Sordello – Book the First

Browning’s early long poem Sordello has got a bit of a reputation for being difficult. I started it yesterday and suspect that reputation must be built largely on its notorious reception – I won’t rehearse the usual anecdotes, but Opta stats show of an edition of 500 copies only 157 were sold, while 86 were given away to reviewers and friends since the publication of the poem. Poor Browning! We’re not talking ziggurats at the front of Tesco here. And he really thought he was writing something accessible:

in 1850 John Westland Martson told Rossetti [DG] that ‘Browning, before publishing Sordello, sent it him to read, saying that this time the public should not accuse him at any rate of being unintelligible (!!)’.

I started reading it yesterday and I’m not really sure it’s as unintelligible as all that, tho there are admittedly difficulties. Here are some appropriately disordered thoughts having read Book 1:

1. It’s a rather gawky poem. In this respect it feels like the product of youth, but definitely the youth of Browning and no other – that sense of too much to fit in to flowing measures. In this respect it’s quite interesting to use to look at his later, more accomplished poetry – a useful but dangerous trick of examining youthful work where the more accomplished and difficult to discern technique of later material may be more obvious because more crudely used. (It’s a dangerous technique because you can end up projecting from the youthful stuff forward; it can produce a deterministic narrative).

2. The combination of jam-packed detail and Romantic/Shelley type lyricism is not entirely happy – the detail can be clotted, the lyricism can be facile – but it is representative. Verses start out simple and then start digressing, introducing unfamiliar names, people start speaking, there are bizarre and unfathomable metaphors, obscure historical details, commas and subclauses and interjections start crowding in, and then ‘Oh yes? Where was I? Oh yes, Sordello! Back to the lyrical story! So you get stuff like

‘                          Hill-cats, face

Our Azzo, our Guelf Lion! Why disgrace

A worthiness conspicuous near and far

(Atii at Rome while free and consular,

Este at Padua who repulsed the Hun)

By trumpeting the Church’s princely son?

— Styled Patron of Rovigo’s Polesine,

Ancona’s march, Ferrara’s … ask, in fine,

Our chronicles, commenced when some old monk

Found it intolerable to be sunk

(Vexed to the quick by his revolting cell)

Quite out of summer while alive and well:

Ended when by his mat the Prior stood,

‘Mid busy promptings of the brotherhood,

Striving to coax from his decrepit brains

The reason Father Porphyry took pains

To blot those ten lines out which used to stand

First on their charter drawn by Hildebrand.

What do you mean you want footnotes? Followed by:

Ah, but Sordello? ‘T is the tale I mean

To tell you.

Then he’ll footle on in some low-level Romantic manner about Sordello’s youth for about ten lines before breaking out again. [footle’s the wrong word – it’s not bad in any way, it’s just a little underpowered – some of these sections are very good, and it’s where the core of the attempt to understand the construction of a poetic sensibility lies].

But that conjunction of clotted and lyrical is responsible for one of my favourite bits in all his poetry, from Waring, where it moves from the colloquial back-and-forth and urbane considerations of one stanza into the simple sentiment of the next:

“True, but there were sundry jottings,

 “Stray-leaves, fragments, blurts and blottings,

 “Certain fixst steps were achieved

 “Already which”— (is that your meaning?)

 “Had well borne out whoe’er believed

 In more to come!” But who goes gleaning

 Hedgeside chance-glades, while full-sheaved

 Stand cornfields by him? Pride, o’erweening

 Pride alone, puts forth such claims

 O’er the day’s distinguished names.


Meantime, how much I loved him,

I find out now I’ve lost him.

If one of the sources of the ‘difficulty’ of the poem, these disconjunctions are quite pleasing when you get the hang of them. It’s not at all affected, and the more insane the detail and general wtf-ness, the less affected it is. He is a man nattering on about what he knows, what he enjoys, what he is so interested in that the sense of how far he is off from the common share of things is not at all apparent to him. He wants to tell you all about it! It’s flattering that he wants to be your friend and tell you about it with such zest. And it’s cheerful to go along with him. (This is the gist of Chesterton’s approach to Browning iirc).

3. This is a Renaissance poem. Yeah, I know it’s set in mediaval Italy (early 13th c – is that duecento? docento? wtf is that?) amongst the strife of the proto-Guelf and Ghibelline factions, but this is a poem ALL ABOUT the formation of the man, early youth, poetry, the business of man being love (not platonic love, proper love), the discovery of a language, song, the aspiration of the human will, the projection of the imagination onto the world. These are Renaissance concerns and Romantic themes.

