Sordello: Book The Fifth

A poem by Robert Browning

Is it the same Sordello in the dusk
As at the dawn? merely a perished husk
Now, that arose a power fit to build
Up Rome again? The proud conception chilled
So soon? Ay, watch that latest dream of thine
A Rome indebted to no Palatine
Drop arch by arch, Sordello! Art possessed
Of thy wish now, rewarded for thy quest
To-day among Ferrara's squalid sons?
Are this and this and this the shining ones
Meet for the Shining City? Sooth to say,
Your favoured tenantry pursue their way
After a fashion! This companion slips
On the smooth causey, t' other blinkard trips
At his mooned sandal. "Leave to lead the brawls
"Here i' the atria?" No, friend! He that sprawls
On aught but a stibadium . . . what his dues
Who puts the lustral vase to such an use?
Oh, huddle up the day's disasters! March,
Ye runagates, and drop thou, arch by arch,

Yet before they quite disband a whim
Study mere shelter, now, for him, and him,
Nay, even the worst, just house them! Any cave
Suffices: throw out earth! A loophole? Brave!
They ask to feel the sun shine, see the grass
Grow, hear the larks sing? Dead art thou, alas,
And I am dead! But here's our son excels
At hurdle-weaving any Scythian, fells
Oak and devises rafters, dreams and shapes
His dream into a door-post, just escapes
The mystery of hinges. Lie we both
Perdue another age. The goodly growth
Of brick and stone! Our building-pelt was rough,
But that descendant's garb suits well enough
A portico-contriver. Speed the years
What 's time to us? At last, a city rears
Itself! nay, enter what's the grave to us?
Lo, our forlorn acquaintance carry thus
The head! Successively sewer, forum, cirque
Last age, an aqueduct was counted work,
But now they tire the artificer upon
Blank alabaster, black obsidion,
Careful, Jove's face be duly fulgurant,
And mother Venus' kiss-creased nipples pant
Back into pristine pulpiness, ere fixed
Above the baths. What difference betwixt
This Rome and ours resemblance what, between
That scurvy dumb-show and this pageant sheen
These Romans and our rabble? Use thy wit!
The work marched: step by step, a workman fit
Took each, nor too fit, to one task, one time,
No leaping o'er the petty to the prime,
When just the substituting osier lithe
For brittle bulrush, sound wood for soft withe,
To further loam-and-roughcast-work a stage,
Exacts an architect, exacts an age:
No tables of the Mauritanian tree
For men whose maple log 's their luxury!
That way was Rome built. "Better" (say you) "merge
"At once all workmen in the demiurge,
"All epochs in a lifetime, every task
"In one!" So should the sudden city bask
I' the day while those we 'd feast there, want the knack
Of keeping fresh-chalked gowns from speck and brack,
Distinguish not rare peacock from vile swan,
Nor Mareotic juice from Cæcuban.
"Enough of Rome! 'T was happy to conceive
"Rome on a sudden, nor shall fate bereave
"Me of that credit: for the rest, her spite
"Is an old story serves my folly right
"By adding yet another to the dull
"List of abortions things proved beautiful
"Could they be done, Sordello cannot do."

He sat upon the terrace, plucked and threw
The powdery aloe-cusps away, saw shift
Rome's walls, and drop arch after arch, and drift
Mist-like afar those pillars of all stripe,
Mounds of all majesty. "Thou archetype,
"Last of my dreams and loveliest, depart!"

