Mrs. Sutherland Orr.

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

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foreshadowed in Aprile, though the two are as different as their common
poetic quality allows. Aprile is consumed by a creative passion, which
is always akin to love; Sordello by an imaginative fever which has no
love in it; and in this respect he presents a stronger contrast to
Aprile than Paracelsus himself. As a poet he may be said to contain both
the artist and the thinker, and therefore to transcend both; and his
craving is for neither love nor knowledge, as the foregoing poem
represents them, but for that magnitude of poetic existence, which means
all love and all knowledge, as all beauty and all power in itself. But
he makes the same mistake as Aprile, or at least as Paracelsus, and
makes it in a greater degree; for he rejects all the human conditions of
the poetic life: and strives to live it, not in experience or in
sympathy, but by a pure act of imagination, or as he calls it, of
_Will_; and he wears himself out body and soul by a mental strain which
proves as barren as it is continuous. The true joy of living comes home
to him at last, and with it the first challenge to self-sacrifice. Duty
prevails; but he dies in the conflict, or rather of it.

The intended lesson of the story is distinctly enforced in its last
scene, but is patent almost from the first - that the mind must not
disclaim the body, nor imagination divorce itself from reality: that the
spiritual is bound up with the material in our earthly life. All Mr.
Browning's practical philosophy is summed up in this truth, and much of
his religion; for it points to the necessity of a human manifestation of
the Divine Being; and though Sordello's story contains no explicit
reference to Christian doctrine, an unmistakeable Christian sentiment
pervades its close. That restless and ambitious spirit had missed its
only possible anchorage: the ideal of an intellectual existence at once
guided and set free by love.

Mr. Browning has indeed prefaced the poem by saying that in writing it
he has laid his chief stress _on the incidents in the development of a
soul_. It must be read with reference to this idea; and I should be
bound to give precedence to it over the poetic inspiration of the story
if Mr. Browning had practically done so. This is not, however, the case.
Sordello's poetic individuality overshadows the moral, and for a time
conceals it altogether. The close of his story is distinctly the
emerging of a soul from the mists of poetic egotism by which it has been
obscured; and Mr. Browning has meant us from the first to see it
struggling through them. But in so doing he has judged Sordello's poetic
life as a blind aspiration after the spiritual, while the egotism which
he represents as the keynote of his poetic being was in fact the
negation of it. The idea was just: that the greatest poet must have in
him the making of the largest man. His Sordello is imperial among men
for the one moment in which his song is in sympathy with human life; and
Mr. Browning would have made it more consistently so, had he worked out
his idea at a later time. But the poem was written at a period in which
his artistic judgment was yet inferior to his poetic powers, and the
need of ordering his vast material from the reader's, as well as the
writer's, point of view - though he states it by implication at the end
of the third book - had not thoroughly penetrated his mind.

I venture on this criticism, though it is no part of my task to
criticize, because "Sordello" is the one of Mr. Browning's works which
still remains to be read; and even a mistaken criticism may sometimes
afford a clue. "Sordello" is not only harder to read than "Paracelsus,"
but harder than any other of Mr. Browning's works; its complications of
structure being interwoven with difficulties of a deeper kind which
again react upon them. Enough has been said to show that the conception
of the character is very abstruse on the intellectual and poetic side;
that it presents us with states of thought and feeling, remote from
common experience, and which no language could make entirely clear; and
unfortunately the style is sometimes in itself so obscure that we cannot
judge whether it is the expression or the idea which we fail to grasp.
The poem was written under the dread of diffuseness which had just then
taken possession of Mr. Browning's mind, and we have sometimes to
struggle through a group of sentences out of which he has so laboured to
squeeze every unnecessary word, that their grammatical connection is
broken up, and they present a compact mass of meaning which without
previous knowledge it is almost impossible to construe. We are also
puzzled by an abridged, interjectional, way of carrying on the
historical part of the narrative; by the author's habit of alluding to
imaginary or typical personages in the same tone as to real ones; and by
misprints, including errors in punctuation, which will be easily
corrected in a later edition, but which mar the present one.

