“Knight, Bard, Gallant”: The Troubadour as a Critique of Romanticism in Browning’s Sordello

  • Britta Martens


The medieval period occupies an essential yet paradoxical place in Robert Brownings poetic imagination. On the one hand, he felt ever drawn to the Renaissance as an age of crucial progress in science, learning, and the arts, finding in its artists in particular a convenient mouthpiece for articulating his poetics. On the other, he chose to make the pivotal work of his career, Sordello (1840), the story not of a Renaissance artist but rather that of a medieval Italian troubadour. The narrative of Sordello’s life parallels Brownings own artistic development from the derivative Romanticism of his early works to the impersonal poetics of his maturity. This transition is also enacted in the poem’s form, as its narrator (who is ostensibly Browning himself) progresses from self-conscious Romantic digressions to a more dramatic presentation of the story. Sordello constitutes not just the most self-reflexive and self-revealing of Browning’s poems; its central concern of developing a post-Romantic poetics is so representative of the challenge confronting all Victorian poets that it can justifiably be called the “key poem of the Victorian age.”1


Medieval Period Imaginative Power Feudal Society Romantic Poet Poetical Work 
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  1. 1.
    See Lionel Stevenson, “The Key Poem of the Victorian Age,” in Essays in American and English Literature Presented to Bruce McElderry, Jr, ed. Max F. Schulz et al. (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1967), 260–289.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    All line references to Browning’s poetry excluding Sordello and The Ring and the Book are to John Pettigrew and Thomas J. Collins, ed., Robert Browning. The Poems, 2 vols. (London: Penguin, 1996).Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    For examples of medieval romance openings, see John Woolford and Daniel Karlin, ed., The Poems of Browning, vol. 1 (London: Longman, 1991), 395. All line references to Sordello are to the poem’s first edition as reprinted in Woolford and Karlin’s meticulously annotated edition.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    Letter of April 16, 1835 in Philip Kelley and Ronald Hudson, ed., The Brownings’ Correspondence, vol. 3 (Winfield, Kansas: Wedgestone Press, 1985), 134.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    Mrs. William Busk, Plays and Poems, vol. 2 (London: Th. Hookham, 1837).Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    Biographie universelle ancienne et moderne, vol. 43 (Paris: Migaud, 1825), 131–135. A translation of the whole entry is cited in Ian Jack and Margaret Smith, ed., The Poetical Works of Robert Browning, vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), 165–171.Google Scholar
  7. Girolamo Tiraboschi, Storia della poesia italiana, vol. 1 (London: T Becket, 1803), 65.Google Scholar
  8. 13.
    As John Grube points out, Mrs. Busk makes her political position clear in a review article in Blackwood’s Magazine of October 1832 (“Sordello, Browning’s Christian Epic,” English Studies in Canada 4 [1978]: 413–429, here 429). Busk attacks the republicanism of the historian J. C. L. Simonde de Sismondi, on whose Histoire des républiques italiennes au moyen-âge Browning relied for his historical background, and compares the emerging city republics in medieval Italy to the triumph of the “mob” in the 1832 Reform Bill. And though most would agree that Scott’s politics were conservative, many would not agree that he was not critical of feudal society. See Kevin L. Morris, The Image of the Middle Ages in Romantic and Victorian Literature (London: Croom Helm, 1984).Google Scholar
  9. 14.
    Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Il Purgatorio, trans. John Sinclair (New York: Oxford University Press, 1939), VI, 60–81. Dante meets Sordello among the penitents of the last hour. Dante’s guide Virgil and Sordello embrace when they recognize each other as fellow Mantuans. Sordello’s function as Dante’s guide through the Valley of the Princes seems to be inspired by Sordello’s most famous poem, “Planh sur la mort de Blacatz,” a satire on cowardly princes. For an edition of all poems attributed to Sordello, see James J. Wilhelm, ed., and trans., The Poetry of Sordello (New York: Garland, 1987).Google Scholar
  10. 15.
    For a reading of Sordello as Browning’s exorcism of his Romantic egotism that does not take account of the poem’s medieval setting, see Michael G. Yetman, “Exorcising Shelley Out of Browning: Sordello and the Problem of Poetic Identity,” Victorian Poetry 13 (1975): 79–98.Google Scholar
  11. 17.
    Percy Bysshe Shelley, Poems and Prose (London: Everyman, 1995), 16.Google Scholar
  12. 18.
    See e.g., Richard D. Altick, ed., The Ring and the Book (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971) (I, 707–772) and Aristophanes’ Apology, 5178–5272.Google Scholar
  13. 19.
    John Woolford, “Browning Rethinks Romanticism,” Essays in Criticism 43 no. 3 (1993): 211–227, here 213–214. For a different reading of the role of Apollo in Sordello, see Alan P. Johnson, “Sordello: Apollo, Bacchus, and The Pattern of Italian History,” Victorian Poetry 7 (1969): 321–338.Google Scholar

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© Lorretta M. Holloway and Jennifer A. Palmgren 2005

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  • Britta Martens

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