The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

III. Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning

§ 6. Sordello

In the preface to Strafford, Browning says that “he had for some time been engaged on a Poem of a very different nature, when induced to make the present attempt.” This poem, as already hinted, was Sordello, Browning’s second study of a poetic soul, but a soul, this time, caught in the context of large and imperious circumstance and quite unlike Aprile.

Many have explained Sordello, and some have comprehended it. It is uncompromisingly and irretrievably difficult reading. No historical account of the conflicts of Ghibelline and Guelph, no expository annotation of any kind, not even its own wealth of luminous ideas or splendour of Italian city scenes and solitudes, can justify it entirely as a work of art. We may render its main plot in simple terms: how Sordello, endowed with powers that might have made him the Apollo of his people and victorious in a contest of song over Eglamor, his poetic foil, finds, unexpectedly, eminent station and political power within his grasp, but gains a victory of another kind, rising superior to the temptation doubly urged by the Ghibelline captain and the beauty of Parma; how the double victory has still left him a dabbler and loiterer, a Hamlet in both poetry and politics; how, clinging to his ideal, the cause of humanity, but failing to make it dominant over his “finite” world, he “dies under the strain of choice.” But no simplification of the story suffices. It is dark from the very intensity and multiplicity of the playing cross-lights; for the main ideas are reflected innumerably from the countless facets of the facts which the poet displays in confusingly rapid succession. Brilliancy, swiftness of movement, the sudden exclamation made to convey a complex thought, the crowded intrusion of parenthetical antecedents, the elision of connecting relatives—such are the characteristics which make it difficult to decipher.

It is no wonder that the appearance of Sordello, in 1840, destroyed the somewhat timid promise of public favour which Paracelsus had brought to the poet. We are told that the “gentle literary public” of those days had found Sartor Resartus unintelligible, and frankly turned away from Browning. But the suggested comparison is misleading and the criticism is unfair. The difficulties of Sartor have disappeared with the new times which Carlyle introduced; those of Sordello will stay so long as the mental structure of men remains the same.

“I blame no one,” said Browning, “least of all myself, who did my best then and since.” It was in no perverse mood of intellectual pride or of scorn for the public mind that he wrote Sordello. His error was, rather, the opposite. “Freighted full of music,” crowded with the wealth of his detailed knowledge, rapt with the splendour of his poetic visions, he, in the simplicity of his heart, forgot his public so completely as to assume, as a matter of course, that his readers were able to wing their flight at his side.

There are evidences that the experience was painful and that its effects lasted. In The Ring and the Book, and elsewhere, there is, in the resolute simplification of the narrative and the painful iteration, a clue to the effect of the failure of Sordello upon his workmanship. Both as he entered upon and as he closed that greatest of all his poetic adventures, there is a hint of a challenge and a touch of reproof, and even scorn, of the “British Public

  • ye who like me not,
  • (God love you!)—whom I yet have laboured for,
  • Perchance more careful whoso runs may read
  • Than erst when all, it seemed, could read who ran.
  • But it is time to turn to the outward events of this period of Browning’s life. These were his journey to Italy and the removal of the family to Hatcham. He started for Italy on Good Friday, 1838, travelling as sole passenger on a merchantman. On the voyage, he wrote the glorious story of the ride from Ghent to Aix, and Home Thoughts from the Sea. One of his objects was to gather materials for Sordello; but he harvested much more from his visit. It was, for him, “a time of enchantment.” He saw Asolo and Venice and Padua; he visited mountain solitudes, and he brought home a passionate and enduring love for Italy. Italian themes were, henceforth, to be favourites of his imagination, and his life in that country was, for many years to come, to saturate his experience.