The Rhetoric and Character of Guido
Browning’s “The Ring and the Book” is often described as a poem presenting several divergent viewpoints of the same event. A murder is committed, and the murderer, surviving victim, townspeople, lawyers, and final judge all present their varied interpretations of the act. Yet in spite of this apparent diversity, the variety of the poem consists more in the differing manner of each individual’s presentation of his views than in the expression of any great number of divergent opinions. Only two main opinions are possible – that Guido has been justified in committing his atrocity or that he has not, and the characters range themselves at various stages of distance from either pole of belief.
Guido, Half-Rome, and Dominus Hyacinthus de Archangelis, Guido’s lawyer, all support Guido’s action as a revenge causa honoris. Although Guido’s case for himself is devious and complex, the other two pro-Guido soliloquies seem mere repetitions of the most commonplace arguments advanced by Guido. Another bystander, Tertium Quid, believes Guido blamable, but not sufficiently so as to merit death; in the eyes of a Browning, who considered Pompilia a spotless lamb and Guido an unredeemed villain, this must have seemed tongue-in-cheek worldly-wise Guidoism. Four persons support the opposite view, that Guido’s action is defenseless – Pompilia, the Pope, Caponsacchi, and Browning himself. The Other-Half Rome and Doctor Johannes Bottinus also consider Pompilia essentially the innocent party, although in doing so they wink forgivingly at what they assume has been her adultery. Thus is the balance there seem to be two basic opinions – either that Guido is the justified party, or that he is in no way justified. Persons of greater insight – the Pope, Browning, the clear-eyed Pompilia, seem to see one point of view easily; the villain, Guido, sees automatically its opposite, and worldly-wise characters arrange themselves arbitrarily on one side of the line or the other.
Browning is not interested in showing what different types of legal evidence or opinion may be legitimately advanced for each side, but in showing how character determines decision. Half-Rome and Bottinus assume their interpretation for psychological or venial ends – Half-Rome, in the insecure husband’s abhorrence of imputed cuckoldry, Bottinus in the equally predictable alignment of counsellor and client. Similarly all of the characters acquire their interpretations through intuition or prejudice, not through studying the factual evidence. The alloy of imagination or character, which must be melted with the factual material of gold to form the true Etruscan ring, seems to be the major subject not only of Browning’s overall interpretation of his poem but of each specific monologue.
Since only a few possible opinions concerning the murder exist, and since Browning presents one of these views as correct and the others as merely alternate forms of error, a certain staticness in character results. The Pope debates lengthily over whether he can make a correct judgement with only “darkness to be felt” (728) in the spheres above, yet he begins his speech with the forgone conclusion, “I must plead / This condemnation of a man today” (717). He very briefly permits the arguments of Guido’s advocates to run through his mind, only to dismiss them hastily. There is no possibility of a changed mind, of debate over whether Guido may be an honest man, of consideration once more of the evidence of Pompilia’s adultery. The other characters also are not shown undergoing a process of internal debate. Everyone is presenting a pre-formed argument, assuming a debating stance. We are not able to watch the development of a character, only its unveiling; the plot, many times told, becomes chiefly a starting point for soliloquy, a series of facts whose basic outline is as known in the beginning as at the end.
Browning, of course, was aware that his epic poem lacked suspense in much the same way that a morality play or Paradise Lost held little suspense for its Christian audience. He probably considered the simplicity in idea of “The Ring and the Book” as a desirable quality in a poem so long and potentially confused. This simplicity also permitted his mind to ramify digressions and satiric effects without fear of obscuring his main theme. Freed to use set-pieces without limit, Browning has created a massive structure of humor and satire – the venial populace, vapid and pretentious sophisticates, and windbag lawyers applying learned method to vacuity. Browning’s presentation of Dominus Hyacinthus de Archangelis is an excellent example of ribald and slapstick parody. Directly after the perfervid, resigned simplicity of Pompilia’s last words, Dominus begins his hearty filiocentric bombast on the subject of his son’s eighth birthday, weaving thoughts on this significant date into his handling of the defense of Guido’s murder. Dominus is a procurator for the poor whose client is a nobleman, a family man too paternal to waste any thoughts on his wife, a Latinist too proud to notice any blundering humor in the literalness of his translation. The side speeches and satire in “The Ring and the Book” contrast with the more intense treatments of the plot, creating an effect of theme and variation. Also the satire and tangential matter create a comic relief to the grisly murder-plot, and a social setting for the story of Pompilia, caught in a marriage by barter, denied help by legal and religious authorities, and debated over at death by an obtuse court.
Yet all these methods of elaborating his theme are secondary to Browning’s development of the central characters – Pompilia, the Pope, and Guido. Since the plot may be summarized as “martyr-maid vs. villain”, Browning offset the potential monotonous simplicity of his theme by constructing an endlessly devious and ambiguous villain. The pieties of Pompilia and the Pope might seem either predictable or commonplace to one who has not read Guido’s torturous combination of rationalization and repression. Turning from Guido’s windings to the speeches of Pompilia and the Pope is to appreciate their directness and sanity of thought. Even the imagery changes drastically from Guido’s speeches to theirs – after the unpleasant repetitiousness of Guido’s animal images, his evocations of scorpion, snake, gnat, hawk, and toad, come the placid images of light, water, birds, and gardens which underlie the monologues of Pompilia and the Pope. Not only do virtue and simplicity seem more beautiful when embedded in masses of confusing and repulsive data, but the murder-plot’s polarity of interest is maintained.
Guido’s monologue is probably one of the longest speeches of an evildoer in English literature, approximately four thousand five hundred lines, five hundred lines longer than the combined speeches of the Pope and Pompilia. Guido’s prolixity is a function of his egotism, yet also of his cunning – too conceited to imagine he may lose his case, he brings forth every possible argument which he thinks may soften or bully his judges. Often Browning preserves a unity of theme by direct parallels or contrasts between Guido’s statements and those of the Pope and Pompilia. For example, Pompilia and the Pope both predictably refer to Guido as a wolf, but it is strange that Guido himself cries, “Let me turn wolf … Wallow in what is now a wolfishness” (763). In other words, the judgements of Guido and those of the virtuous characters often overlap, although their reactions to these judgments do not. Often, in addition, Guido’s analyses of society seem the skeptical underside of those of the Pope. Both diagnose the same sickness in social contracts and a falling away from Christianity, but the Pope responds with renewed faith in the ability of his mind, a “convex glass” (721), to gather in the sum of unchanging truth, while Guido discards as mere patterns of phraseology even the concepts of virtue and vice.
