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its welfare. He no longer thinks to avoid, by living only in himself,
the baffling limitations which inevitably trouble human life; but now
desires, working within these limits, to fix his eyes on the ineffable
Love; failing but making every failure a ladder on which to climb to
higher things. This - the true way of life - he finds out as he dies. To
have that spirit, and to work in it, is the very life of art. To pass
for ever out of and beyond one's self is to the artist the lesson of
Bordello's story.

It is hardly learnt. The self in Sordello, the self of imagination
unwarned by love of men, is driven out of the artist with strange
miseries, battles and despairs, and these Browning describes with such
inventiveness that at the last one is inclined to say, with all the
pitiful irony of Christ, "This kind goeth not forth but with prayer and

The position in the poem is at root the same as that in Tennyson's
_Palace of Art_. These two poets found, about the same time, the same
idea, and, independently, shaped it into poems. Tennyson put it into the
form of a vision, the defect of which was that it was too far removed
from common experience. Browning put it into the story of a man's life.
Tennyson expressed it with extraordinary clearness, simplicity, and with
a wealth of lovely ornament, so rich that it somewhat overwhelmed the
main lines of his conception. Browning expressed it with extraordinary
complexity, subtlety, and obscurity of diction. But when we take the
trouble of getting to the bottom of _Sordello_, we find ourselves where
we do not find ourselves in _The Palace of Art_ - we find ourselves in
close touch and friendship with a man, living with him, sympathising
with him, pitying him, blessing him, angry and delighted with him,
amazingly interested in his labyrinthine way of thinking and feeling; we
follow with keen interest his education, we see a soul in progress; we
wonder what he will do next, what strange turn we shall come to in his
mind, what new effort he will make to realise himself; and, loving him
right through from his childhood to his death, we are quite satisfied
when he dies. At the back of this, and complicating it still more - but,
when we arrive at seeing it clearly, increasing the interest of the
poem - is a great to-and-fro of humanity at a time when humanity was
alive and keen and full of attempting; when men were savagely original,
when life was lived to its last drop, and when a new world was dawning.
Of all this outside humanity there is not a trace in Tennyson, and
Browning could not have got on without it. Of course, it made his poetry
difficult. We cannot get excellences without their attendant defects. We
have a great deal to forgive in _Sordello_. But for the sake of the
vivid humanity we forgive it all.

Sordello begins as a boy, living alone in a castle near Mantua, built in
a gorge of the low hills, and the description of the scenery of the
castle, without and within, is one example of the fine ornament of which
_Sordello_ is so full. There, this rich and fertile nature lives, fit to
receive delight at every sense, fit to shape what is received into
imaginative pictures within, but not without; content with the
contemplation of his own imaginings. At first it is Nature from whom
Sordello receives impressions, and he amuses himself with the fancies he
draws from her. But he never shapes his emotion into actual song. Then
tired of Nature, he dreams himself into the skin and soul of all the
great men of whom he has read. He becomes them in himself, as Pauline's
lover has done before him; but one by one they fade into unreality - for
he knows nothing of men - and the last projection of himself into Apollo,
the Lord of Poetry, is the most unreal of them all: at which fantasy all
the woods and streams and sunshine round Goito are infinitely amused.
Thus, when he wants sympathy, he does not go down to Mantua and make
song for the crowd of men; he invents in dreams a host of sympathisers,
all of whom are but himself in other forms. Even when he aims at
perfection, and, making himself Apollo, longs for a Daphne to double his
life, his soul is still such stuff as dreams are made of, till he wakes
one morning to ask himself: "When will this dream be truth?"

