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  • Fact, Rhythm, and Resistance in The Ring and the Book
  • Michael Rizq (bio)

Actuality is something brute. There is no reason in it. I instance putting your shoulder against a door and trying to force it open against an unseen, silent, and unknown resistance.

—Charles S. Peirce1

In an 1869 letter, Robert Browning's close friend Julia Wedgwood took issue with his newly completed poem, The Ring and the Book (1868–1869). Its murderous antagonist, Count Guido Franceschini, she found particularly difficult to reconcile: "the mere brute, hacking Pompilia to pieces," she complained, "seems to me to have nothing in common with the keen, subtle intellectual pagan" that Browning represented through Guido's monologues.2 Why should such a man so violently murder his wife? But Browning's response was unapologetic, even reveling in the unanswerability of the charge:

Why, I have you almost at an unfair disadvantage, in the fact that the whole story is true! How do you account for the "mere brutal hacking Pompilia to pieces" in a nobleman thirty years long the intimate of Cardinals: is this the case of the drunken operative who kicks his wife to death because she has no money for more gin?3

In the unconscious drift from "mere brute, hacking" to "mere brutal hacking," the exchange implicitly revolves around the possible implications of "brutality." Guido is a "brute," and his hacking is "brutal," but Browning also wanders unexpectedly close to Peirce's philosophical use of "brute": the truth of the story, he suggests, is prior, and unyielding, to the kind of reasoned, socialized understanding that Wedgwood seeks. Insisting on the real-world substrate of his poem, Browning seems to draw rhetorical verve from this intractable, unaccountable facticity.4 Guido's brutality becomes less a representational failing than a reality to be reckoned with, as if the very thrill of the poem were in its capacity to emphasize what was most "brute," and inexplicably so, about the murder. [End Page 391]

Of course, Browning is being intentionally provocative, his caricature of Guido as "the drunken operative" parodying the interpretative movement that the poem proper both performs and invites. The Ring and the Book is made up of twelve dramatic monologues from ten different characters, each of them narrating or moralizing the story's murders from their own perspective; critics from Robert Langbaum to Sophie Ratcliffe have thus tended to understand the poem as mediating or testing our capacity for readerly "sympathy" as we try to grasp the "irreducible surd" (Morse Peckham's phrase) of each speaker's unique experience.5 And these readings are pertinent, because what Wedgwood seems to have encountered in Guido—and what Browning, in his response, sought to emphasize—was precisely the resistance of that "irreducible surd" to any such clear understanding. John Ruskin had found a similar mental strain when he read Browning's Men and Women (1855): its poems were "the most amazing Conundrums that ever were proposed to me," he wrote to their author, their untidy syntax and fraught dactyls inducing a "puzzlement" that "increases in comfortlessness till I get a headache, & give in."6 It is easy to share Ruskin's perplexity; even Henry James, himself no stranger to syntactic acrobatics, once emphasized the "danger of concussion" that Browning's verse was likely to provoke.7 My hunch, however, is that this kind of "Conundrum" becomes a feature of particular value in The Ring and the Book and is tied up with the poem's central treatment of "fact." "The fact that the whole story is true," as Browning put it to Wedgwood, is what excites his verse's most distinctive sounds and rhythms: pressure points and tensions within his prosody, as I will describe them here, which bring the strangeness of "fact" into relief, both puzzling the reading mind and stimulating a certain kind of cognitive, and epistemological, work.8

Guido's decision to kill Pompilia is a central moment in the development of the kind of interpretative difficulty I am talking about. The rhythmic force of these lines seeks to capture the psychological root of his decision, but in so doing, it lays bare the unaccountable, violent impulsiveness in Guido...