Guido is the only persona except Browning who is permitted two books in which to express himself. Since he speaks the first monologue at his trial and the second after his condemnation, it has been at times assumed that only in the second monologue does he reveal his true character. Professor Hodell, in introducing The Old Yellow Book, speaks of the “not a few persons who when they have finished Guido’s first monologue are inclined to believe his plea.” (quoted in A. K. Cook, A Commentary Upon Browning's "The Ring and the Book", Hamden, Conn., 1966, p. 234). To a limited extent the first and second monologues are different; in his trial testimony Guido expresses a mock-piety towards the Church, Pope, and judges, while in the post-trial speech he attacks them all openly. Yet Browning’s skill is demonstrated by the fact that there are no real contradictions between Books V and XI; all of Guido’s attitudes on religion, law, and the Pope are repeatedly revealed in the digressions and statements of belief of his first testimony. Only his account of his own actions is disguised in the first speech, and the contrast between his amoral principles and his supposedly generous actions and righteous murder is so great that the latter are by contrast unconvincing. Even in his earlier plea Guido alternates between a suspiciously currying submissiveness and a bullying manner and disrespect of legal judgment. The second monologue, like the first, contains shifts into piety, as for example when Guido hopelessly calls on Christ, the Pope, and Pompilia, or tries to convince his hearers that his impieties have all been a ruse, designed to keep the authorities from killing an impenitent man. To some extent it is disappointing that at no stage of his orations, in spite of his strenuous sophistries, can Guido completely white-wash himself; it would be interesting to watch a villain capable of totally concealing his motives. On the other hand, such a performance might well be simply a collection of outright falsehoods, leaving the reader deprived of the data needed for evaluation. Browning’s treatment of villainy is predicated on the belief that evil persons are incapable of complete dissimulation. Either they cannot understand good sufficiently to correctly mimic it, or their pride militates against repression. Guido seems compelled to express lengthily his opinions of his society, morals, human nature, and the nature of life and death, as though sensing that his two monologues will be his last opportunities for self-assertion. Even at his trial he seems incapable of the full disguise needed to save his life; his egotism demands that any acquittal vindicate his inner nature and selfishness, not be merely an accident of judicial misinformation. The only difference between Guido’s speeches, then, is in emphasis of topic; in both monologues his character and even the forms of his self-betrayal and analysis remain similar.
The first trait which Guido reveals in his speech is his syncophantism, his currying of favor. Although it is conventional to use elaborately respectful forms of address to officers of the court, Guido carries this to fulsome lengths in such terms as “Thanks, Sir, but, should it please the reverend Court”, “Not your fault, sweet Sir”, “your humble servant here”, “My lords”, “Sweet lords”, (pp. 601, 602, 602, 613, 625), and speaks of a previous law court as “the grave Gamaliel’s nod …” (614). He tries shiftily to explain that he really does have great respect for his judges, even though he has tried to carry the case over their heads to the Pope. This step has been caused by “some fondness of conceit” on the part of his brother, who felt that the “machine of law” could be dispensed with. But the Pope “knew better” and sent him “back to law”; he “doubtlessly did well” (623). Guido’s choice of the word “machine” implies his scorn for the irrelevance of an institution which he considers a mere rubber stamp for privilege. How much less impertinent if his case could merely be dismissed! The tactic of stating his real desire, the papal acquittal, then denying it, is among the sly routes to self-expression which Guido uses frequently throughout both monologues.
Guido’s exaggerated courtesy and flattery is not merely a pose of servility before his judges, however, but a method of reminding them that he is a man of the best breeding. He continually emphasizes that he is one of them, bred in the same noble pastimes, appreciation of social forms, and scorn for the trivia of physical pain, punishment, deprivation, and even law. His arguments are prediacted on a kinship in genteel amorality between him and his judges; it is merely an accident of no moral significance that he stands before, not among them. Thus he pretends bravura in enduring torture, affects not to need a chair, and comments on the good vertrelli wine offered him, praising the “changed and good” times which can serve him with a better drink than vinegar and gall offered Christ (602). He builds nobly resonant lines upon his high birth:
I am representative of a great line
One of the first old families
In Arezzo, ancientest of Tuscan towns. (603)
He carefully establishes that his second-rank nobility is not an inferior rank; St. Francis could be said to be similarly second to St. Dominic. Obviously he thinks it very important for his judges to think highly of his station, and the piety of his parallels distract the mind from the grossness of comparing ranks of nobility to ranks of sainthood. He often jokes with or even condescends to the court:
Will the Court of its charity teach poor me
Anxious to learn, of any way i’ the world …. (607)
‘Tis scarce the gravity of the Court
Will blame me that I never piped a tune …. (610)
At the end of his first monologue he assures the judges he will forgive them for torturing him, “no fault at all” (627). He seems to expect that they are worried over his revenge should they release him. Indirectly he has revealed his true opinion of the judges and their right to try him, for presumably he should be expected to feel only gratitude upon release. In order to emphasize his kinship with the judges, he recounts his upbringing with frequent references to his fellow nobles, “mates of mine” (603), and to upper class pastimes – riding, hunting, and falconing. Through all of his speech, in fact, he uses imagery of hunting and competitive games, as when he compares Pompilia to a falcon-gentle which he must hoodwink (610). The images suggest his past noble environment to his audience; most insidiously they reveal his tendencies to aggressiveness and bloodthirstiness. Also he assumes in his conceit that the small courtesies offered to him are evidences of the judges’ respect towards himself, not mere formalities. He assures them his racked back is all right, implying that of course they care about his back. He seems unable to face the basic fact of his changed position, that these people have ordered his torture and considered it just. Similarly he avoids other facts that would indicate the danger of his state; he calls his self-defense “work” which awaits him (602), and speaks of the comparative lightness of his punishment by torture, conveniently forgetting that it preludes a trial which will perhaps result in his death (602).
