"The Pope"

"The Pope," "Pompilia," and the frame narratives are usually considered the portions of "The Ring and the Book" which present views closest to Browning's own. In portraying his villain Guido as a sadistic and avarious would-be member of the church hierarchy, Browning might have been subject to criticism that his poetic epic was hostile to Catholicism, but in the morally sagacious Pope Browning provides an antidote to this charge.

  1. Does the Pope resemble any other Browning monologuists?--for example, Childe Roland or Rabbi Ben Ezra?
  2. Did other Victorian poets use the mask or persona of an old man to express views similar to their own? (Tennyson in "Ulysses" and "Tithonus," Arnold in Empedocles on Etna)
  3. If you have read it, do you see any parallels with Tennyson's "Ulysses"?
  4. Browning is well known for his wonderfully oblique portraits of criminals and villains, such as the Duke in "My Last Duchess," or at the least, worldly old evaders, such as the Bishop in "Bishop Blougram's Apology." What are some difficulties inherent in presenting, on the contrary, the thoughts of a wise and good man?
  5. By the time readers of The Ring and the Book reach this monologue, is there any suspense over the outcome of the Pope's decisions? At what point in his monologue does the Pope tell us of his decision?
  6. If we don't experience suspense over the nature of his decision, what propels the narrative forward?
  7. What is the purpose of the Pope's recounting the story once again? How does his version differ from preceding ones? (his is the most interpretive and thorough version of all given, in fact, it is in some ways the best in the book) What can he tell us which Pompilia in her innocence cannot?
  8. Is the language of the Pope's speech appropriate to its content? How does its language differ from that of Pompilia's monologue?
  9. What is the Pope's final motive for sentencing Guido to death? Is he entirely certain about the evidence of the case--that is, is the evidence in this capital case "beyond the certainty of a doubt"?
  10. Would this motive have seemed appropriate in Browning's day? In ours?
  11. Is there any hope for Guido in the spiritual realm? Was this hope realized? (at the end of his second monologue, in the face of imminent death he cries out to Pompilia to save him, acknowledging her goodness. But whether this constituted repentance, who can say?)
  12. Can you see parallels between Browning's Pope and the hero of Carlyle's "Sartor Resartus," who experiences a period of doubt and uncertainty, but then determines to act as an expression of "the everlasting yea"?
  13. Can this monologue by the politically liberal Browning be interpreted as a justification for capital punishment? (the choice to execute seems a historically relative decision)
  14. What are some metaphors used by the Pope, and what does their range reveal about his character? (speaks of gardening, shepherding, painting, fishing; the images of gardener, shepherd, and fisherman are all biblical images associated with Christ; and the painter was one of Browning's most admired figures, as an analogue to that of poet)
  15. What is the topic of the Pope's final long soliloquy? Who were the Molinists? Are his Victorian readers expected to identify with his concern about their potential threat to the Church?
  16. Does the Pope espouse any nineteenth-century views, as it were, in anticipation? Would his beliefs in historical evolution have been appropriate for his time? (1430)
  17. Which of the Pope's experiences or attitudes would have seemed most relevant in the nineteenth-century?
    period of loss of religious faith, 1631 ff.
    sense of uncertainty of epistemological issues, including the nature of certainty itself
    doubt in an absolute standard of morality, 1920 ff.
    worry over the decline of the family, 2036
    To what extent are these issues still relevant?
  18. What final counterarguments for leniency does the Pope reject? Does his concern to expunge heresy undercut any aspects of his stance?
  19. What purpose is served by presenting a leader who has been initially confused and troubled before making a decision?
  20. The Ring and the Book was published in the same year in which Tennyson completed his Idylls of the King, which likewise uses a historical setting to present themes of moral decay and the ruminations of a wise older speaker (Arthur, the Pope). How does the presentation of the historical past differ between the two epics?
    (Tennyson's legendary medieval period more idealized; Browning's early Renaissance is presented as a meditation on concrete and even sordid historical documents, and filled with pragmatic historical detail.)
  21. How is Browning's moral and thematic focus strikingly different from that of Tennyson? (concerned with the psychological nature of good and evil)


This is one of few dramatic monologues representing an ideally good and innocent person (contrast even the hero of “Childe Roland,” a morally good person but not especially innocent). This is a difficult achievement dramatically, and within The Ring and the Book it achieves much of its effectiveness by contrast with the accounts of others, as her mode of narration contrasts with the accounts of the Pope, Capponsacchi, Guido, the lawyers, and the poet himself. For example, she feels these conflicts will be softened by her death; others see it as a cause for punishment.

1. Are there special problems in presenting a good character within her or his own monologue?

--must present a character who is both intelligent and forgiving

2. Are these problems compounded by the fact that in this case goodness includes a Victorian girlish sexual and social innocence?

3. How does Browning manage to convey the poem’s sexual and moral content despite the heroine’s innocence--or does she evolve?

--use of imagery, lamb, star, wolf,raven, hawk, sunlight, madonna and child, Christmas

--she tells of the criticism evoked from all around her by her naive encounter with sordid greed

--she does force herself to call evil what it is, though in gentlest terms

--on the most crucial issue, marital rape, she is blunt and determined

4. What are some of the major themes Browning desired to explore in his poem? --attracted to themes of heroic rescue;

--the necessity of individual choice as opposed to institutional religion;

--the potential abuse of power by parents and the church;

--the dichotomy between victim and victimizer;

--the wrong committed by a refusal to define evil clearly.

