detachment from the murder case. Upon such egoistic motives turn their engagement with the murder and trial; similar motivations, Browning suggests, inform his audience's engagement with his art. (27) The poet is, like Guido, on the defensive, and must present the case "obliquely," using falsehood (the act of literary creation and its resultant forms) to shade the truth.
Browning is fascinated by the hostile public, the angry voice of the masses and its relationship to the Carlylean catalogue of hero, poet, prophet, and author. He constructs a mutual relationship of anger between the poet and his audience, a reciprocal bond of intense shared dislike and mutual need. What is the productive value of such a connection? Anger is generative; through it Browning finds creative power, a might akin to the heroic prowess of Achilles. Achilles's rage, the result of his perception that "the borders of a kind of honorific self' have been violated, allows him to strive against such intrusion and forcefully reassert these boundaries (Braden, p. 10). Intelligent anger, it is "a valuable effort to seize control and to assert the integrity of damaged selfhood" (Nussbaum, p. 207). Similarly, the public's anger toward Browning pushes against his conception of a poetic self. "Ye who like me not," he addresses them; they are characterized by their intense dislike of him, and in return, he finds authority in his dislike of them. For in defending himself against them (not, it must be noted, in an apologetic manner, but with an offensive attack), he discovers renewed momentum for his art. This process of trial, Browning suggests, forces introspection, a refined understanding of selfhood and, in the broader sense, one's place in the world.
"From out of myself how the strange colours come!" exclaims Guido, as, in the final moments of speech, he teases out the extraordinary threads of his character (XI.2386). His insecurities, perversions, and above all, anger (against his repulsiveness, social circumstances, failed career, thwarted self) emerge, ending with the paradoxical "save me notwithstanding!" Concluding a monologue in which he has revealed the many, often monstrous facets of his nature, Guido audaciously begs for his life, for "Life is all!" (XI.2421) He cannot change, he asserts, "nor is it in me to unhate my hates." He does not respect the Pope or his interlocutors; neither does he expect anything but their dislike and anger. Yet, despite it all, he claims a "true word, all truth and no lie": his enduring desire for life (XI.2420).
Guido appropriates a certain primeval anger, the "wolf-nature" of the ancient Roman or Etruscan, relating to a world where his modus vivendi was the primary one. He claims to spring from "fauns and nymphs, trunks and the heart of oak" (XL 1923), and calls for a time before Christians "purged the sky / Of all gods save the One, the great and good" (XL 1979-80). This polytheistic, pantheistic world, inhabited by many gods and even more truths, provides a rich terrain for Guido's rhetorical construction of himself as an aristocratic avenger of honor who craves, above all else, life. But while Guido springs from the ancients, Pompilia arises from a younger tradition--she acts "on impulse to serve God" (VII.1600), "obeying the clear voice which bade me rise" (VII.1615), and in true Christian fashion (scorned by Guido), her reward is to "withdraw from earth and Man" and "compose" her soul for God (VII.1769-70). Yet, while Guido desperately begs for human life, even a "madman's" life (XI.2422), and Pompilia composes herself for her soul's life after death, the two are not completely different. In their final moments, both turn earthward--Guido grasping for survival, Pompilia thinking of Caponsacchi. "My end of breath / Shall bear away my soul in being true," she says (VII. 1771-72), "O lover of my life, O soldier-saint, / No work begun shall ever pause for death! / Love will be helpful to me more and more /I' the coming course, the new path I must tread" (VII.1786-89). Whether she is saint, hero, or simply a beleaguered girl, it is human love that affixes Pompilia to life, and, Carlyle's sexual cynicism notwithstanding, (28) it is hard not to read compassion in Browning's depiction of Pompilia. For Guido, nothing is true but life, and for Pompilia "being true" is love. Granted that none in The Ring and the book is disinterested, that sophistry abounds, and that neither anger nor motives is unmixed, it is possible that Pompilia's loving anger (or anger in love) provides, for Browning, a view of rage that is quite as important, and as rich, as that of Guido.
