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  • The Ritual in "The Novel in The Ring and the Book":Browning, Henry James, Eric Gans
  • David Sassian (bio)

What, you, Sir, come too? (Just the man I'd meet.)Be ruled by me and have a care o' the crowd:This way, while fresh folk go and get their gaze:I'll tell you like a book and save your shins.1

With these words Half-Rome pulls his interlocutor aside and away from the crush circulating through the Church of San Lorenzo, where, on the altar steps, the bodies of Violante and Pietro, parents of Pompilia, have been laid out since the dawn of this first day following the murders. Half-Rome with improvisatory resourcefulness has installed himself as impresario of the sudden attraction, and we half imagine in his other hand, as he clasps his listener's arm or shoulder, the coins offered by previous of his auditors. As he parts the curtain, so to speak, on the tableau within, Half-Rome bids his interlocutor to hold up, to submit to his restraint, for the dual benefit of a satisfying tale and escape from the bodily hazards of merging with the crowd.

Already, it would seem, here at the opening of the narrative proper we are offered an allegory of our position as readers of The Ring and the Book—a surprisingly playful or ironic one. With the imperative "Be ruled by me," the promise of a tale told "like a book," and a gesture, beneath a capacious architectural structure,2 toward threateningly close quarters at ground level, the curtain is parted on one of the longest poems in the language, while simultaneously the anxieties are acknowledged of a readership at all acquainted with the poet's characteristic mode—anxieties as to the press of detail and jostling parts that will have to be negotiated in any traversal of a series of greatly extended dramatic monologues, no matter how familiar-seeming the symmetry of their overarching twelve-book presentation.

For Henry James, on the evidence of his essay "The Novel in The Ring and the Book" (1912), such anxieties indeed carry over to the experience of reading, of entering in. James feels acutely the spatial pressures exerted by the poem—both the affront of its overwhelming whole and the airless closeness [End Page 233] of its enveloping detail. These pressures are expressed in terms that recall Browning's opening Book II scenario (and with a verbal echo of Half-Rome's "save your shins"), even if the scale of James's ecclesiastical metaphor surpasses that of the modest church of San Lorenzo:

"The Ring and the Book" is so vast and so essentially gothic a structure, spreading and soaring and branching at such a rate, covering such ground, putting forth such pinnacles and towers and brave excrescences, planting its transepts and chapels and porticos, its clustered hugeness or inordinate muchness, that with any first approach we but walk vaguely and slowly, rather bewilderedly, round and round it, wondering at what point we had best attempt such entrance as will save our steps and light our uncertainty.3

Inside this structure, all is congested and indistinguishable: "under the great roof, . . . a splendid thickness and dimness of air, an accumulation of spiritual presences or unprofaned mysteries, that makes our impression heavily general—general only—and leaves us helpless for reporting on particulars" (James, p. 386). As the essay proceeds, James gives over his ecclesiastical metaphor, but the spatial and architectural figures persist, in service of further striking and often quite cutting evocations of the reader's experience. The poem is a "labyrinth," a "great heavy-hanging cluster of related but unreconciled parts," a "proportioned monstrous magnificence," an "immeasurable plenty," while Books VIII and IX, the monologues of the "all too indulgently presented Roman advocates," "combine to put together the most formidable monument we possess to Browning's active curiosity and the liveliest proof of his almost unlimited power to give on his readers' nerves without giving on his own."4

These figures culminate in a moment in which the immoderate closeness within the poem, such that its matter is "too much upon us and thereby out of focus" (p...


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pp. 233-247
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