Sordello astonished his friends, and amazed the world....Douglas Jerrold, when the work first appeared, was recruiting himself at Brighton after a long illness. In the progress of his convalescence a parcel arrived from London, which contained, among other things, this new volume of Sordello; the medical attendant had forbidden Mr. Jerrold the luxury of reading, but, owing to the absence of conjugal `life guards' he indulged in the illicit enjoyment.
A few lines put Jerrold in a state of alarm. Sentence after sentence brought no consecutive thought to his brain. At last the idea crossed his mind that in illness his mental faculties had been wrecked. The perspiration rolled from his forehead, and smiting his head, he sat down in his sofa, crying, `O, God, I am an idiot!' When his wife and her sister came, they were amused by his pushing the volume into their hands, and demanding what they thought of it. He watched them intently while they read — at last his wife said: `I don't understand what the man means; it is gibberish.' The delighted humorist sank in his seat again: `Thank God I am not an idiot.'. . .
But more illustrious personages than Douglas Jerrold were puzzled by the poem. Lord Tennyson manfully tackled it, but is reported to have admitted in bitterness of spirit:
`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."'
Carlyle was equally candid:
`My wife', he writes, `has read through Sordello without being able to make out whether "Sordello" was a man, or a city, or a book.'
Thomas Powell, The Living Authors of England (1849), p. 73;
William Sharp, The Life of Robert Browning (1890), p. 110.
THE new Chinese ambassador, a man of considerable literary ability, expressed a wish, shortly after his arrival in this country, of making the acquaintance of the principal English poets, and Mr. Browning was presented to him. The conversation turned to the compositions of the ambassador, who himself was a poet. `What kind of poetry does His Excellency write?' inquired Mr. Browning. `Pastoral, humorous, lyric, or what?' There was a pause for a short time. At length the interpreter said that His Excellency thought his poetry would be better described as 'enigmatic'.—'Surely', replied Mr. Browning, `there ought, then, to be the deepest sympathy between us, for that is just the criticism which is brought against my own works, and I believe it to be a just one.'
A Bibliography of Robert Browning from 1833
to 1881, compiled by Frederick J. Furnivall, Browning Society Papers 1881-4, pp. 12-13.
This anecdote is said to be taken from a London correspondent's letter in a provincial newspaper.
MR. Browning had honoured me with his company at dinner, and an unduly fervent admirer had buttonholed him throughout a long evening, plying him with questions about what he meant by this line, and whom he intended by that character. It was more than flesh and blood could stand, and at last the master extricated himself from the grasp of the disciple, exclaiming with the most airy grace, `But, my dear fellow, this is too bad. I am monopolizing you.'
Russell, Collections, pp. 134-5.
TENNYSON told Browning he thought `Sludge' too long. Browning answered, `I hope he thought it too long!'—that is, Sludge, when the confession was forced from him. Sludge is Home, the Medium, of whom Browning told me today a great deal that was very amusing. Having witnessed a séance of Home's, at the house of a friend of Browning's, Browning was openly called upon to give his frank opinion on what had passed, in presence of Home and the company, upon which he declared with emphasis that so impudent a piece of imposture he never saw before in all his life, and so took his leave. Next day Browning's servant came into his room with a visitor's card, and close behind him followed the visitor himself—no other than Mr. Home, who advanced with a cordial smile and right hand outstretched in amity. He bore no ill-will —not he! Browning looked sternly at him (as he is very capable of doing) and pointing to the open door, not far from which is rather a steep staircase, said, `If you are not out of that door in half a minute I'll fling you down the stairs.' Home attempted some expostulation, but Browning moved towards him, and the Medium disappeared with as much grace as he could manage. `And now comes the best of it all,' said Browning.'What do you suppose he says of me?—You'd never guess. He says to everybody, "How Browning hates me!—and how I love him!"' He further explains Browning's animosity as arising out of a séance at Florence, where a 'spirit-wreath' was placed on Mrs. Browning's head, and none on her husband's.
Allingham, Diary, pp. 101-2.
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