Guido’s pride in his invulnerable station is closely allied with one of his most prominent traits, complete scorn for the poor. He assumes his judges will recognize and identify with this trait, as a further badge of noble birth, and permits himself to snarl freely. He states his ambition to “teach the tittering town how scarlet wears” (602), and speaks of himself as a fish “fit for the deep sea” left exposed to the gaze of “crawlers vile / Reared of the low-tide and aright therein” (604). Later he speaks of “many a denizen o’ the dung” (605) which has made himself wings and flown above him. The image is of an insect, bred in slime. Again, Guido expatiates for twenty-five lines with mingled disgust and self-pity concerning the success of his father’s lackey’s son, a doctor. It would never occur to him that the usefulness of this man’s skill might be a fit cause for recompense. Guido speaks with a comic sobriety of “Franceschinihood” and even speaks of himself in the third person, as “Count Guido Franceschini” (607). By contrast the mere idea of low “trading” is an ill joke to him; he suggests he could have spent his life in trading to better effect, then adduces as examples of trade the occupations of a dancer and prizer (607). Having purposely chosen ignominious examples of “trade”, he can react with disgust, “… [B]id this buffoonery cease” (607). He condescends to Pietro as a low tradesman’s descendent, and is traumatically offended by the thought of Pompilia’s true origins:
Pompilia … drew
Breath first ‘mid Rome’s worst rankness, through the deed
Of a drab and a rogue, was bye-blow bastard-babe
Of a nameless strumpet ….
O’ the kennel! (611)
In speaking of the persons who admired Pompilia, he states his cup of bitterness has been
Filtered into every noisome drain –
Society’s sink towards which all moisture runs. (612)
Images of disgust, filth, and the gutter seem to come readily to Guido, and he directs them with self-righteous and monotonous emphasis towards those of less exalted social classes.
Guido’s pronounced fastidiousness towards others is in extreme contrast with his own actions. He complains bitterly of Pompilia’s behavior and origins, yet announces himself willing to accept the advances of any friend’s wife:
Had it been some friend’s wife, now ….
The lady had not reached a man of ice! (610)
Yet with absolute male chauvinism he professes murder to be a just revenge for the same action directed towards himself. He is scornful of the Comparini’s disappointment at the thin meals served them in Arezzo;
Here did a petty nature split on rock
Of vulgar wants predestinate for such…. (608)
He himself, however, has married into their family for their wealth, in the hope of obtaining just such material comforts as those to which they are accustomed. He hates Pietro for attempting to maintain his former station in straightened circumstances, yet this is the same quality which in himself he has made the basis of tear-jerking sentimentality over his family’s dependence upon him:
A mother, brother, sisters and the like,
That looked up to my face when days were dim,
And fancied they found light there…. (602)
He describes the nobility in economic need:
A banished prince, now, will exude a juice
And salamander-like support the flame…. (608)
The self-respect and persistence which he considers obnoxious in the bourgeois Pietro seems virtuous to him when possessed by the nobility. It is interesting that even in describing what he admires he seems inevitably drawn to reptile and insect imagery. Strangely Guido’s contempt of trade does not prevent him from boasting his marriage has been a barter:
Mere rank against mere wealth….
As the buyer likes or lets alone…. (607)
He sneers that the Comparini were prompt to close the deal, then “grew bilious” because of the mere adornments with which his “fancy-flights” had decked his accounts of his position and wealth (608). These adornments were of course not lies, but mere “[f]lecks of oil / Flirted by chapmen where plain dealing grates” (608). The proud Franceschini seems to have an intimate acquaintance with the small cheating of the market-place, and automatically compares himself to the chapman whom in other contexts he would despise. Even in judging his own satisfaction he can only use images of trade:
… now for myself,
My profit or loss i’ the matter…. (609)
With a wife, I look to find all wifeliness,
As when I buy, timber and twig, a tree –
I buy the song o’ the nightengale inside. (609)
However, even the principle of barter is distorted in Guido’s mind; he is enraged that his transaction has not bought Pompilia’s love, but he forgets that her parents’ barter should by similar reasoning have bought his consideration towards her. His conception of the market place is one-sided; he expects to get but not give. Throughout his speech he continues monotonously to insist on market images, occasionally becoming crudely offensive:
… a hawk
I bought at a hawk’s price and carried home
To do a hawk’s service – at the Rotunda, say …
You pick and choose and pay the price for such. (610)
He ascribes all his evils to one cause:
Through spending these amiss
I am here! (610)
His most revealing complaint refers directly to money, however:
Is the last penny extracted from my purse
To mulct me for demanding the first pound
Was promised in return for value paid? (619)
Not even his overcharged self-pity can disguise his rapaciousness, his greed for the money he scorns other for earning more legitimately. Supposedly a foe of capitalistic endeavor, his whole life is one of eager pandering of his ancestral position for gain.
Similarly Guido’s scorn for bourgeois concern over food and comfort is completely inconsistent with his tolerance of identical qualities in himself. He complains sadly of the weakened wine his family was forced to drink, and seizes eagerly every small comfort granted him at his trial. All his pretenses notwithstanding, the discomfort of his torture has affected him deeply, and he cannot help returning several times to mention his physical state, his disjointed omoplate, his need for a chair. He alludes to the rasp-tooth of the torturing machine, and speaks in the third person of his possible death as “discomfort to his flesh from noose or axe” (603). His chief objection to death is that it comes through an ignominious and unpleasant pain; only later in his speeches will he refine his fears and expectations concerning the event. In his favor it may be said that he uses direct images of gluttony and eating, yet him images of hunting and of animals of prey with their victims leave little doubt as to the direction in which such impulses have been rechanneled. The few food images he constructs are unpleasant; poor man, his temperament must have affected his digestion. He speaks of Pompilia’s claims concerning his brother:
Too long enforced to lenten fare, belike,
Now tempted by the morsel tossed him full
I’ the trencher where lay bread and herbs at best. (609)
He, cuckolded, endures
Weak once, now acrid with the toad’s head squeeze… (619)
Guido is a sensual man, deeply afraid of pain; still we must grant him a psychology too productive of reactions of distaste to permit gluttony.
