Sordello is commonly described as the least comprehensible poem written in the English language. Its publication caused the author unending troubles with the critics of his day. Robert Browning wrote it between the years 1833 and 1840; he apparently wrote four different versions, each with a somewhat different purpose in mind. The version most often read today is a poem of 5,982 lines in iambic pentameter, rhyming in couplets, and including running titles that summarize the action.
Browning’s historical sources for the story appear to have been Dante’s Purgatorio and the Biographie Universelle (a popular nineteenth century biographical dictionary) that was in his father’s library. Sordello was a Mantuan poet and warrior of the early thirteenth century, and thirty-four of his poems in the Provençal language are extant. His age at the time of his death remains uncertain (some historical accounts describe him as middle-aged, others as old), but Browning chose to have his character die at the age of thirty.
Other characters who figure in the drama include the Lady Palma; the minstrel Eglamor, whose place at court Sordello tries to usurp; the Ghibelline leaders Taurello Salinguerra and Ecelin; Ecelin’s wife, Adelaide; the literary critic Naddo; and Palma’s fiancé, the Guelf Count Richard of St. Boniface.
Before the actual story gets under way, in book 1 Browning introduces a speaker who promises to tell the story but who first paints an elaborate picture of a street scene in Verona in the twelfth century. He explains the history of the political battles between the Guelfs (supporters of popular liberation headed by Pope Henricus III and affiliated with the Este family) and the Ghibelline aristocracy (Frederick II and the barons of the Austro-German empire). He also apologizes for not using his usual dramatic monologue narrative technique and discusses Dante, who was Browning’s principal source for the story. Around line 400 he finally introduces Sordello.
The rest of book 1 shows the young Sordello in the town of Goito in the domain of the tyrant Ecelin, aspiring to become a great poet. As though he is naïvely fitting himself to some classical pattern, he finds himself ready, at the end of the canto, to fall in love.
In book 2, in order to win the love of the Lady Palma, Sordello pits himself against Eglamor in a poetry contest. When Sordello wins, Eglamor dies of grief. This convinces the younger man that he is himself quite talented, and he briefly experiences a sense of victory. Eglamor’s death over such a defeat, however, convinces Sordello that this more experienced minstrel, like many others, had been writing poetry strictly for popularity, and that Sordello’s victory is, therefore, hollow. He decides to attempt the writing of a poetry that will be more subjective yet clearly directed to the ennoblement of humanity. The critic Naddo ridicules the young poet and suggests that the world does not need more half-baked philosophers, especially among writers of poetry. Disheartened but not defeated, Sordello leaves the court of Taurello Salinguerra.
In book 3, Sordello first spends a year alone, recouping his energy and idealism. Then Naddo recalls him to court and asks him to write a public poem celebrating the impending marriage of Palma to Count Richard of St. Boniface, which would secure peace between the Ghibellines and the Guelfs. Sordello, however, professes his own love for Palma. She discovers the secret of Sordello’s birth but does not reveal the truth to him. She professes her love for him. Following her suggestion, the two move to Ferrara and become politically active in support of the Kaiser. Salinguerra helps them. Sordello’s...
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musings prompt the narrator to digress from the story and discuss the role of the poet in society, with some reference to his or her affiliation not only with the socially prominent but also with the suffering poor.
Book 4 seems principally a further exposition of the twelfth century history of the conflict between the Guelfs and Ghibellines, but it focuses particularly on the psychology and history of Salinguerra. His service of Ecelin is discussed. The reader learns that Adelaide, Ecelin’s wife, revealed to her husband that Salinguerra was, in fact, Sordello’s father. Discovering this, Ecelin had retired from the world and entered a monastery at Oliero, announcing, at the same time, the proposed marriage between Count Richard and Palma (mentioned above). Salinguerra had been in Naples, preparing to depart on a crusade with Emperor Frederick II, and he hurried back to Ferrara when he heard what Ecelin had done. Count Richard attacks him, but is imprisoned. This leads Sordello to condemn both parties in his heart. He asks whether solidarity between individuals of all classes might be more important than loyalty to any party.