It is only fair to add that he would deprecate the idea of any excessive
labour as bestowed on this, to his mind, immature performance. It is for
us, not for him, to do justice to it. With all its faults and
obscurities, "Sordello" is a great work; full moreover of pregnant and
beautiful passages which are not affected by them. When Mr. Browning
re-edited "Sordello" in 1863, he considered the possibility of
re-writing it in a more transparent manner; but he concluded that the
labour would be disproportionate to the result, and contented himself
with summarizing the contents of each "book" in a continuous heading,
which represents the main thread of the story. It will be useful to read
this carefully.


BOOK THE FIRST.

The story opens at Verona, at the moment of the formation of the Lombard
League - a well-known union of Guelph cities against the Ghibellines in
Northern Italy. Mr. Browning, addressing himself to an imaginary
audience composed of living and dead, describes the city as it hastens
to arms, and the chain of circumstances through which she has been
called upon to do so; and draws a curious picture of two political
ideals which he considers respectively those of Ghibelline and Guelph:
the one symbolized by isolated heights, the other by a continuous level
growth; those again suggesting the violent disruptions which create
imperial power; these the peaceful organic processes of democratic life.
The poet Shelley is desired to withdraw his "pure face" from among the
spectators of this chequered scene; and Dante is invoked in the name of
him whose fame preceded his, and has been absorbed by it. A secret
chamber in Count Richard's palace shows Palma and Sordello in earnest
conference with each other. Then the curtain falls; and we are carried
back thirty years, and to Goito Castle.

Sordello is there: a refined and beautiful boy; framed for all spiritual
delights. As his life is described, it has neither duties nor
occupations; no concern with the outer world; no contact even with that
of Adelaide, his supposed protectress. He is dreaming away his childhood
in the silent gloom of the castle, or the sunny outdoor life of the
hills and woods. He lives in imagination, blends the idea of his own
being with everything he sees; and for years is happy in the bare fact
of existence. But the germ of a fatal spiritual ambition is lurking
within him; and as he grows into a youth, he hankers after something
which he calls sympathy, but which is really applause. He therefore
makes a human crowd for himself out of carved and tapestried figures,
and the few names which penetrate into his solitude, and fancies himself
always the greatest personage amongst them. He simulates all manner of
heroic performances and of luxurious rest. He is Eccelino, the Emperor's
vicar; he is the Emperor himself. He becomes more than this; for his
fancy has soared upwards to the power which includes all empire in
one - the spiritual power of song. Apollo is its representative. Sordello
is he. He has had one glimpse of Palma; she becomes his Daphne; the
dream life is at its height.

And now Sordello is a man. He begins to sicken for reality. Vanity and
ambition are ripe in him. His egotisms are innocent, but they are
absorbing. The soul is as yet dormant.[13]


BOOK THE SECOND.

The dream-life becomes a partial reality. Sordello's wanderings carry
him one day to the walls of Mantua, outside which Palma is holding a
"Court of Love." Eglamor sings. His song is incomplete. Sordello feels
what is wanting; catches up the thread of the story; and sings it to its
proper close.[14] His triumph is absolute. He is installed as Palma's
minstrel in Eglamor's place. Eglamor accepts his defeat with touching
gentleness, and lies down to die. This poet is meant to embody the
limited art, which is an end in itself, and one with the artist's life.
Sordello, on the other hand, represents the boundless aspirations which
art may subserve, but which must always leave it behind. The parallel
will be stated more distinctly later on.

Sordello's first wish is fulfilled. He has found a career which will
reconcile his splendid dreams with his real obscurity, and set him, by
right of imagination - the true Apolloship - apart from other men. But his
true difficulties have yet to begin. It is not enough that he feels
himself a transcendent personage. He must make others believe that he is
so. Every act of imagination is with him an act of existence, or as Mr.
Browning calls it of Will; but this self-asserting was much easier with
the imaginary crowd than it can be with the real one. Sordello is soon
at cross-purposes with his hearers: for when he sings of human passion,
or human prowess, they never dream of identifying him with it; and when
he sings of mere abstract modes of being, they do not understand.

