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This essay examines Browning’s relentless preoccupation with generating such forms of “idle talk” in The Ring and the Book.3 For the most part, critics from the time of the poem’s initial publication to the present day have focused their energies on speakers directly involved in the case— Pompilia (on her deathbed), Guido, Caponsacchi—or the Pope, as he crafts his learned pronouncement.4 Those who have devoted attention to the first three town talkers, including scholars such as Mary Rose Sullivan and William E. Buckler, give accounts that tend to individualize these personae in ways that obscure the significance of their identities as part of a crowd.5 Richard D. Altick and James F. Loucks bring exceptional focus to the crowd as a figure that advances the plot of The Ring and the Book and furthers dramatic irony through its misperceptions.6 My discussion expands the boundaries of the crowd’s influence further by focusing on the form of its “prattle.” In what follows, I treat the important role that town talk plays not only within the poem but also without— that is, in the world of the poem’s reception and the contexts of Browning’s late-in-life bid for greater fame. I argue that the town talkers within the poem function as a means for Browning to anticipate—even script— the positive response of the public to his poem. Through town talk, The Ring and the Book makes emphatic efforts to usher in its own public welcome. Such efforts seem especially marked when compared with Browning’s earlier works, which also explore the publicity of the poetic voice but tend to focus on miscommunication—usually blamed on the intellectual limitations of a popular audience.7 In The Ring and the Book, the “gossipry” of crowds courses through the veins of the poem with an insistent, vital power that not only produces the cause célèbre of Guido’s trial but also of the poem itself.
3. See Martin Heidegger, who defines “idle talk” as “gossiping and passing the word along, a process by which its initial lack of grounds to stand on increases to complete groundlessness” (Being in Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh [Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1996], 158).
4. The lawyers (bks. 8 and 9) are subject to a similar critical fate; Patricia D. Rigg argues that they represent circular returns to Half-Rome’s and Other Half-Rome’s subjective formulations in “Legal ‘Repristination’ in ‘The Ring and the Book,’ ” Browning Institute Studies 18 (1990): 113–30.
5. Mary Rose Sullivan, “Half-Rome, the Other Half-Rome, Tertium Quid,” in Browning’s Voices in “The Ring and the Book”: A Study of Method and Meaning (University of Toronto Press, 1969), 21–73, details how the personalities of each speaker are formed from their particular life experiences. William E. Buckler identifies specific character traits with each talker— Half-Rome’s male chauvinistic cruelty; Other Half-Rome’s overly romanticized imagination; and Tertium Quid’s nouveau riche insecurity—in “Imaginative Mirrorings: Books II, III, and IV,” in Poetry and Truth in Robert Browning’s “The Ring and the Book” (New York University Press, 1985), 64–98.
6. Richard D. Altick and James F. Loucks, “The Tragic Stage: Comedy and the Crowd, Miracles and Molinism,” in Browning’s Roman Murder Story: A Reading of “The Ring and the Book” (University of Chicago Press, 1968), 281–326.
7. In Robert Browning: A Literary Life (New York: Palgrave, 2001), Sarah Wood discusses Browning’s early self-consciousness about fame in poems such as Pauline (1833) and Sordello (1840), his transition into greater publicity through The Ring and the Book, and his later struggles with institutionalized, professional authorship in works such as Pacchiarotto, and How He Worked in Distemper (1876).
Wong, Amy R., "Town-Talk and the Cause Célèbre of Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book" (2016). Collected Faculty and Staff Scholarship. 294.
Copyright © 2016 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.
Originally published as Wong, A. R. (2016). Town Talk and the Cause Célèbre of Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book. Modern Philology, 113(4), 550-572.