How Do I Shot Sordello? Book II

I read Book II last week, but didn’t have time to write anything. It was one of those weeks where sportive gods shy what shit they can your way. I’m going to have to refer to my more or less haphazard notes and riff on them as I see fit.


Oh, but first – the browning variations left a couple of comments.

but I think Sordello is nearly incomprehensible at points & must have been totally fucking baffling to its first readers. I read it last year, maybe the year before, and started off thinking ‘not so bad’; the nightmares begin with the super-reflective monologues where you can’t pick out grammatical antecedents & aren’t sure who is actually speaking.

As I said when talking about Book I, my initial impression was Sordello’s difficulty had been greatly exaggerated. These other readers were fools! All you needed to do was relax a bit and not worry too much about the recondite passages – an approach suits well for other examples of Browning’s conversational, teeming poetry. There’s more than enough to enjoy without trying to account for every tittle, I thought breezily.

I think I understood about a third of Book II, even with notes. TBV’s observations are spot on – the point about grammatical antecedents especially. You just can’t make head nor tail of what’s being said. Several crucial passages dealing with development of Sordello’s self are impenetrable:

For, on the day when that array was furled

Forever, and in place of one a slave

To longings, wild indeed, but longings save

In dreams as wild, suppressed – one daring not

Assume the mastery such dreams allot,

Until a magical equipment, strength,

Grace, wisdom, decked him too, – he chose at length,

Content with unproved wits and failing frame,

In virtue of his simple will, to claim

That mastery, no less – to do his best

With means so limited, and let the rest

Go by, – the seal was set:

What’s put in place of the youthful slave to longings? Go back! Read again! It’s an important moment. You can just about gain the sense by squinting: this is a moment of realism for the previously fantastical Sordello, he is not Apollo, but he intends to use his will in conjunction with his lyrical talents, (that have just been validated in competition) limited in comparison to Apollo’s though they may be, to become what he had only fancied himself to be before. I think that’s right. For the reader to get this sort of understanding requires a capturing of the gist, a willed carelessness of reading. And that is carelessness in writing. Browning would become really good at illuminating moments of obscurity through conversational mood.  Here he sounds like John Prescott on a bad day. It’s by no means the only bit.

TBV again:

I believe first ed didn’t use quotation marks, which are among the few things that gives you a fighting chance of tracing lines of thought in these sections.

Oh yes, I read about this. One critic compared it to a… hang on a sec:

Even Sordello reads better, in the last analysis, in the uncompromisingly demanding first edition than in the revised version, which is like a badly tidied room, with its mess not cleared up but cleared away.

(Daniel Karlin in The Review of English Studies , New Series, Vol. 35, No. 39 – I don’t make a habit of reading these btw, in case anyone thinks I’ve come over feverish – was just trawling JSTOR for Browning refs.)

What this reviewer says may well be true, but it must be a very strange experience to read this early version. There’s no denying Browning has his modernist elements – the sort of thing that attracted Ezra Pound to him – but he’s strongly Romantic as well, especially at this stage. This is a poem about the development of the artist, so these philosophic investigations of the poet’s soul matter, they just don’t make sense, and that’s a failing. It certainly means we shd turn to a version that offers more help to the reader’s understanding of the subject of the poem. It may be a badly tidied room, but at least we’re able to find a few things of interest.

(Incidentally, I think I shd be more careful with that ‘modernist elements’ line. Browning’s idiosyncratic use of language, narrators, the exotic material detail of history, his fragmentation end up fitting quite nicely the fractured associational poetry and prose of some of the moderns. But I don’t see Browning as a driver of change in poetic language in a ‘make it new’ sense. I feel it’s all a lot more personal than that – the modernist elements almost feel like side-effects of his manner and interests. It may well be also that Browning looks modernist in places because a pivotal modernist liked him and was influenced by him. After all troubadours are not on the face of it a natural selection for a modernist poet, surely Pound was at least partly guided to them by Browning, an interest also probably fed by a mixture of the handy obscurity of the Provençal, veneration of Dante (good for modern infernos), and the fact troubadours cut something of a dash – the poet with the sword: the modernists I know certainly loved their swag, even the ascetically dandified youthful Eliot, but certainly Pound. From thence, the early translations, to one of the canonically modernist works, the Cantos. In sum: Browning is prob best seen as a formative influence than as a proto-modernist, interpretations that way being somewhat, but not necessarily entirely mistaken. KINELL HOW I RAMBLE.)

1) Right, my notes. (Yes, this is going to be a long entry, what of it? Nothing else doing anywhere as far as I can tell  – he’s important i tell you! and more than that he’s likeable, usually good, often great! Also, it’s hosing down outside.)

So, first note. QUIXOTIC, I’ve scrawled. This comes up right at the beginning of Book I. There’s a reference right at the beginning to DQ seeing contending armies in the dust thrown up by sheep. Ok, here’s the first layer. Sordello, in his youth, is a specifically Quixotic figure, in this specific sense of projecting fantastic images of Romance on to the world around him:

As the adventurous spider, making light
Of distance, shoots her  threads from depth to height,
From barbican to battlement: so flung
Fantasies forth and in their centre swung
Our architect, – the breezy morning fresh
Above, and merry, – all his waving mesh
Laughing with lucid dew-drops rainbow-edged.

