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A Handbook to the Works of Browning (6th ed.)

And how John reinstated Stephen and cursed Formosus


As

he says to himself, he is weighed down by years. He lifts the cares of the whole world on a "loaded branch" for which a bird's nest were a "superfluous burthen." Yet this strong man cries to him for life: and he alone has the power to grant it. How easy to reprieve! How hard to deny to this trembling sinner the moment's respite which may save his soul. He wants precedent for such a deed; and he seeks it in the records of the Papacy. It is from the Popes his predecessors that he must learn how to dare, to suffer, and--to judge. But these records tell him how Stephen cursed Formosus; how Romanus and Theodore reinstated the sanctity of Formosus and cursed Stephen; and how John reinstated Stephen and cursed Formosus. They could not all be right. There is no guarantee for infallibility--no test of justice--to be found here.

How, then, would he defend his condemnation of Guido if he himself were now summoned to the judgment-seat? The question is self-answered: no defence would be needed; for God sees into the heart. He appraises the seed of act, which is its motive; not "leafage and branchage, vulgar eyes admire." The Pope knows that his motives will stand the scrutiny of God. How, finally, could he plead his cause with a man like himself: with the man Antonio Pignatelli, his very self? He must, once for all, marshal the facts, and let them plead for him.

Next follows the Pope's version of the story, which differs

from those preceding it, in being the summing up of a spiritual judge, who deals not only with facts but with conditions, and who looks at the thing done, in its special reference to the person who did it. As seen in this light, the blacks of the picture are blacker, the whites, whiter, than they appear from the ordinary point of view. Guido has been doubly wicked because his birth, his breeding, and his connection with the Church, had surrounded him with incitements to good, and with opportunities for it. Pompilia is doubly virtuous because she is a mere "chance-sown," "cleft-nurtured" human weed, owing all her goodness to herself. With Guido, the bad end is secured by the worst means. Not satisfied to murder his wife, he must use a jagged instrument with which to torture her flesh. Not satisfied to torment her in the body, he must imperil her soul by placing desperate temptation in her way. With Pompilia the right virtue is always employed for the good end. She is submissive where only her own life is at stake; brave, when a life within her own calls on her for protection. Guido's accomplices: his brothers, his mother, the four youths who helped him to kill his wife: the Governor, and the Archbishop, who abetted his ill-treatment of her, have alike sinned against their age, their character, or their associations.

Caponsacchi has not been faultless. He has failed somewhat in the dignity of his office, somewhat in its decorum; his mode of rescuing the oppressed has had too much the character of an escapade. But the more disciplined soldier of the Church would have erred in the opposite direction. The ear which listens only for the voice of authority becomes obtuse to the cry of suffering. The spirit which only moves to command becomes unfit for spontaneous work. Caponsacchi, standing aloof like a man of pleasure, has proved himself the very champion of God, ready to spring into the arena, at the first thud of the false knight's glove upon the ground. He has shown himself possessed of the true courage which does not shrink from temptation, and does not succumb to it. Such transgressions as his reflect rather on the limits imposed than on the impatience which transgressed them. He must submit to a slight punishment. He must work--be unhappy--bear life. But he ranks next in grace to Pompilia--the "rose" which the old Pope "gathers for the breast of God." Of Count Guido's other victims, Pietro and Violante, the worst that can be said is this: they have halted between good and evil; and, as the way of the world is, suffered through both. The balance of justice once more confirms the Pope's decree.


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