Guido reveals further traits of mind that indicate an abnormal psychology. His self-pity is so continuous and so pronounced that it distorts his judgement. He speaks of his warning to his wife not to commit adultery.
How did the devil decree?
Why my lords, just the contrary of course! (613)
Paranoically he watches his “legitimate” expectations thwarted, his all-important self persecuted. He speaks of himself subjected to the criticism of family and acquaintances for permitting his wife to escape:
While the mother and the brothers, stiffened me
Straight out from head to foot as dead man does,
And, thus prepared for life as he for hell…. (617)
This metaphorical and certainly limited sense of death he uses as an excuse to render three other persons fully dead. One begins to suspect that Guido’s “self-pity” is to a great extent merely a more socially acceptable method of expressing what would otherwise stand revealed as violent, irrational angers. He expects Pompilia to hate her parents for disclaiming blood relationship with her, not realizing that a tie may be of affection apart from considerations of kinship or gain. He feels he should be praised for seeking to keep Pompilia’s (his) money for her, and expects her gratitude for only threatening to poison her rather than committing the deed itself. He cannot understand why such conduct should not inspire her to stay with him; it never enters his mind that the fear of poison might cause his innocent wife to flee. He speaks of his “gentle” course of action with her, and wishes he had cut off one of her fingers instead. The pleasure with which he images a gloved and meek Pompilia telling beads is grimly sadistic. Arrogant self-pity has been in him a cloak and device to permit a free exercise of the irrational tantrums of a malevolent child.
Even more indigenous to Guido’s character is his inability to speak any words at all without parody or exaggeration. Any few examples will represent fairly the texture of his entire discourse. The actions he has not performed are made to seem contemptible; those that he has chosen are invariably cushioned with bunches of sentimental clichés. For example, when answering the charge that he has not loved Pompilia, he parodies the idea of “love” by associating it only with romantic frenzy.
So, the Pompilia …
Wanted the beating pulse, the rolling eye,
The frantic gesture, the devotion due
From Thyrsis to Neaera! Guido’s love –
Why not provencal roses in his shoe,
Plume to his cap, and trio of guitars …. (610)
This is a blatant attempt to make his critics’ low voices of mild reason seem ridiculous and impracticable. By contrast his exaggerations when describing his own fabricated vigils of conscience before the murder are all in the other direction.
And so, all yet uncertain save the will
To do right, and the daring aught save leave
Right undone, I did find myself at last
I’ the dark before the villa with my friends,
And made the experiment…. (622)
His language becomes more vague, more rapt and soulful as he ascends to describe the murder, which he conveniently and with amazing euphemism passes over with the summary, “‘Twas done… And ended so” (622). He seems incapable of forming a neutral, factual statement; every sentence jumps luridly from the extreme of frenzied, even euphonious self-worship. Perhaps Guido has lied for so long that there mere truth unadorned can no longer hold his attention or credulity on even the most trivial matters.
Guido can be very interestingly charted through his consistent uses of imagery. His images are individually devious and intricate, revealing Brown’s conception of his villain as both intelligent and perverse. Nonetheless an examination of Guido’s use of imagery reveals that, in spite of his phrasemaking facility, his mind is obsessed with only a few images; he is loquacious but limited in argument and expression. His intellect is that of a clever eccentric, severely narrow in its range. As the images become repeated and repeated, one wonders if Guido himself doesn’t begin to notice the patterns.
Most numerous are his animal images. He concentrates on images of dogs, beasts of burden, and birds familiar to hunters. Revealingly he often uses animal images to describe the emotions of himself and his family. He speaks of his house hoping “to slink unchallenged by” (602), and declares he has protruded “nose / To halter, bent my back of docile beast … padding the mill-track” (603). His enemies appear to him as dogs; Pompilia is the “mongrel of a drab” (603), while the Comparini are possessed of “purblind greed that dog-like still drops bone, / Grasps shadow, and then howls the case is hard” (609). Again Pompilia is “[t]hat pure smooth egg which, laid within my nest … issues a cockatrice for me and mine” (610), “no pigeon, Venus’ pet … but a hawk …” (610). However at one point he compares Pompilia to a sheep and labels himself her shepherd (613), but he soon changes the image to describe himself as the lamb, fleeced by others. Accused of cowardice, he acknowledges that perhaps he is
… no lion but a lamb, –
Does that deprive me of my right of lamb
And give my fleece and flesh to the first wolf? (615)
As usual he parodies the accusation made against him, “I scarce dare brush the fly that blow my face” (615), to distract attention from its basic accuracy. He speaks of the “gad-fly” of opposition flying in his face (613), and twice mentions teeth, the “rasp-teeth” of the torturing machine (602) and the “skill of tooth and claw” (615) practiced on him by Pompilia at the inn. He mentions snakes once in sardonically describing Pompilia’s attitude toward him; she recoils from “such co-embrace with sulphur, snake, and toad” (609). In return he wishes she had been placed “in a well / with bricks above and a snake for company” (619). He speaks of “the worm” of others’ treatment of him biting through his flesh to his bone, and proclaims the murder accidentally “involved the other two, / More or less serpent-like: … stamped on all, the earth-worms with the asp…” (622). Several other times he mentions vermin and reptiles, but towards the end of his first monologue he concentrates on his desire to keep his “soul safe from the serpents” (622). Thus lizards, snakes, toads, vermin, dogs, and insects are consistently connected with his perception of those who frustrate him, while he himself is a beast of burden, a shepherd, a hawk trainer, and once even a “sely lamb”. It is important that he does not merely envision in his imagery the animals themselves, but speaks of their bites, stings, teeth, fangs, hisses, and barks. We hasten on to Guido’s use of images connected with fire.