This is the artist's temperament in youth when he is not possessed of
the greater qualities of genius - his imaginative visions, his
aspirations, his pride in apartness from men, his self-contentment, his
sloth, the presence in him of barren imagination, the absence from it of
the spiritual, nothing in him which as yet desires, through the sorrow
and strife of life, God's infinitude, or man's love; a natural life
indeed, forgiveable, gay, sportive, dowered with happy self-love, good
to pass through and enjoy, but better to leave behind. But Sordello will
not become the actual artist till he lose his self-involvement and find
his soul, not only in love of his Daphne but in love of man. And the
first thing he will have to do is that which Sordello does not care to
do - to embody before men in order to give them pleasure or impulse, to
console or exalt them, some of the imaginations he has enjoyed within
himself. Nor can Sordello's imagination reach true passion, for it
ignores that which chiefly makes the artist; union with the passions of
mankind. Only when near to death does he outgrow the boy of Goito, and
then we find that he has ceased to be the artist. Thus, the poem is the
history of the failure of a man with an artistic temperament to be an
artist. Or rather, that is part of the story of the poem, and, as
Browning was an artist himself, a part which is of the greatest

Sordello, at the close of the first book, is wearied of dreams. Even in
his solitude, the limits of life begin to oppress him. Time fleets, fate
is tardy, life will be over before he lives. Then an accident helps
him -

Which breaking on Sordello's mixed content
Opened, like any flash that cures the blind,
The veritable business of mankind.

This accident is the theme of the second book. It belongs to the subject
of this chapter, for it contrasts two types of the artist, Eglamor and
Sordello, and it introduces Naddo, the critic, with a good knowledge of
poetry, with a great deal of common sense, with an inevitable sliding
into the opinion that what society has stamped must be good - a mixed
personage, and a sketch done with Browning's humorous and pitying skill.

The contrast between Eglamor and Sordello runs through the whole poem.
Sordello recalls Eglamor at the last, and Naddo appears again and again
to give the worldly as well as the common-sense solution of the problems
which Sordello makes for himself. Eglamor is the poet who has no genius,
whom one touch of genius burns into nothing, but who, having a charming
talent, employs it well; and who is so far the artist that what he feels
he is able to shape gracefully, and to please mankind therewith; who,
moreover loves, enjoys, and is wholly possessed with what he shapes in
song. This is good; but then he is quite satisfied with what he does; he
has no aspiration, and all the infinitude of beauty is lost to him. And
when Sordello takes up his incomplete song, finishes it, inspires,
expands what Eglamor thought perfect, he sees at last that he has only a
graceful talent, that he has lived in a vain show, like a gnome in a
cell of the rock of gold. Genius, momentarily realising itself in
Sordello, reveals itself to Eglamor with all its infinities; Heaven and
Earth and the universe open on Eglamor, and the revelation of what he
is, and of the perfection beyond, kills him. That is a fine, true, and
piteous sketch.

But Sordello, who is the man of possible genius, is not much better off.
There has been one outbreak into reality at Palma's _Court of Love_.
Every one, afterwards, urges him to sing. The critics gather round him.
He makes poems, he becomes the accepted poet of Northern Italy. But he
cannot give continuous delight to the world. His poems are not like his
song before Palma. They have no true passion, being woven like a
spider's web out of his own inside. His case then is more pitiable, his
failure more complete, than Eglamor's. Eglamor could shape something; he
had his own enjoyment, and he gave pleasure to men. Sordello, lured
incessantly towards abstract ideals, lost in their contemplation, is
smitten, like Aprile, into helplessness by the multitudinousness of the
images he sees, refuses to descend into real life and submit to its
limitations, is driven into the slothfulness of that dreaming
imagination which is powerless to embody its images in the actual song.
Sometimes he tries to express himself, longing for reality. When he
tries he fails, and instead of making failure a step to higher effort,
he falls back impatiently on himself, and is lost in himself. Moreover,
he tries always within himself, and with himself for judge. He does not
try the only thing which would help him - the submission of his work to
the sympathy and judgment of men. Out of touch with any love save love
of his own imaginings, he cannot receive those human impressions which
kindle the artist into work, nor answer the cry which comes from
mankind, with such eagerness, to genius - "Express for us in clear form
that which we vaguely feel. Make us see and admire and love." Then he
ceases even to love song, because, though he can imagine everything, he
can do nothing; and deaf to the voices of men, he despises man. Finally
he asks himself, like so many young poets who have followed his way,
What is the judgment of the world worth? Nothing at all, he answers.
With that ultimate folly, the favourite resort of minor poets, Sordello
goes altogether wrong. He pleases nobody, not even himself; spends his
time in arguing inside himself why he has not succeeded; and comes to no
conclusion, except that total failure is the necessity of the world. At
last one day, wandering from Mantua, he finds himself in his old
environment, in the mountain cup where Goito and the castle lie. And the
old dream, awakened by the old associations, that he was Apollo, Lord of
Song, rushed back upon him and enwrapped him wholly. He feels, in the
blessed silence, that he is no longer what he has been of late,

