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There are certain analogies between Browning as a poet and the Sordello of the poem; between his relation to the world of his time and that of Sordello to his time; and finally, between Browning’s language in this poem and the change in the Italian language which he imputes to the work of Sordello. This chapter will discuss these analogies, and close with an appreciation of Browning’s position between the classic and romantic schools of poetry.

The analogies of which I write may be denied, but I do not think they can be disproved. Browning is, no doubt, separate from Sordello in his own mind, but underneath the young poet he is creating, he is continually asking himself the same question which Sordello asks What shall I do as an artist? To what conclusion shall I come with regard to my life as a poet? It is no small proof of this underlying personal element in the first three books of the poem that at the end of the third book Browning flings himself suddenly out of the mediaeval world and the men he has created, and waking into 1835-40 at Venice, asks himself What am I writing, and why? What is my aim in being a poet? Is it worth my while to go on with Sordello’s story, and why is it worth the telling? In fact, he allows us to think that he has been describing in Sordello’s story a transitory phase of his own career. And then, having done this, he tells how he got out of confusion into clearer light.

The analogy between Browning’s and Sordello’s time is not a weak one. The spirit of the world, between 1830 and 1840 in England, resembled in many ways the spirit abroad at the beginning of the thirteenth century. The country had awakened out of a long sleep, and was extraordinarily curious not only with regard to life and the best way to live it, but also with regard to government, law, the condition of the people, the best kind of religion and how best to live it, the true aims of poetry and how it was to be written, what subjects it should work on, what was to be the mother-motive of it, that is, what was the mother-motive of all the arts. And this curiosity deepened from year to year for fifty years. But even stronger than the curiosity was the eager individualism of this time, which extended into every sphere of human thought and action, and only began about 1866 to be balanced by an equally strong tendency towards collectivism.

These two elements in the time-spirit did not produce, in a settled state like England, the outward war and confusion they produced in the thirteenth century, though they developed after 1840, in ’48, into a European storm but they did produce a confused welter of mingled thoughts concerning the sources and ends of human life, the action it should take, and why it should take it. The poetry of Arnold and Clough represents with great clearness the further development in the soul of man of this confusion. I think that Browning has represented in the first three books of Sordello his passage through this tossing sea of thought.

He had put into Paracelsus all that he had worked out with clearness during his youth; his theory of life is stated with lucidity in that poem. But when it was finished, and he had entered, like Sordello from Goito into Mantua, into the crowd and clash of the world; when, having published Pauline and Paracelsus, he had, like Sordello, met criticism and misunderstanding, his Paracelsian theory did not seem to explain humanity as clearly as he imagined. It was only a theory; Would it stand the test of life among mankind, be a saving and healing prophecy? Life lay before him, now that the silent philosophising of poetic youth was over, in all its inexplicable, hurried, tormented, involved, and multitudinously varied movement. He had built up a transcendental building in Paracelsus. Was it all to fall in ruin? No answer came when he looked forth on humanity over whose landscape the irony of the gods, a bitter mist, seemed to brood. At what then shall he aim as a poet? What shall be his subject-matter? How is life to be lived?

Then he thought that he would, as a poet, describe his own time and his own soul under the character of Sordello, and place Sordello in a time more stormy than his own. And he would make Sordello of an exceptional temper like himself, and to clash with his time as he was then clashing with his own. With these thoughts he wrote the first books of Sordello, and Naddo, the critic of Sordello’s verses, represents the critics of Paracelsus and the early poems. I have experienced, he says of himself in Sordello, something of the spite of fate.

Then, having done this, he leaves Sordello at the end of the third book, and turns, beset with a thousand questions, to himself and his art in a personal digression. Reclining on a ruined palace-step at Venice, he thinks of Eglamor who made a flawless song, the type of those who reach their own perfection here; and then of Sordello who made a song which stirred the world far more than Eglamor’s, which yet was not flawless, not perfect; but because of its imperfection looked forward uncontented to a higher song. Shall he, Browning the poet, choose Eglamor or Sordello; even though Sordello perish without any achievement? And he chooses to sail for ever towards the infinite, chooses the imperfection which looks forward. A sailor who loves voyaging may say, when weather-bound, “Here rest, unlade the ship, sleep on this grassy bank.” ’Tis but a moment on his path; let the wind change, and he is away again, whether triumph or shipwreck await him, for ever

The tempter of the everlasting steppe.