(Actually, that’s rather good isn’t it? All crashes into the buffers at the end a bit, but it’s not at all bad. And it totally leads in to something else I was going to go on to in a bit. See you there.)

So, early on, Sordello’s a Quixotic figure, in fact up until that section I quoted earlier, where instead of altering the world through his fantasies, he decides he must alter it through his will and lyrical skill (itself developed by his youthful fantasies).

Ok, next bit/layer/whatever – Browning himself identifies his task as Quixotic in this specific sense of projection, and asks for the reader to go along with him. I’m going to quote it, because although it’s right at the beginning, it’s classic Browning:

Who will, may hear Sordello’s story told:
His story? Who believes me shall behold
The man, pursue his fortunes to the end,
Like me: for as the friendless people’s friend
Spied from his hill-top once, despite the din
And dust of multitudes, Pentapolin
Named o’ the Naked Arm, I single out
Sordello, compassed murkily about
With ravage of six long sad hundred years.
Only believe me. Ye believe?

Even accounting for people back in the day having a far better knowledge of Don Quixote than now – we’ve really only kept the ’tilting at windmills’ thing, I think? – it’s still quite a knot of allusion to get yourself in only three lines into your poem. But he’s immediately forgiven for that lovely and engaging ‘Only believe me. Ye believe?’, and let no person say ‘six long sad hundred years’ doesn’t parse – it’s wonderful. But yes, the important point is this projection is very like Sordello, the young Sordello.

Browning and Sordello. Sordello and Browning. It’s an area that I thought about continually while reading Book II. How much does Browning identify with Sordello? How much can we identify Browning with Sordello?

No, I don’t think it’s quite the same question I’m afraid, cos there’s a third bit to this QUIXOTIC note:

The later edition of Sordello (see above) contains marginal glosses from Browning, not really all that helpful most of the time, but he means well. Anyway, in the margin next to the DQ ref, Browning’s written ‘A Quixotic Attempt’

Browning seems to have come to accept the common view that his attempt had been ‘Quixotic’ in the common sense.

says the note. That is to say an act of deluded folly. So, you’ve got a few different Brownings present in Sordello, and in terms of answering those Sordello/Browning identification questions above, it makes things a bit more complicated. But here’s a basic answer, which I’ll dig into in a bit: to a certain extent the reader can identify Browning with Sordello, but the answer to the converse question depends on which Browning you ask.

2) It was about this point where I dropped the book to my lap and stared blankly into the air, pondering some of these things. My mind wandered a bit and, cos I’d been reading the Avengers (need more Ant Man and Wasp in the film imo), it drifted on to superheroes and wondering which superhero Sordello is most like. I think it’s these pivotal moments that Sordello has, moments where he decides he must have an IMPACT on the world, with his SPECIAL POWERS. Also, solitary upbringing fantasising about his destiny, that helps, then there’s dual personality, one hidden, one for the public, Poet and Man – come on to that in a bit. Then I wondered which superhero he was most like. For all the gothic castle/plus force of will destiny shit, it seems like it should be Batman. Batman isn’t given superpowers, it’s more of an idea he’s wrapped his development round, an inner obsession. But that didn’t really fit for me. I ended up going with Spider Man, I guess because of the geeky/moody teenager (Sordello gets a bit moody when he feels he won’t get a chance to fulfil his destiny, plus starts thinking about unachievable girls). They share agonising, in other words. In fact I hadn’t consciously taken into account those lines above about the spider – I didn’t even realise until after I’d written them just now. But it fits. Or I’m saying it does.

That even reads a bit like Browning doesn’t it?

lol spidey been reading sordello.

3) By near the end of Book II, Sordello is a divided person, Man Part and Poet Part. The Man Part wants to live in and and be a part of society (mix/With men, enjoy like men), wants to be a poet, yes, but not to the exclusion of understanding. This isn’t purely hedonistic, it’s also to do with staying in touch. The Poet Part has become so wrapped up in the nature and practice of poetry that takes him far beyond what people understand (‘Why needs Sordello square his course/By any known example’) but as a consequence of not being in touch he has become sterile, uncreative. At the end of Book II he’s required to come up with a poem to perform before the powerful Ghibellin-faction Taurello, and he can’t. More, the Poet Part – it’s a bit weird this, so I hope I’ve got it right – can’t commit to any belief, or type of being or hardening of potential into a single path. For Sordello, the Poet, his lyrical skill requires a continual putting-off of irrevocable lines of character brought about by action and engagement with society, it is the maintenance of youth, of possibility, so that all things are possible in his imagination – a requirement of poetry.

