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test at all, but that he protested wrong and that his protest has been hitherto fully accredited. If Browning had claimed for his transmutations of Book into Ring the virtues of beauty, grace, humor, vividness, knowledge wide, eloquence high, wisdom deep, there would be none to say him nay and none so poor to refuse him reverence. But in his deliberate choice to waive these many assets he did possess and with a somewhat truculent vehemence assume the one virtue least in evidence, he exhibited not only the naïveté of self-consciousness but the vice of that very dishonesty he most pugnaciously repudiates, elsewhere as here. No one questions in the least the poet's right to add, subtract, divide and
ultiply to suit his esthetic purposes, to deck his sordid facts in iridescent fancies, to draw copiously upon his imagination to interpret their significance, provided that he assumes his privilege of garnishing and sublimating actuality with the same unconcern with which it is granted, and refrains from avowing in the very act that he is doing none of these things but quite the opposite.
In the first place, Browning muddles his own metaphor until it becomes a treacherous quagmire. Granting that his alloy is fancy, he maintains that "fancy with fact is just one fact the more," a confusion of subjective with objective fact, whereas distinction between them is highly important. And when he inquires if the fiction which makes fact alive be not fact too, he again betrays his indifference to a line that must be drawn by any apostle of truth. Anon he apologises for his dilution as being necessary to provide
No dose of purer truth than man digests,
Whether or not the Victorian British Public that liked him not would have respected him more had he talked to it as man to man rather than as cryptic oracle to milk-fed babe, certainly the twentieth century should be grown up enough to endure this darklyhinted strong meat which no longer need be reserved for future use.
It was toward the end of this century's first decade that the crude and indigestible matter discovered by Browning nearly half a century before was made generally available by Professor Hodell's translation of The Old Yellow Book, followed by its publication in the Everyman Edition. Since then, who will, may hear Fran
cesca's story told, as before who would had heard Pompilia's story told," a very different matter," says Henry James, distinguishing between the poet's " offered" and his "borrowed" story.1
This difference, however, did not manifest itself to Mr. Hodell, who after all his research remained more under the spell of the Ring than of the Book. As a sub-title to his prefatory title he places the quotation,
So absolutely good is truth
and makes Browning's conformity to this sentiment the text of his discourse. This very publication of the poet's source is to be considered as a chance for open proof of his "marked fidelity to the fact-basis of his imaginary superstructure." "Truth," he continues, "is a master word throughout the poem." In fact Browning "might have made his problem easier if he had assumed an arbitrary power over this new province" and had not "felt himself peculiarly circumstanced in his creative activity by the truth of the materials." The editor even goes so far as to account for the poet's choice of theme from actual rather than legendary material on the ground that there might be in the latter less scope for the exercise of his reverence for the truth and genius for veracity.
What is there, then, in the poet's "alloy " more than the tempering of the "gold" to make it malleable? Two things; one a matter of quantity, the other of quality. So large an amount of the original ore is rejected and so large an amount of the new admixture infused that the mere change in proportion has a transforming effect. To this is added the transforming effect that comes from a prejudiced interpretation, the ingenious manipulation to line up such facts as are used in support of a preconceived theory—the very thing Hodell asserts explicitly Browning does not do! Here are a two and two that make an exceedingly large four.
The quantitative alteration is brought about both in details of the action and in the cast of characters as a whole. A score or so of items found in the Book have been quietly expunged from the Ring. Some of them, though forming capital stuff for realistic fiction, are quite inappropriate to romantic poetry: such as the
1"The Novel in The Ring and the Book," in Notes on Novelists.
inventory of feminine apparel which the Signora is accused of abstracting from a locked chest, the key of which “ she took from her husband's trousers "; the question asked by the Count's workman if he “were ready to give his wife a beating"; the poignant but unpoetic circumstance that when Francesca found the assassins upon her she blew out the light and tried to hide under the bed. Others are evidently suppressed as too damaging to Browning's cause: such as the letter of Guido's uncle to Pietro Comparini, in which he alludes to "the fine row" in the Archbishop's Palace; the letter to the same from Albergotti, telling how the Signora " made a big disturbance because she did not wish to go and sleep with Signor Guido her husband ”; and the terms of Signor Pietro's will. The significance of the letters is that they spoil by their very existence the important contention that Pompilia was utterly cut off from communication with her parents and that they were in entire ignorance of what was going on in Arezzo.
For these omitted epistles Browning has substituted, among his many inventions, a letter from a Venetian visiting in Rome at the time of the execution; one from Bottini, designed still further to blacken his character, in which is included a verbatim report of an imagined sermon; and a postscript to the note from Archangeli to Cencini, deepening another false impression.