That much is then settled for life and for poetry. And in that choice of endless aspiration Browning confirms all that he thought, with regard to half of his theory of life, in Paracelsus. This is his first thought for life, and it is embodied in the whole of Sordello’s career. Sordello is never content with earth, either when he is young, or when he passes into the world, or when he dies not having attained or been already perfect a thought which is as much at the root of romanticism as of Christianity. Then comes the further question: To whom shall I dedicate the service of my art? Who shall be my motive, the Queen whom I shall love and write of; and he thinks of Sordello who asks that question and who, for the time, answers “Palma,” that is, the passion of love.

“But now, shall I, Browning, take as my Queen” and he symbolises his thought in the girls he sees in the boats from his palace steps “that girl from Bassano, or from Asolo, or her from Padua; that is, shall I write of youth’s love, of its tragic or its comedy, of its darkness, joy and beauty only? No, he answers, not of that stuff shall I make my work, but of that sad dishevelled ghost of a girl, half in rags, with eyes inveterately full of tears; of wild, worn, care-bitten, ravishing, piteous, and pitiful Humanity, who begs of me and offers me her faded love in the street corners. She shall be my Queen, the subject of my song, the motive of my poetry. She may be guilty, warped awry from her birth, and now a tired harlotry; but she shall rest on my shoulder and I shall comfort her. She is false, mistaken, degraded, ignorant, but she moves blindly from evil to good, and from lies to truth, and from ignorance to knowledge, and from all to love; and all her errors prove that she has another world in which, the errors being worked through, she will develop into perfectness. Slowly she moves, step by step; but not a millionth part is here done of what she will do at last. That is the matter of my poetry, which, in its infinite change and hopes, I shall express in my work. I shall see it, say what I have seen, and it may be

Impart the gift of seeing to the rest.

Therefore I have made Sordello, thus far, with all his weakness and wrong

moulded, made anew
A Man, and give him to be turned and tried,
Be angry with or pleased at.”

And then Browning severs himself from Sordello. After this retirement of thought into himself, described as taking place in Venice during an hour, but I dare say ranging over half a year in reality, he tells the rest of Sordello’s story from the outside, as a spectator and describer.

Browning has now resolved to dedicate his art, which is his life, to love of Humanity, of that pale dishevelled girl, unlovely and lovely, evil and good; and to tell the story of individual men and women, and of as many as possible; to paint the good which is always mixed with their evil; to show that their failures and sins point to a success and goodness beyond, because they emerged from aspiration and aspiration from the divinity at the root of human nature. But to do this, a poet must not live like Sordello, in abstractions, nor shrink from the shock of men and circumstance, nor refuse to take men and life as they are but throw himself into the vital present, with its difficulties, baffling elements and limitations; take its failures for his own; go through them while he looks beyond them, and, because he looks beyond them, never lose hope, or retreat from life, or cease to fight his way onward. And, to support him in this, there is but one thing infinite love, pity, and sympathy for mankind, increased, not lessened by knowledge of the sins and weakness, the failure and despairs of men. This is Browning’s second thought for life. But this is the very thing Sordello, as conceived by Browning, did not and could not do. He lived in abstractions and in himself; he tried to discard his human nature, or to make it bear more than it could bear. He threw overboard the natural physical life of the body because it limited, he thought, the outgoings of the imaginative soul, and only found that in weakening the body he enfeebled the soul. At every point he resented the limits of human life and fought against them. Neither would he live in the world allotted to him, nor among the men of his time, nor in its turmoil; but only in imagination of his own inner world, among men whom he created for himself, of which world he was to be sole king. He had no love for men; they wearied, jarred, and disturbed his ideal world. All he wanted was their applause or their silence, not their criticism, not their affection. And of course human love and sympathy for men and insight into them, departed from him, and with them his art departed. He never became a true poet.