And then a low voice wound into his heart:
"Sordello!" (low as some old Pythoness
Conceding to a Lydian King's distress
The cause of his long error one mistake
Of her past oracle) "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?
"Where is the vanity? Why count as one
"The first step, with the last step? What is gone
"Except Rome's aëry magnificence,
"That last step you 'd take first? an evidence
"You were God: be man now! Let those glances fall!
"The basis, the beginning step of all,
"Which proves you just a man is that gone too?
"Pity to disconcert one versed as you
"In fate's ill-nature! but its full extent
"Eludes Sordello, even: the veil rent,
"Read the black writing that collective man
"Outstrips the individual. Who began
"The acknowledged greatnesses? Ay, your own art
"Shall serve us: put the poet's mimes apart
"Close with the poet's self, and lo, a dim
"Yet too plain form divides itself from him!
"Alcamo's song enmeshes the lulled Isle,
"Woven into the echoes left erewhile
"By Nina, one soft web of song: no more
"Turning his name, then, flower-like o'er and o'er!
"An elder poet in the younger's place;
"Nina's the strength, but Alcamo's the grace:
"Each neutralizes each then! Search your fill;
"You get no whole and perfect Poet still
"New Ninas, Alcamos, till time's mid-night
"Shrouds all or better say, the shutting light
"Of a forgotten yesterday. Dissect
"Every ideal workman (to reject
"In favour of your fearful ignorance
"The thousand phantasms eager to advance,
"And point you but to those within your reach)
"Were you the first who brought (in modern speech)
"The Multitude to be materialized?
"That loose eternal unrest who devised
"An apparition i' the midst? The rout
"Was checked, a breathless ring was formed about
"That sudden flower: get round at any risk
"The gold-rough pointel, silver-blazing disk
"O' the lily! Swords across it! Reign thy reign
"And serve thy frolic service, Charlemagne!
" The very child of over-joyousness,
"Unfeeling thence, strong therefore: Strength by stress
"Of Strength comes of that forehead confident,
"Those widened eyes expecting heart's content,
"A calm as out of just-quelled noise; nor swerves
"For doubt, the ample cheek in gracious curves
"Abutting on the upthrust nether lip:
"He wills, how should he doubt then? Ages slip:
"Was it Sordello pried into the work
"So far accomplished, and discovered lurk
"A company amid the other clans,
"Only distinct in priests for castellans
"And popes for suzerains (their rule confessed
"Its rule, their interest its interest,
"Living for sake of living there an end,
"Wrapt in itself, no energy to spend
"In making adversaries or allies)
"Dived you into its capabilities
"And dared create, out of that sect, a soul
"Should turn a multitude, already whole,
"Into its body? Speak plainer! Is 't so sure
"God's church lives by a King's investiture?
"Look to last step! A staggering a shock
"What 's mere sand is demolished, while the rock
"Endures: a column of black fiery dust
"Blots heaven that help was prematurely thrust
"Aside, perchance! but air clears, nought 's erased
"Of the true outline. Thus much being firm based,
"The other was a scaffold. See him stand
"Buttressed upon his mattock, Hildebrand
"Of the huge brain-mask welded ply o'er ply
"As in a forge; it buries either eye
"White and extinct, that stupid brow; teeth clenched,
"The neck tight-corded, too, the chin deep-trenched,
"As if a cloud enveloped him while fought
"Under its shade, grim prizers, thought with thought
"At dead-lock, agonizing he, until
"The victor thought leap radiant up, and Will,
"The slave with folded arms and drooping lids
"They fought for, lean forth flame-like as it bids.
"Call him no flower a mandrake of the earth,
"Thwarted and dwarfed and blasted in its birth,
"Rather, a fruit of suffering's excess,
"Thence feeling, therefore stronger: still by stress
"Of Strength, work Knowledge! Full three hundred years
"Have men to wear away in smiles and tears
"Between the two that nearly seemed to touch,
"Observe you! quit one workman and you clutch
"Another, letting both their trains go by
"The actors-out of either's policy,
"Heinrich, on this hand, Otho, Barbaross,
"Carry the three Imperial crowns across,
"Aix' Iron, Milan's Silver, and Rome's Gold
"While Alexander, Innocent uphold
"On that, each Papal key but, link on link,
"Why is it neither chain betrays a chink?
"How coalesce the small and great? Alack,
"For one thrust forward, fifty such fall back!
"Do the popes coupled there help Gregory
"Alone? Hark from the hermit Peter's cry
"At Claremont, down to the first serf that says
"Friedrich 's no liege of his while he delays
"Getting the Pope's curse off him! The Crusade
"Or trick of breeding Strength by other aid
"Than Strength, is safe. Hark from the wild harangue
"Of Vimmercato, to the carroch's clang
"Yonder! The League or trick of turning Strength
"Against Pernicious Strength, is safe at length.
"Yet hark from Mantuan Albert making cease
"The fierce ones, to Saint Francis preaching peace
"Yonder! God's Truce or trick to supersede
"The very Use of Strength, is safe. Indeed
"We trench upon the future. Who is found
"To take next step, next age trail o'er the ground
"Shall I say, gourd-like? not the flower's display
"Nor the root's prowess, but the plenteous way
"O' the plant produced by joy and sorrow, whence
"Unfeeling and yet feeling, strongest thence?
"Knowledge by stress of merely Knowledge? No
"E'en were Sordello ready to forego
"His life for this, 't were overleaping work
"Some one has first to do, howe'er it irk,
"Nor stray a foot's breadth from the beaten road.
"Who means to help must still support the load
"Hildebrand lifted 'why hast Thou,' he groaned,
"`Imposed on me a burthen, Paul had moaned,
"'And Moses dropped beneath?' Much done and yet
"Doubtless that grandest task God ever set
"On man, left much to do: at his arm's wrench,
"Charlemagne's scaffold fell; but pillars blench
"Merely, start back again perchance have been
"Taken for buttresses: crash every screen,
"Hammer the tenons better, and engage
"A gang about your work, for the next age
"Or two, of Knowledge, part by Strength and part
"By Knowledge! Then, indeed, perchance may start
"Sordello on his race would time divulge
"Such secrets! If one step's awry, one bulge
"Calls for correction by a step we thought
"Got over long since, why, till that is wrought,
"No progress! And the scaffold in its turn
"Becomes, its service o'er, a thing to spurn.
"Meanwhile, if your half-dozen years of life
"In store dispose you to forego the strife,
"Who takes exception? Only bear in mind
"Ferrara 's reached, Goito 's left behind:
"As you then were, as half yourself, desist!
"The warrior-part of you may, an it list,
"Finding real faulchions difficult to poise,
"Fling them afar and taste the cream of joys
"By wielding such in fancy, what is bard
"Of you may spurn the vehicle that marred
"Elys so much, and in free fancy glut
"His sense, yet write no verses you have but
"To please yourself for law, and once could please
"What once appeared yourself, by dreaming these
"Rather than doing these, in days gone by.
"But all is changed the moment you descry
"Mankind as half yourself, then, fancy's trade
"Ends once and always: how may half evade
"The other half? men are found half of you.
"Out of a thousand helps, just one or two
"Can be accomplished presently: but flinch
"From these (as from the faulchion, raised an inch,
"Elys, described a couplet) and make proof
"Of fancy, then, while one half lolls aloof
"I' the vines, completing Rome to the tip-top
"See if, for that, your other half will stop
"A tear, begin a smile! The rabble's woes,
"Ludicrous in their patience as they chose
"To sit about their town and quietly
"Be slaughtered, the poor reckless soldiery,
"With their ignoble rhymes on Richard, how
"'Polt-foot,' sang they, 'was in a pitfall now,'
"Cheering each other from the engine-mounts,
"That crippled spawling idiot who recounts
"How, lopped of limbs, he lay, stupid as stone,
"Till the pains crept from out him one by one,
"And wriggles round the archers on his head
"To earn a morsel of their chestnut bread,
"And Cino, always in the self-same place
"Weeping; beside that other wretch's case,
"Eyepits to ear, one gangrene since he plied
"The engine in his coat of raw sheep's hide
"A double watch in the noon sun; and see
"Lucchino, beauty, with the favours free,
"Trim hacqueton, spruce beard and scented hair,
"Campaigning it for the first time cut there
"In two already, boy enough to crawl
"For latter orpine round the southern wall,
"Tomà, where Richard 's kept, because that whore
"Marfisa, the fool never saw before,
"Sickened for flowers this wearisomest siege:
"And Tiso's wife men liked their pretty liege,
"Cared for her least of whims once, Berta, wed
"A twelvemonth gone, and, now poor Tiso's dead,
"Delivering herself of his first child
"On that chance heap of wet filth, reconciled
"To fifty gazers!" (Here a wind below
Made moody music augural of woe
From the pine barrier) "What if, now the scene
"Draws to a close, yourself have really been
"You, plucking purples in Goito's moss
"Like edges of a trabea (not to cross
"Your consul-humour) or dry aloe-shafts
"For fasces, at Ferrara he, fate wafts,
"This very age, her whole inheritance
`Of opportunities? Yet you advance
"Upon the last! Since talking is your trade,
"There 's Salinguerra left you to persuade:
"Fail! then"