Next to generally unpleasant animal imagery, Guido’s most frequent associations form around fire images. Fire suggests, of course, hell; also it reflects the lurid passions of Guido himself. Often his fire images are associated with red, not white, to distinguish them from the star and light imagery which clusters in the books of Pompilia and the Pope. Since to Pompilia Caponsacchi is the star who redeems her, it is interesting that Guido by contrast compares his own behavior to that of flame: “Then I rose up like fire, and fire-like roared” (620). On another occasion he calls his anger towards her a flame (612), and speaks with satisfaction of fate’s flare on the faces of the dead three (613). Guido has been the hell-fire endured by Pompilia. He predictably feels matters have been in reverse, that others have been his damnation, and uses many fire images to describe the “punishments” practiced on him. He wakens to find
Fumes in my brain, fire in my throat…
head of me, heart of me
With grim foreshadowing he speaks of himself being walled up in a cavern of death (619). He feels an
impulse to quench
The antagonistic spark of hell and tread
Satan and all his malice into dust …. (621)
Piously he tells how his private hell has been resolved through the murder, how he feels he is back on earth again (626). Noticeably he often mentions devils, Satan, and twice his father’s shade. In a supreme flight of invention he implies “Satan’s face” in some way compelled him to commit the deed, would not let him rest until it was done (621). Inconsistent as this may seem with his professions of piety and self-righteousness in choosing to murder, yet Browning may be describing the psychology of a compulsion. Simultaneously the individual feels “demon-possessed”, driven by voices of evil, and yet strangely virtuous if he obeys them. More obviously, Guido is simply lying; not compulsion but simply willfulness has incited his butchery.
In contrast with his extensive use of fire images, Guido uses only three light images, all three in conventional platitudinous contexts. Guido’s appreciation of light seems to be confined to fire images; unlike his wife or the Pope he never speaks of the sun, the brilliance of the stars, or of the sky’s light. His family, he claims, “fancied they found light” in his face (602). To the judges he speaks orotundly, “Will my lords, in the plentitude of their light…” (603). Finally in summation of his argument he asks the judges to “Take my whole life … Look on it by the light reflected thence!” (624). Here again he is asking that he not be looked at directly on the basis of his own merits, but through a reflection taking into account his social position and class loyalty.
Along with his avoidance of images of light, Guido generally neglects mention of water, which dissociates him from the cleaning, baptismal, and fertility imagery linked with Pompilia and the Pope. In his second monologue he describes water as weak and compares Pompilia to flowing water, statements which explain the absence of water imagery in his discourses. (Indeed the few water images Guido uses exhibit him opposing this element, as when he speaks of himself beating the waves to reach his new son (620). Even this is an idea expressed satirically and soon rejected; he does not want to immerse himself in the destructive element.) Guido’s distain for both water and light separates him by a clear opposition from the thought patterns of those he opposes.
Not surprisingly Guido seldom mentions “truth”, the theme of the Pope’s soliloquy. As of light, Guido speaks three times of truth, twice using the word to refer to his self-defense and proclaimed innocence, and once to refer to Pompilia’s supposed adultery. To his judges he declaims:
There’s the irregular deed: you want no more
Than right interpretation of the same,
And truth so far ….
Now for truth! (603)
Later he casually hints, “When you dismiss me, having truth enough!” (622). Lastly he states that his knocking on the Comparini door has been
“Once more concession, one decisive way
“And but one, to determine thee the truth. (622)
How strange that the “truth” of his good nature and his yearnings for accuracy of knowledge do not remind him that he has never received any evidence that his wife is adulterous, the ostensible rationalization for his murder.
Pompilia uses flower and garden imagery to refer to herself, for to her life is a garden into which she has been placed by God. Guido connects garden imagery to her also, but needless to say he uses it sardonically. He states incorrectly that his “sweet tremulous flower-like wife” has curried favor with her judges in Arezzo (624), and uses an image of the bee bearing honey from the rose to Cupid’s hive (616) when speaking of communications between Pompilia and Caponsacchi. Predictably his mind forms images of the destruction of greenery and life. He is upset that his conduct has been
Far from abolishing, root, stem and branch,
The misgrowth of infectious mistletoe
Twisted into his stock for honest graft. – (612)
He berates his judges for not previously protecting his “tree of life”, revealing openly his hatred for their reservations regarding his conduct.
All along you nipped away just inch
By inch the creeping, climbing length of plague
Breeching my tree of life from root to branch…. (626)
Guido’s megalomania is suggested rather pointedly in his ability to ascribe to himself passing associations with the gentle lamb, light, truth, and even the tree of life, associations which unless connected with himself never occur to his mind.
One of the topics on which Guido most frequently states his opinion in the first monologue is Christianity. Here he reveals in gentler form the paganism which he espouses openly in portions of his second monologue. Early in his speech he mentions the “brainful of belief” which is the noble’s prerogative (604). Besides implying that the basis of his Christianity is his class position, the metaphor of a “brainful of belief” is a strangely harsh and undiscriminating way to describe a religious faith. Again he tosses off a comment that the Church “happens” to derive its power through God himself (605), a somewhat vague and imprecise statement. Considering his preoccupation with demonic power, it is perhaps inconsistent the Guido dismisses as “orders of no consequence” (605) organizations to which he belongs which “cast out evil spirits and exorcise …” (605). Can it be that his faith in spirits of either kind is weak? Guido generally argues that he has long served the Church as well as the average noble. Only towards the end of his account does he even pretend a lachrymose piety, which such transmutations of egomania into Christian parlance as:
Shall I let the filthy pest buzz, flap, and sting ….
No, I appeal to God, – what says Himself ….
A voice beyond the law
Enters my heart, Quis est pro Domino? ….
O Lord, how long, how long be unavenged? (621)
Somewhere in his effusions he has confounded his dislikes with those of God, and his claim to need divine help with the belief that he is helping the divine. Of course it is all so convenient as to be chiefly a matter of rhetoric. Guido becomes so pious as the end of his murder account approaches that one would think he was describing the performance of a religious deed:
… I did
God’s bidding, and man’s duty ….
