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 instead to better the world and to do so in an original and possibly misunderstood manner. Such an approach leads to a poetry that challenges the reader far more than may be welcomed.
Especially in book 5, Sordello discusses three types of poets, each important in his or her own way. First there appear epic poets who use individuals as allegorical representations of good and evil, and thereby teach a moral lesson. Then there are dramatic poets, who drop allegory for greater realistic representation; the moral judgment of the actions of their characters is left up to the reader. The third sort, the synthesist, deals with interior action and uses the physical only so far as necessary. Such a poet is a “Maker-see,” and, as in the case of Sordello’s homiletic intervention with Salinguerra, seeks to awaken others to their responsibilities to the rest of the world.
Briefly put, the question that Sordello comes gradually to ask is this: Beyond the personal satisfaction of successfully wooing a beautiful maiden or the acclaim attendant upon the success of a popular public poet, what sort of impact can and should a poet have in the rough world of wars, economics, and vengeance?
In this early poem the question of love, here the love of the Lady Palma, does not receive the complex psychological treatment that it does in later Browning poems. Already contained in Sordello, however, and blossoming into full flower in such later poems as “Andrea del Sarto,” is the ancillary question of the inevitability, and possible benefit, of human fallibility in any committed activity in the world. For Browning, to have loved and lost seems, in some sense, even better than to have loved and not
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not lost, and in Sordello there is already a clear preference for imperfection over perfection.
Sordello’s sudden death in the midst of his crisis of conscience, and on the verge of what might have been a great political success, leads to a question that was already assuming great importance in Browning’s mind. Beyond one’s possible role as a poet, what would constitute a “successful” life? For someone such as Sordello, Browning’s narrator suggests, success cannot take the form of political power. It must derive from the ethical force that leads others to act in responsible and generous ways. The true leader, as Sordello in some sense is, therefore serves as a prophet.
Especially if he is a poet, his real task is to embody a new consciousness, a new idea, that will someday take root in those more politically powerful; they, in turn, will change governments and all social structures that enslave. For the Browning of Sordello, therefore, the successful poet is not necessarily the one whose poetry is immediately accessible, beautiful, or even didactic. Sordello helped others see the conflict not only between Guelfs and Ghibellines but within each individual as well. That job accomplished, his brief life was a success.