The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 984 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 707 words.)