It is this failure, passing through several phases of life in which action is demanded of Sordello, that Browning desired to record in the last three books of the poem. And he thinks it worth doing because it is human, and the record of what is human is always of worth to man. He paints Sordello’s passage through phase after phase of thought and act in the outside world, in all of which he seems for the moment to succeed or to touch the verge of success, but in which his neglect of the needs of the body and the uncontentment of his soul produce failure. At last, at the very moment of death he knows why he failed, and sees, as through a glass darkly, the failure making the success of the world to come. The revelation bursts his heart.

And now what is the end, what is the result for man of this long striving of Sordello? Nothing! Nothing has been done. Yet no, there is one result. The imperfect song he made when he was young at Goito, in the flush of happiness, when he forgot himself in love of nature and of the young folk who wandered rejoicing through the loveliness of nature that song is still alive, not in the great world among the noble women and warriors of the time, but on the lips of the peasant girls of Asolo who sing it on dewy mornings when they climb the castle hill. This is the outcome of Sordello’s life, and it sounds like irony on Browning’s lips. It is not so; the irony is elsewhere in the poem, and is of another kind. Here, the conclusion is, that the poem, or any work of art, made in joy, in sympathy with human life, moved by the love of loveliness in man or in nature, lives and lasts in beauty, heals and makes happy the world. And it has its divine origin in the artist’s loss of himself in humanity, and his finding of himself, through union with humanity, in union with God the eternal poet. In this is hidden the life of an artist’s greatness. And here the little song, which gives joy to a child, and fits in with and enhances its joy, is greater in the eyes of the immortal judges than all the glory of the world which Sordello sought so long for himself alone. It is a truth Browning never failed to record, the greatness and power of the things of love; for, indeed, love being infinite and omnipotent, gives to its smallest expression the glory of all its qualities.

The second of these analogies between Browning and Sordello relates to Browning’s treatment of the English language in the poem of Sordello and what he pictures Sordello as doing for the Italian language in the poem. The passage to which I refer is about half-way in the second book. As there is no real ground for representing Sordello as working any serious change in the Italian tongue of literature except a slight phrase in a treatise of Dante’s, the representation is manifestly an invention of Browning’s added to the character of Sordello as conceived by himself. As such it probably comes out of, and belongs to, his own experience. The Sordello who acts thus with language represents the action of Browning himself at the time he was writing the poem. If so, the passage is full of interest.

All we know about Sordello as a poet is that he wrote some Italian poems. Those by which he was famous were in Provencal. In Dante’s treatise on the use of his native tongue, he suggests that Sordello was one of the pioneers of literary Italian. So, at least, Browning seems to infer from the passage, for he makes it the motive of his little “excursus” on Sordello’s presumed effort to strike out a new form and method in poetic language. Nothing was more needed than such an effort if any fine literature were to arise in Italy. In this unformed but slowly forming thirteenth century the language was in as great a confusion and, I may say, as individual (for each poet wrote in his own dialect) as the life of the century.

What does Browning make Sordello do? He has brought him to Mantua as the accepted master of song; and Sordello burns to be fully recognised as the absolute poet. He has felt for some time that while he cannot act well he can imagine action well. And he sings his imaginations. But there is at the root of his singing a love of the applause of the people more than a love of song for itself. And he fails to please. So Sordello changes his subject and sings no longer of himself in the action of the heroes he imagines, but of abstract ideas, philosophic dreams and problems. The very critics cried that he had left human nature behind him. Vexed at his failure, and still longing to catch the praise of men, that he may confirm his belief that he is the loftiest of poets, he makes another effort to amaze the world. “I’ll write no more of imaginary things,” he cries; “I will catch the crowd by reorganising the language of poetry, by new arrangements of metre and words, by elaborate phraseology, especially by careful concentration of thought into the briefest possible frame of words. I will take the stuff of thought that is, the common language beat it on the anvil into new shapes, break down the easy flow of the popular poetry, and scarcely allow a tithe of the original words I have written to see the light,

welding words into the crude
Mass from the new speech round him, till a rude
Armour was hammered out, in time to be
Approved beyond the Roman panoply
Melted to make it.”