Why worry overmuch about the Sordello/Browning identification? Because Browning analysing Sordello involves a detailed analysis of perception, poetry, the suitability of poetry for the expression of poetic thought, the poet’s relation to society, whether a poet can be an actor or shd reflect, shd be comprehensible or allow incomprehensibility in the pursuit of art. In other words there’s a full blown poetic theory being expounded. If the nature of poetry as perceived in Sordello is shared by Browning, then it serves as a very useful reference point for Browning’s development. Why’s that important? Well, for one thing it would help answer certain questions – like the one above about whether he shd be considered a proto-modernist or not: conscious decisions of difference with tradition (the Poet Part) and you might decide that he was a proto modernist, an eager engagement with society and a belief that he was communicating (Man Part) and you’d say he was individually unusual, in some senses like a Blake figure. It’s an interesting question dammit, and one Book II continually thrusts at the reader. (fwiw, I don’t think it’s either – and I think the way he solves the Poet Part/Man Part conundrum – how you deal with society in poetry – is how he becomes great, and unique. I’m just chucking that out there).

But all this interest in the specific psyche of Sordello feels a bit more than using him for poetic theory. It seems detailed beyond the requirements of being representative or generally applicable. My feeling while reading Book II (and I haven’t read any proper criticism of Sordello yet, so this could well just be stating what is generally accepted) is that Browning is so interested in detailing the complicated changes in Sordello’s psyche because they are autobiographical.

Why’s it difficult to decide? Because Browning would often go into great detail about unusual, heightened, duplicitous and deluded intellects and their apprehension of the world. In other words the amont of effort expended on Sordello needn’t suggest a particular importance. Anyone else? Yes. Browning? ‘Detailed beyond the requirements of being representative’ is what he do.

4) But my guess is that Sordello was initially an alter-ego for the youthful Browning’s poetic ambition and drive. Sordello had a long gestation period – it was started in 1834 when Browning was 22, and wasn’t finished until 1840, having been put aside for other formative works like Paracelsus and the play Strafford. Browning’s attitude to Sordello, the poem, person, and avatar of the youthful Browning had changed by that point. In Book II Browning makes Sordello express the most preening self-regard –

It [the world] shall bow
Surely in unexampled worship now,
Discerning me!”

Before delivering a scornful and sarcastic reprimand:

(Dear monarch, I  beseech,
Notice how lamentably wide a breach
Is here: discovering this, discover too
What our poor world has possibly to do
With it! As pygmy natures as you please –
Look on, and laugh; style yourself God alone;
Strangle some day with a cross olive stone!)

It feels like a self-reprimand. Oh, and there’s an early, undeveloped, meaner, version of what is expressed elsewhere in Browning, specifically Andrea del Sarto:

Men no more
Compete with him than tree and flower before.
Himself, inactive, yet is greater far
Than such as act, each stooping to his star,
Acquiring thence his function; he has gained
The same result with meaner mortals trained
To strength or beauty, moulded to express
Each the idea that rules him
Those meaner mortals, moulded to express each the idea that rules him, wd be the ones of whom AdS says:
Their work drops groundward, but themeslves, I know,
Reach many a time a heaven that’s shut to me,
Enter and take their place there sure enough,
Though they come back and cannot tell the world.

4) OK OK – I’ve gone on too much about this stuff. Unfortunately it is the stuff of the poem, and it’s really the only stuff that makes it interesting. There’s a profound disproportion between the effort the reader has to undergo to understand Sordello and the quality of the poetry, which is often unusual or complicated, but not often very good.

In fact the best bits in Book II belong neither to the narrator or to Sordello, but to someone who I haven’t mentioned until now – Naddo, Sordello’s mediocre interpreter, hanger-on and promoter:

So prattled Naddo, busiest of the tribe
Of genius-haunters.

(great line). His prattling sounds very like what wd become Browning’s later dramatic monologue style (here to Sordello):

Now, you’re a bard, a bard past doubt,
And no philosopher; why introduce
Crotchets like these? fine, surely, but no use
In poetry.
Would you have your songs endure?
Build on a human heart! – why, to be sure
Yours is one sort of heart – but I mean theirs,
Ours, every one’s, the healthy heart one cares
To build on! Central peace, mother of strength,
That’s father of… nay, go yourself that length,
Ask those calm-hearted doers what they do
When they have got their calm! And is it true,
Fire rankles at the heart of every globe?
Perhaps. But these are matters one may probe
Too deeply for poetic purposes:
Rather select a theory that… yes,
Laugh! what does that prove? – stations you midway
And saves some little o’er-refining. Nay,
That’s rank injustice done me! I restrict
The poet? Don’t I hold the poet picked
Out of a host of warriors, statesmen… did
I tell you? Very like! As well you hid
That sense of power, you have! True bards believe
All able to achieve what they achieve –
That is, just nothing –

I quoted more than I meant to! It’s probably the first sustained section of Sordello where the couplets are not in the slightest stilted or jangling. It’s full of character, funny (the way he gets himself in a tangle with implying Sordello hasn’t got a human heart, gives himself too much to do with the father/mother analogy), and deals with interruptions well – more of this when dislimning Sordello’s character wd’ve gone a long way.

Next, Book III. I meant to write on some other things here as well, but I’ve gone on far too long.

Oh, neat line I meant to get in tho – ‘His will swayed sicklily from side to side’. There’s quite a few nuggets like this, but not much sustained.

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