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Browning and the Intelligent Uses of Anger in The Ring and the Book

From: Victorian Poetry
Volume 52, Number 2, Summer 2014
pp. 205-224 | 10.1353/vp.2014.0015

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

                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

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,” a supreme analyst and vivisectionist whose psychological insight precluded aesthetic merit. His self-professed interest in “morbid cases of the soul” 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 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.

Numerous critics have noted Browning’s famous invocation to “lyric Love,” the spirit of EBB (I.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” (I.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, 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.” 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...



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