a pettish minstrel meant
To wear away his soul in discontent,
Brooding on fortune's malice,

but himself once more, freed from the world of Mantua; alone again, but
in his loneliness really more lost than he was at Mantua, as we soon
find out in the third book.

I return, in concluding this chapter, to the point which bears most
clearly on Browning as the poet of art. The only time when Sordello
realises what it is to be an artist is when, swept out of himself by the
kindled emotion of the crowd at the _Court of Love_ and inspired also by
the true emotion of Eglamor's song, which has been made because he loved
it - his imagination is impassioned enough to shape for man the thing
within him, outside of himself, and to sing for the joy of
singing - having forgotten himself in mankind, in their joy and in his

But it was little good to him. When he stole home to Goito in a dream,
he sat down to think over the transport he had felt, why he felt it, how
he was better than Eglamor; and at last, having missed the whole use of
the experience (which was to draw him into the service of man within the
limits of life but to always transcend the limits in aspiration), he
falls away from humanity into his own self again; and perfectly happy
for the moment, but lost as an artist and a man, lies lazy, filleted and
robed on the turf, with a lute beside him, looking over the landscape
below the castle and fancying himself Apollo. This is to have the
capacity to be an artist, but it is not to be an artist. And we leave
Sordello lying on the grass enjoying himself, but not destined on that
account to give any joy to man.

* * * * *



The period in which the poem of _Sordello_ opens is at the end of the
first quarter of the thirteenth century, at the time when the Guelf
cities allied themselves against the Ghibellines in Northern Italy. They
formed the Lombard League, and took their private quarrels up into one
great quarrel - that between the partisans of the Empire and those of the
Pope. Sordello is then a young man of thirty years. He was born in 1194,
when the fierce fight in the streets of Vicenza took place which
Salinguerra describes, as he looks back on his life, in the fourth canto
of this poem. The child is saved in that battle, and brought from
Vicenza by Adelaide, the second wife of Ezzelino da Romano II.,[8] to
Goito. He is really the son of Salinguerra and Retrude, a connection of
Frederick II., but Adelaide conceals this, and brings him up as her
page, alleging that he is the son of Elcorte, an archer. Palma (or
Cunizza), Ezzelino's daughter by Agnes Este, his first wife, is also at
Goito in attendance on Adelaide. Sordello and she meet as girl and boy,
and she becomes one of the dreams with which his lonely youth at Goito
is adorned.

At Adelaide's death Palma discovers the real birth of Sordello. She has
heard him sing some time before at a Love-court, where he won the prize;
where she, admiring, began to love him; and this love of hers has been
increased by his poetic fame which has now filled North Italy. She
summons him to her side at Verona, makes him understand that she loves
him, and urges him, as Salinguerra's son, to take the side of the
Ghibellines to whose cause Salinguerra, the strongest military
adventurer in North Italy, has now devoted himself. When the poem
begins, Salinguerra has received from the Emperor the badge which gives
him the leadership of the Ghibelline party in North Italy.

Then Palma, bringing Sordello to see Salinguerra, reveals to the great
partisan that Sordello is his son, and that she loves him. Salinguerra,
seeing in the union of Palma, daughter of the Lord of Romano, with his
son, a vital source of strength to the Emperor's party, throws the
Emperor's badge on his son's neck, and offers him the leadership of the
Ghibellines. Palma urges him to accept it; but Sordello has been already
convinced that the Guelf side is the right one to take for the sake of
mankind. Rome, he thinks, is the great uniting power; only by Rome can
the cause of peace and the happiness of the people be in the end
secured. That cause - the cause of a happy people - is the one thing for
which, after many dreams centred in self, Sordello has come to care. He
is sorely tempted by the love of Palma and by the power offered him to
give up that cause or to palter with it; yet in the end his soul resists
the temptation. But the part of his life, in which he has neglected his
body, has left him without physical strength; and now the struggle of
his soul to do right in this spiritual crisis gives the last blow to his
weakened frame. His heart breaks, and he dies at the moment when he
dimly sees the true goal of life. This is a masterpiece of the irony of
the Fate-Goddess; and a faint suspicion of this irony, underlying life,
even though Browning turns it round into final good, runs in and out of
the whole poem in a winding thread of thought.

