Volume XI of The Complete Works of Robert Browning contains two strikingly disparate long poems from the 1870s, Fifine at the Fair and Red Cotton Night-Cap Country. In Fifine at the Fair, Browning creates an idiosyncratic version of the Don Juan figure, a distinctly post-Romantic and intellectual Don Juan who derives little from any literary predecessor. The legendary character is realized in a modern French setting, the village of Pornic, a favorite vacation spot for Browning. The poem is a sustained exercise in self-justification and casuistry, with Don Juan persuading himself that he can reconcile his love of his wife with his carnal love for a gipsy girl.
Though Red Cotton Night-Cap Country is similarly concerned with a struggle between spirit and flesh, the poem is entirely based in contemporary events. Using newspaper accounts and legal documents, Browning tells the strange and shocking tale of a rich and devout Frenchman who throws himself from the roof of his chateau, convinced that heaven will deliver him from death. Upon the question of his sanity hinges the disposition of his considerable estate, and the poet traces the claims and counterclaims to their settlement in court only a few months before he wrote the poem.
As always in this series of critical editions, a complete record of textual variants is provided, as well as extensive explanatory notes.