Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Sordello invites a political interpretation, since it is so heavily involved in the politics of the twelfth century. Viewed allegorically, it can be described as Browning’s critique of the bourgeois class in England that considered itself liberal in its republican sentiments, while maintaining a political alliance with the aristocracy. In a note to a friend, however, Browning protested that the historical setting of Sordello was somewhat arbitrary and was simply a backdrop to a more immediate drama that was not notably political: “The historical decoration was purposely of no more importance than a background requires; and my stress lay on the incidents in the development of a soul.” Though the setting is medieval, the ideas being discussed are very much of the nineteenth century, and they are more psychological than political.

To his interest in portraying a young poet’s consciousness, Browning added the Victorian preoccupation with duty. On one hand, therefore, he follows the Romantic tradition of examining degrees of poetic inspiration in the types of poetry one may be called upon to write. On the other hand, considering the Romantic tradition of the isolation of the artist from society, Browning’s spokesman becomes increasingly and emotionally preoccupied with the question of the role of a poet or of any artist in the political world.

Sordello, like the earlier Paracelsus (1835), offers Browning an opportunity to mull over the sort of poetry that he wants to craft and to confront the possibility that the higher the poetic aspiration, the greater the chance not only of perceived failure among his contemporaries, but also of genuine failure in the eyes of history. In book 1, he discusses two approaches to poetry. The first is a validation of the world and its manners, and the artistry that results from such an attitude is an imitation of that world. The second approach, the less popular path, seeks...

(The entire section is 804 words.)