Wednesday, August 20, 2014

This comes of being born in modern times - the most audacious sexual scene in Victorian literature

To recap: Robert Browning; The Ring and the Book; an antique murder story told in dramatic monologues; difficult; long; brilliant.

Most people who have read it probably had the sensible old Penguin edition, but for some reason  my library has a recent set of the Complete Works, which has its annoyances but also has rewards like this note (Vol. IX, 299):

The analogy between the death of the sage [Archimedes] and the death of innocence is a masterpiece of double entendre and innuendo.  As Altick and Loucks say, the passage “must be the most audacious sexual scene in Victorian literature.  Only a poet confident of his reputation for unintelligibility would have dared such lines.”

And bloggers whine that academic writing has no personality.

You’re maybe going to be disappointed:

As to love’s object, whether love were sage
Or foolish, could Pompilia know or care,
Being still sound asleep, as I premised?
Thus the philosopher absorbed by thought,
Even Archimedes, busy o’er a book
The while besiegers sacked his Syracuse,
Was ignorant of the imminence o’ the point
O’ the sword till it surprised him: let it stab,
And never knew himself was dead at all.
So sleep thou on, secure whate’er betide!
For thou, too, hast thy problem hard to solve –
How so much beauty is compatible
With so much innocence!  (Bk. IX, ll. 751-763)

The shocker, in more than one way, is “let it stab.”  Pompilia is the child bride who will be murdered – savagely, repeatedly knifed – by her noble husband, Count Guido.  The monologist here is, please indulge the anachronism, the prosecuting attorney, writing up his case.  Pompilia fled her husband’s mansion with the help of priest.  Subsequently, she gave birth to a son, and only after that did Guido murder her.  The paternity of the child is thus one of the factual puzzles of the book.

The prosecutor in effect becomes the defense attorney of Pompilia.  He decides that in her defense he will posit that she was raped in her sleep by the priest, a story much worse in several ways than a love affair with the priest.

Why the prosecutor thinks this is a useful argument for the conviction of the murderer is something I do not want to untangle here.  The previous book was told by the defense attorney.  The two lawyers operate in a parallel fashion.  Note that these are the eighth and ninth chapters of the novel, making them the eighth and ninth trip through the facts of the story.  By this time, with enough repetition, I was solid enough on the basic facts to enjoy how both attorneys mangle not only their opponent’s side of the story, but their own, how despite the zero-sum nature of a trial they succeed in making everyone look worse.

Able once more, despite my impotence,
And helped by the acumen of the Court,
To eliminate, display, make triumph truth!
What other prize than truth were worth the pains?  (1557-60)

Thus ends the attorney’s bravado assault on truth.  But there is a coda, not part of the brief:

There’s my oration – much exceeds in length
That famed panegyric of Isocrates,
They say it took him fifteen years to pen.
But all those ancients could say anything!
He put in just what rushed into his head:
While I shall have to prune and pare and print.
This comes of being born in modern times
With priests for auditory.  Still, it pays.  (1561-8)

Browning’s characters can be so outrageous, and the irony so complex, that I lose my way, just as I do in the complicated story.  Of course, we expect lawyers to behave this way, which I suppose is just one more irony.


  1. "Browning’s characters can be so outrageous, and the irony so complex" . . . Indeed, it is my view that you have hit upon the compelling reason to continue reading Browning even in the 21st century. I wonder what would have happened if he had turned his talents to novels instead of poetry (although who would want to miss out on his sublime dramatic monologues).

  2. It's a good question. I can imagine complete failure; I can imagine a new form of the novel.

  3. Well, I can't really imagine a new form of the novel. If I could, I would write it. I can imagine the possibility of a new form of the novel invented by someone with talent.

  4. Scandalous! Sort of at least. I think that footnote might be as finely written as the scene, by the way, at least as measured by the excerpts.

    Bloggers who whine that academic writing has no personality: these would be the connoisseurs of the weekly alliterative memes, no?

  5. It is a triumph of a footnote.

    No comment about which bloggers I mean.