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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., 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 qualities.

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 mediaeval 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 mediaevalism, 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 mediaevalism.

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 then he is apart from his century an exceptional temperament set in strong contrast to the world around him the dreamer face to face with a mass of men all acting with intensity. And the common result takes place; the exceptional breaks down against the steady and terrible pull of the ordinary. It is Hamlet over again, and when Sordello does act it is just as Hamlet does, by a sudden impulse which lifts him from dreaming into momentary action, out of which, almost before he has realised he is acting, he slips back again into dreams. And his action seems to him the dream, and his dream the activity. That saying of Hamlet’s would be easy on the lips of Sordello, if we take “bad dreams” to mean for him what they meant for Hamlet the moment he is forced to action in the real world “I could be bounded in a nut-shell and think myself king of infinite space, had I not bad dreams.” When he is surprised into action at the Court of Love at Mantua, and wins the prize of song, he seems to slip back into a sleepy cloud. But Palma, bending her beautiful face over him and giving him her scarf, wins him to stay at Mantua; and for a short time he becomes the famous poet. But he is disappointed. That which he felt himself to be (the supernal greatness of his individuality) is not recognised, and at last he feels that to act and fight his way through a world which appreciates his isolated greatness so little as to dare to criticise him, is impossible. We have seen in the last chapter how he slips back to Goito, to his contemplation of himself in nature, to his self-communion, to the dreams which do not contradict his opinion of himself. The momentary creator perishes in the dreamer. He gives up life, adventure, love, war, and he finally surrenders his art. No more poetry for him.

It is thus that a character feeble for action, but mystic in imagination, acts in the petulance of youth when it is pushed into a clashing, claiming world. In this mood a year passes by in vague content. Yet a little grain of conscience makes him sour. He is vexed that his youth is gone with all its promised glow, pleasure and action; and the vexation is suddenly deepened by seeing a great change in the aspect of nature. “What,” he thinks, when he sees the whole valley filled with Mincio in flood, “can Nature in this way renew her youth, and not I? Alas! I cannot so renew myself; youth is over.” But if youth be dead, manhood remains; and the curiosity and individuality of the age stir in him again. “I must find,” he thinks, “the fitting kind of life. I must make men feel what I am. But how; what do I want for this? I want some outward power to draw me forth and upward, as the moon draws the waters; to lead me to a life in which I may know mankind, in order that I may take out of men all I need to make myself into perfect form a full poet, able to impose my genius on mankind, and to lead them where I will. What force can draw me out of these dreaming solitudes in which I fail to realise my art? Why, there is none so great as love. Palma who smiled on me, she shall be my moon.” At that moment, when he is again thrilled with curiosity concerning life, again desirous to realise his individuality in the world of men, a message comes from Palma. “Come, there is much for you to do come to me at Verona.” She lays a political career before him. “Take the Kaiser’s cause, you and I together; build a new Italy under the Emperor.” And Sordello is fired by the thought, not as yet for the sake of doing good to man, but to satisfy his curiosity in a new life, and to edify his individual soul into a perfection unattained as yet. “I will go,” he thinks, “and be the spirit in this body of mankind, wield, animate, and shape the people of Italy, make them the form in which I shall express myself. It is not enough to act, in imagination, all that man is, as I have done. I will now make men act by the force of my spirit: North Italy shall be my body, and thus I shall realise myself” as if one could, with that self-contemplating motive, ever realise personality.

This, then, is the position of Sordello in the period of history I have pictured, and it carries him to the end of the third book of the poem. It has embodied the history of his youth of his first contact with the world; of his retreat from it into thought over what he has gone through; and of his reawakening into a fresh questioning how he shall realise life, how manifest himself in action. “What shall I do as a poet, and a man?”

3. The next thing to be said of Sordello is its vivid realisation of certain aspects of mediaeval life. Behind this image of the curious dreamer lost in abstractions, and vividly contrasted with it, is the fierce activity of mediaeval cities and men in incessant war; each city, each man eager to make his own individuality supreme; and this is painted by Browning at the very moment when the two great parties were formed, and added to personal war the intensifying power of two ideals. This was a field for imagination in which Browning was sure to revel, like a wild creature of the woods on a summer day. He had the genius of places, of portraiture, and of sudden flashes of action and passion; and the time of which he wrote supplied him with full matter for these several capacities of genius.