Though he does not align himself specifically with the Guelfs, in book 5 Sordello embraces the democratic cause of the people and intercedes with Salinguerra, encouraging the leader to use his great power to help the poor of northern Italy. Salinguerra scorns the advice and tires of the long speech, but he offers to abdicate in favor of the idealistic poet. At that point Palma reveals that Salinguerra is Sordello’s father. The poet is now left with a crucial ethical dilemma: Can he enforce his ideals by assuming the power of a tyrant?
Somewhat shorter than the others, book 6 reveals that Sordello died at the end of the former book, unable to resolve the conflict with which he is there presented: He is a Ghibelline ruler by birth, but a Guelf democrat by instinct. Before his death, he crushes Salinguerra’s badge beneath his feet. Beyond this brief exposition, book 6 is a discussion of the question of Sordello’s successes and failures as both a poet and a leader. Much of the answer, the narrator suggests, must await the next life. There is, therefore, little sense of closure at the end of the poem.
Structurally, Sordello is organized into two halves, the first dealing more or less with the young man’s development as a poet, the second half with his development as a politician. Temporally, however, the poetic development lasts for more than thirty years, and the political for only three days. The first three books, therefore, are something of a digression from the action promised in the opening. This combination of anticipation and discontinuity becomes a persistent—and initially annoying—device that thematically stitches the poem together while appearing structurally to tear it apart.
Unlike Browning’s other distinctive poems, which are, in most cases, dramatic monologues, this early effort is narrative. That description can be misleading, however, since the poem does not set out, in simple expository form, the story of a particular Mantuan poet. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, wryly noted that the poem begins with the line “Who will, may hear Sordello’s story told,” and ends with the line “Who would has heard Sordello’s story told,” but both statements, in his opinion, were lies. Anyone approaching the poem without some idea of the story will be quickly frustrated by the extensive digressions from the plot and the juxtaposed sequence of incident.
This latter device, in fact, is not far from the progression d’effet later used by the modern novelist Ford Madox Ford in his novel The Good Soldier (1915). It may at first appear that Browning’s narrator is suddenly remembering an important detail that had slipped his mind. This can disconcert the reader, who expects a more obvious competence in straightforward storytelling, but it is Browning’s attempt to force reassessments of events and to make any one view of history seem relative. As noted in the next section, this formal device mirrors one of the poem’s themes. Digression, while potentially frustrating, should therefore be viewed as an essential device in Browning’s decision to step back from the onrush of heroes and villains. He wants a psychological portrayal of the artistic temperament and its development and must, therefore, show reflective activity as it happens.
The use of ellipsis, the breaking off in the middle of sentences, further slows the action; this, coupled with the complexity and length of some other sentences, the extensive use of enjambment and strong caesuras, have led critics to suggest that some of the poem’s difficulties and stylistic variety are the result of transforming an early version of the poem in blank verse into one in rhymed couplets. This reference to the earlier versions of the poem (there were three before the final one) helps explain the frequent confusion over whose consciousness is being depicted—Sordello’s, the narrator’s, or Browning’s. The dreamlike atmosphere of the narration that results, joined to the rather esoteric historical knowledge demanded of the reader over such a lengthy poem, discourages many potential readers.
Despite these challenges, though, as the Victorian Edmund Gosse noted, the poem has “passages of melody and insight, fresh enough, surprising enough to form the whole stock-in-trade of a respectable poet.” An effect Browning seems to desire in his use of colloquial diction and parenthetical expressions, one that he perfected later, is the sound of ordinary language despite the metrical straitjacket. The delineation of character that Browning would later perfect is certainly here in much of Sordello, as is the energetic description of locale. This “word-painting,” Browning’s great success at visualizing his events, would have been particularly appealing to his contemporaries—those, that is, who could get through the dense and allusive narration (another Victorian, Jane Carlyle, said she had read the poem cover to cover and could not decide whether Sordello was a person, a book, or a town; yet another, Douglas Jerrold, feared as he read it that he had lost his mind).
This reference to mind is actually of the greatest significance, since the greatest formal success of the poem is its early, pre-twentieth century experimentation with the representation of consciousness. The poetic devices that caused such confusion in the Victorian period and that continue to distress the casual reader are not far short of the fixation on the portrayal of mental states found in the works of James Joyce or Joseph Conrad.