4. Having said that Browning is talking a solid streak of blue balls when he says in a later preface ‘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: little else is worth study”.

There is no other poet who spices his sauce so heavily with historical detail.

5. So, here’s a follow-on point: Browning has no poetic conception of figure and ground. He really doesn’t. In fact it’s a cause for amusement when at the beginning of Book II, Sordello encounters a C- troubadour and after he’s bested him in song, reflects, in a fit of literary criticism:

Strange! A Man

Recounted an adventure, but began

Imperfectly; his own task was to fill

The frame-work up, sing well what he sung ill,

Supply the necessary points, set loose

As many incidents of little use

— More imbecile the other, not to see

Their relative importance clear as he!

The ‘relative importance’ of point and incident. Not Browning’s strong suit. Good.

6. Ok, I was going to say something related about how Browning has difficulty keeping things out of view – for instance he almost immediately starts speaking about Sordello’s end – before reprimanding himself. But what I was going to say was based on misreading a bit right at the beginning where Browning apologises for using the third-person, saying he would have preferred to use the first-person, so he could enjoy the thrill of discovery in Sordello’s life as much as a reader new to it.

Still, there is the sense of discovery about this poem, of scurrying off down avenues and byways that don’t necessarily tend towards the end.

And Browning has difficulty in keeping things out of view (including himself), because there is no figure and ground, no chiascuro. His way of keeping things out of view and to postpone revelation is to digress into sundries.

7. A couple of favourite bits so far:

I really like the bit at the beginning, where he divides the waves of history, via seismic irruption, to reach the specific point in time and space where his poem is set, from abstract poetic considerations to the concrete matter in hand:

Lo, the past is hurled

In twain: up-thrust, out-staggering on the world,

Subsiding into shape, a darkness rears

Its outline, kindles at the core, appears

Verona. ‘T is six hundred years and more

Since an event. The Second Friederich wore

The purple, and the Third Honorius filled

The holy chair. That autumn eve was stilled:

A last remains of sunset dimly burned

O’er the far forests, like a torch-flame turned

By the wind back upon its bearer’s hand

In one long flare of crimson; as a brand,

The woods beneath lay black.

There will be autumn evenings that in my life will forever call those lines to mind.

Another favourite bit is when Sordello first conceives in his imagination, Palma, the love of his life:

How the tresses curled

Into  a sumptuous swell of gold and wound

About her like a glory! even the ground

Was bright as with split sunbeams; breathe not, breathe

Not! — poised, see, one leg doubled underneath,

Its small foot buried in the dimpling snow,

Rests, but the other, listlessly below,

O’er the couch-side swings feeling for cool air,

The vein-streaks swollen a richer violet where

The languid blood lies heavily; yet calm

On her slight prop, each flat and outspread palm,

As but suspended in the act to rise

By consciousness of beauty,

Oh yeah and there’s a cool bit where he describes Dante on the shores of Hell:

Dante, pacer of the shore

Where glutted hell disgorgeth filthiest gloom,

Unbitten by its whirring sulphur-spume —

Or whence the grieved and obscure waters slope

Into a darkness quieted by hope;

Plucker of amaranths grown beneath God’s eye

In gracious twilights where his chosen lie, —

I would do this! If I should falter now!

I love that bit at the end where he says, I would totally pluck those amaranths if I were in Dante’s position. (He uses that ‘if i shd falter’ a couple of times in fact – is that a Dantean thing?)


While I was walking back home from the library, Sordello in hand, my mind a pleasing jumble of medieval Italy, love, Browning, conceptions of poetic consciousness and development, southern gangsta rapper Gunplay came on the ipod, p much scattering the refined threads of my contemplation.

It’s pleasing to try and find connections between culturally disparate entities, and I found myself wondering if there was ANY way I could connect contemporary gangsta rap with Browning’s Sordello. No, not possibly, was my conclusion.

HOW DULL WITTED I WAS only became obvious later while reading an excerpt from Sordello’s entry in the Biographie Universelle in bed:

The other poems of his which are known are sirventes or satires: several of them are against the troubadour Pierre Vidal: in them violent threats are joined to insults which become merely gross when one translates them.

So yeah, gangsta rappers, just latter day troubadours tbf:

(uh, WARNING. The following video/song is likely to prove grossly offensive to anyone with an ounce of decency, sense or taste and Gunplay in general is more or less indefensible)

Dante and Virgil encounter Gunplay in Purgatorio

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