When we read in Sordello of the fierce outbursts of war in the cities of North Italy, we know that Browning saw them with his eyes and shared their fury and delight. Verona is painted in the first book just as the news arrives that her prince is captive in Ferrara. It is evening, a still and flaming sunset, and soft sky. In dreadful contrast to this burning silence of Nature is the wrath and hate which are seething in the market-place. Group talked with restless group, and not a face

But wrath made livid, for among them were
Death’s staunch purveyors, such as have in care
To feast him. Fear had long since taken root
In every breast, and now these crushed its fruit,
The ripe hate, like a wine; to note the way
It worked while each grew drunk! Men grave and grey
Stood, with shut eyelids, rocking to and fro,
Letting the silent luxury trickle slow
About the hollows where a heart should be;
But the young gulped with a delirious glee
Some foretaste of their first debauch in blood
At the fierce news.

Step by step the varying passions, varying with the men of the varied cities of the League assembled at Verona, are smitten out on the anvil of Browning’s imagination. Better still is the continuation of the same scene in the third book, when the night has come, and the raging of the people, reaching its height, declares war. Palma and Sordello, who are in the palace looking on the square, lean out to see and hear. On the black balcony beneath them, in the still air, amid a gush of torch-fire, the grey-haired counsellors harangue the people;

Sea-like that people surging to and fro
Shouted, “Hale forth the carroch trumpets, ho,
A flourish! Run it in the ancient grooves!
Back from the bell! Hammer that whom behoves
May hear the League is up!”

Then who will may read the dazzling account of the streets of Ferrara thick with corpses; of Padua, of Bassano streaming blood; of the wells chokeful of carrion, of him who catches in his spur, as he is kicking his feet when he sits on the well and singing, his own mother’s face by the grey hair; of the sack of Vicenza in the fourth book; of the procession of the envoys of the League through the streets of Ferrara, with ensigns, war-cars and clanging bells; of the wandering of Sordello at night through the squares blazing with fires, and the soldiers camped around them singing and shouting; of his solitary silent thinking contrasted with their noise and action and he who reads will know, as if he lived in them, the fierce Italian towns of the thirteenth century.

Nor is his power less when he describes the solitary silent places of mediaeval castles, palaces, and their rooms; of the long, statue-haunted, cypress-avenued gardens, a waste of flowers and wild undergrowth. We wander, room by room, through Adelaide’s castle at Goito, we see every beam in the ceiling, every figure on the tapestry; we walk with Browning through the dark passages into the dim-lighted chambers of the town palace at Verona, and hang over its balconies; we know the gardens at Goito, and the lonely woods; and we keep pace with Sordello through those desolate paths and ilex-groves, past the fountains lost in the wilderness of foliage, climbing from terrace to terrace where the broken statues, swarming with wasps, gleam among the leering aloes and the undergrowth, in the garden that Salinguerra made for his Sicilian wife at Ferrara. The words seem as it were to flare the ancient places out before the eyes.

Mixed up with all this painting of towns, castles and gardens there is some natural description. Browning endeavours, it is plain, to keep that within the mediaeval sentiment. But that he should succeed in that was impossible. The mediaeval folk had little of our specialised sentiment for landscape, and Browning could not get rid of it.

The modern philosophies of Nature do not, however, appear in Sordello as they did in Pauline or Paracelsus. Only once in the whole of Sordello is Nature conceived as in analogy with man, and Browning says this in a parenthesis. “Life is in the tempest,” he cries, “thought

“Clothes the keen hill-top; mid-day woods are fraught
With fervours”:

but, in spite of the mediaeval environment, the modern way of seeing Nature enters into all his descriptions. They are none the worse for it, and do not jar too much with the mediaeval mise-en-scene. We expect our modern sentiment, and Sordello himself, being in many ways a modern, seems to license these descriptions. Most of them also occur when he is on the canvas, and are a background to his thought. Moreover, they are not set descriptions; they are flashed out, as it were, in a few lines, as if they came by chance, and are not pursued into detail. Indeed, they are not done so much for the love of Nature herself, as for passing illustrations of Sordello’s ways of thought and feeling upon matters which are not Nature. As such, even in a mediaeval poem, they are excusable. And vivid they are in colour, in light, in reality. Some I have already isolated. Here are a few more, just to show his hand. This is the castle and its scenery, described in Book i.:

