With even a cursory glance through Robert Browning's poetry, the reader will realize that Browning identifies the moments before death both as rich in revelation and as possessing infinite opportunities for interpretation. The moments before the Bishop's death in "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's" reveal the Bishop as an individual with a tenuous grasp of religious figures and meaning. In "Porphyria's Lover," the moments before and of Porphyria's death exhibit the possibility for a conflation of love and violence. In The Ring and the Book, the scene in which Guido fatally wounds Pompilia is just as rich in interpretive value:
'First comes this thunderclap of surprise:
Then follow all the signs and silences
Premonitory of earthquake. . . . . . . .'
'At one in the evening: knock: a voice "Who's there?"
"Friends with a letter from the priest your friend."
At the door, straight smiles old Violante's self.
She falls, — her son-in-law stabs through and through,
Reaches thro' her at Pietro — "With your son
This is the way to settle suits, good sire!"
He bellows "Mercy for heaven, not for earth!
Leave to confess and save my sinful soul,
Then do your pleasure on the body of me!"
-- "Nay, father, soul with body must take its chance!"
He presently got his portion and lay still.
And last, Pompilia rushes here and there
Like a dove among lightnings in her brake,
Falls also: Guido's, this last husband's-act.
He lifts her by the long disheveled hair,
Holds her away at arms' length with one hand,
While the other tries if life come from the mouth-
Looks out his whole heart's hate on the shut eyes,
Draws a deep satisfied breath, "So — dead at last!"
[Book IV, lines 1354-1389]
1. The narrator writes that the murder was foreshadowed by a series of events "premonitory of earthquake." Creating an analogical link between an earthquake and Guido's act of horrible violence, Pompilia's murder seems to be set up as the inevitable end of a horrible but natural chain of events. However destructive and fatal an earthquake may be, it is a natural, and therefore faultless, phenomenon. Is Pompilia's murder being set up in these terms? Is the narrative constructed in such a way as to render her murder unavoidable?
2. Though fatally wounded, Pompilia survives the night of her attack. However, she is not given the opportunity to speak directly to the reader until Book VII. What is her significance or affect as a sort of specter haunting the trial? Quietly but clearly in the background and quoted extensively by Caponsacchi, Pompilia's absent self seems to hover over the trial. What is her significance as a sort of specter haunting the trial? How does her absent presence affect the feeling of the trial?
3. Having survived the night of her attack, Pompilia's prayer is "For but one thing/ . . . / . . . time to make the truth apparent, truth,/ for God's sake, lest men should believe lie." (Book IV, lines 1431-1433) The narrative of The Ring and the Book seems to be driven in large part by a desire for a final and absolute truth. What role does Pompilia play in the truth-drive of the narrative?
4. Thinking about 'truth' in broader terms, is there the possibility for an objective and absolute truth in The Ring and the Book?
5. Thinking of murder as both moral and legal transgressions, how might the reader think of the murder in "Porphyria's Lover" alongside that in The Ring and the Book? Are the two murders at all comparable? Is it possible to think of the actions in "Porphyria's Lover" in terms other than those of crime and murder?
Last modified 17 October 2004