The Ring and The Book
March 1, 2006 9:02 AM   Subscribe

I've decided to tackle Browning's The Ring and The Book on my own. It is pretty daunting. Any suggestions?

My normal reading is Dickens, Shakespeare and thrillers. OK, more thrillers than Shakespeare, but I do like to push myself. However while there are plenty of aids to understanding Shakespeare-- DVDs, live performances, study guides. There is not a lot of help that I can find with Browning's poem.

How do you read and understand obscure poetry? With this sort of epic work is it best to skim first and then go back and reread, or should I take it a few pages at a time?

Has anyone else read this?

I'm up on the history of the work, including the fact that it was Queen Victoria's favorite book. I keep thinking if his Victorian readers found this a "good read" then so should I, but it isn't that easy.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Is it a question of actual content or style? I'm working my way through Carlyle's Sartur Resartus at the moment, and find that each time I sit down with it I need to read for a few minutes and then go back to where I started, because it takes awhile for my brain to click over to where his style is explicable.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 9:54 AM on March 1, 2006

I've always found Browning pretty hard to get, but I'm not very smart or very patient. It's available online--try reading it and seeing how far you can get before you feel totally lost. You may be able to read the whole thing without any help; you may read it, understanding the story but not the references; you may not be able to read it at all. If you can get access to a good research library locally, try and find papers on it in some Victorian studies journals. I do think Browning's a pretty intense poet, and worth reading, but not my first choice for "pleasure reading" (that's emphatically just my opinion).
posted by maxreax at 9:56 AM on March 1, 2006

Oh, and one thing to watch out for: the point of view changes in the poem. It should be self-apparent for normal people, but I didn't recognize that when I first read it, and consequently didn't understand anything that was happening at all.
posted by maxreax at 9:56 AM on March 1, 2006

Response by poster: I have my own copy, and I do know that it is 10 monologues. I guess I am just having difficulty understanding certain passages and wonder how other people deal with obscure/difficult work.

For example there is this passage taken from the Pope's monologue:

There lay the city thick and plain with spires,
And, like the ghost disshrouded, white the sea.
So may the truth be flashed out by one blow,
And Guido see, one instant, and be saved.
Else I avert my face, nor follow him
Into that sad obscure sequestered state
Where God unmakes but to remake the soul
He else first made in vain; which must not be.
Enough, for I may die this very night
And how should I dare die, this man let live?

I understand the first 4 lines and maybe the last two, but I'm hazy as to the meaning of the middle. The Pope is wrestling with the idea of commuting Guido's sentence since he might be hit with repentance like a thunderbolt, but on the other hand The Pope is afraid of going to hell if he commutes the sentence. I think. Maybe.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 10:16 AM on March 1, 2006

The OED helps me. I look up each word if necessary. You can get (relatively) inexpensive OEDs on ebay.
posted by grumblebee at 10:28 AM on March 1, 2006

take it slowly ... read it aloud if you must ... each chapter is told from a different point of view ... the emphasis is on mood and viewpoint, not necessarily plot ... it's a poem, not a novel ... which is just as well for browning, i think, as he could be rather unclear
posted by pyramid termite at 10:38 AM on March 1, 2006

You are really not kidding about challenging yourself.

I was going to suggest a concordance, SLOG, until I learned that even used copies fetch more than 400 pounds. What edition are you using? For a far more reasonable $10--30 you can buy one annotated by Collins, one of the big poobah concordance guys. (As grumblebee suggests, having an OED on hand is a great idea as well.)

I think the authoritative Collins edition is the way to go, actually. That'll give you the broad themes of the work so that you may not wring every last allusion from each line, but at least you'll have a general map to orient you. (Better yet would be a discussion group, but I don't know where you'd go about finding people with an appetite for something as challenging as this outside academe -- or in it, for that matter.)

Regarding methods: for big complex pieces, mine is a wash then study method. In sum, I take a section (or part of one) and let the rhythm and sounds and most basic meaning wash over me to get a sense of the prevailing mood, then go back and scrutinize for allusions I missed on the first read. Lots of people do the opposite -- sweat bullets mapping everything out on first read, then go back and read more fluently a second time. Since you're not doing this for a formal study, but rather for pleasure, I suggest the first way.

Good luck to you; I admire you a lot for taking this on.
posted by melissa may at 11:20 AM on March 1, 2006

If you've read Slaves of the Lamp (from Kipling's Stalky & Co) you'll know that even in the nineteenth century, people found Browning difficult to unravel. The secret -- as Kipling suggests in that story -- is to read for the language, and don't worry about unpacking the meaning of every single line just as long as you can follow the general gist. Remember these are dramatic monologues; it might help to imagine yourself speaking the lines, instead of reading them silently.

If you're approaching Browning for the first time, I'd recommend starting with Daniel Karlin's Penguin edition of the Selected Poems. There's also a Penguin edition of The Ring and the Book, which I haven't seen but is said to be very well annotated, as Penguin editions usually are. For all Browning's reputation as a 'difficult' poet he is actually very accessible, but I would advise you to start with the shorter poems. Approaching him via The Ring and the Book is like approaching Elizabeth Barrett Browning via Aurora Leigh ..
posted by verstegan at 1:38 PM on March 1, 2006

I can't resist quoting William Sharp, even though he's citing reactions to Sordello:
It is not the truest admirers of what is good in it who will refuse to smile at the miseries of conscientious but baffled readers. Who can fail to sympathise with Douglas Jerrold when, slowly convalescent from a serious illness, he found among some new books sent him by a friend a copy of "Sordello". Thomas Powell, writing in 1849, has chronicled the episode. A few lines, he says, put Jerrold in a state of alarm. Sentence after sentence brought no consecutive thought to his brain. At last the idea occurred to him that in his illness his mental faculties had been wrecked. The perspiration rolled from his forehead, and smiting his head he sank back on the sofa, crying, "O God, I AM an idiot!" A little later, adds Powell, when Jerrold's wife and sister entered, he thrust "Sordello" into their hands, demanding what they thought of it. He watched them intently while they read. When at last Mrs. Jerrold remarked, "I don't understand what this man means; it is gibberish," her delighted husband gave a sigh of relief and exclaimed, "Thank God, I am NOT an idiot!"