I heard himself prescribe,
That great Physician, and dared lance the core
Of the bad ulcer; and the rage abates,
I am myself and whole now. (623)
Of course only his own “wholeness” matters, and he wastes no passing remembrance on his victims. Guido’s use of an image of healing is especially presumptuous; exactly what he has not done is heal any sores. The dead are merely the ill material lanced, whereas he himself is the sole referent by which to measure the effects of his action. Guido continues several times to mix praise of himself with the name of God, but only once states clearly his opinion of the nature of God’s will:
… custom, manners, all that make
More and more effort to promulgate, mark
God’s verdict in determinable words …. (623)
“Custom”, “manners”, the conventions that have made him an elevated person, a noble, are all that he can consider God’s will. Here obviously is no supernaturalist, not even a man who possesses a religion of ethical distinctions. When Guido claims he wishes his life spared that it may “do Him further service” (623), we can only smile to ourselves that the “God” Guido wishes to serve probably closely resembles the ladder of ambition. Thus if Guido still sprinkles his speech with a few pious phrases, he has so interpreted them that they can have only an invidious meaning.
Guido’s first monologue, then, is a composite of self-righteousness, sadism, alternately cringing and imperious struggles for favor, and snarling hatred toward his judges, his enemies, and everyone except himself. His standard for judging actions is completely double; those he has murdered deserve no defense, whereas for himself he claims complete favor and leniency of interpretation as his inherited right. He fawns before his fellow nobles and yet is skeptical of any basis for their right to try him at law. His belief in privilege is absolute – privilege for himself. His second monologue will be able to reveal little of his character which he has not proudly and ostentatiously revealed in his first discourse.
Guido’s second monologue is more insistent in manner; it has little observable progression of thought and ascends at intervals from harangue to screech. Yet Guido’s subject matter is the same. He is swifter in coming to his point, “I do adjure you, help me, Sirs!” (738) and uses his previous chief argument, his nobility, “My blood comes from as far a source: ought it to end / This way …” (738). His pride of birth directs his needless descriptions of Rome, intended to illustrate his knowledge of all the places common to his peer. As previously he consistently refuses to admit any moral distinction between himself and his confessors:
What of this sudden slash in a friend’s face,
This cut across our good companionship
That showed its front so gay when both were young?
… we nobles born and bred…. (739)
He insists repeatedly with desperate jocularity on his theme of “we nobles together in good fellowship”. Seeing his auditors cold, he espouses the perogatives of nobles more generally; he commends his grandfather’s freedom to stab any yokel who dared shout a gibe (739). He praises his home state, Tuscany, where “a court-lord needs mind no country lout” (759). Again he vaunts his wordly-wiseness, his knowing that his gaoler is waiting for a tip (739). His currying friendship towards his auditors is flecked however by outbursts of hate; as before, he cannot neglect using his last opportunities to curse his enemies. He is glad the Abate is unhealthy (766), and attacks his visitors:
You, —whose stupidity and insolence
I must defer to, soothe at every turn, –
Whose swine-like snuffling greed and grunting lust
I had to wing at or help gratify…. (756)
Yet at the end he throws himself again on their mercy and recants his venom. Another of his previous traits, his inability to recognize the seriousness of his position, is revealed throughout his second monologue by his continuous recoiling from the knowledge that his auditors are hostile to him. At first he still hopes his condemnation has been only a trick, a joke among nobles: “When all’s done, just a well intentioned trick…. Laugh at your folly and let’s all go sleep!” (738). Even when he receives no agreement, he gushes forth as to an admiring audience, only checking himself from time to time to express his disapproval of his confessors’ coldness or his distaste for their persons. Yet strangely he expects to be forgiven for these outbursts, and even to receive favor for his bluntness and threatenings. His conviction is that if he only continues to bully and beg, he will somehow pierce through a weak spot in them.
Frown law its fiercest, there’s a wink somewhere. (762)
Me, the immeasurably marked, by God,
Master of the whole world of such as you…. (756)
Pathetically he still believes himself powerful, his services of potential value and his opposition damning. He offers to help the Abate towards the papacy, argues that to have opposed himself will seem malicious when public opinion of him has reversed. As in the first monologue, Guido’s breast-bearing is not only self-expression, but results from a calculated opinion that his judges are as wicked as himself. By revealing his own twistedness, he expects to speak directly to their inner moral natures.
As in the first monologue, he tells his judges what is the proper way to handle his case. He begins a condescending speech on the Pope, “How does a Pope that knows his cue…” (742). And again he asserts his indifference to death and pain, but he belies himself by the manner in which he contemplates the physical details of his death:
Do you know what teeth you mean to try
The sharpness of, on this soft neck and throat? (740)
Strangely his fear of physical pain for himself is combined with a pleasure in giving it to others, recalling the sadism evinced in Book V. He speaks with satisfaction of chopping up Pietro:
So Pietro, – when I chased him here and there,
Morsel by morsel cut away the life
I loathed, – cried for just respite to confess
And save his soul: much respite did I grant! (744)
Animal imagery continues also to be the chief substance of Guido’s metaphors in the second monologue. Guido compares himself overtly to a wolf throughout, but once or twice at the beginning reverts to the sheep image of himself which he had used in Book V. He soon modifies this, however, to an accurate picture of himself as a wolf with sheep’s clothing tied on:
There, let my sheepskin-garb, a curse on’t, go –
Leave my teeth free if I must show my shag! (744)
He also compares himself to a lynx (749), a priest sacrificing a heifer (750), a horse-buyer (751), a fish catcher (757), and a drinker of bull’s blood (767). Clearly these images are of himself as powerful and aggressive, and they often include the idea of hunting prey or sacrificing victims. In miscellaneous images he mentions a bat, a litter of pigs, gnats, serpents, a wasp inside a flower, a grisly lion belching, an owl, an ass, complaining geese, fighting cocks, insects, scorpions, flies, and crickets. As before he tends to concentrate on images on insects, swine, and other animals of generally unpleasant association. He does slightly better by his wife; although she is the flower with the wasp inside (752), she is also described as a calf-creature, a pullet laying eggs, and a hare fleeing the hound. Of course Guido uses such comparisons to emphasize the meekness and quietness which made his wife seem dull to him, but inadvertently he suggests her gentleness and innocence.
