Mr. Browning has indeed prefaced the poem by saying that in writing it he has laid his chief stress on the incidents in the development of a soul. It must be read with reference to this idea; and I should be bound to give precedence to it over the poetic inspiration of the story if Mr. Browning had practically done so. This is not, however, the case. Sordello’s poetic individuality overshadows the moral, and for a time conceals it altogether. The close of his story is distinctly the emerging of a soul from the mists of poetic egotism by which it has been obscured; and Mr. Browning has meant us from the first to see it struggling through them. But in so doing he has judged Sordello’s poetic life as a blind aspiration after the spiritual, while the egotism which he represents as the keynote of his poetic being was in fact the negation of it. The idea was just: that the greatest poet must have in him the making of the largest man. His Sordello is imperial among men for the one moment in which his song is in sympathy with human life; and Mr. Browning would have made it more consistently so, had he worked out his idea at a later time. But the poem was written at a period in which his artistic judgment was yet inferior to his poetic powers, and the need of ordering his vast material from the reader’s, as well as the writer’s, point of view—though he states it by implication at the end of the third book—had not thoroughly penetrated his mind.
I venture on this criticism, though it is no part of my task to criticize, because “Sordello” is the one of Mr. Browning’s works which still remains to be read; and even a mistaken criticism may sometimes afford a clue. “Sordello” is not only harder to read than “Paracelsus,” but harder than any other of Mr. Browning’s works; its complications of structure being interwoven with difficulties of a deeper kind which again react upon them. Enough has been said to show that the conception of the character is very abstruse on the intellectual and poetic side; that it presents us with states of thought and feeling, remote from common experience, and which no language could make entirely clear; and unfortunately the style is sometimes in itself so obscure that we cannot judge whether it is the expression or the idea which we fail to grasp. The poem was written under the dread of diffuseness which had just then taken possession of Mr. Browning’s mind, and we have sometimes to struggle through a group of sentences out of which he has so laboured to squeeze every unnecessary word, that their grammatical connection is broken up, and they present a compact mass of meaning which without previous knowledge it is almost impossible to construe. We are also puzzled by an abridged, interjectional, way of carrying on the historical part of the narrative; by the author’s habit of alluding to imaginary or typical personages in the same tone as to real ones; and by misprints, including errors in punctuation, which will be easily corrected in a later edition, but which mar the present one.