It is, however, in the cast of characters that the additions are most momentous, the omissions, though greater in number, being of less importance. Of the nine speakers of monologues in The Ring and the Book, four are practically imaginary and one quite so, a proportion of more than half. The distribution of these forms a curious symmetry coördinating with the poet's symmetrical plan of three groups with three speakers in each. Each of these triple triads is composed of a pair for whom there is some basis in the original, plus a third largely or wholly fictitious.
This matter of quantity is so bound up with the qualitative metamorphosis that separation is very difficult. Characters manufactured out of whole cloth or from the smallest of samples are necessarily products of the creator's fancy, but as a matter of fact these of Browning's are no more so than the four drawn most directly from the source, two of whom are debased and the other two idealized with an equally distorting effect. Yet in the face of this thorough discrepancy Hodell announces his discovery that “ Even the architecture of the poem, its unusual plan, seems to have been devised with the purpose of the fullest truth-telling concerning the material before the artist.”
Browning's nine dramatis personae may be reduced to six actual personalities, as the trio representing public opinion are frankly types, one invented and two suggested by the anonymous pamphlets circulated in behalf of the pro and con of the notorious Franceschini-Comparini feud. One more reduction is as much in order, since the Pope does not appear at all upon the original stage and furthermore his action from behind the scenes is known only through reference to his upholding the decision of the court, “having well weighed the evidence.” Innocent XII was of course a verifiable personage, the only one of historical rank in the story. But neither from The Old Yellow Book nor from ecclesiastical biography did the poet get his sage, voicing a profound and emancipated philosophy; his interpretation being as ridiculous in fact as it is sublime in conception.
Nor is Count Guido Franceschini, albeit the chief actor in the tragedy, much more above the horizon in his own person. It is right there that the Book is most bafflingly non-committal. Although its whole theme, its raison d'être, is the determination of his precise legal status as a murderer, although there is much argument about him and about, yet evermore he holds his peace. From him there is no deposition, no letter, nothing but a brief document giving to his brother Paolo power of attorney in his affairs. Our actual knowledge of this silence-shrouded bone of contention is of the scantiest. An impoverished aristocrat (the youngest of three brothers instead of the oldest, as Browning makes him) at the age of thirty-six (ten years younger than in Browning's version) contracted a bourgeois marriage on a commercial basis. The ceremony took place Sunday morning, September sixth, after a due publishing of the banns (not in secret on a dark December evening). Four years later he with four accomplices stabbed to death his wife and her foster-parents, eight months after she had fled from home in the company of a priest, and a fortnight after she had given birth to a son, (the crime taking place at the Comparinis' Roman residence and not in the suburban villa of the existence of which we learn only through Browning).
2 See Cook's Commentary on The Ring and the Book: for Franceschini's There is indeed one distinctive supplement to this exceedingly meager record, a portrait. The Count thus becomes the only one ir. the drama whom we can visualize, but this advantage in fact becomes a disadvantage with respect to our confidence in Browning's pen-portrait of the man behind the mask. On the ex pede principle the poet might have constructed plausibly enough his monstrous villain Herculean in crime, but operating in a rude clumsy violent fashion; as boorish and blundering as his peasant assistants and as incapable as they of the finesse and sagacity with which he is so lavishly endowed by his most faithful delineator. If behind that dull stupid countenance there did lurk a brain capable of cajoling judges and subtly bribing priests, of confessing to a strain of the sentimental cavalier, of hatching an elaborate scheme for getting rid of his wife and keeping her dowry, and of executing this plan with adroit skill and patience, of justifying his course by the sanction of a well formulated social and moral philosophy, then one might indeed ask, “ What's in a face ?" Yet we are assured by Hodells that " in the remaking of Guido Franceschini the poet has dealt honestly with the material before him.” It may be honest to deduce greed from brutality, and craft from greed, to invent such details as Guido's experience with the Church, his suit for divorce, the letter by which he was informed of the birth of the child, but to invest this bull in a china shop with the "cynical
before which shrivel “ the ideal virtues and graces of life,” is to extract sophistication from the stolid, a thing psychology would gambol from. With all the will in the world to forge the mysterious love letters the Count's "unforeseeing mind,” as Archangeli justly terms it, could hardly have summoned the wit, a lack his contemporaries seemed to have realized, Lamparelli alone suggesting the bare possibility of the authorship so taken for granted by Browning. In pursuit of his own theory the poet is not content to let his arch fiend off with the single monologue sufficient for the others, but exploits him through two of the longest, one of them staged under wholly invented circumstances.
Another proof of Hodell’s contention that “fidelity to his ma
age, pp. 20, 38, and 43; for the place of Pompilia's imprisonment and death, pp. 38 and 51. Also for date of marriage, Treves' Country of The Ring and the Book, 299.
* Atlantic Monthly, March, 1908.