It is only fair to add that he would deprecate the idea of any excessive labour as bestowed on this, to his mind, immature performance. It is for us, not for him, to do justice to it. With all its faults and obscurities, “Sordello” is a great work; full moreover of pregnant and beautiful passages which are not affected by them. When Mr. Browning re-edited “Sordello” in 1863, he considered the possibility of re-writing it in a more transparent manner; but he concluded that the labour would be disproportionate to the result, and contented himself with summarizing the contents of each “book” in a continuous heading, which represents the main thread of the story. It will be useful to read this carefully.
The story opens at Verona, at the moment of the formation of the Lombard League—a well-known union of Guelph cities against the Ghibellines in Northern Italy. Mr. Browning, addressing himself to an imaginary audience composed of living and dead, describes the city as it hastens to arms, and the chain of circumstances through which she has been called upon to do so; and draws a curious picture of two political ideals which he considers respectively those of Ghibelline and Guelph: the one symbolized by isolated heights, the other by a continuous level growth; those again suggesting the violent disruptions which create imperial power; these the peaceful organic processes of democratic life. The poet Shelley is desired to withdraw his “pure face” from among the spectators of this chequered scene; and Dante is invoked in the name of him whose fame preceded his, and has been absorbed by it. A secret chamber in Count Richard’s palace shows Palma and Sordello in earnest conference with each other. Then the curtain falls; and we are carried back thirty years, and to Goito Castle.
Sordello is there: a refined and beautiful boy; framed for all spiritual delights. As his life is described, it has neither duties nor occupations; no concern with the outer world; no contact even with that of Adelaide, his supposed protectress. He is dreaming away his childhood in the silent gloom of the castle, or the sunny outdoor life of the hills and woods. He lives in imagination, blends the idea of his own being with everything he sees; and for years is happy in the bare fact of existence. But the germ of a fatal spiritual ambition is lurking within him; and as he grows into a youth, he hankers after something which he calls sympathy, but which is really applause. He therefore makes a human crowd for himself out of carved and tapestried figures, and the few names which penetrate into his solitude, and fancies himself always the greatest personage amongst them. He simulates all manner of heroic performances and of luxurious rest. He is Eccelino, the Emperor’s vicar; he is the Emperor himself. He becomes more than this; for his fancy has soared upwards to the power which includes all empire in one—the spiritual power of song. Apollo is its representative. Sordello is he. He has had one glimpse of Palma; she becomes his Daphne; the dream life is at its height.