The love of abstract conception is indeed the rock on which he splits.
The feelings which are real to us are unreal to him, because they are
accidental. What is real to him is the underlying consciousness which
according to his view is permanent: the "intensest" self described in
"Pauline" - the mind which is spoken of in the fifth "book" of "Sordello"
(vol. i. page 236) as nearest to God when emptied of even thought; and
his aim is to put forth all the _qualities_ which this absolute
existence can assume, and yet be reflected in other men's minds as
independent of them. This lands him in struggles not only with his
hearers but with himself - for he is unused to expressing what he feels;
and with a language which at best could convey "whole perceptions" like
his, in a very meagre form, or a fragmentary one. He still retains the
love of real life and adventure which inspired his boyish dreams. There
is nothing, as I have said, that he does not wish to _be_; and now,
amidst commonplace human beings, his human desires often take a more
simple and natural form. But the poet in him pushes the man aside, and
bids him, at all events, wait. He does not know that he is failing
through the hopeless disunion of the two. He silences his better
humanity, and retains the worst; for he is more and more determined to
succeed at whatever cost. Yet failure meets him on every side. He is too
large for his public, but he is also too small for it. Every question
raised even in talk carries him into the infinite. Every man of his
audience has a practical answer ready before he has. Naddo plies him
with common sense. "He is to speak to the human heart - he is not to be
so philosophical - he is not to seem so clever." Shallow judges pull him
to pieces. Shallow rivals strive to sing him down.[15] He loses his
grasp of the ideal. He cannot clutch the real. His imagination dries up.

Meanwhile Adelaide has died. Salinguerra, who had joined the Emperor at
Naples, is brought back in hot haste by the news that Eccelino has
retired to a monastery, has disclaimed the policy of his House; and is
sealing his peace with the Guelph princes by the promised marriage of
his sons Eccelino and Alberic with the sisters of Este; and of his
daughter Palma with Count Richard of San Bonifacio himself. He is coming
to Mantua. Sordello must greet him with his best art. But Sordello
shrinks from the trial, and escapes back to Goito, whence Palma has just
departed. What his Mantuan life has taught him is thus expressed (vol.
i. page 130): -

"The Body, the Machine for Acting Will,
Had been at the commencement proved unfit;
That for Demonstrating, Reflecting it,
Mankind - no fitter: was the Will Itself
In fault?"

He is wiser than he was, but his objects remain the same. The
sympathies - the moral sense - the soul - are still asleep.


BOOK THE THIRD.

Sordello buries himself once more in the contemplation of nature; but
finds in it only a short-lived peace. The marshy country about Mantua is
suddenly converted into water; and with the shock of this catastrophe
comes also the feeling: Nature can do and undo; her opportunities are
endless. With man

"...youth once gone is gone:
Deeds let escape are never to be done." (vol. i. p. 135.)

He has dreamed of love, of revel, and of adventure; but he has let pass
the time when such dreams could be realized; and worst of all, the
sacrifice has been useless. He has sacrificed the man in him to the
poet; and his poetic existence has been impoverished by the act. He has
rejected experience that he might _be_ his fullest self before living
it; and only _living_, in other words, experience, could have made that
self complete. His later years have been paving the way for this
discovery; it bursts on him all at once. He has been under a long
strain. The reaction at length has come. He yearns helplessly for the
"blisses strong and soft" which he has known he was passing by, but of
which the full meaning never reached him until now. He must live yet.
The question is, "in what way." And this is unexpectedly answered. Palma
sends for him to Verona: tells him of her step-mother's death - of
strange secrets revealed to herself - of the secret influence Sordello
has exercised over her life - of a great future awaiting his own, and
connecting it with the Emperor's cause. She summons him to accompany her
to Ferrara, and hear from Salinguerra's lips what that future is to be.

Sordello has entered on a new phase of existence. He feels that
henceforward he is not to _act men_, but to _make them act_;
this is how his being is to be fulfilled. It is a first step in the
direction of unselfishness, but not yet into it. The soul is not yet
awake.