"No no which latest chance secure!"
Leaped up and cried Sordello: "this made sure,
"The past were yet redeemable; its work
"Was help the Guelfs, whom I, howe'er it irk,
"Thus help!" He shook the foolish aloe-haulm
Out of his doublet, paused, proceeded calm
To the appointed presence. The large head
Turned on its socket; "And your spokesman," said
The large voice, "is Elcorte's happy sprout?
"Few such" (so finishing a speech no doubt
Addressed to Palma, silent at his side)
"My sober councils have diversified.
"Elcorte's son! good: forward as you may,
"Our lady's minstrel with so much to say!"
The hesitating sunset floated back,
Rosily traversed in the wonted track
The chamber, from the lattice o'er the girth
Of pines, to the huge eagle blacked in earth
Opposite, outlined sudden, spur to crest,
That solid Salinguerra, and caressed
Palma's contour; 't was day looped back night's pall;
Sordello had a chance left spite of all.

And much he made of the convincing speech
Meant to compensate for the past and reach
Through his youth's daybreak of unprofit, quite
To his noon's labour, so proceed till night
Leisurely! The great argument to bind
Taurello with the Guelf Cause, body and mind,
Came the consummate rhetoric to that?
Yet most Sordello's argument dropped flat
Through his accustomed fault of breaking yoke,
Disjoining him who felt from him who spoke.
Was 't not a touching incident so prompt
A rendering the world its just accompt,
Once proved its debtor? Who 'd suppose, before
This proof, that he, Goito's god of yore,
At duty's instance could demean himself
So memorably, dwindle to a Guelf?
Be sure, in such delicious flattery steeped,
His inmost self at the out-portion peeped,
Thus occupied; then stole a glance at those
Appealed to, curious if her colour rose
Or his lip moved, while he discreetly urged
The need of Lombardy becoming purged
At soonest of her barons; the poor part
Abandoned thus, missing the blood at heart
And spirit in brain, unseasonably off
Elsewhere! But, though his speech was worthy scoff,
Good-humoured Salinguerra, famed for tact
And tongue, who, careless of his phrase, ne'er lacked
The right phrase, and harangued Honorius dumb
At his accession, looked as all fell plumb
To purpose and himself found interest
In every point his new instructor pressed
Left playing with the rescript's white wax seal
To scrutinize Sordello head and heel.
He means to yield assent sure? No, alas!
All he replied was, "What, it comes to pass
"That poesy, sooner than politics,
"Makes fade young hair?" To think such speech could fix

Then 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! Earth was turned a grave:
No more occasions now, though he should crave
Just one, in right of superhuman toil,
To do what was undone, repair such spoil,
Alter the past nothing would give the chance!
Not that he was to die; he saw askance
Protract the ignominious years beyond
To dream in time to hope and time despond,
Remember and forget, be sad, rejoice
As saved a trouble; he might, at his choice,
One way or other, idle life out, drop
No few smooth verses by the way for prop,
A thyrsus, these sad people, all the same,
Should pick up, and set store by, far from blame,
Plant o'er his hearse, convinced his better part
Survived him. "Rather tear men out the heart
"O' the truth!" Sordello muttered, and renewed
His propositions for the Multitude.