This is the historical background of the poem, and in front of it are
represented Sordello, his life, his development as an individual soul,
and his death. I have, from one point of view, slightly analysed the
first two books of the poem, but to analyse the whole would be apart
from the purpose of this book. My object in this and the following
chapter is to mark out, with here and there a piece of explanation,
certain characteristics of the poem in relation, first, to the time in
which it is placed; secondly, to the development of Sordello in contact
with that time; and thirdly, to our own time; then to trace the
connection of the poem with the poetic evolution of Browning; and
finally, to dwell throughout the whole discussion on its poetic

1. The time in which the poem's thought and action are placed is the
beginning of the thirteenth century in North Italy, a period in which
the religious basis of life, laid so enthusiastically in the eleventh
century, and gradually weakening through the twelfth, had all but faded
away for the mediæval noble and burgher, and even for the clergy.
Religion, it is true, was confessed and its dogmas believed in; the
Cistercian revival had restored some of its lost influence, but it did
not any longer restrain the passions, modify the wickedness, control the
ambitions or subdue the world, in the heart of men, as it had done in
the eleventh century. There was in Italy, at least, an unbridled licence
of life, a fierce individuality, which the existence of a number of
small republics encouraged; and, in consequence, a wild confusion of
thought and act in every sphere of human life. Moreover, all through the
twelfth century there had been a reaction among the artistic and
literary men against the theory of life laid down by the monks, and
against the merely saintly aims and practice of the religious, of which
that famous passage in _Aucassin and Nicolete_ is an embodiment. Then,
too, the love poetry (a poetry which tended to throw monkish purity
aside) started in the midst of the twelfth century; then the troubadours
began to sing; and then the love-songs of Germany arose. And Italian
poetry, a poetry which tended to repel the religion of the spirit for
the religion of enjoyment, had begun in Sicily and Siena in 1172-78, and
was nurtured in the Sicilian Court of Frederick II., while Sordello was
a youth. All over Europe, poetry drifted into a secular poetry of love
and war and romance. The religious basis of life had lost its strength.
As to North Italy, where our concern lies, humanity there was weltering
like a sea, tossing up and down, with no direction in its waves. It was
not till Francis of Assisi came that a new foundation for religious
life, a new direction for it, began to be established. As to Law,
Government, Literature, and Art, all their elements were in equal
confusion. Every noble, every warrior who reached ascendency, or was
born to it, made his own laws and governed as he liked. Every little
city had its own fashions and its own aims; and was continually
fighting, driven by jealousy, envy, hatred, or emulation, with its
neighbours. War was the incessant business of life, and was carried on
not only against neighbouring cities, but by each city in its own
streets, from its own towers, where noble fought against noble, citizen
with citizen, and servant with servant. Literature was only trying to
begin, to find its form, to find its own Italian tongue, to understand
what it desired. It took more than a century after Sordello's youth to
shape itself into the poetry of Dante and Petrarch, into their prose and
the prose of Boccaccio. The _Vita Nuova_ was set forth in 1290, 93, the
_Decameron_ in 1350, 53, and Petrarch was crowned at Rome in 1341. And
the arts of sculpture and painting were in the same condition. They were
struggling towards a new utterance, but as yet they could not speak.

