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A Handbook to the Works of Browning (6th ed.)

For Sordello had been foreshadowed in Aprile


Lombard League also figures in the story, as the consequence of Salinguerra's and Palma's conspiracy against San Bonifacio; though it also appears as brought about by the historic course of events. Salinguerra, under cover of military reprisals, has entrapped the Count into Ferrara, and detained him there, at the moment when he was expected to meet his lady-love in his own city of Verona. Verona prepares to resent this outrage on its Prince, and with it, the other States which represent the Guelph cause; and when Palma--seizing her opportunity--summons Sordello thither in his character of her minstrel, and reveals to him her projects for him and for herself, their interview is woven into the historical picture of a great mediaeval city suddenly called to arms. What Sordello sees when he goes with Palma to Ferrara, belongs to the history of all mediaeval warfare; and his sudden and premature death revives the historical tradition though in a new form. The intermediate details of his minstrel's career are of course imaginary; but his struggle to increase the expressiveness of his mother tongue again records a fact.

I have mentioned such accessible authorities as Sismondi and the "Biographie Universelle," because they _are_ accessible: not from any idea that they give the measure of Mr. Browning's knowledge of his subject. He prepared himself for writing "Sordello" by studying all the chronicles of that period of Italian history which the British

Museum supplied; and we may be sure that every event he alludes to as historical, is so in spirit, if not in the letter; while such details as come under the head of historical curiosities are absolutely true. He also supplemented his reading by a visit to the places in which the scenes of the story are laid.

_Its Dramatic Idea._

The dramatic idea of "Sordello" is that of an imaginative nature, nourished by its own creations, and also consumed by them; and breaking down in consequence under the first strain of real conflict and passion. The mysterious Italian poet,--scarcely known but as a voice, a mere phantom among living men--was well fitted to illustrate such an idea; he might also perhaps have suggested it. But we know that it was already growing in Mr. Browning's mind; for Sordello had been foreshadowed in Aprile, though the two are as different as their common poetic quality allows. Aprile is consumed by a creative passion, which is always akin to love; Sordello by an imaginative fever which has no love in it; and in this respect he presents a stronger contrast to Aprile than Paracelsus himself. As a poet he may be said to contain both the artist and the thinker, and therefore to transcend both; and his craving is for neither love nor knowledge, as the foregoing poem represents them, but for that magnitude of poetic existence, which means all love and all knowledge, as all beauty and all power in itself. But he makes the same mistake as Aprile, or at least as Paracelsus, and makes it in a greater degree; for he rejects all the human conditions of the poetic life: and strives to live it, not in experience or in sympathy, but by a pure act of imagination, or as he calls it, of _Will_; and he wears himself out body and soul by a mental strain which proves as barren as it is continuous. The true joy of living comes home to him at last, and with it the first challenge to self-sacrifice. Duty prevails; but he dies in the conflict, or rather of it.

The intended lesson of the story is distinctly enforced in its last scene, but is patent almost from the first--that the mind must not disclaim the body, nor imagination divorce itself from reality: that the spiritual is bound up with the material in our earthly life. All Mr. Browning's practical philosophy is summed up in this truth, and much of his religion; for it points to the necessity of a human manifestation of the Divine Being; and though Sordello's story contains no explicit reference to Christian doctrine, an unmistakeable Christian sentiment pervades its close. That restless and ambitious spirit had missed its only possible anchorage: the ideal of an intellectual existence at once guided and set free by love.

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