So from these "strange colours" we can unravel Browning's own. Like Guido, Browning neither expects nor desires his public to like him. Equally, he makes no pretensions about liking them. But Browning's poetry is not art created in spite of this mutual anger; it is formed because of it. The constant trials to which his work is subjected, the ordeal of defending it, illuminating his art, and attacking his critics, are strife and life to Browning: "conflict is a universal law, struggle is the condition of existence" (Karlin, pp. 20-21). "The anger of the man may be endured," Browning says as he "rounds" the ring of his poem, "but here's the plague / That all this trouble comes of telling truth" (XII.850-853). As a truth-teller and visionary, Browning's poet must face anger with anger; without enduring this opposition and conflict, he is an insipid artist of "mere imagery on the wall" rather than a wordsmith, forging meaning "beyond the facts" (XII.863-866). The book does not end with anger, however, but with a turn to Lyric Love and the salvific power of Art, the "one way possible / Of speaking truth" (XII.843-844). Art, which "shall mean beyond the facts, / Suffice the eye and save the soul beside" (XII.866-867). A love of the "glory and good of Art" (XII.842), at least, seems to suffuse The Ring and the Book, and lend strength to the poet's anger and creative energy ("No work begun shall ever pause for death!"). This anger, bound up in pride, selfhood, honor, self-creation, love, and, ultimately, the speaking of truth, is integral to the meaning of Browning's art.
And so we return to Guido, for whom "Dying in cold blood is the desperate thing; / The angry heart explodes, bears off in blaze / The indignant soul, and I'm combustion-ripe" (XI.465-467). The poet calls him "Our glaring Guido," the "rocket" that "up and up roared and soared" over the arc of the poem (XII.8, 3, 2). There is possessiveness in this description, as our glaring Guido replaces Pompilia as the luminary presence of The Ring and the Book, the "indignant soul" whose explosive anger lights the narrative and burns like Browning's own. Unlike Caponsacchi, condemned to "the old solitary nothingness" (VI.2103) or Pompilia, who "rises," wan and quiet, "i' the dark" to heaven (VII.1845), his ascent sets the sky ablaze. Though it is Guido whose angry intelligence we remember, whose "use of fire" is congruent with the poet's own, we cannot overlook his exit in a flash of anguish and desperate hypocrisy, invoking his murdered wife: "Pompilia, will you let them murder me?" (XI.2427). This last irony rings down the curtain on "our glaring Guido," the inveterate hater whose love of life proves finally stronger than all his hates.
Browning completes his literary Ring and "indignant," offers it to the British Public as a poetic incarnation of his "angry heart." With its publication, his critical reputation "soared," a transformation that has been attributed to its form, "not only pure self-expression but testimony, it moves away from a concern with the 'private or meditative intimacy of the sole self" (29) (Gregory, p. 501). It is an extended meditation on the complicated interaction of public and private anger, an unapologetic disclosure of the indignation that, while intensified in the extreme circumstance of murder, might color daily life. More, it is a study of anger in conjunction with reputation, creativity, irony, love, and absolution. You "may like me yet" (XII.835), Browning writes in his closing address to the public, an ironic prescience that predicts The Ring and the Book's critical success. Most of his writing subsequent to it, however, was greeted with derision and considered "hasty, obscure and rough" (Karlin and Woolford, p. 241), an irony that could not have failed to amuse--and anger--Browning.
(1) All references to The Ring and the Book taken from The Poetical Works of Robert Browning, vols. 7-9, ed. Stefan Hawlin and T.A.J. Burnett (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004), Book XI, ll. 2393-2400. Subsequent references are in the text.
(2) Browning himself wryly points to this in The Inn Album, 1875 (ll. 17-18).
(3) Robert Browning, Robert Browning and Julia Wedgwood: A Broken Friendship as Revealed by Their Letters, ed. Richard Curie (London: John Murray and Jonathan Cape, 1937), p. 158.
(4) See Robert Langbaum, The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition (London: Chatto & Windus, 1957); Herbert F. Tucker, Browning's Beginnings: The Art of Disclosure (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1980); Loy D. Martin, Browning's Dramatic Monologues and the Post-Romantic Subject (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1985); John Woolford, Browning The Revisionary (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988); John Maynard, "Reading the Reader in Robert Browning's Dramatic Monologues," in Mary Ellis Gibson, ed., Critical Essays on Robert Browning (New York: G. K. Hall, 1992), pp. 69-78; John Woolford and Daniel Karlin, "Genre and Style," in Robert Browning (New York: Longman, 1996), pp. 38-73.
