And now Sordello is a man. He begins to sicken for reality. Vanity and ambition are ripe in him. His egotisms are innocent, but they are absorbing. The soul is as yet dormant.
BOOK THE SECOND.
The dream-life becomes a partial reality. Sordello’s wanderings carry him one day to the walls of Mantua, outside which Palma is holding a “Court of Love.” Eglamor sings. His song is incomplete. Sordello feels what is wanting; catches up the thread of the story; and sings it to its proper close. His triumph is absolute. He is installed as Palma’s minstrel in Eglamor’s place. Eglamor accepts his defeat with touching gentleness, and lies down to die. This poet is meant to embody the limited art, which is an end in itself, and one with the artist’s life. Sordello, on the other hand, represents the boundless aspirations which art may subserve, but which must always leave it behind. The parallel will be stated more distinctly later on.
Sordello’s first wish is fulfilled. He has found a career which will reconcile his splendid dreams with his real obscurity, and set him, by right of imagination—the true Apolloship—apart from other men. But his true difficulties have yet to begin. It is not enough that he feels himself a transcendent personage. He must make others believe that he is so. Every act of imagination is with him an act of existence, or as Mr. Browning calls it of Will; but this self-asserting was much easier with the imaginary crowd than it can be with the real one. Sordello is soon at cross-purposes with his hearers: for when he sings of human passion, or human prowess, they never dream of identifying him with it; and when he sings of mere abstract modes of being, they do not understand.
The love of abstract conception is indeed the rock on which he splits. The feelings which are real to us are unreal to him, because they are accidental. What is real to him is the underlying consciousness which according to his view is permanent: the “intensest” self described in “Pauline”—the mind which is spoken of in the fifth “book” of “Sordello” (vol. i. page 236) as nearest to God when emptied of even thought; and his aim is to put forth all the qualities which this absolute existence can assume, and yet be reflected in other men’s minds as independent of them. This lands him in struggles not only with his hearers but with himself—for he is unused to expressing what he feels; and with a language which at best could convey “whole perceptions” like his, in a very meagre form, or a fragmentary one. He still retains the love of real life and adventure which inspired his boyish dreams. There is nothing, as I have said, that he does not wish to be; and now, amidst commonplace human beings, his human desires often take a more simple and natural form. But the poet in him pushes the man aside, and bids him, at all events, wait. He does not know that