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

Or of knowledge like Hildebrand


BOOK THE FIFTH.

The day draws to its close. Sordello has seen more of the suffering human beings whom he wishes to serve, and the ideal Rome has collapsed in his imagination like a mocking dream. Nothing can be effected at once. No deed can bridge over the lapse of time which divides the first stage of a great social structure from its completion. Each life may give its touch; it can give no more; through the endless generations. The vision of a regenerate humanity, "his last and loveliest," must depart like the rest. Then suddenly a voice,

"... Sordello, wake! God has conceded two sights to a man-- One, of men's whole work, time's completed plan, The other, of the minute's work, man's first Step to the plan's completeness: what's dispersed Save hope of that supreme step which, descried Earliest, was meant still to remain untried Only to give you heart to take your own Step, and there stay--leaving the rest alone?" (vol. i. p. 217.)

The facts restate themselves, but from an opposite point of view. No man can give more than his single touch. The whole could not dispense with one of them. The work is infinite, but it is continuous. The later poet weaves into his own song the echoes of the first. "The last of each series of workmen sums up in himself all predecessors," whether he be the type

of strength like Charlemagne, or of knowledge like Hildebrand. Strength comes first in the scheme of life; it is the joyousness of childhood. Step by step Strength works Knowledge with its groans and tears. And then, in its turn, Knowledge works Strength, Knowledge controls Strength, Knowledge supersedes Strength. It is Knowledge which must prevail now. May it not be he who at this moment resumes its whole inheritance--its accumulated opportunities, in himself? He could stand still and dream while he fancied he stood alone; but he knows now that he is part of humanity, and it of him. Goito is left behind; Ferrara is reached; he must do the one thing that is within his grasp.

He must influence Salinguerra. He must interest him in the cause of knowledge; which is the people's cause. With this determination, he proceeds once more to the appointed presence. His minstrelsy is at first a failure. He is, as usual, outside his song. He is trying to guide it; it is not carrying him away. He is paralysed by the very consciousness that he is urging the head of the Ghibellines to become a Guelph. Salinguerra's habitual tact and good-nature cannot conceal his own sense of the absurdity of the proposal. Sordello sees in

"a flash of bitter truth: So fantasies could break and fritter youth That he had long ago lost earnestness, Lost will to work, lost power to even express The need of working!" (vol. i. p. 228.)

But he will not be beaten. He tries once more. We see the blood leap to his brain, the heart into his purpose, as he challenges Salinguerra to bow before the royalty of song. He owns himself its unworthy representative: for he has frittered away his powers. He has identified himself with existing forms of being, instead of proving his kingship by a new spiritual birth--by a supreme, as yet unknown revelation of the power of human will. He has resigned his function. He is a self-deposed king. He acknowledges the man before him as fitter to help the world than he is. But this is shame enough. He will not see its now elected champion scorn the post he renounces on his behalf. And his art is still royal though he is not. It is the utterance of the spiritual life: of the informing thought--which was in the world before deeds began--which brought order out of chaos--which guided deeds in their due gradation till itself emerged as SONG: to react in deed; but to need no help of it; to be (so we complete the meaning) as the knowledge which controls strength, which supersedes strength.[20]


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