(5) John Woolford and Daniel Karlin, Robert Browning (New York: Longman, 1996), p. 241.
(6) Browning's anger at his detractors did not, of course, end with The Ring and the Book. Consider in particular Pacchiarotto, and How He Worked in Distemper (1876), whose title poem involves a full and comic assault on the artist's critics.
(7) For example, when Guido uses the word "omoplat" for shoulder-blade when referring to his torture: "There is an ailing in this omoplat" (V.118).
(8) Daniel Karlin, Browning's Hatreds (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), p. 227.
(9) The Westminster Review, January 1, 1869.
(10) In this, his composite modes--explanation, mockery, irony, pleading--and motivations-- anger, self-justification--are strikingly similar to those expressed in Guido's evolving monologues.
(11) Martha C. Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001), p. 234.
(12) Lily Bess Campbell, Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1930), p. 177.
(13) Ekbert Faas, Retreat into the Mind: Victorian Poetry and the Rise of Psychiatry (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1988), p. 86.
(14) So described by Alfred Austin, in Browning: The Critical Heritage, ed. Boyd Litzinger and Donald Smalley (New York: Barnes &. Noble, 1970), p. 396.
(15) Gordon Braden, Renaissance Tragedy and the Senecan Tradition: Anger's Privilege (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 113-114.
(16) Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 317.
(17) E. Warwick Slinn, Browning and the Fictions of Identity (London: Macmillan, 1982), p. 3.
(18) Park Honan, Browning's Characters (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1961), p. 183.
(19) Acknowledging, of course, the assertion of Carlyle (and subsequent critics), following Guido himself--"the adultery of wife and priest!" (V. 1237)--that Pompilia and Caponsacchi were lovers, and that Pompilia is neither as innocent nor as good as she seems. Carlyle reportedly summed up the poem to Browning with the following: "The real story is plain enough on looking into it; the girl and the handsome young priest were lovers" (William Allingham, William Allingham: A Diary, ed. Helen Allingham and Dollie Radford [London: Macmillan, 19071, p. 207).
(20) See Karlin's chapter on "Personal Hatred," in Browning's Hatreds.
(21) Patricia D. Rigg, Robert Brownings Romantic Irony in The Ring and the Book (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 1999), p. 50.
(22) Guido leaves us with this lago-esque pronouncement: "Sirs, have I spoken one word all this while / Out of this world of words I had to say? / Not one word! All was folly--I laughed and mocked!" (XI.2415-17).
(23) Gordon W. Thompson, "Authorial Detachment and Imagery in The Ring and the Book," Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 10, no. 4 (Autumn 1970): 672.
(24) Oscar Wilde deploys similar language in his defense of Browning in "The Critic as Artist" (in The Writings of Oscar Wilde [New York: A. R. Keller, 1907], 15 vols.) "which sets a resistant, indifferent, perhaps even hostile public against the misunderstood artist working beyond the reader's ability to comprehend him" (Leslie White, "Wilde, Browning, and the 'New Obscurity,'" ELT 42, no. 1  : 12).
(25) John Killham, "Browning's 'Modernity': The Ring and the Book and Relativism," in Robert Browning: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Harold Bloom and Adrienne Munich (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1979), p. 79.
(26) Adam Potkay, "The Problem of Identity and the Grounds for Judgment in The Ring and the Book," VP 25, no. 2 (Summer 1987): 148.
(27) I use the word "egoistic" instead of "egotistic" consciously, indicative of a self-centric, rather than selfish view. In Upheavals of Thought, Nussbaum refers to such egoism as part of one's conception of self and the self's flourishing (eudaimonistic) potential. These characters are therefore engaged with perceiving and evaluating the factors that affect their self-flourishing.
(28) See endnote 19 for more on Carlyle's interpretation of the relationship between Pompilia and Caponsacchi.
(29) Melissa Valiska Gregory, "Robert Browning and the Lure of the Violent Lyric Voice: Domestic Violence and the Dramatic Monologue," VP 38, no. 4 (2000): 501.
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|Title Annotation:||Robert Browning|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2014|
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