But Salinguerra, who at this attack
Had thrown great breast and ruffling corslet back
To hear the better, smilingly resumed
His task; beneath, the carroch's warning boomed;
He must decide with Tito; courteously
He turned then, even seeming to agree
With his admonisher "Assist the Pope,
"Extend Guelf domination, fill the scope
"O' the Church, thus based on All, by All, for All
"Change Secular to Evangelical"
Echoing his very sentence: all seemed lost,
When suddenly he looked up, laughingly almost,
To Palma: "This opinion of your friend's
"For instance, would it answer Palma's ends?
"Best, were it not, turn Guelf, submit our Strength"
(Here he drew out his baldric to its length)
"To the Pope's Knowledge let our captive slip,
"Wide to the walls throw ope our gates, equip
"Azzo with . . . what I hold here! Who 'll subscribe
"To a trite censure of the minstrel tribe
"Henceforward? or pronounce, as Heinrich used,
"'Spear-heads for battle, burr-heads for the joust!'
"When Constance, for his couplets, would promote
"Alcamo, from a parti-coloured coat,
"To holding her lord's stirrup in the wars.
"Not that I see where couplet-making jars
"With common sense: at Mantua I had borne
"This chanted, better than their most forlorn
"Of bull-baits, that 's indisputable!"

Whom vanity nigh slew, contempt shall save!
All 's at an end: a Troubadour suppose
Mankind will class him with their friends or foes?
A puny uncouth ailing vassal think
The world and him bound in some special link?
Abrupt the visionary tether burst.
What were rewarded here, or what amerced
If a poor drudge, solicitous to dream
Deservingly, got tangled by his theme
So far as to conceit the knack or gift
Or whatsoe'er it be, of verse, might lift
The globe, a lever like the hand and head
Of "Men of Action," as the Jongleurs said,
"The Great Men," in the people's dialect?

And not a moment did this scorn affect
Sordello: scorn the poet? They, for once,
Asking "what was," obtained a full response.
Bid Naddo think at Mantua he had but
To look into his promptuary, put
Finger on a set thought in a set speech:
But was Sordello fitted thus for each
Conjecture? Nowise; since within his soul,
Perception brooded unexpressed and whole.
A healthy spirit like a healthy frame
Craves aliment in plenty all the same,
Changes, assimilates its aliment.
Perceived Sordello, on a truth intent?
Next day no formularies more you saw
Than figs or olives in a sated maw.
'T is Knowledge, whither such perceptions tend;
They lose themselves in that, means to an end,
The many old producing some one new,
A last unlike the first. If lies are true,
The Caliph's wheel-work man of brass receives
A meal, munched millet grains and lettuce leaves
Together in his stomach rattle loose;
You find them perfect next day to produce:
But ne'er expect the man, on strength of that,
Can roll an iron camel-collar flat
Like Haroun's self! I tell you, what was stored
Bit by bit through Sordello's life, outpoured
That eve, was, for that age, a novel thing:
And round those three the People formed a ring,
Of visionary judges whose award
He recognised in full faces that barred
Henceforth return to the old careless life,
In whose great presence, therefore, his first strife
For their sake must not be ignobly fought;
All these, for once, approved of him, he thought,
Suspended their own vengeance, chose await
The issue of this strife to reinstate
Them in the right of taking it in fact
He must be proved king ere they could exact
Vengeance for such king's defalcation. Last,
A reason why the phrases flowed so fast
Was in his quite forgetting for a time
Himself in his amazement that the rhyme
Disguised the royalty so much: he there
And Salinguerra yet all-unaware
Who was the lord, who liegeman!

