The Ring and the Book, the longest and most important of Browning’s poems, is the product of several years of creative activity during the period of his fullest maturity. The love romance which had enriched his life for fifteen years had come to an end, and his thought was searching more profoundly than ever before the problems of life and death. For twenty years he had been devoting his art to casual subjects in rich succession; Men and Women and Dramatis Personœ lay in the immediate past, and the dramatic monologue had become an easy from for voicing his imaginations; yet he must have craved the fuller joy of expressing through some larger subject and at far greater length his conception of human life and of the Divine in and above the world.

The occasion for this expression came in the chance discovery of the Old Yellow Book in June 1860 on a market barrow in the Piazza di San Lorenzo, Florence, as told by Browning in the poem. This book is the record of a sensational murder trial at Rome, January-February 1698, and gives many of the facts and motives of an ignoble intrigue for certain properties, culminating in a brutal assassination and in the subsequent execution of the criminals. It was a dark page from the criminal annals of Rome, and time had all but effaced the record when it fell into the hands of the poet. The problem of making these dead fragments live again challenged the imagination of Browning, and by the power of his imagination he saw there in Florence that June night how the crime had stirred Rome a century and a half earlier. So interested did he become in the Franceschini story that he frequently told it to his friends in conversation, and is said to have offered it to one of them as the plot of an historical novel. Eventually the inspiration came to him to tell the story through his art of poetry, and what was more, he saw the opportunity of expressing through the incidents of this base crime his own fuller vision of man. The interpretation of the Yellow Book in his poem involved the whole problem of life as the poet saw it.

How then should he unfold his views? His own age had perfected the novel to present at length the activities and motives of man, and Browning learned much of his art from the novel. Yet he was no novelist, and he left unattempted the possible historical novel in the subject. Long years before he had tried the drama, and had been defeated by a half success, nor could a stage drama trace the minute threads of motive in this case. In the narrative poem as such he had little interest, and seldom practised the fascination of the narrator. Browning’s one purpose in the art of poetry was to search the heart deeply for motive. He had by years of practice developed the dramatic monologue to a high point of efficacy in expressing motive. It is accordingly not surprising that he made a “strange art of an art familiar,” and by the repetition of the story in many forms in a series of dramatic monologues, he invented a new type of poem which grew directly out of the material before him, and enabled him to tell the Franceschini story more truly than through any of the established forms of art.

This tragic course of events had not developed simply and symmetrically. Life seldom does. It was a confused web of disputed fact, with motive and counter-motive, genuine or sham, conventional or personal, further entangled by the professional casuistry of the lawyers, until the right and wrong of the story seemed hopelessly obscured. Such confusion surrounds every deeper crisis which stirs the heart of man, as is illustrated in the journalistic hubbub around every sensational crime and its trial at the bar of justice. Literary art tends to simplify all this by the intensification of the prevailing motives, and by the eradication of whatever distracts from these. Yet in the successive development of the epic, the drama, and the novel as methods of picturing life, there has been a distinct evolution away from this artistic singleness toward the variety and intricacy of life. The novel offers large opportunities to present this human complexity. Browning carries literary development a step farther by using in a new way the multi-monologue form of narrative, in which he tells the story from a series of personal standpoints, each of which modifies fact and motive with iridescent shadings of significance and with the perplexing but thrilling uncertainties which we find in real life. He illustrates by his art also the great principle which he found in life—the apparent relativity of truth—“The truth is this to thee and that to me.” He sees that the perception of truth is one of the most vital functions of personality, and that the kind and degree of our perception of it are invariably restricted by all limitations of personality. In monologue after monologue in his previous art Browning had tinged a thought or a passion or a story by the prejudice of the speaker. When at last he found the Old Yellow Book, it gave him illustration after illustration of such perversion of truth through personal bias. It became inevitable for him, therefore, in his strong sense of the obligation to

  By PanEris using Melati.

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