It is during this period of impassioned confusion and struggle towards
form, during this carnival of individuality, that Sordello, as conceived
by Browning, a modern in the midst of mediævalism, an exceptional
character wholly unfitted for the time, is placed by Browning. And the
clash between himself and his age is too much for him. He dies of it;
dies of the striving to find an anchorage for life, and of his inability
to find it in this chartless sea. But the world of men, incessantly
recruited by new generations, does not die like the individual, and
what Sordello could not do, it did. It emerged from this confusion in
the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, with S. Francis, Dante,
Petrarch and Boccaccio, the Pisani, Giotto, and the Commonwealth of
Florence. Religion, Poetry, Prose, Sculpture, Painting, Government and
Law found new foundations. The Renaissance began to dawn, and during its
dawn kept, among the elect of mankind, all or nearly all the noble
impulses and faith of mediævalism.

This dawn of the Renaissance is nearly a hundred years away at the time
of this poem, yet two of its characteristics vitally moved through this
transition period; and, indeed, while they continued even to the end of
the Renaissance, were powers which brought it about. The first of these
was a boundless curiosity about life, and the second was an intense
individuality. No one can read the history of the Italian Republics in
the thirteenth century without incessantly coming into contact with both
these elements working fiercely, confusedly, without apparently either
impulse or aim, but producing a wonderful activity of life, out of
which, by command as it were of the gods, a new-created world might rise
into order. It was as if chaos were stirred, like a cauldron with a
stick, that suns and planets, moving by living law, might emerge in
beauty. Sordello lived in the first whirling of these undigested
elements, and could only dream of what might be; but it was life in
which he moved, disorderly life, it is true, but not the dread disorder
of decay. Browning paints it with delight.

This unbridled curiosity working in men of unbridled individuality
produced a tumbling confusion in life. Men, full of eagerness, each
determined to fulfil his own will, tried every kind of life, attempted
every kind of pursuit, strove to experience all the passions, indulged
their passing impulses to the full, and when they were wearied of any
experiment in living passed on to the next, not with weariness but with
fresh excitement. Cities, small republics, did the same
collectively - Ferrara, Padua, Verona, Mantua, Milan, Parma, Florence,
Pisa, Siena, Perugia. Both cities and citizens lived in a nervous storm,
and at every impulse passed into furious activity. In five minutes a
whole town was up in the market-place, the bells rang, the town banner
was displayed, and in an hour the citizens were marching out of the
gates to attack the neighbouring city. A single gibe in the streets, or
at the church door, interchanged between one noble and another of
opposite factions, and the gutters of the streets ran red with the blood
of a hundred men. This then was the time of _Sordello_, and splendidly
has Browning represented it.

2. Sordello is the image of this curiosity and individuality, but only
inwardly. In the midst of this turbulent society Browning creates him
with the temperament of a poet, living in a solitary youth, apart from
arms and the wild movement of the world. His soul is full of the
curiosity of the time. The inquisition of his whole life is, "What is
the life most worth living? How shall I attain it, in what way make it
mine?" and then, "What sort of lives are lived by other men?" and,
finally, "What is the happiest life for the whole?" The curiosity does
not drive him, like the rest of the world, into action in the world. It
expands only in thought and dreaming. But however he may dream, however
wrapt in self he may be, his curiosity about these matters never lessens
for a moment. Even in death it is his ruling passion.

Along with this he shares fully in the impassioned individuality of the
time. Browning brings that forward continually. All the dreams of his
youth centre in himself; Nature becomes the reflection of himself; all
histories of great men he represents as in himself; finally, he becomes
to himself Apollo, the incarnation of poetry. But he does not seek to
realise his individuality, any more than his curiosity, in action. When
he is drawn out of himself at Mantua and sings for a time to please men,
he finds that the public do not understand him, and flies back to his
solitude, back to his own soul. And Mantua, and love, and adventure all
die within him. "I have all humanity," he says, "within myself - why then
should I seek humanity?" This is the way the age's passion for
individuality shows itself in him. Other men put it into love, war, or
adventure. He does not; he puts it into the lonely building-up of his
own soul. Even when he is brought into the midst of the action of the
time we see that he is apart from it. As he wanders through the turmoil
of the streets of Ferrara in Book iv., he is dreaming still of his own
life, of his own soul. His curiosity, wars and adventures are within.
The various lives he is anxious to live are lived in lonely
imaginations. The individuality he realises is in thought. At this point

Online LibraryStopford A. BrookeThe Poetry Of Robert Browning → online text (page 12 of 30)