"Thus I lay
"On thine my spirit and compel obey
"His lord, my liegeman, impotent to build
"Another Rome, but hardly so unskilled
"In what such builder should have been, as brook
"One shame beyond the charge that I forsook
"His function! Free me from that shame, I bend
"A brow before, suppose new years to spend,
"Allow each chance, nor fruitlessly, recur
"Measure thee with the Minstrel, then, demur
"At any crowd he claims! That I must cede
"Shamed now, my right to my especial meed
"Confess thee fitter help the world than I
"Ordained its champion from eternity,
"Is much: but to behold thee scorn the post
"I quit in thy behalf to hear thee boast
"What makes my own despair!" And while he rung
The changes on this theme, the roof up-sprung,
The sad walls of the presence-chamber died
Into the distance, or embowering vied
With far-away Goito's vine-frontier;
And crowds of faces (only keeping clear
The rose-light in the midst, his vantage-ground
To fight their battle from) deep clustered round
Sordello, with good wishes no mere breath,
Kind prayers for him no vapour, since, come death
Come life, he was fresh-sinewed every joint,
Each bone new-marrowed as whom gods anoint
Though mortal to their rescue. Now let sprawl
The snaky volumes hither! Is Typhon all
For Hercules to trample good report
From Salinguerra only to extort?
"So was I" (closed he his inculcating
A poet must be earth's essential king)
"So was I, royal so, and if I fail,
"'T is not the royalty, ye witness quail,
"But one deposed who, caring not exert
"Its proper essence, trifled malapert
"With accidents instead good things assigned
"As heralds of a better thing behind
"And, worthy through display of these, put forth
"Never the inmost all-surpassing worth
"That constitutes him king precisely since
"As yet no other spirit may evince
"Its like: the power he took most pride to test,
"Whereby all forms of life had been professed
"At pleasure, forms already on the earth,
"Was but a means to power beyond, whose birth
"Should, in its novelty, be kingship's proof.
"Now, whether he came near or kept aloof
"The several forms he longed to imitate,
"Not there the kingship lay, he sees too late.
"Those forms, unalterable first as last,
"Proved him her copier, not the protoplast
"Of nature: what would come of being free,
"By action to exhibit tree for tree,
"Bird, beast, for beast and bird, or prove earth bore
"One veritable man or woman more?
"Means to an end, such proofs are: what the end?
"Let essence, whatsoe'er it be, extend
"Never contract. Already you include
"The multitude; then let the multitude
"Include yourself; and the result were new:
"Themselves before, the multitude turn you.
"This were to live and move and have, in them,
"Your being, and secure a diadem
"You should transmit (because no cycle yearns
"Beyond itself, but on itself returns)
"When, the full sphere in wane, the world o'erlaid
"Long since with you, shall have in turn obeyed
"Some orb still prouder, some displayer, still
"More potent than the last, of human will,
"And some new king depose the old. Of such
"Am I whom pride of this elates too much?
"Safe, rather say, 'mid troops of peers again;
"I, with my words, hailed brother of the train
"Deeds once sufficed: for, let the world roll back,
"Who fails, through deeds howe'er diverse, retrack
"My purpose still, my task? A teeming crust
"Air, flame, earth, wave at conflict! Then, needs must
"Emerge some Calm embodied, these refer
"The brawl to yellow-bearded Jupiter?
"No! Saturn; some existence like a pact
"And protest against Chaos, some first fact
"I' the faint of time. My deep of life, I know
"Is unavailing e'en to poorly show" . . .
(For here the Chief immeasurably yawned)
. . . "Deeds in their due gradation till Song dawned
"The fullest effluence of the finest mind,
"All in degree, no way diverse in kind
"From minds about it, minds which, more or less,
"Lofty or low, move seeking to impress
"Themselves on somewhat; but one mind has climbed
"Step after step, by just ascent sublimed.
"Thought is the soul of act, and, stage by stage,
"Soul is from body still to disengage
"As tending to a freedom which rejects
"Such help and incorporeally affects
"The world, producing deeds but not by deeds,
"Swaying, in others, frames itself exceeds,
"Assigning them the simpler tasks it used
"To patiently perform till Song produced
"Acts, by thoughts only, for the mind: divest
"Mind of e'en Thought, and, lo, God's unexpressed
"Will draws above us! All then is to win
"Save that. How much for me, then? where begin
"My work? About me, faces! and they flock,
"The earnest faces. What shall I unlock
"By song? behold me prompt, whate'er it be,
"To minister: how much can mortals see
"Of Life? No more than so? I take the task
"And marshal you Life's elemental masque,
"Show Men, on evil or on good lay stress,
"This light, this shade make prominent, suppress
"All ordinary hues that softening blend
"Such natures with the level. Apprehend
"Which sinner is, which saint, if I allot
"Hell, Purgatory, Heaven, a blaze or blot,
"To those you doubt concerning! I enwomb
"Some wretched Friedrich with his red-hot tomb;
"Some dubious spirit, Lombard Agilulph
"With the black chastening river I engulph!
"Some unapproached Matilda I enshrine
"With languors of the planet of decline
"These, fail to recognize, to arbitrate
"Between henceforth, to rightly estimate
"Thus marshalled in the masque! Myself, the while,
"As one of you, am witness, shrink or smile
"At my own showing! Next age what 's to do?
"The men and women stationed hitherto
"Will I unstation, good and bad, conduct
"Each nature to its farthest, or obstruct
"At soonest, in the world: light, thwarted, breaks
"A limpid purity to rainbow flakes,
"Or shadow, massed, freezes to gloom: behold
"How such, with fit assistance to unfold,
"Or obstacles to crush them, disengage
"Their forms, love, hate, hope, fear, peace make, war wage,
"In presence of you all! Myself, implied
"Superior now, as, by the platform's side,
"I bade them do and suffer, would last content
"The world . . . no that 's too far! I circumvent
"A few, my masque contented, and to these
"Offer unveil the last of mysteries
"Man's inmost life shall have yet freer play:
"Once more I cast external things away,
"And natures composite, so decompose
"That" . . . Why, he writes Sordello!

"How I rose,
"And how have you advanced! since evermore
"Yourselves effect what I was fain before
"Effect, what I supplied yourselves suggest,
"What I leave bare yourselves can now invest.
"How we attain to talk as brothers talk,
"In half-words, call things by half-names, no balk
"From discontinuing old aids. To-day
"Takes in account the work of Yesterday:
"Has not the world a Past now, its adept
"Consults ere he dispense with or accept
"New aids? a single touch more may enhance,
"A touch less turn to insignificance
"Those structures' symmetry the past has strewed
"The world with, once so bare. Leave the mere rude
"Explicit details! 't is but brother's speech
"We need, speech where an accent's change gives each
"The other's soul no speech to understand
"By former audience: need was then to expand,
"Expatiate hardly were we brothers! true
"Nor I lament my small remove from you,
"Nor reconstruct what stands already. Ends
"Accomplished turn to means: my art intends
"New structure from the ancient: as they changed
"The spoils of every clime at Venice, ranged
"The horned and snouted Libyan god, upright
"As in his desert, by some simple bright
"Clay cinerary pitcher Thebes as Rome,
"Athens as Byzant rifled, till their Dome
"From earth's reputed consummations razed
"A seal, the all-transmuting Triad blazed
"Above. Ah, whose that fortune? Ne'ertheless
"E'en he must stoop contented to express
"No tithe of what 's to say the vehicle
"Never sufficient: but his work is still
"For faces like the faces that select
"The single service I am bound effect,
"That bid me cast aside such fancies, bow
"Taurello to the Guelf cause, disallow
"The Kaiser's coming which with heart, soul, strength,
"I labour for, this eve, who feel at length
"My past career's outrageous vanity,
"And would, as its amends, die, even die
"Now I first estimate the boon of life,
"If death might win compliance sure, this strife
"Is right for once the People my support."

