In Robert Browning’s narrative poem The Ring and The Book, the Pope serves as a moral compass that directs and informs all of Book X’s musings on the fate of Guido. The Pope laments not only the case itself but the context surrounding it — his book is a consideration of the condition of mankind as much as it is a commentary on the case itself. Most significantly, the Pope finds himself stranded in his time. He perceives his political present as devoid of the spiritual force that characterized the lyrical and mythic past upon which the Church grounds itself. Browning’s words in many ways refer to the Biblical narratives in order to contextualize the present compared to the brightness of the past.
Thus stand the wife and priest, a spectacle,
I doubt not, to unseen assemblage there.
No lamp will mark that window for a shrine,
No tablet signalize the terrace, teach
New generations which succeed the old,
The pavement of the street is holy ground;
No bard describe in verse how Christ prevailed
And Satan fell like lightning! Why repine?
What does the world, told truth, but lie the more? — Robert Browning, The Ring & The Book, Book X
The first and most obvious piece of the situation is the staging of “wife and priest” together — the oxymoron serves as Browning’s opening to a corrupted world. Browning’s images are more than mere everyday makers of Christianity — a lamp, a plaque — but references to the Biblical narrative. The “tablets” are not just markers but modes of conveying law, much like the tablets of law. Ground which was sanctified has become overrun by “pavement,” marking the newer developments of urban life at the time. Most importantly, poetry is absent from the scene save for his own, which serves as a lament rather than a beacon. The Pope concludes that nothing he says can prompt the world closer to truth — his own words are completely futile against the tide.
1. The Pope’s lament raises a question about the futility of verse in the face of fading religiosity and industrialization. Does the Pope realize that his exercise is futile? Or is his lament all the more tragic because it is unaware that it holds the final place in the cycle?
2. The word “repine” raises interesting questions about yearning for ages past. Does the book (X) seek to light the way?
3. How do we deal with the irony of the Pope, the very symbol of continuance of the Catholic faith, lamenting his own loss of power? How does this affect his speech?
4. Does the lamp carry any Biblical significance as the tablets do?
Last modified 27 February 2011