In Mantua territory half is slough,
Half pine-tree forest: maples, scarlet oaks
Breed o’er the river-beds; even Mincio chokes
With sand the summer through: but ’tis morass
In winter up to Mantua’s walls. There was,
Some thirty years before this evening’s coil,
One spot reclaimed from the surrounding spoil,
Goito; just a castle built amid
A few low mountains; firs and larches hid
Their main defiles, and rings of vineyard bound
The rest. Some captured creature in a pound,
Whose artless wonder quite precludes distress,
Secure beside in its own loveliness,
So peered, with airy head, below, above
The castle at its toils, the lapwings love
To glean among at grape time.

And this is the same place from the second book:

And thus he wandered, dumb
Till evening, when he paused, thoroughly spent
On a blind hill-top: down the gorge he went,
Yielding himself up as to an embrace.
The moon came out; like features of a face,
A querulous fraternity of pines,
Sad blackthorn clumps, leafless and grovelling vines
Also came out, made gradually up
The picture; ’twas Goito’s mountain-cup
And castle.

And here, from Book iii., is Spring when Palma, dreaming of the man she can love, cries that the waking earth is in a thrill to welcome him

“Waits he not the waking year?
His almond-blossoms must be honey-ripe
By this; to welcome him fresh runnels stripe
The thawed ravines; because of him the wind
Walks like a herald.”

This is May from Book ii.; and afterwards, in the third book, the months from Spring to Summer

My own month came;
’Twas a sunrise of blossoming and May.
Beneath a flowering laurel thicket lay
Sordello; each new sprinkle of white stars
That smell fainter of wine than Massic jars
Dug up at Baiae, when the south wind shed
The ripest, made him happier.

Not any strollings now at even-close
Down the field path, Sordello! by thorn-rows
Alive with lamp-flies, swimming spots of fire
And dew, outlining the black cypress-spire
She waits you at, Elys, who heard you first
Woo her, the snow month through, but, ere she durst
Answer ’twas April. Linden-flower-time long
Her eyes were on the ground; ’tis July, strong
Now; and, because white dust-clouds overwhelm
The woodside, here, or by the village elm
That holds the moon, she meets you, somewhat pale.

And here are two pieces of the morning, one of the wide valley of Naples; another with which the poem ends, pure modern, for it does not belong to Sordello’s time, but to our own century. This is from the fourth book.

Morning oer earth; he yearned for all it woke
From the volcano’s vapour-flag, winds hoist
Black o’er the spread of sea, down to the moist
Dale’s silken barley-spikes sullied with rain,
Swayed earthwards, heavily to rise again.

And this from the last book

Lo, on a heathy brown and nameless hill
By sparkling Asolo, in mist and chill,
Morning just up, higher and higher runs
A child barefoot and rosy. See! the sun’s
On the square castle’s inner-court’s low wall
Like the chine of some extinct animal
Half-turned to earth and flowers; and through the haze,
(Save where some slender patches of grey maize
Are to be over-leaped) that boy has crossed
The whole hill-side of dew and powder-frost
Matting the balm and mountain camomile.
Up and up goes he, singing all the while
Some unintelligible words to beat
The lark, God’s poet, swooning at his feet.

As alive, and even clearer in outline than these natural descriptions, are the portraits in Sordello of the people of the time. No one can mistake them for modern folk. I do not speak of the portrait of Sordello that is chiefly of the soul, not of the body but of the personages who fill the background, the heads of noble houses, the warriors, priests, soldiers, singers, the women, and chiefly Adelaide and Palma. These stand before us as Tintoret or Veronese might have painted them had they lived on into the great portrait-century. Their dress, their attitudes, their sudden gestures, their eyes, hair, the trick of their mouths, their armour, how they walked and talked and read and wrote, are all done in quick touches and jets of colour. Each is distinct from the others, each a type. A multitude of cabinet sketches of men are made in the market-places, in castle rooms, on the roads, in the gardens, on the bastions of the towns. Take as one example the Pope’s Legate:

With eyes, like fresh-blown thrush-eggs on a thread,
Faint-blue and loosely floating in his head,
Large tongue, moist open mouth; and this long while
That owner of the idiotic smile
Serves them!