At this point of his narrative Mr. Browning makes a halt, and carries us
off to Venice, where he muses on the various questions involved in
Sordello's story. The very act of digression leads back to the
comparison between Eglamor and Sordello: between the artist who is one
with his work, and him who is outside and beyond it - between the
completeness of execution which comes of a limited ideal, and the true
greatness of those performances which "can never be more than dreamed."
And the case of the true poet is farther illustrated by that of the
weather-bound sailor, who seems to have settled down for life with the
fruits of his adventures, but waits only the faintest sign of a
favourable wind to cut his moorings and be off.

Then comes a vision of humanity, also in harmony with the purpose of the
poem. It takes the form of some frail and suffering woman, and is
addressed by the author with a tenderness in which we recognize one of
his constant ideals of love: the impulse not to worship or to enjoy, but
to comfort and to protect. He next considers the problem of human sorrow
and sin, and deprecates the absolute condemnation of the sinner, in
language which anticipates that of "Fifine at the Fair." "Every life has
its own law. The 'losel,' the moral outcast, keeps his own conceit of
truth though through a maze of lies. Good labours to exist through evil,
by means of the very ignorance which sets each man to tackle it for
himself, believing that he alone can."[16] Mr. Browning rejects at least
the _show_ of knowledge which gives you a name for what you die of;
and that deepening of ignorance which comes of the perpetual insisting
that fountains of knowledge spring everywhere for those who choose to
dispense it. "What science teaches is made useless by the shortness of
human existence; it absorbs all our energy in building up a machine
which we shall have no time to work. All direct truth comes to us from
the poet: whether he be of the smaller kind who only see, or the
greater, who can tell what they have seen, or the greatest who can make
others see it." Corresponding instances follow.[17]

Mr. Browning is aware that one is a poet at his own risk; and that the
poetic chaplet may also prove a sacrificial one. He will still wear it,
however, because in his case it means the suffrage of a "patron
friend"[18]

"Whose great verse blares unintermittent on
Like your own trumpeter at Marathon, - " (vol. i. p. 169.)

He recalls his readers to the "business" of the poem:

"the fate of such
As find our common nature - overmuch
Despised because restricted and unfit
To bear the burthen they impose on it -
Cling when they would discard it; craving strength
To leap from the allotted world, at length
They do leap, - flounder on without a term,
Each a god's germ, doomed to remain a germ
In unexpanded infancy, unless...." (pp. 170, 171.)

admits that the story sounds dull; but suggests the possibility of its
containing an agreeable surprise. An amusing anecdote to this effect
concludes the chapter.[19]


BOOK THE FOURTH.

We are now introduced to Taurello Salinguerra: a fine soldier-like
figure; the type of elastic strength in both body and mind. We are told
that he possesses the courage of the fighter, the astuteness of the
politician, the knowledge and graces of the man of leisure. He has
shown himself capable of controlling an Emperor, and of giving
precedence to a woman. He is young at sixty, while the son who is half
his age, is "lean, outworn and really old." And the crowning difference
between him and Sordello is this: that while Sordello only draws out
other men as a means of displaying himself, he only displays himself
sufficiently to draw out other men. "His choicest instruments" have
"surmised him shallow."

He is in his palace at Ferrara, musing over the past - that past which
held the turning-point of his career; which began the feud between
himself and the now Guelph princes, and which naturally merged him in
the Ghibelline cause. He remembers how the fathers of the present Este
and San Bonifacio combined to cheat him out of the Modenese heiress who
was to be his bride - how he retired to Sicily, to return with a wife of
the Emperor's own house - how his enemies surprised him at Vicenza. He
sees his old comrade Eccelino, so passive now, so brave and vigorous
then. He sees the town as they fire it together: the rush for the gates:
the slashing, the hewing, the blood hissing and frying on the iron
gloves. His spirit leaps in the returning frenzy of that struggle and
flight. It sinks again as he thinks of Elcorte - Adelaide's escape - her
rescued child; his own doom in the wife and child who were not rescued.

"And now! he has effaced himself in the interests of the Romano house.
Its life has grafted itself on his own; and to what end? The Emperor is
coming. His badge and seal, already in Salinguerra's hands, bestow the
title of Imperial Prefect on whosoever assumes the headship of the
Ghibellines in the north of Italy; and Eccelino, its proper chief,
recoils; withdraws even his name from the cause. Who shall wear the
badge? None so fitly as himself, who holds San Bonifacio captive - who
has dislocated if not yet broken the Guelph right arm. Yet, is it worth
his while? Shall he fret his remaining years? Shall he rob his old
comrade's son?" He laughs the idea to scorn....

