In Book Two, “Half Rome,” of Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book, a citizen of Rome addresses the reader. He makes his opinion of the murders immediately clear: Count Guido was the innocent victim of a nefarious conspiracy to rob him of his wealth and dignity set in motion by Violante Comparini. Although courts of law can settle financial disputes, they cannot resolve matters of adultery and honor. This fundamental flaw in the legal system thus justifies murder of the Coparinis.

As the speaker observes the two bodies in the church, a Cardinal and a Curate enter the scene. The speaker hopes the Curate will comment on Pompilia’s deathbed confession, and perhaps something on Caponsacchi,

" If he’s not ordered back, punished anew,
The gallant, Caponsacchi, Lucifer
I’ the garden where Pompilia, Eve-like, lured
Her Adam Guido to his fault and fall.
Think you we got a sprig of speech akin
To this from Carlo, with the Cardinal there?
Too wary, he was, too widely awake, I trow.
He did the murder in a dozen words;
Then said that all such outrages crop forth
I’ the course of nature, when Molinos’ tares
Are sown for wheat, flourish and choke the Church:
So slid on to the abominable sect
And the philosophic sin — e’ve heard all that,
And the Cardinal too (who book-made on the same),
But, for the murder, left it where he found.
Oh but he’s quick, the Curate, minds his game! [Book II, lines 166-181]

This episode is a bit of “slight of hand” by the speaker (something he accuses Violante of elsewhere). The speaker has effectively put words in the mouth of the Curate, framing Guido as innocent and Pompilia as an agent of corruption. The effect adds to the ambiguity of the situation. The speaker tells us what the Curate might have said, but because the Curate says nothing his actual opinion is a mystery.

Questions

1. The “Molinos tares” refers to a doctrine that was declared unorthodox in 1681. This declaration was seen by some to be politically motivated persecution by Jesuits. Does the Molinos doctrine have direct symbolic meaning in the text, or is it mentioned simply as a means for the church officials to avoid the controversy of the murders?

2. The speaker refers to a parable about wheat from Matthew in line 176. The parable describes a man dealing with a field in which weeds are intermixed with wheat. Although referring to the Molinist’s doctrine, is there a larger metaphor operating here? For example, does the wheat intermixed with weeds (the useful and the useless) refer to the information given by the speaker, or perhaps the entirety of “The Book and the Ring”?

3. The text in this passage is a direct address. The speaker appears to be a citizen of Rome visiting the Church. Is it clear exactly who he is? Furthermore, whom is he addressing?


Victorian Overview E. B. Browning Leading Questions

Last modified 27 February 2011