Nor does Browning confine himself to personages of Sordello’s time. There are admirable portraits, but somewhat troubled by unnecessary matter, of Dante, of Charlemagne, of Hildebrand. One elaborate portrait is continued throughout the poem. It is that of Salinguerra, the man of action as contrasted with Sordello the dreamer. Much pains are spent on this by Browning. We see him first in the streets of Ferrara.

Men understood
Living was pleasant to him as he wore
His careless surcoat, glanced some missive o’er,
Propped on his truncheon in the public way.

Then at the games at Mantua, when he is told Sordello will not come to sing a welcome to him. What cares he for poet’s whims?

The easy-natured soldier smiled assent,
Settled his portly person, smoothed his chin,
And nodded that the bull-bait might begin.

Then mad with fighting frenzy in the sacking of Vicenza, then in his palace nursing his scheme to make the Emperor predominant, then pacing like a lion, hot with hope of mastering all Italy, when he finds out that Sordello is his son: “hands clenched, head erect, pursuing his discourse crimson ear, eyeballs suffused, temples full fraught.”

Then in the fourth book there is a long portrait of him which I quote as a full specimen of the power with which Browning could paint a partisan of the thirteenth century. Though sixty years old, Salinguerra looked like a youth

So agile, quick
And graceful turned the head on the broad chest
Encased in pliant steel, his constant vest,
Whence split the sun off in a spray of fire
Across the room; and, loosened of its tire
Of steel, that head let breathe the comely brown
Large massive locks discoloured as if a crown
Encircled them, so frayed the basnet where
A sharp white line divided clean the hair;
Glossy above, glossy below, it swept
Curling and fine about a brow thus kept
Calm, laid coat upon coat, marble and sound:
This was the mystic mark the Tuscan found,
Mused of, turned over books about. Square-faced,
No lion more; two vivid eyes, enchased
In hollows filled with many a shade and streak
Settling from the bold nose and bearded cheek.
Nor might the half-smile reach them that deformed
A lip supremely perfect else unwarmed,
Unwidened, less or more; indifferent
Whether on trees or men his thoughts were bent,
Thoughts rarely, after all, in trim and train
As now a period was fulfilled again:
Of such, a series made his life, compressed
In each, one story serving for the rest.

This is one example of a gallery of vivid portraiture in all Browning’s work, such as Carlyle only in the nineteenth century has approached in England. It is not a national, but an international gallery of portraits. The greater number of the portraits are Italian, and they range over all classes of society from the Pope to the peasant. Even Bishop Blougram has the Italian subtlety, and, like the Monsignore in Pippa Passes, something of the politic morality of Machiavelli. But Israel, Greece, France, Spain, Germany, and the days before the world was brought together, furnish him with men drawn as alive. He has painted their souls, but others have done this kind of painting as well, if not so minutely. But no others have painted so livingly the outside of men their features one by one, their carriage, their gestures, their clothing, their walk, their body. All the colours of their dress and eyes and lips are given. We see them live and move and have their being. It is the same with his women, but I keep these for further treatment.

4. The next thing I have to say about Sordello concerns what I call its illustrative episodes. Browning, wishing to illuminate his subject, sometimes darts off from it into an elaborate simile as Homer does. But in Homer the simile is carefully set, and explained to be a comparison. It is not mixed up with the text. It is short, rarely reaching more than ten lines. In Browning, it is glided into without any preparation, and at first seems part of the story. Nor are we always given any intimation of its end. And Browning is led away by his imaginative pleasure in its invention to work it up with adventitious ornament of colour and scenery; having, in his excitement of invention, lost all power of rejecting any additional touch which occurs to him, so that the illustration, swelling out into a preposterous length, might well be severed from the book and made into a separate poem. Moreover, these long illustrations are often but faintly connected with the subject they are used to illumine; and they delay the movement of the poem while they confuse the reader. The worst of these, worst as an illustration, but in itself an excellent fragment to isolate as a picture-poem, is the illustration of the flying slave who seeks his tribe beyond the Mountains of the Moon. It is only to throw light on a moment of Salinguerra’s discursive thought, and is far too big for that. It is more like an episode than an illustration. I quote it not only to show what I mean, but also for its power. It is in Bk. iv.

