Context: The story of Sordello, the forerunner of Dante, is a painful history of a man of imagination born in the midst of civil war and political confusion. As a young man, Sordello tries to change the history of poetry but miserably fails, yet as he grows older, he finds that failure may be success, and turning from his deeply subjective vision joins the political disputes. However, the clash of personal vision and public involvement turns his mind into a feverish mass of contradictions that prevent any peace or happiness. Only when he realizes that there is a life after death can he reconcile himself to his apparent failure; he realizes that earthly fame is pallid beside immortal joy, and he accepts the fact that his vision, however great, was unfulfilled but will inspire others. Having told his painful tale, Browning directly addresses the reader to remind him that a story is more than the immediate reaction it calls up in the reader's mind; in fact, the poem is written so that the revelations of the poet do not come immediately but only after the reader has thought much about the surface story and has come to see that in the poem's obscurity lies the clarity of profound psychological insight.
Wake up! The ghost's gone, and the story endsI'd fain hope, sweetly; seeing, peri or ghoul,That spirits are conjectured fair or foul,Evil or good, judicious authors think,According as they vanish in a stinkOr in a perfume. Friends, be frank! ye snuffCivet, I warrant. Really? Like enough!Merely the savor's rareness; any noseMay ravage with impunity a rose;Rifle a musk-pod and 't will ache like yours!I'd tell you that same pungency ensuresAn after-gust, but that were overbold.Who would has heard Sordello's story told.