My poor Sordello! what may we extort
By this, I wonder? Palma's lighted eyes
Turned to Taurello who, long past surprise,
Began, "You love him what you 'd say at large
"Let me say briefly. First, your father's charge
"To me, his friend, peruse: I guessed indeed
"You were no stranger to the course decreed.
"He bids me leave his children to the saints:
"As for a certain project, he acquaints
"The Pope with that, and offers him the best
"Of your possessions to permit the rest
"Go peaceably to Ecelin, a stripe
"Of soil the cursed Vicentines will gripe,
" To Alberic, a patch the Trevisan
"Clutches already; extricate, who can,
"Treville, Villarazzi, Puissolo,
"Loria and Cartiglione! all must go,
"And with them go my hopes. 'T is lost, then! Lost
"This eve, our crisis, and some pains it cost
"Procuring; thirty years as good I'd spent
"Like our admonisher! But each his bent
"Pursues: no question, one might live absurd
"Oneself this while, by deed as he by word
"Persisting to obtrude an influence where
"'T is made account of, much as . . . nay, you fare
"With twice the fortune, youngster! I submit,
"Happy to parallel my waste of wit
"With the renowned Sordello's: you decide
"A course for me. Romano may abide
"Romano, Bacchus! After all, what dearth
"Of Ecelins and Alberics on earth?
"Say there 's a prize in prospect, must disgrace
"Betide competitors, unless they style
"Themselves Romano? Were it worth my while
"To try my own luck! But an obscure place
"Suits me there wants a youth to bustle, stalk
"And attitudinize some fight, more talk,
"Most flaunting badges how, I might make clear
"Since Friedrich's very purposes lie here
" Here, pity they are like to lie! For me,
"With station fixed unceremoniously
"Long since, small use contesting; I am but
"The liegeman you are born the lieges: shut
"That gentle mouth now! or resume your kin
"In your sweet self; were Palma Ecelin
"For me to work with! Could that neck endure
"This bauble for a cumbrous garniture,
"She should . . . or might one bear it for her? Stay
"I have not been so flattered many a day
"As by your pale friend Bacchus! The least help
"Would lick the hind's fawn to a lion's whelp:
"His neck is broad enough a ready tongue
"Beside: too writhled but, the main thing, young
"I could . . . why, look ye!"

And the badge was thrown
Across Sordello's neck: "This badge alone
"Makes you Romano's Head becomes superb
"On your bare neck, which would, on mine, disturb
"The pauldron," said Taurello. A mad act,
Nor even dreamed about before in fact,
Not when his sportive arm rose for the nonce
But he had dallied overmuch, this once,
With power: the thing was done, and he, aware
The thing was done, proceeded to declare
(So like a nature made to serve, excel
In serving, only feel by service well!)
That he would make Sordello that and more.
"As good a scheme as any. What 's to pore
"At in my face?" he asked "ponder instead
"This piece of news; you are Romano's Head!
"One cannot slacken pace so near the goal,
"Suffer my Azzo to escape heart-whole
"This time! For you there 's Palma to espouse
"For me, one crowning trouble ere I house
"Like my compeer."

On which ensued a strange
And solemn visitation; there came change
O'er every one of them; each looked on each:
Up in the midst a truth grew, without speech.
And when the giddiness sank and the haze
Subsided, they were sitting, no amaze,
Sordello with the baldric on, his sire
Silent, though his proportions seemed aspire
Momently; and, interpreting the thrill,
Night at its ebb, Palma was found there still
Relating somewhat Adelaide confessed
A year ago, while dying on her breast,
Of a contrivance, that Vicenza night
When Ecelin had birth. "Their convoy's flight,
"Cut off a moment, coiled inside the flame
"That wallowed like a dragon at his game
"The toppling city through San Biagio rocks!
"And wounded lies in her delicious locks
"Retrude, the frail mother, on her face,
"None of her wasted, just in one embrace
"Covering her child: when, as they lifted her,
"Cleaving the tumult, mighty, mightier
"And mightiest Taurello's cry outbroke,
"Leapt like a tongue of fire that cleaves the smoke,
"Midmost to cheer his Mantuans onward drown
"His colleague Ecelin's clamour, up and down
"The disarray: failed Adelaide see then
"Who was the natural chief, the man of men?
"Outstripping time, her infant there burst swathe,
"Stood up with eyes haggard beyond the scathe
"From wandering after his heritage
"Lost once and lost for aye: and why that rage,
"That deprecating glance? A new shape leant
"On a familiar shape gloatingly bent
"O'er his discomfiture; 'mid wreaths it wore,
"Still one outflamed the rest her child's before
"'T was Salinguerra's for his child: scorn, hate,
"Rage now might startle her when all too late!
"Then was the moment! rival's foot had spurned
"Never that House to earth else! Sense returned
"The act conceived, adventured and complete,
"They bore away to an obscure retreat
"Mother and child Retrude's self not slain"
(Nor even here Taurello moved) "though pain
"Was fled; and what assured them most 't was fled,
"All pain, was, if they raised the pale hushed head
"'T would turn this way and that, waver awhile,
"And only settle into its old smile
"(Graceful as the disquieted water-flag
"Steadying itself, remarked they, in the quag
"On either side their path) when suffered look
"Down on her child. They marched: no sign once shook
"The company's close litter of crossed spears
"Till, as they reached Goito, a few tears
"Slipped in the sunset from her long black lash,
"And she was gone. So far the action rash;
"No crime. They laid Retrude in the font,
"Taurello's very gift, her child was wont
"To sit beneath constant as eve he came
"To sit by its attendant girls the same
"As one of them. For Palma, she would blend
"With this magnific spirit to the end,
"That ruled her first; but scarcely had she dared
"To disobey the Adelaide who scared
"Her into vowing never to disclose
"A secret to her husband, which so froze
"His blood at half-recital, she contrived
"To hide from him Taurello's infant lived,
"Lest, by revealing that, himself should mar
"Romano's fortunes. And, a crime so far,
"Palma received that action: she was told
"Of Salinguerra's nature, of his cold
"Calm acquiescence in his lot! But free
"To impart the secret to Romano, she
"Engaged to repossess Sordello of
"His heritage, and hers, and that way doff
"The mask, but after years, long years: while now,
"Was not Romano's sign-mark on that brow?"

