Each party wants to much, claims sympathy
For its object of compassion, more than just. (IV, ll. 1572-3)
Oddly, this description of the opposing sides in The Ring and the Book is almost true.
One of the parties is a man who viciously stabbed his teenage bride, and her parents, because he suspected her of adultery, and whose defense is, primarily: what else can you expect a husband to do? Browning is modern enough to assume an audience that finds this defense appalling, yet the murderous Count Guido is given his own monologue, his pleas before the priestly judges who will sentence him to execution and who have extracted a confession by torture:
Noblemen were exempt, the vulgar thought,
From racking: but, since the law thinks otherwise,
I have been put to the rack…
Much could not happen, I was quick to faint… (V, ll. 11-14, 18)
Maybe a little sympathy begins to sneak in. A little bit of pity. After all, Count Guido is a man of his time, not ours, with different ideas of honor. Maybe I actually can, spending some time with him, become able to see his point of view, regardless of whether I agree with it. The power of fiction, or anyway the power of the first person narrator.
Count Guido gets two chapters, though. Book V was titled “Count Guido Franscechini.” Book XI is just “Guido.” Two hooded priests have just entered his cell to give him the Pope’s decision – death, tomorrow. All appeals are exhausted. So Guido talks to them, just lets it all out.
You have my last word, - innocent am I
As Innocent my Pope and murderer,
Innocent as a babe, as Mary’s own
As Mary’s self, - I said, say and repeat, - (XI, ll. 28-31)
The horror of Guido’s monologue lies in the discovery that he is much worse than he had seemed before, and yet the blasphemous passage above is sincere, or as sincere as anything in this Mephistophelian chapter can be. The chapter is an outpouring of bile, blood, sarcasm, and heresy rare in the nineteenth century outside of, perhaps, certain other Robert Browning poems.
I am used to this sort of thing in later fiction. I know how to keep my distance from Humbert Humbert in Lolita or the fictional murderers, dictators, and lunatics who have been narrating their own stories for the last century. I do not believe I would have been so savvy in 1869. I would have fallen for the tricks. Maybe I still did, a bit, because I was still a bit shocked by the end of the chapter, when death is truly at hand and Guido has exhausted his arsenal, and he turns to his Beatrice, Pompilia, his murdered child-wife.
Sirs, have I spoken one word all this while
Out of the world of words I had to say?
Not one word! All was folly – I laughed and mocked!
Sirs, my first true word, all truth and no lie,
Is – save me notwithstanding! Life is all!
I was just stark mad,- let the madman live
Pressed by as many chains as you pleas pile!
Don’t open! Hold me from them! I am yours,
I am the Granduke’s – no, I am the Pope’s!
Abate,- Cardinal, - Christ, - Maria, - God,…
Pompilia, will you let them murder me? (XI, 2409-19, ellipses in original)