“As, shall I say, some Ethiop, past pursuit
Of all enslavers, dips a shackled foot
Burnt to the blood, into the drowsy black
Enormous watercourse which guides him back
To his own tribe again, where he is king;
And laughs because he guesses, numbering
The yellower poison-wattles on the pouch
Of the first lizard wrested from its couch
Under the slime (whose skin, the while, he strips
To cure his nostril with, and festered lips,
And eyeballs bloodshot through the desert-blast)
That he has reached its boundary, at last
May breathe; thinks o’er enchantments of the South
Sovereign to plague his enemies, their mouth,
Eyes, nails, and hair; but, these enchantments tried
In fancy, puts them soberly aside
For truth, projects a cool return with friends,
The likelihood of winning mere amends
Ere long; thinks that, takes comfort silently,
Then, from the river’s brink, his wrongs and he,
Hugging revenge close to their hearts, are soon
Off-striding for the Mountains of the Moon.”

The best of these is where he illustrates the restless desire of a poet for the renewal of energy, for finding new worlds to sing. The poet often seems to stop his work, to be satisfied. “Here I will rest,” he says, “and do no more.” But he only waits for a fresh impulse.

’Tis but a sailor’s promise, weather-bound:
“Strike sail, slip cable, here the bark be moored
For once, the awning stretched, the poles assured!
Noontide above; except the wave’s crisp dash,
Or buzz of colibri, or tortoise’ splash,
The margin’s silent: out with every spoil
Made in our tracking, coil by mighty coil,
This serpent of a river to his head
I’ the midst! Admire each treasure, as we spread
The bank, to help us tell our history
Aright; give ear, endeavour to descry
The groves of giant rushes, how they grew
Like demons’ endlong tresses we sailed through,
What mountains yawned, forests to give us vent
Opened, each doleful side, yet on we went
Till ... may that beetle (shake your cap) attest
The springing of a land-wind from the West!”
Wherefore? Ah yes, you frolic it to-day!
To-morrow, and the pageant moved away
Down to the poorest tent-pole, we and you
Part company: no other may pursue
Eastward your voyage, be informed what fate
Intends, if triumph or decline await
The tempter of the everlasting steppe!

This, from Book iii., is the best because it is closer than the rest to the matter in hand; but how much better it might have been! How curiously overloaded it is, how difficult what is easy has been made!

The fault of these illustrations is the fault of the whole poem. Sordello is obscure, Browning’s idolaters say, by concentration of thought. It is rather obscure by want of that wise rejection of unnecessary thoughts which is the true concentration. It is obscure by a reckless misuse of the ordinary rules of language. It is obscure by a host of parentheses introduced to express thoughts which are only suggested, half-shaped, and which are frequently interwoven with parentheses introduced into the original parentheses. It is obscure by the worst punctuation I ever came across, but this was improved in the later editions. It is obscure by multitudinous fancies put in whether they have to do with the subject or not, and by multitudinous deviations within those fancies. It is obscure by Browning’s effort to make words express more than they are capable of expressing.

It is no carping criticism to say this of Browning’s work in Sordello, because it is the very criticism his after-practice as an artist makes. He gave up these efforts to force, like Procrustes, language to stretch itself or to cut itself down into forms it could not naturally take; and there is no more difficulty in most of his earlier poems than there is in Paracelsus. Only a little of the Sordellian agonies remains in them, only that which was natural to Browning’s genius. The interwoven parentheses remain, the rushes of invention into double and triple illustrations, the multiplication of thought on thought; but for these we may even be grateful. Opulence and plenitude of this kind are not common; we are not often granted a man who flings imaginations, fancies and thoughts from him as thick and bright as sparks from a grinder’s wheel. It is not every poet who is unwilling to leave off, who finds himself too full to stop. “These bountiful wits,” as Lamb said, “always give full measure, pressed down, and running over.”