Across Taurello's heart his arms were locked:
And when he did speak 't was as if he mocked
The minstrel, "who had not to move," he said,
"Nor stir should fate defraud him of a shred
"Of his son's infancy? much less his youth!"
(Laughingly all this) "which to aid, in truth,
"Himself, reserved on purpose, had not grown
"Old, not too old 't was best they kept alone
"Till now, and never idly met till now;"
Then, in the same breath, told Sordello how
All intimations of this eve's event
Were lies, for Friedrich must advance to Trent,
Thence to Verona, then to Rome, there stop,
Tumble the Church down, institute a-top
The Alps a Prefecture of Lombardy:
"That 's now! no prophesying what may be
"Anon, with a new monarch of the clime,
"Native of Gesi, passing his youth's prime
"At Naples. Tito bids my choice decide
"On whom . . ."

"Embrace him, madman!" Palma cried,
Who through the laugh saw sweat-drops burst apace,
And his lips blanching: he did not embrace
Sordello, but he laid Sordello's hand
On his own eyes, mouth, forehead.

This while Sordello was becoming flushed
Out of his whiteness; thoughts rushed, fancies rushed;
He pressed his hand upon his head and signed
Both should forbear him. "Nay, the best 's behind!"
Taurello laughed not quite with the same laugh:
"The truth is, thus we scatter, ay, like chaff
"These Guelfs, a despicable monk recoils
"From: nor expect a fickle Kaiser spoils
"Our triumph! Friedrich? Think you, I intend
"Friedrich shall reap the fruits of blood I spend
"And brain I waste? Think you, the people clap
"Their hands at my out-hewing this wild gap
"For any Friedrich to fill up? 'T is mine
"That 's yours: I tell you, towards some such design
"Have I worked blindly, yes, and idly, yes,
"And for another, yes but worked no less
"With instinct at my heart; I else had swerved,
"While now look round! My cunning has preserved
"Samminiato that 's a central place
"Secures us Florence, boy, in Pisa's case.
"By land as she by sea; with Pisa ours,
"And Florence, and Pistoia, one devours
"The land at leisure! Gloriously dispersed
"Brescia, observe, Milan, Piacenza first
"That flanked us (ah, you know not!) in the March;
"On these we pile, as keystone of our arch,
"Romagna and Bologna, whose first span
"Covered the Trentine and the Valsugan;
"Sofia's Egna by Bolgiano 's sure!" . . .
So he proceeded: half of all this, pure
Delusion, doubtless, nor the rest too true,
But what was undone he felt sure to do,
As ring by ring he wrung off, flung away
The pauldron-rings to give his sword-arm play
Need of the sword now! That would soon adjust
Aught wrong at present; to the sword intrust
Sordello's whiteness, undersize: 't was plain
He hardly rendered right to his own brain
Like a brave hound, men educate to pride
Himself on speed or scent nor aught beside,
As though he could not, gift by gift, match men!
Palma had listened patiently: but when
'T was time expostulate, attempt withdraw
Taurello from his child, she, without awe
Took off his iron arms from, one by one,
Sordello's shrinking shoulders, and, that done,
Made him avert his visage and relieve
Sordello (you might see his corslet heave
The while) who, loose, rose tried to speak, then sank:
They left him in the chamber. All was blank.
And even reeling down the narrow stair
Taurello kept up, as though unaware
Palma was by to guide him, the old device
Something of Milan "how we muster thrice
"The Torriani's strength there; all along
"Our own Visconti cowed them" thus the song
Continued even while she bade him stoop,
Thrid somehow, by some glimpse of arrow-loop,
The turnings to the gallery below,
Where he stopped short as Palma let him go.
When he had sat in silence long enough
Splintering the stone bench, braving a rebuff
She stopped the truncheon; only to commence
One of Sordello's poems, a pretence
For speaking, some poor rhyme of "Elys' hair
"And head that 's sharp and perfect like a pear,
"So smooth and close are laid the few fine locks
"Stained like pale honey oozed from topmost rocks
"Sun-blanched the livelong summer" from his worst
Performance, the Goito, as his first:
And that at end, conceiving from the brow
And open mouth no silence would serve now,
Went on to say the whole world loved that man
And, for that matter, thought his face, tho' wan,
Eclipsed the Count's he sucking in each phrase
As if an angel spoke. The foolish praise
Ended, he drew her on his mailed knees, made
Her face a framework with his hands, a shade,
A crown, an aureole: there must she remain
(Her little mouth compressed with smiling pain
As in his gloves she felt her tresses twitch)
To get the best look at, in fittest niche
Dispose his saint. That done, he kissed her brow,
"Lauded her father for his treason now,"
He told her, "only, how could one suspect
"The wit in him? whose clansman, recollect,
`Was ever Salinguerra she, the same,
"Romano and his lady so, might claim
"To know all, as she should" and thus begun
Schemes with a vengeance, schemes on schemes, "not one
"Fit to be told that foolish boy," he said,
"But only let Sordello Palma wed,
" Then!"

