– notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Opinions expressed are the author's own.


Q: I understand that a ring that once belonged to Elizabeth Barrett Browning and was the symbol of the great epic ‘The Ring and the Book’ by Robert Browning was given to your Library by Fannie Barrett Browning, and that you own it. May I see the ring, or an image of it?

A: The ring in Balliol’s Browning collection, though it did indeed belong to Robert Browning, is not the ring which is referred to as ‘the ring’ in ‘The Ring and the Book’.

Description of the ring from ‘The Ring and the Book’:

Do you see this Ring?
‘Tis Rome-work, made to match
(By Castellani’s imitative craft)
Etrurian circlets found, some happy morn,
After a dropping April; found alive
Spark-like ‘mid unearthed slope-side figtree- roots
That roof old tombs at Chiusi: soft, you see,
Yet crisp as jewel-cutting. There’s one trick,
(Craftsmen instruct me) one approved device
And but one, fits such slivers of pure gold
As this was, such mere oozings from the mine,
Virgin as oval tawny pendent tear
At beehive-edge when ripened combs o’erflow,
To bear the file’s tooth and the hammer’s tap:
Since hammer needs must widen out the round,
And file emboss it fine with lily-flowers,
Ere the stuff grow a ring-thing right to wear.
That trick is, the artificer melts up wax
With honey, so to speak; he mingles gold
With gold’s alloy, and, duly tempering both,
Effects a manageable mass, then works.
But his work ended, once the thing a ring,
Oh, there’s repristination! Just a spirt
O’ the proper fiery acid o’er its face,
And forth the alloy unfastened flies in fume;
While, self- sufficient now, the shape remains,
The rondure brave, the lilied loveliness
Gold as it was, is, shall be evermore:
Prime nature with an added artistry
No carat lost, and you have gained a ring.
What of it? ‘Tis a figure, a symbol, say;
A thing’s sign: now for the thing signified.

The ring described is a Castellani ring, elaborately decorated with lily flowers. The ring at Balliol is very plain, with the word ‘VIS MEA’ on it, but no Etruscan Castellani work and no lilies. Fannie Barrett Browning mistakenly thought that it was ‘the ring’, but Browning’s own description shows that the ring in the poem is completely different. Scholars have unfortunately followed Fannie’s mistaken identification.

Balliol’s ring:

It is not clear whether ‘the ring’ in the poem actually existed, or was just in Browning’s imagination. There is a full account of this in ‘The Poetical Works of Robert Browning, Volume Seven, The Ring and the Book’ ed. Stefan Hawlin and Tim Burnett, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998 p.8 and Appendix D, pp 326-36. They conclude that the VIS MEA ring given to Robert Browning by Isa Blagden is not the ring in the poem. They think that a ring which resembles the ring in the poem is to be found in the British Museum, Finger Ring 356.

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