Robert Browning's "Sordello" was not received well

Please read Robert Browning's Sordello and let us know if you agree with the sentiments expressed below.

Screen Shot 2012 06 15 at 9 25 14 AMRobert Browning spent seven years composing Sordello, a 40,000-word narrative poem about strife between Guelphs and Ghibellines in 13th-century Italy. It was not received well.

Tennyson said, “There were only two lines in it that I understood, and they were both lies: ‘Who will may hear Sordello’s story told’ and ‘Who would has heard Sordello’s story told.’”

Thomas Carlyle wrote, “My wife has read through ‘Sordello’ without being able to make out whether ‘Sordello’ was a man, or a city, or a book.”

Douglas Jerrold opened the book while convalescing from an illness and began to fear that his mind had been destroyed. “O God, I AM an idiot!” he cried, sinking back onto the sofa. He pressed the book on his wife and sister; when Mrs. Jerrold said, “I don’t understand what this man means; it is gibberish,” her husband exclaimed, “Thank God, I am NOT an idiot!”

Futility Closet: A Glass Darkly


  1. I’ve read it, but it was some time ago. It’s difficult, but so much of Browning is difficult:  he was an erudite, recondite mofo, bookish as all hell–enough so, indeed, that he famously mistook the humble, vulgar English monosyllabic twat (apologies to those who are offended by such words, but we’re speaking of lexicographical matters here) as, not a coarse word for female genitalia, but part of a nun’s costume. This post on the blog Language Log tells the sordid, funny story: 

    But oh yeah, “Sordello” is difficult. It’s no “Balaustion’s Adventure” or “Aristophanes’ Apology,” but it ain’t “My Last Duchess” either.

    1. What a refreshing topic to spring up in the midst of all our contemporary hoohah. (“Hoohah” is not used here in its “nun’s accoutrement” sense.) Thanks for the introduction to Language Log.

  2. The editor’s annotations in the margin somewhat spoil the effect. You can use them as hatposts to hang your sanity onto.

  3. I remember hearing that someone asked Browning, “What does it mean?” and Browning replied, “When I was writing it only God and I knew. Now only God knows.”

    That doesn’t leave much hope for anyone else who wants to understand it. 

  4. I love the comments by  Tennyson and Carlyle. “Mystery Science Theatre 1840”. (Swinburne liked it though. Hm.)

  5. Yeah, from the bits I read this was not Browning’s shining moment.

    Still, I personally love most of his other work and find him to be underrated.

  6. The poem is heavily referenced in Roberto Bolano’s “By Night in Chile” the main character repeats the mantra to himself, “Sordel, Sordello, Which Sordello?”, at various points in his life. 

    1. That’s actually a reference to (the Facist) Ezra Pound’s second Canto, which begins:

      Hang it all, Robert Browning,  there can be but one “Sordello.”
      But Sordello, and my Sordello?

  7. Work like this really shows up the emptiness of terms like “bad” or “unreadable.” I’m plowing thru it just fine, and I had the same thought about Ulysses (Bloomsday is coming!) last night, which I’d never picked up before: “Why does everyone say it’s so hard?” Weird, yes, but hard, decidedly no. Are people who are saying it’s bad meaning it doesn’t have a clear narrative? Or is it about periodic sentences? Or all the metadiscursive abstraction? Is it simply a matter of taste, like the rhyme and rhythm doesn’t appeal in the way, say, that Dickinson or Shakespeare or Donne might?

    1. Today’s marketplace is really opposed to Joyce’s Modernist difficulties, predicated as it is on action, action, action, datadumps, dialogue, dialogue, dialogue, and Sudden Surprise Revelations. A lot of our genre fiction especially makes sweet love to traditional storytelling, all of which Joyce abandoned incredibly early in his career. The reading history and analytical skills required by a text like Ulysses would be beyond a lot of today’s audiences, as they were at the time of the book’s publication. (And why should great art be accessible to the masses, all the time and in all ways?)

        1. Who made that rule? Does “a majority” mean literally 50% of a random sampling of people? Because if so, then almost all art is “masturbation for experts.”

        2. Masturbatory or incestuous, but still it is going nowhere. Anyway it does Joyce a disservice as he is highly critical of the concept of Great Art and its pitfalls. There is more than plotlessness and intertextuality in Ulysses – so plenty for the masses. Happy Bloomsday!

        3.  Well, one might paraphrase that: “Great science that’s not accessible to the majority of those whom  it serves is, well, masturbation for experts.”

          So, any paper in theoretical physics or mathematics that can’t be read by you, dear reader, is worthless and just “masturbation for the masses”. Tell that to Bohr and Feynman and Heisenberg and Pauli and the rest, that’ll teach them!

          In other news, literature and art are in many ways just as complicated beasts as any science ever was. Some works of art are not, but then some scientific arguments are also quite simple. Sometimes a writer will have to build a complicated world that makes huge demands of its reader, and some of these demands may easily be a modicum of education, such as a working knowledge of history, contemporary politics, the main European languages and English and Latin poetry. Which means that in some cases, i.e. as is the case with James Joyce’s “Ulysses”, many people will have to read a lot of other stuff before they can really appreciate all the references.This does not make “Ulysse” “masturbation for experts”, it just raises the bar for entry. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Agatha Christie is not the end all and be all of modern literature, just as “Popular Mechanics” (despite its qualities) is not the end all and be all of modern science.

        4. Ah, the pleasure of the intense.  I have received inordinate pleasure in playing and studying Beethoven’s last 3 sonatas for the past 30 years,  and never expect to fully appreciate their dizzying profundity, mystery, and expansiveness, for which I am profoundly  grateful.  About the same time I started on them, I received what was apparently the only aplus a former collaborator of Einstein ever gave in his 1 semester General Relativity (intro, but serious) course, and felt such a great sadness that I really had so maxed out the fundamentals of that supreme intellectual construction, that I never proceeded much with physics after that.  Of course, great artists can produce onanic bullshit as well, but it’s up to us to sort it out.  So, who cares how many get it, as long as there is something to be gotten.  As the t-shirt says, “I can teach it to you, but I can’t  think it for you”.  And if you don’t want to do the thinking, no problem, just don’t shit on Beethoven, Einstein, or Browning at my dinner party.  Or,  to use your own metaphor, go ahead and swill your favorite brand of pre-digested porn- some of LIKE to do the work ourselves.

  8. Jerrold may not have been an idiot, but neither was he a logician, else he would have allowed for the possibilities that he and his wife were idiots both, or that the Sordello was incomprehensible AND he was an idiot.

    Sorry, I’ve been studying for the LSAT.

  9. I think the chief difficulty lies in its tediousness, really. If you can force yourself to stay engaged, it’s as easy to understand as, say, Shakespeare, but without the constant sense of greatness. The real question is, why bother? 

  10. Nouns as verbs; it’s easy once you get your brain to wrap around the poem that way, and then it becomes  quite beautiful. 

    He would love the phrase “Minute minute”, it forces the reader to think perceptively.

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