Guido’s fire images become more hysterical with the magnifying of his impending death. He describes praisefully his unrepenting death:
Dying in cold blood is the desperate thing;
The angry heart explodes, bears off in blaze
The indignant soul, and I’m combustion ripe. (744)
He refers to Christianity as having been burned to “ashes” (745), and compares himself to a flame:
You soon shall see the use of fire! (767)
Fire for the mount, the streamlet for the vale. (763)
Pompilia of course is the streamlet, in one of his few water images. One of his grimmest images combines his attempts to scorn death with his imagery of fire and hell:
O’ the jaws of death’s gigantic skull do I
Grin back his grin, make sport of my own pangs?
Why from each slashing of his molars, ground
To make the devil bread from out my grist,
Leaps out a spark of mirth, a hellish toy? (751)
Again he speaks of death as the “red plank’s end” (742). His images of fire do not seem more numerous in Book XI than in Book V, but they have become noticeably more intense.
In Book V his use of garden imagery had been sporadic and usually disapproving, as in satiric comments on Pompilia or on courtly love. However with the quickened sensual perception of a man about to die, he begins for the first time to speak of natural objects and of the value of life itself. He remembers a view of the sun he experienced as a youth (749), and compares his actions to a flower, now trampled in the mud (757). He speaks of himself at a cross-ways:
At worse, I stood in doubt
On cross-road, took one path of many paths: …
But nobody at first saw one primrose
In bank, one singing-bird in bush, the less…. (750)
Who, tired i’ the midway of my life, would stop
And take my first refreshment in a rose …. (751)
Again he comments on the month:
There’s no such lovely month in Rome as May….
That young May-moon-month! (741)\
Yet even these images are warped by hypocrisy: his action has been no manner of “flower”, but a murder, and certainly no primroses, singing-birds, and bushes can be blamed for leading him to the atrocity. (And the slight garden and nature imagery is balanced by an equal number of satiric mentionings of gardens, imagery of playing and winning games, and imagery of hunting.) Only his comments on his desire to live approach a limited and vaunting honesty:
How I could spill this overplus of mine …
How the life I could shed yet never shrink,
Would drench their stalks with sap like grass in May! (740)
The inexorable need in man for life –
Life, — you may mulct and minish to a grain
… so the grain but live …. (762)
Life is all! (767)
Even in his more direct second monologue Guido continues his claims to innocence:
Innocent as a babe, as Mary’s own
As Mary’s self…. (739)
Yet at the end of his plea he explains his definitions: “innocence” is merely a court-conventional word to describe someone whom it is politic to save (739). Even after such a blunt statement he is able to return to his sonorous and self-approving pieties:
I lived and died a man, take man’s chance,
Honest and bold; right will be done to such. (767)
Oh, if men were but good! They are not good,
Nowise like Peter…. (742)
He has been “redundantly triumphant” (758); he is a champion of “civilized life” (758). Such statements are similar to his claims in Book V to have followed the voice of God, but they are briefer and there are fewer of them.
In Book V there were only a few food images, usually unpleasant; their distastefulness is heightened in Book XI. He speaks of the Pope vomiting:
He’s sick of his life’s supper …
So, hobbling bedward, needs must ease his maw
Just where I sit o’ the door-sill. (739)
He describes himself as destined to be butcher’s meat (742), calls Pompilia poison which his hasty hunger took for food (767). He uses scatological language on his longsuffering auditors:
What do you know o’ the world that’s trodden flat
And salted sterile with your daily dung,
Leavened into a lump of loathsomeness? (756)
Obviously he is incapable of connecting food or organic processes with non-visceral sensations. Only once does he rise to a cheerful food image; he describes life as “a whole dish of robins ready cooked” for which he has ample appetite (761). Even here his appetite seems to be limited to delicacies, tender morsels, and that at the expense of the robins.
One of the chief differences between Guido’s two monologues is his greater expansiveness on the subject of his wife in the second monologue. His avoidance of her or his feelings for her was an evident lapse in his first testimony; now he vengefully fills in the record. She is described first as beauty flawed: a rose with slug, a pearl from the dung heap, a hare enraging the hound. Yet increasingly predominant is his impression that she is not even beautiful, “cold and pale and mute as stone” (754), “a puny stream” (763) with milk for blood (750). “That insignificance!” (763) is perhaps his most typical description of her. He is offended that such a nonentity has had the impunity to be his consort – and worse, the effrontery not to revel worshipfully in her position. It is hard to take Guido for real when he launches into a love-song to his ideal woman:
O thou Lucrezia, is it long to wait
Yonder where all the gloom is in a glow
With thy suspected presence? –virgin yet,
Virtuous again in face of what’s to teach –
Sin unimagined, unimaginable, —
I come to claim my bride, — thy Borgia’s self
Not half the burning bridegroom I shall be! (765)
His reasons for this preference are an attraction towards color, passion, and evil in woman’s form:
Give me my gorge of colour, glut of gold
In a glory round the Virgin made for me!
Titian’s the man, not Monk Angelico
Who traces you some timid chalky ghost
That turns the church into a charnel: ay,
Just such a pencil might depict my wife! (764)
He seems to fancy himself the earth’s wickedest individual, and to assume automatically that Lucrezia would have accepted him as her equal in blood-guiltiness and revenge. As usual his frenzied exaggeration has created an extreme self-image; since he recognizes his basic evil impulses, he must melodramatize them into a lurid apotheosis of the mate of Lucrezia / Lilith / the Whore of Babylon / Jezebel. Lucrezia is his “virgin” in a parody of purity, innocent of all goodness, a sardonically eager adulteress.