Sordello has come with Palma to Ferrara. He came to find the men who
were to be the body to his spirit, the instrument to his will. But he
came, expecting that these would be great. And now he discovers that
very few are great; while behind and beneath, and among them, extends
something which has never yet entered his field of thought: the mass of
mankind. The more he looks the more it grows upon him: this people with
the

"... mouths and eyes,
Petty enjoyments and huge miseries, - " (vol. i. p. 181.)

and the more he feels that the few are great because the many are in
them - because they are types and representatives of these. Hitherto he
has striven to impose himself on mankind. He now awakes to the joy and
duty of serving it. It is the magnified body which his spirit needs. And
in the new-found knowledge, the new-found sympathy, his soul springs
full-grown into life.

But another check is in store for him. He has taken for granted that the
cause in which he is to be enlisted is the people's cause. The new soul
in him can conceive nothing less. A first interview with Salinguerra
dispels this dream, and dispels it in such a manner that he leaves the
presence of his unknown father years older and wearier than when he
entered it. He wanders through the city, mangled by civil war. The
effects of Ghibelline vengeance meet him on every side. Is the Guelph
more humane? He discusses the case with Palma. They weigh deeds with
deeds. "Guelph and Ghibelline are alike unjust and cruel, alike
inveterate enemies of their fellow-men." Who then represents the
people's cause? A sudden answer comes. A bystander recognizing his
minstrel's attire begs Sordello to sing, and suggests the Roman Tribune
Crescentius as his theme. Rome rises before his mind - the mother of
cities - the great constructive power which weaves the past into the
future; which represents the continuity of human life. _The
reintegration of Rome must typify the triumph of mankind._ But Rome is
now the Church; she is one with the Guelph cause. The Guelph cause is
therefore in some sense the true one. Sordello's new-found spiritual and
his worldly interests thus range themselves on opposite sides.


BOOK THE FIFTH.

The day draws to its close. Sordello has seen more of the suffering
human beings whom he wishes to serve, and the ideal Rome has collapsed
in his imagination like a mocking dream. Nothing can be effected at
once. No deed can bridge over the lapse of time which divides the first
stage of a great social structure from its completion. Each life may
give its touch; it can give no more; through the endless generations.
The vision of a regenerate humanity, "his last and loveliest," must
depart like the rest. Then suddenly a voice,

"... Sordello, wake!
God has conceded two sights to a man -
One, of men's whole work, time's completed plan,
The other, of the minute's work, man's first
Step to the plan's completeness: what's dispersed
Save hope of that supreme step which, descried
Earliest, was meant still to remain untried
Only to give you heart to take your own
Step, and there stay - leaving the rest alone?" (vol. i. p. 217.)

The facts restate themselves, but from an opposite point of view. No man
can give more than his single touch. The whole could not dispense with
one of them. The work is infinite, but it is continuous. The later poet
weaves into his own song the echoes of the first. "The last of each
series of workmen sums up in himself all predecessors," whether he be
the type of strength like Charlemagne, or of knowledge like Hildebrand.
Strength comes first in the scheme of life; it is the joyousness of
childhood. Step by step Strength works Knowledge with its groans and
tears. And then, in its turn, Knowledge works Strength, Knowledge
controls Strength, Knowledge supersedes Strength. It is Knowledge which
must prevail now. May it not be he who at this moment resumes its whole
inheritance - its accumulated opportunities, in himself? He could stand
still and dream while he fancied he stood alone; but he knows now that
he is part of humanity, and it of him. Goito is left behind; Ferrara is
reached; he must do the one thing that is within his grasp.

He must influence Salinguerra. He must interest him in the cause of
knowledge; which is the people's cause. With this determination, he
proceeds once more to the appointed presence. His minstrelsy is at first
a failure. He is, as usual, outside his song. He is trying to guide it;



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