That is, he dissolved the Roman dialect to beat out of it an Italian tongue. And in this new armour of language he clothed his thoughts. But the language broke away from his thoughts: neither expressed them nor made them clear. The people failed to understand his thought, and at the new ways of using language the critics sneered. “Do get back,” they said, “to the simple human heart, and tell its tales in the simple language of the people.”

I do not think that the analogy can be missed. Browning is really describing with, perhaps, a half-scornful reference to his own desire for public appreciation what he tried to do in Sordello for the language in which his poetry was to be written. I have said that when he came to write Sordello his mind had fallen back from the clear theory of life laid down in Paracelsus into a tumbled sea of troubled thoughts; and Sordello is a welter of thoughts tossing up and down, now appearing, then disappearing, and then appearing again in conjunction with new matter, like objects in a sea above which a cyclone is blowing. Or we may say that his mind, before and during the writing of Sordello, was like the thirteenth century, pressing blindly in vital disturbance towards an unknown goal. That partly accounts for the confused recklessness of the language of the poem. But a great many of the tricks Browning now played with his poetic language were deliberately done. He had tried like Sordello at the Court of Love a love-poem in Pauline. It had not succeeded. He had tried in Paracelsus to expose an abstract theory of life, as Sordello had tried writing on abstract imaginings. That also had failed. Now he determined as he represents Sordello doing to alter his whole way of writing. “I will concentrate now,” he thought, “since they say I am too loose and too diffuse; cut away nine-tenths of all I write, and leave out every word I can possibly omit. I will not express completely what I think; I shall only suggest it by an illustration. And if anything occur to me likely to illuminate it, I shall not add it afterwards but insert it in a parenthesis. I will make a new tongue for my poetry.” And the result was the style and the strange manner in which Sordello was written. This partly excuses its obscurity, if deliberation can be an excuse for a bad manner in literature. Malice prepense does not excuse a murder, though it makes it more interesting. Finally, the manner in which Sordello was written did not please him. He left it behind him, and Pippa Passes, which followed Sordello, is as clear and simple as its predecessor is obscure in style.

Thirdly, the language of Sordello, and, in a lesser degree, that of all Browning’s poetry, proves if his whole way of thought and passion did not also prove it that Browning was not a classic, that he deliberately put aside the classic traditions in poetry. In this he presents a strong contrast to Tennyson. Tennyson was possessed by those traditions. His masters were Homer, Vergil, Milton and the rest of those who wrote with measure, purity, and temperance; and from whose poetry proceeded a spirit of order, of tranquillity, of clearness, of simplicity; who were reticent in ornament, in illustration, and stern in rejection of unnecessary material. None of these classic excellences belong to Browning, nor did he ever try to gain them, and that was, perhaps, a pity. But, after all, it would have been of no use had he tried for them. We cannot impose from without on ourselves that which we have not within; and Browning was, in spirit, a pure romantic, not a classic. Tennyson never allowed what romanticism he possessed to have its full swing. It always wore the classic dress, submitted itself to the classic traditions, used the classic forms. In the Idylls of the King he took a romantic story; but nothing could be more unromantic than many of the inventions and the characters; than the temper, the morality, and the conduct of the poem. The Arthurian poets, Malory himself, would have jumped out their skin with amazement, even with indignation, had they read it. And a great deal of this oddity, this unfitness of the matter to the manner, arose from the romantic story being expressed in poetry written in accordance with classic traditions. Of course, there were other sources for these inharmonies in the poem, but that was one, and not the least of them.

