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

Sordello has entered on a new phase of existence


has entered on a new phase of existence. He feels that henceforward he is not to _act men_, but to _make them act_; this is how his being is to be fulfilled. It is a first step in the direction of unselfishness, but not yet into it. The soul is not yet awake.

At this point of his narrative Mr. Browning makes a halt, and carries us off to Venice, where he muses on the various questions involved in Sordello's story. The very act of digression leads back to the comparison between Eglamor and Sordello: between the artist who is one with his work, and him who is outside and beyond it--between the completeness of execution which comes of a limited ideal, and the true greatness of those performances which "can never be more than dreamed." And the case of the true poet is farther illustrated by that of the weather-bound sailor, who seems to have settled down for life with the fruits of his adventures, but waits only the faintest sign of a favourable wind to cut his moorings and be off.

Then comes a vision of humanity, also in harmony with the purpose of the poem. It takes the form of some frail and suffering woman, and is addressed by the author with a tenderness in which we recognize one of his constant ideals of love: the impulse not to worship or to enjoy, but to comfort and to protect. He next considers the problem of human sorrow and sin, and deprecates the absolute condemnation of the sinner, in language which

anticipates that of "Fifine at the Fair." "Every life has its own law. The 'losel,' the moral outcast, keeps his own conceit of truth though through a maze of lies. Good labours to exist through evil, by means of the very ignorance which sets each man to tackle it for himself, believing that he alone can."[16] Mr. Browning rejects at least the _show_ of knowledge which gives you a name for what you die of; and that deepening of ignorance which comes of the perpetual insisting that fountains of knowledge spring everywhere for those who choose to dispense it. "What science teaches is made useless by the shortness of human existence; it absorbs all our energy in building up a machine which we shall have no time to work. All direct truth comes to us from the poet: whether he be of the smaller kind who only see, or the greater, who can tell what they have seen, or the greatest who can make others see it." Corresponding instances follow.[17]

Mr. Browning is aware that one is a poet at his own risk; and that the poetic chaplet may also prove a sacrificial one. He will still wear it, however, because in his case it means the suffrage of a "patron friend"[18]

"Whose great verse blares unintermittent on Like your own trumpeter at Marathon,--" (vol. i. p. 169.)

He recalls his readers to the "business" of the poem:

"the fate of such As find our common nature--overmuch Despised because restricted and unfit To bear the burthen they impose on it-- Cling when they would discard it; craving strength To leap from the allotted world, at length They do leap,--flounder on without a term, Each a god's germ, doomed to remain a germ In unexpanded infancy, unless...." (pp. 170, 171.)

admits that the story sounds dull; but suggests the possibility of its containing an agreeable surprise. An amusing anecdote to this effect concludes the chapter.[19]


We are now introduced to Taurello Salinguerra: a fine soldier-like figure; the type of elastic strength in both body and mind. We are told that he possesses the courage of the fighter, the astuteness of the politician, the knowledge and graces of the man of leisure. He has shown himself capable of controlling an Emperor, and of giving precedence to a woman. He is young at sixty, while the son who is half his age, is "lean, outworn and really old." And the crowning difference between him and Sordello is this: that while Sordello only draws out other men as a means of displaying himself, he only displays himself sufficiently to draw out other men. "His choicest instruments" have "surmised him shallow."

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