Henry James described Browning's extended dramatic poem The Ring and the Book, over 20,000 lines in length, as 'a great living thing', 'a proportioned monstrous magnificence'. The story was developed from some old legal documents discovered by Browning concerning an actual murder which took place in Rome in 1698, and its writing was his major preoccupation in the 1860s, the early years of his widowerhood in London. This volume gives us the first third of the poems, Books I to IV. The Introduction draws on unpublished letters, journals, and working papers not examined by previous editors, to illuminate how the poem was conceived and researched, the range of people the poet consulted, and the five-year period of composition. The poem's complex publishing history is disentangled in the Text part of the Introduction, including a discussion of the corrections and revisions Browning made on sheets from volumes I, III, and IV of the second edition, which he later forgot and which never appeared in print. Appendix E gives these important variants in full.
The annotation presents new contextual matter, including unpublished letters relating to 'Lyric Love', Browning's famous invocation to his dead wife. The appendices give the original Italian text of Browning's second source, 'Morte dell'Uxoricida Guido Franceschini Decapitato'; two previously unpublished autograph chronologies in which the poet worked out historical details of his story; and a new account of the biographical significance of the 'Ring' image. The editors have made six substantive emendations to the text, ranging from inaccuracies in the original typesetting to changes made by Browning after publication. The evolution of the text from manuscript to copy text is also discussed, and an appendix is devoted to a set of corrected proofs preserved at Yale, a textual evolutionary dead end of great interest and significance.