Many friends of Browning will remember his recounting this incident almost in these very words, and his enjoyment therein: though he would never admit justification for such puzzlement.

But more illustrious personages than Douglas Jerrold were puzzled by the poem. Lord Tennyson manfully tackled it, but he is reported to have admitted in bitterness of spirit: "There were only two lines in it that I understood, and they were both lies; they were the opening and closing lines, 'Who will may hear Sordello's story told,' and 'Who would has heard Sordello's story told'!" Carlyle was equally candid: "My wife," he writes, "has read through 'Sordello' without being able to make out whether Sordello was a man, or a city, or a book."
(You can read his discussion of The Ring and the Book here.)
posted by languagehat at 1:58 PM on March 1, 2006

Response by poster:
If you're approaching Browning for the first time, I'd recommend starting with Daniel Karlin's Penguin edition of the Selected Poems.

Actually, My Last Duchess is one of my favorite poems. Which is why I am so interested in this project.

I think the authoritative Collins edition is the way to go, actually
Too bad I already bought a copy-- it looks like the Collins Edition is exactly what I need.

I was looking for study guides, but surprisingly for a poem believed by many scholors to be the finest poem written in the English language, there is very little available. My local library system (usually pretty good) doesn't even have a copy of the entire poem.

Thank you, Languagehat for the anecdote. I will save the essay for later tonight.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 2:39 PM on March 1, 2006

I was looking for study guides, but surprisingly for a poem believed by many scholors to be the finest poem written in the English language, there is very little available.

The poem's length makes it near-impossible to teach (unless you're teaching nothing else that semester...), so I suspect that there just isn't the classroom demand for such a study guide. There's some useful assistance at the Victorian Web, though.

The Ring and the Book features Browning at his most tangled; the poem doesn't answer well to skimming, given how contorted and compressed Browning's syntax can get. I'd advise the slow route. I usually suggest two of his longer dramatic monologues, "Mr. Sludge, 'The Medium'" and "Bishop Blougram's Apology," as warm-ups.

If it helps, think Rashomon. As with all of Browning's dramatic monologues, you're listening for what the characters aren't saying--or for what they don't realize that they're saying.

(Incidentally, for "My Last Duchess" fans, I must recommend Richard Howard's "Nikolaus Mardruz to his Master Ferdinand, Count of Tyrol, 1565.")
posted by thomas j wise at 3:29 PM on March 1, 2006

We have movies and ancient Greeks had the theater. There's a interesting difference here, though: people in Greece didn't mind having the ending spoiled. They came to the theater even though they knew the story. So when Oedipus sleeps with his mom and puts his eyes out, nobody's surprised. But neither are they bored.

Not so with movies. Tell someone that Bruce Willis is dead and the film is ruined. For most folks, anyway.

I find narrative poetry more enjoyable when I already know the story and can focus on how it's told. This is at odds with the approach that advocates sitting back and letting the language wash over you. The language may be very fine, but if I don't know the meaning it becomes less language and more a sequence of phonemes. And I've never found any sequence of phonemes that was compelling enough to make me sit through something of narrative length.

So I'd suggest doing some groundwork. First spoil the plot. Then a good dictionary like the OED becomes helpful since language is such a slippery thing. 'Nice' wasn't always a nice word. I also like annotated editions, and many of them. Cross reading the introductions is a good way to get a biographical perspective on the author, a bit of history, and a gloss of the poem. Comparing the annotations lets you get more than just a brief phrase on each unclear point.

All of this sounds very laborious and certainly less appealing then sitting back and letting the poem happen. That's true at first, but when the poem eventually does happen it's with more force. Reading lines out loud starts to be wonderful, like hearing someone who understands Hal do the 'God of battles' speech. I think this is why I find it so hard to get into most of the scenes with Pistol and friends in Henry V. Apart from Falstaff's death they're so filled with slang and missed nuance that they don't really happen for me.

It sounds like you're trying to understand the poem and not just experience it; hopefully this will help.
posted by amery at 3:44 PM on March 1, 2006

...people in Greece didn't mind having the ending spoiled.

I'm skeptical about this. We only have a small portion of the ancient Greek texts that must once have existed. Some of them may have been original stories, rather than adaptations of older tales.

Enjoying surprise is such a basic human trait. How could the Greeks have not loved surprise? My guess is, like us, they liked to be surprised by some stories and not others. Even today, we sometimes like to see adaptations of known events. Sometimes a story is about seeing how events unfold to lead to a known conclusion.
posted by grumblebee at 7:31 PM on March 1, 2006

yes, sordello ... that really is quite a hopeless poem to figure out ... even william blake's longer hallucinations make more sense than that

something tells me ezra pound wasn't that crazy about it either
posted by pyramid termite at 1:13 AM on March 2, 2006

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