Poetry: Browning at his Best

Oh Galuppi, Baldassaro, this is very sad to find!
I can hardly misconceive you; it would prove me deaf and blind;
But although I take your meaning, 'tis with such a heavy mind!
Here you come with your old music, and here's all the good it brings.
What, they lived once thus at Venice where the merchants were the kings,
Where Saint Mark's is, where the Doges used to wed the sea with rings?
Ay, because the sea's the street there; and 'tis arched by . . . what you call
. . . Shylock's bridge with houses on it, where they kept the carnival:
I was never out of England—it's as if I saw it all.
Did young people take their pleasure when the sea was warm in May?
Balls and masks begun at midnight, burning ever to mid-day,
When they made up fresh adventures for the morrow, do you say?
Was a lady such a lady, cheeks so round and lips so red,—
On her neck the small face buoyant, like a bell-flower on its bed,
O'er the breast's superb abundance where a man might base his head?
Well, and it was graceful of them—they'd break talk off and afford
—She, to bite her mask's black velvet—he, to finger on his sword,
While you sat and played Toccatas, stately at the clavichord?
What? Those lesser thirds so plaintive, sixths diminished, sigh on sigh,
Told them something? Those suspensions, those solutions—"Must we die?"
Those commiserating sevenths—"Life might last! we can but try!
"Were you happy?" —"Yes."—"And are you still as happy?"—"Yes. And you?"
—"Then, more kisses!"—"Did I stop them, when a million seemed so few?"
Hark, the dominant's persistence till it must be answered to!
So, an octave struck the answer. Oh, they praised you, I dare say!
"Brave Galuppi! that was music! good alike at grave and gay!
"I can always leave off talking when I hear a master play!"
Then they left you for their pleasure: till in due time, one by one,
Some with lives that came to nothing, some with deeds as well undone,
Death stepped tacitly and took them where they never see the sun.
But when I sit down to reason, think to take my stand nor swerve,
While I triumph o'er a secret wrung from nature's close reserve,
In you come with your cold music till I creep thro' every nerve.
Yes, you, like a ghostly cricket, creaking where a house was burned:
"Dust and ashes, dead and done with, Venice spent what Venice earned.
"The soul, doubtless, is immortal—where a soul can be discerned.
"Yours for instance: you know physics, something of geology,
"Mathematics are your pastime; souls shall rise in their degree;
"Butterflies may dread extinction,—you'll not die, it cannot be!
"As for Venice and her people, merely born to bloom and drop,
"Here on earth they bore their fruitage, mirth and folly were the crop:
"What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?
"Dust and ashes!" So you creak it, and I want the heart to scold.
Dear dead women, with such hair, too—what's become of all the gold
Used to hang and brush their bosoms? I feel chilly and grown old.


The Fleming Foundation

18 Responses

  1. Robert Reavis says:

    “But when I sit down to reason, think to take my stand nor swerve,
    While I triumph o’er a secret wrung from nature’s close reserve,
    In you come with your cold music till I creep thro’ every nerve.“

    Does anyone know if this reference to swerve is within the poem such as waltzing or to something outside the poem like Lucretius?? I thank whoever posted this beauty but having trouble with this stanza . All or any help will be appreciated .

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    “Swerve” in this passage seems to mean deviate from a chosen course, so something like take a stand and refuse to budge from it, and this is followed by a reference to the pursuit and attainment of scientific truth–so ethical and political decisions combined with scientific knowledge–two hallmarks of Victorian optimism. I posted it because I’ve always loved poem since my early 20’s. When I first moved to Illinois and the January weather turned, as it has turned this year, cold, frozen, and sunless. I would quote the line, “Death stepped tacitly and took them, where they never see the sun,” and ask people if they knew where that was, since I did now that I had moved to Rockford.

  3. Robert Reavis says:

    Thank you. It is so obvious to me now after your explanation but not so ten minutes ago. And thank you again for posting the poem.