Browning had none of these classic traditions. He had his own matter, quite new stuff it was; and he made his own manner. He did not go back to the old stories, but, being filled with the romantic spirit, embodied it in new forms, and drenched with it his subjects, whether he took them from ancient, mediaeval, Renaissance, or modern life. He felt, and truly, that it is of the essence of romanticism to be always arising into new shapes, assimilating itself, century by century, to the needs, the thought and the passions of growing mankind; progressive, a lover of change; in steady opposition to that dull conservatism the tendency to which besets the classic literature.

Browning had the natural faults of the romantic poet; and these are most remarkable when such a poet is young. The faults are the opposites of the classic poet’s excellences: want of measure, want of proportion, want of clearness and simplicity, want of temperance, want of that selective power which knows what to leave out or when to stop. And these frequently become positive and end in actual disorder of composition, huddling of the matters treated of into ill-digested masses, violence in effects and phrase, bewildering obscurity, sought-out even desperate strangeness of subject and expression, uncompromising individuality, crude ornament, and fierce colour. Many examples of these faults are to be found in Sordello and throughout the work of Browning. They are the extremes into which the Romantic is frequently hurried.

But, then, Browning has the natural gifts and excellences of the romantic poet, and these elements make him dearer than the mere Classic to a multitude of imaginative persons. One of them is endless and impassioned curiosity, for ever unsatisfied, always finding new worlds of thought and feeling into which to make dangerous and thrilling voyages of discovery voyages that are filled from end to end with incessantly changing adventure, or delight in that adventure. This enchants the world. And it is not only in his subjects that the romantic poet shows his curiosity. He is just as curious of new methods of tragedy, of lyric work, of every mode of poetry; of new ways of expressing old thoughts; new ways of treating old metres; of the invention of new metres and new ways of phrasing; of strange and startling word-combinations, to clothe fittingly the strange and startling things discovered in human nature, in one’s own soul, or in the souls of others. In ancient days such a temper produced the many tales of invention which filled the romantic cycles.

Again and again, from century to century, this romantic spirit has done its re-creating work in the development of poetry in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and England. And in 1840, and for many years afterwards, it produced in Browning, and for our pleasure, his dramatic lyrics as he called them; his psychological studies, which I may well call excursions, adventures, battles, pursuits, retreats, discoveries of the soul; for in the soul of man lay, for Browning, the forest of Broceliande, the wild country of Morgan lé Fay, the cliffs and moors of Lyonnesse. It was there, over that unfooted country, that Childe Roland rode to the Dark Tower. Nor can anything be more in the temper of old spiritual romance though with a strangely modern mise-en-scene than the great adventure on the dark common with Christ in Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day.

Another root of the romantic spirit was the sense of, and naturally the belief in, a world not to be felt of the senses or analysed by the understanding; which was within the apparent world as its substance or soul, or beyond it as the power by which it existed; and this mystic belief took, among poets, philosophers, theologians, warriors and the common people, a thousand forms, ranging from full-schemed philosophies to the wildest superstitions. It tended, in its extremes, to make this world a shadow, a dream; and our life only a real life when it habitually dwelt in the mystic region mortal eye could not see, whose voices mortal ear could not receive. Out of this root, which shot its first fibres into the soul of humanity in the days of the earliest savage and separated him by an unfathomable gulf from the brute, arose all the myths and legends and mystic stories which fill romance. Out of it developed the unquenchable thirst of those of the romantic temper for communion with the spiritual beings of this mystic world; a thirst which, however repressed for a time, always arises again; and is even now arising among the poets of to-day.