'T was a dim long narrow place at best:
Midway a sole grate showed the fiery West,
As shows its corpse the world's end some split tomb
A gloom, a rift of fire, another gloom,
Faced Palma but at length Taurello set
Her free; the grating held one ragged jet
Of fierce gold fire: he lifted her within
The hollow underneath how else begin
Fate's second marvellous cycle, else renew
The ages than with Palma plain in view?
Then paced the passage, hands clenched, head erect,
Pursuing his discourse; a grand unchecked
Monotony made out from his quick talk
And the recurring noises of his walk;
Somewhat too much like the o'ercharged assent
Of two resolved friends in one danger blent,
Who hearten each the other against heart;
Boasting there 's nought to care for, when, apart
The boaster, all 's to care for. He, beside
Some shape not visible, in power and pride
Approached, out of the dark, ginglingly near,
Nearer, passed close in the broad light, his ear
Crimson, eyeballs suffused, temples full-fraught,
Just a snatch of the rapid speech you caught,
And on he strode into the opposite dark,
Till presently the harsh heel's turn, a spark
I' the stone, and whirl of some loose embossed throng
That crashed against the angle aye so long
After the last, punctual to an amount
Of mailed great paces you could not but count,
Prepared you for the pacing back again.
And by the snatches you might ascertain
That, Friedrich's Prefecture surmounted, left
By this alone in Italy, they cleft
Asunder, crushed together, at command
Of none, were free to break up Hildebrand,
Rebuild, he and Sordello, Charlemagne
But garnished, Strength with Knowledge, "if we deign
"Accept that compromise and stoop to give
"Rome law, the Cæsar's Representative."
Enough, that the illimitable flood
Of triumphs after triumphs, understood
In its faint reflux (you shall hear) sufficed
Young Ecelin for appanage, enticed
Him on till, these long quiet in their graves,
He found 't was looked for that a whole life's braves
Should somehow be made good; so, weak and worn,
Must stagger up at Milan, one grey morn
Of the to-come, and fight his latest fight.
But, Salinguerra's prophecy at height
He voluble with a raised arm and stiff,
A blaring voice, a blazing eye, as if
He had our very Italy to keep
Or cast away, or gather in a heap
To garrison the better ay, his word
Was, "run the cucumber into a gourd,
"Drive Trent upon Apulia" at their pitch
Who spied the continents and islands which
Grew mulberry leaves and sickles, in the map
(Strange that three such confessions so should hap
To Palma, Dante spoke with in the clear
Amorous silence of the Swooning-sphere,
Cunizza, as he called her! Never ask
Of Palma more! She sat, knowing her task
Was done, the labour of it, for, success
Concerned not Palma, passion's votaress.)
Triumph at neight, and thus Sordello crowned
Above the passage suddenly a sound
Stops speech, stops walk: back shrinks Taurello, bids
With large involuntary asking lids,
Palma interpret. "'T is his own foot-stamp
"Your hand! His summons! Nay, this idle damp
"Befits not!" Out they two reeled dizzily.
"Visconti 's strong at Milan," resumed he,
In the old, somewhat insignificant way
(Was Palma wont, years afterward, to say)
As though the spirit's flight, sustained thus far,
Dropped at that very instant.

Gone they are
Palma, Taurello; Eglamor anon,
Ecelin, only Naddo 's never gone!
Labours, this moonrise, what the Master meant:
"Is Squarcialupo speckled? purulent,
"I 'd say, but when was Providence put out?
"He carries somehow handily about
"His spite nor fouls himself!" Goito's vines
Stand like a cheat detected stark rough lines,
The moon breaks through, a grey mean scale against
The vault where, this eve's Maiden, thou remain'st
Like some fresh martyr, eyes fixed who can tell?
As Heaven, now all 's at end, did not so well,
Spite of the faith and victory, to leave
Its virgin quite to death in the lone eve.
While the persisting hermit-bee . . . ha! wait
No longer: these in compass, forward fate!

Reader Comments

Tell us what you think of 'Sordello: Book The Fifth' by Robert Browning

comments powered by Disqus

Home | Search | About this website | Contact | Privacy Policy