  4. David Wihowski says:

    Fine poem, which made the old music major in me investigate an apparent lack (or more likely lapse) in my musical education. If he had been mentioned in my music history classes, I either missed it or he was glossed over. After some delightfully spent listening on YouTube (interrupted by the annoying commercials they must now intersperse), I will have to rectify the lack/lapse with more listening and research. Galuppi also apparently wrote a significant amount of vocal/choral music which is my forte and favorite; more pleasant research to keep me distracted from news and social media (I don’t spend much time with them already, but even less can’t hurt). If you can tolerate a commercial or two here is a toccata by Galuppi: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2EZzUIRNDuc

  5. Brent says:

    What a gem. I’ve had a soft spot for Browning since my junior year in high school, when I competed in an interscholastic literary criticism competition (half multiple choice on literary terms and half essay on one of a dozen poems by a certain poet selected at the beginning of the year). That year the poet whose poems one had to know were Browning’s. Small public school in rural Texas but a first-rate English teacher in Mrs. Popnoe. Question: Has the speaker lost all his optimism by the end or is there a hint that, while sobered by Galuppi (via the late composer’s music which the speaker is playing), he still holds out hope for something more than dust and ashes? And am I right in reading the “want” in the last stanza in the sense of lack (Psalm 23) rather than wish or desire?

  6. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Yes, you are right. There is some discussion on whether Galuppi ever wrote a keyboard Toccata, but that is one of those scholastic quibbles that do not interest even me. I won’t enter into a discussion of what the poet meant, but I should say that, while his usual exuberance has been tempered by experience, this is not a sigh of despair, but only an expression of reality acknowledged. Oh dear, have I given away my motive in posting this masterpiece. Interesting–to me at least–while I had read lot of Browning in my teens, I had missed this poem and first came across it in a beautiful recorded reading by Alec Guiness.

  7. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I should see if the recording is still available–I have not heard it since perhaps 1970. The question of how and why Browning came to pick Galuppi is another critical discussion better left untouched. The music I have heard is quite lovely.

  8. Brent says:

    I found it as part of a collection called “Poetry Album.” The CD includes readings of Kipling, Keats, Graves, Shakespeare, and others by Robert Donat (star of one of my favorites,The 39 Steps), Guinness, James Mason, and Laurie Lee. It can be purchased here: https://www.prestomusic.com/classical/products/8075887–poetry-album. Mine’s on its way! (The last several years on Epiphany we’ve listened to Guinness’s reading of Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi.”)

  9. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Thanks for the information. Donat was a wonderful actor with bad luck, but his several good performances made him for a time, despite somewhat unusual looks, the number one leading man in Britain.

  10. Raymond Olson says:

    That marvelous line, “What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?”

    The fifteener meter and the single-rhyme triplets keep the poem lighter than its tenor. Rue is restrained.

  11. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Yes, a lot depends on the length of the syllables and the rhyming. A similar trochaic rhythm is used to opposite effect in “The Raven.” If one ever had any doubt about Browning–and after “The Ring and the Book” I had lots of them–this poem removes them. Frank Brownlow has an essay on Browning’s poems about music, and I’m going to ask him to share it with us,

  12. Dot says:

    Sorry folks. I hate poetry and this is horrid!! There are only a few poems and their authors that are worth reading – the Inferno is one. I know just where that one is headed. Shakespeare is another. This poem? Quite honestly, some stanzas were too graphic for me.

  13. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I once visited the Blue Mosque in Constantinople. I was told, rather abruptly I thought, to take my shoes off to show respect to other people’s religion. In such a circumstance, one either takes off one’s shoes or leaves quietly.

  14. Robert Reavis says:

    Yes but now days just anyone can walk in without head scarfs, veils or genuflections. Lucky if they even follow a semblance of canon law with the sanctuary lamp

  15. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Alas, Robert, yes. It is still incumbent upon us to respect traditions, which, though we may not understand them, have been approved and recommended by our mentors.

  16. andrei navrozov says:

    Tom, my post today is a modest gloss to this poem, my favorite since adolescence. Galuppi is from the island of Burano, where I last was a few months ago to visit a painter who lives there all year round. There is a nice statue of Galuppi in the piazza, which the locals think has ruined it.

  17. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Yes, Burano is lovely–there’s a very old church, though it is quite a walk from the main landing. Last night we listened to several sonatas, one of them played by Michelangeli, whom Prof Brownlow recommended

  18. Frank Brownlow says:

    I do indeed have a talk, “Browning and Music,” that I gave a few years ago to the Boston Browning Society (Now there’s a survivor from the past!). It’s a bit long, I suspect, for this format, but if anyone’s curious it’s online at my website, F.W.Brownlow.com, on the essays page.