Guido expresses in both monologues the same attitude towards Christianity and the Church, although again he wastes comparatively less time on false pieties in his second speech more directly, and attacks the Pope. Paranoically he considers anyone who would lay hands on himself for whatever reason an aggressor and murderer.
As Innocent my Pope and murderer…. (738)
By the good old Pope: I’m first prize. (740)
(Of Pope) Those windle-straws that stare while purblind death
Mows here, mows there, makes hay of juicy me. (740)
“Guilty,” corrects the Pope!
“Guilty,” for whim’s sake! (743)
I die an innocent and murdered man, –
…. the Pope’s so old,
… age never slips
“The chance of shoving youth to face death first!” (743)
The Pope is dead, my murderous old man …. (766)
The scapegoat of Guido’s resentment has become the Pope, even more than the Christianized organization of society which he chiefly blamed in his first speech. It is easier for a paranoid to feel persecuted by one man than to analyze a complex system of social inconsistencies. [Also since to Protestant Browning the Pope, an exceptional individual within a corrupt system, rather than Catholicism in general as the embodiment of classism, he naturally presents Guido lashing out at their exemplar of goodness.] Nonetheless Guido lashes out at professing Christendom, not directly for criticizing his murder, but for pretending it is not as pagan as himself. He launches into the speech in which he describes his world’s complete absence of faith:
…there’s no man
Woman or child in Rome, faith’s fountainhead,
But might, if each were minded, realize
Conversely unbelief, faith’s opposite –
Set it to work on life unflinchingly,
Yet give no symptom of an outward change …. (745, 746)
Browning has contrived this soliloquy as a parallel to his own sentiments on declining faith in the Victorian era. Guido’s most impassioned speech on religion, however, occurs in his confession and outburst:
I think I never was at any time
A Christian as you nickname all the world …
Name me, a primitive religionist …
The portent of a Jove Aegiochus
Described ‘mid clouds, lightning and thunder …. (761)
He goes on to say the Greek gods are not inconsistent with his scheme, as man needs an intermediary race of gods. He is an advocate of any “rite the fancy may demand” (762); we remember that he has several times attacked the Molinists. Browning was not overly sympathetic to Catholicism; it is interesting that he constructs a villain who espouses ritualistic religion, hates individualistic heresies, and feels the ancestors of the saints, an “intermediary race”, are clearly necessary to a sense of religion. Since Guido has never been heard to call upon a saint, however, his hagiophilia seems to be purely theoretical. At any rate, Guido’s argumentation in favor of a religion containing all the external forms of the Catholicism of his day is consistent with his statement in Book V that his religion is of manners and customs. Guido indeed believes in the forms which he follows; what he does not believe is that they represent any substance beyond themselves. They are the “fancies” of men, and not inconsistent with his own private “fancies” of amorality, revenge, and murder. By making his villain in some sense a religious man, Browning intends to comment satirically on the potential evils of formalism in religion.
Guido can even be given some credit in his last monologue for expansion of idea and presence of mind in his near proximity to death. Yet he is born up by his megalomania, his belief until the end that he holds some last triumphant card if he can only draw it forth. Guido’s last cries to Christ, Mary, God, and Pompilia show his residual belief in the Christianity he has lengthily disclaimed, and also, of course, his recognition of the innocence and worth of Pompilia. Guido is despicable, perhaps, but also pitiable; a man who does not deserve to live but is afraid to die.
What have been the results of a comparison between Guido’s pre-trial and pre-death speeches? Guido has been consistent in character; even in his first statements he recognizes a religion of self-interest only, and in his last terrified moments he expresses some residual religion. In both speeches he is a cringing syncophant, but one who cannot hold the posture too long; when not boot-licking he advises and bullies his judges and counsellors. He is incapable of masking himself except for brief moments, and the saccharine piety mingled with oily salesmanship of his “good behavior” is the dramatic posing of a man totally ignorant of the virtue he is feigning. Also Guido’s imagery is almost as pointedly unpleasant in Book V as in Book XI; it is hard to be impressed favorably by a man whose imaginative powers center on expressions and images of squalor – of feral predators, reptiles, vermin, and hellfire. Perhaps Browning could have drawn Guido as more often using images similar to those used by the Pope and Pompilia, but merely twisting their usage with a quietly invidious finger. To a considerable extent, however Guido does this, and comparisons of his use of certain limited words and images, such as “truth”, “light”, “right”, “water”, “sheep”, and “wolf”, with that of his opponents provide schematically interesting contrasts. Although the sameness of Guido’s imagery and rhetorical devices at times seems excessively predictable, at least it insures a resemblance in content between the two monologues. They differ slightly in tone only because the second is delivered under less formal and more desperate circumstances, causing Guido to speak with a more frenzied intensity, in even wilder oscillations from one extreme to its opposite. The construction of extensive parallels between Guido’s two books and between his speeches and those of the other characters provides a great part of the central organization of Browning’s epic-poem-novel, and is one of the more ingenious achievements of “The Ring and The Book”. A powerful, complex, and even at times attractive villain is necessary to serve as a balance to the three somewhat stiffly virtuous characters of the Pope, Pompilia, and Caponsacchi. At times one could wonder how psychologically accurate is Browning’s study of criminality, and question, for instance, whether most criminals indite apostrophes to evil women, label themselves wolves, or imagine with great rhetorical flourishes their future station in hell. To read over and over again Guido’s expressions of hatred is not necessarily to understand what circumstances have created him the monster he is. Yet if we accept Browning’s interpretation of Guido’s soul, Guido is certainly a gifted casuist and logic-chopper, a master of the pseudo-philosophical and the spuriously profound to an extent that is nearly unique among English poetic villains, and it may be argued that his opinions of the hypocrisies of social reality carry much of Browning’s social “message” in the poem. In the Pope Browning presents a figure who maintains amid general decay a detached faith in universal truth as a basis for social morality; in Guido he presents one who easily accepts skepticism and degeneracy, disguising his evil tendencies as a superior rationalism and analytical power. By enlarging Guido to the stature of a perversely intelligent and verbose damned soul, Browning is able to impose upon his blood-and-gore murder plot and intellectual debate on the nature of society and truth.