In Browning’s view of the natural world some traces of this element of the romantic spirit may be distinguished, but in his poetry of Man it scarcely appears. Nor, indeed, is he ever the true mystic. He had too much of the sense which handles daily life; he saw the facts of life too clearly, to fall into the vaguer regions of mysticism. But one part of its region, and of the romantic spirit, so incessantly recurs in Browning that it may be said to underlie the whole of his work. It is that into which the thoughts and passions of the romantic poets in all ages ran up, as into a goal the conception of a perfect world, beyond this visible, in which the noble hopes, loves and work of humanity baffled, limited, and ruined here should be fulfilled and satisfied. The Greeks did not frame this conception as a people, though Plato outreached towards it; the Romans had it not, though Vergil seems to have touched it in hours of inspiration. The Teutonic folk did not possess it till Christianity invaded them. Of course, it was alive like a beating heart in Christianity, that most romantic of all religions. But the Celtic peoples did conceive it before Christianity and with a surprising fulness, and wherever they went through Europe they pushed it into the thought, passions and action of human life. And out of this conception, which among the Irish took form as the Land of Eternal Youth, love and joy, where human trouble ceased, grew that element in romance which is perhaps the strongest in it the hunger for eternity, for infinite perfection of being, and, naturally, for unremitting pursuit of it; and among Christian folk for a life here which should fit them for perfect life to come. Christian romance threw itself with fervour into that ideal, and the pursuit, for example, of the Holy Grail is only one of the forms of this hunger for eternity and perfection.

Browning possessed this element of romance with remarkable fulness, and expressed it with undiminished ardour for sixty years of poetic work. From Pauline to Asolando it reigns supreme. It is the fountain-source of Sordello by the pervasiveness of which the poem consists. Immortal life in God’s perfection! Into that cry the Romantic’s hunger for eternity had developed in the soul of Browning. His heroes, in drama and lyric, in Paracelsus and Sordello, pass into the infinite, there to be completed.

And if I may here introduce a kind of note, it is at this moment that we ought to take up the Purgatorio, and see Sordello as Dante saw him in that flowery valley of the Ante-Purgatory when he talked with Dante and Vergil. He is there a very different person from the wavering creature Browning drew. He is on the way to that perfect fulfilment in God which Browning desired for him and all mankind.

Nevertheless, in order to complete this statement, Browning, in his full idea of life, was not altogether a romantic. He saw there was a great danger that the romantic mysticism might lead its pursuers to neglect the duties of life, or lessen their interest in the drama of mankind. Therefore he added to his cry for eternity and perfection, his other cry: “Recognise your limitations, and work within them, while you must never be content with them. Give yourself in love and patience to the present labour of mankind; but never imagine for a moment that it ends on earth.” He thus combined with the thirst of the romantic for eternity the full ethical theory of life, as well as the classic poet’s determination to represent the complete aspect of human life on earth. At this point, but with many fantastic deviations due to his prevailing romanticism, he was partly of the classic temper. The poem of Sordello is not without an image of this temper, set vigorously in contrast with Sordello himself. This is Salinguerra, who takes the world as it is, and is only anxious to do what lies before him day by day. His long soliloquy, in which for the moment he indulges in dreams, ends in the simple resolution to fight on, hour by hour, as circumstances call on him.

Browning’s position, then, is a combination of the romantic and classical, of the Christian and ethical, of the imaginative and scientific views of human life; of the temper which says, “Here only is our life, here only our concern,” and that which says, “Not here, but hereafter is our life.” “Here, and hereafter,” answered Browning. “Live within earth’s limits with all your force; never give in, fight on; but always transcend your fullest action in aspiration, faith and love.”

It amuses me sometimes the way he is taken by his readers. The romantic and the Christian folk often claim him as the despiser of this world, as one who bids us live wholly for the future, or in the mystic ranges of thought and passion. The scientific, humanitarian, and ethical folk accept that side of him which agrees with their views of human life views which exclude God, immortality, and a world beyond that is, they take as the whole of Browning the lesser part of his theory of life. This is not creditable to their understanding, though it is natural enough. We may accept it as an innocent example of the power of a strong bias in human nature. But it is well to remember that the romantic, Christian, mystic elements of human life are more important in Browning’s eyes than the ethical or scientific; that the latter are nothing to him without the former; that the best efforts of the latter for humanity are in his belief not only hopeless, but the stuff that dreams are made of, without the former. In the combination of both is Browning’s message to mankind.