5. 1869 was the year before legal marital separation was first possible, on the grounds of abuse. The poem’s condemnation of child marriage was probably relatively uncontroversial at the time, but even so, the fact that in England the legal age of consent was 12 meant that girls of 13 and older were more subject to sexual exploitation. Are there latent feminist implications or ideas in this poem?

6. Do you think he chose a good historical plot to represent these themes? What are some of the requirements which may have guided his selection?

7. What is the significance of the opening scene? How does it affect the reader’s view of her narration?

8. What is the sequence of Pompilia’s memories? (First she remembers her concern over her name in the register; then childbirth, the source of her pride; next the murder; and finally Caponsacchi’s act of deliverance, her life’s sole bright ray.)

9. What do these reveal of her character?

--capacity for happiness and idealism, appreciative

--dignified self-respect, independent judgement; comes to a final view on parenting and marriage, one shared by the poet

--always thinks best possible of others, judges others by herself, ll. 356 ff.

--concerned for her son, even when dying in pain

--associated with the image of the Madonna, identifies with statue of Mary

--when she is happy, “colours things,” possesses a radiant, gentle imagination

--her language is highly metaphorical and cadenced (l. 368, “lone field, moon and such peace”; garden imagery; cadences ll. 343 ff. )

--dignified, prematurely reflective; accepts that her fate is to be isolated --clarity of psychological insight

--sees that Guido’s desire for her is motivated by hate, l. 806; notes that different views may be held of the same events, l. 919

--accurate in her moral judgments: e. g., she doesn’t name her son after his putative grandfather; she denies the rightness of marital physical union in the absence of love; she holds the Victorian idealizing view of the proper nature and purpose of the sexual act as a union of spirits and bodies

--horror of her desertion slowly revealed; first by her parents, then her husband, then officials of the church and law, in contrast to her own steadfastness and loyalty

--contrast to her environment

--forgives even Guido, ll. 633 ff.; tries to excuse and forgive Violante

10. Do Pompilia’s memories of Caponsacchi affect our view of her inner life? (despite her pain, she has experienced some happy and romantic moments; is not too saintly to feel love) Of her death?

--hers has been a double tragedy, the loss of a son and of the earthly happiness for which she was so fitted

11. What are some chains of imagery presented by the poem?

victimizer--lion, wolf, snake, hawk, dogs and cat, butcher and ox (l. 578), bees and wasps, trap, feline animal, fire

marriage--a dirty coin, l. 408


--white goat with supports, ll. 609 ff.

--cow or sheep, l. 575, sacrifice upon an altar

--figs stung by bee and wasps, l. 822 ff. --wild flowering tree branch, l. 341

--dove needing wings, l. 992

--sad descecrated house, 856 ff.

--lamb fleeced, l. 387 --self as bird, l. 1246

--worm, l. 1592

--associated with Madonna and child; like Christ, her child has no father, cmp. virgin birth

--madonna without babe, l.77 ff.


--associated with light, star, milky way

--crystal vs. spider --Michael vs. dragon, l. 1206

--St. George and the dragon, ll. 1324 ff.


--associated with sunlight, l. 1225 ff.

--a bird, l. 1657

--named for a new saint life

a dream--value of dreams that they go

12. In what ways do you find her speech effective? (ll. 344 ff., balance, understated pathos)

13. What are some literary antecedents for the portrayal of a virtuous dying wife? (Desdemona)

14. What propels the plot forward (since we know the outcome)? What form of revelation and understanding come to Pompilia through her traumatic experiences? --evolves toward a clearer conception of ideal (heavenly) marriage, perhaps a bit more asexual than Browning’s early ideal of love

15. How had the Archbishop viewed marriage? (his imagery, 790 ff., 824 ff.) Her parents? Guido? Capponsachi?

16. What has been the result of her deferral to the Archbishop? --her obedience to the Archbishop led to her desecration and indirectly to her death; feels her flesh degraded, Guido’s sexual instinct a form of rapacity, l. 783

17. What form of imagery is associated with Capponsachi? 921 ff.

18. Do others view him as does she? --all others see the case differently, including her parents, ll. 972-73

19. In your opinion is the idealization of Pompilia’s character a flaw of the poem? Or is it in fact a form of realism?

(She’s one of very few good characters in the entire epic; she and the Pope are the only characters not presented as deeply flawed, and arguably the Pope is driven in part by sectarian bias against the Molinists.)

20. Do you think Browning does best at presenting heroes, villains, mixed cases, or all three?

21. What attitudes does this poem seem to express toward religion? Toward Catholicism as an institution?

22. The Ring and the Book has been accused of reflecting the influence of sensation literature of its day. Can you defend Browning’s choice of the epic’s themes and plot?

23. How does Browning’s presentation of love resemble that of other Victorian poets--Tennyson, D. G. Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning or William Morris? Are there any unusual or distinguishing qualities to the portrayal of love and sexuality in this poem?

24. At the conclusion of The Ring and the Book, Browning dedicated his poem to his late wife. Can you see the presence of any possibly biographical or autobiographical themes in “Pompilia”?