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A Toccata of Galuppi's -- Robert Browning

After a long and weary journey, we come at last to Venice, western terminus of
the fabled Silk Road.
(Poem #526) A Toccata of Galuppi's
 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.
-- Robert Browning
Not for nothing is Browning considered the master of the dramatic monologue;
poems such as today's are brilliant showcases for his skill at capturing the
staccato patterns of everyday speech while never sacrificing the melody or
rhythm of his own verse. I also like the various musical conceits, which are
phrased in beautifully self-referential verses... marvellously done.

The poem itself is not an easy one to follow [1]; it deals (primarily) with the
tyranny of time, as seen through the eyes of an old Venetian. I'm not going to
explicate it in full; however, I will point out, in passing, the resonance with
Thomas Hardy's poem 'The Roman Road', which Martin ran just a few days ago - the
sense of a link between present and past is conveyed most strongly in Browning's
verse. Nice.

thomas.

[1] See the critical assessment below for more on why Browning's works are often
considered 'difficult'

[Credits]

Many thanks to Paul Malin, who responded to our query on
alt.quotations and pointed us to this poem.

[On the theme]

What a long strange trip it's been!

We started our journey in 8th century China, home of Li Po and his friend Tu Fu.
Our caravan then crossed the endless steppes of Central Asia, where we
encountered Tamburlaine and his mighty armies on the way to his capital, golden
Samarkand of story and song. Next, we climbed the high Pamirs and descended into
the orchards and meadows of Rumi's Persia. From Persia, we made our way across
the deserts of Araby to the very gates of Damascus. We set sail from a Syrian
harbour a few days ago, and now, laden with silk and spice, porcelain and
perfume, jade and jewels, we cast anchor in sight of our home port, Venice.

You can revisit all the above people, places and times, at the Minstrels
archive, http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/

Li Po, 'About Tu Fu', Poem #505
Christopher Marlowe, 'Lament for Zenocrate', Poem #507
James Elroy Flecker, 'The Golden Road to Samarkand', Poem #510
Jalaluddin Rumi, 'The Tavern', Poem #514
Robert Graves, 'The Persian Version', Poem #516
James Elroy Flecker, 'The Gates of Damascus' (a guest submission), Poem #519
Constantine Cavafy, 'In Harbor', Poem #523
Robert Browning, 'A Toccata of Galuppi's', Poem #526

As you can see, we've covered a fair bit of ground - historically,
geographically, and poetically. I hope you've enjoyed the theme; please do write
in with your comments and suggestions, about both this and future themes.

Next up: Around the World in Eighty Days (ha ha, just kidding!).

[Moreover]

"And the end of our journeying will be to return to the place from which we
started, and know it for the first time".

Could some kind reader enlighten me as to where this quote is originally from?
It's been running through my head for some time now; I think it's Eliot, but I'm
not quite sure...

[Links]

There's a nice essay on Venice - specifically, about its influence on literature
- at http://www.friendsofvenice.org/excerpts/churchill.html

Our search for Venice poems also threw up

Canto IV of 'Childe Harold's Pilgrimage', by Byron:
http://www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/rp/poems/byron11.html

Wordsworth's 'On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic, 1802:
http://www.bartleby.com/101/522.html

and the aptly titled 'Venice' by Susan Mitchell:
[broken link] http://www.poems.com/venicmit.htm

Thanks to Ben Trovato , William C. Waterhouseand Lizard for suggesting these.

A Browning biography can be found accompanying 'The Patriot', archived at
poem #364

Another very famous Browning monologue is 'My Last Duchess', which you can
read at poem #364.

[Critical Assessment]

Few poets have suffered more than Browning from hostile incomprehension or
misplaced admiration, both arising very often from a failure to recognize the
predominantly dramatic nature of his work. The bulk of his writing before 1846
was for the theatre; thereafter his major poems showed his increasing mastery of
the dramatic monologue. This consists essentially of a narrative spoken by a
single character and amplified by his comments on his story and the
circumstances in which he is speaking. From his own knowledge of the historical
or other events described, or else by inference from the poem itself, the reader
is eventually enabled to assess the intelligence and honesty of the narrator and
the value of the views he expresses. This type of dramatic monologue, since it
depends on the unconscious provision by the speaker of the evidence by which the
reader is to judge him, is eminently suitable for the ironist. Browning's
fondness for this form has, however, encouraged the two most common
misconceptions of the nature of his poetry--that it is deliberately obscure and
that its basic "message" is a facile optimism. Neither of these criticisms is
groundless; both are incomplete.

Browning is not always difficult. In many poems, especially short lyrics, he
achieves effects of obvious felicity. Nevertheless, his superficial
difficulties, which prevent an easy understanding of the sense of a passage, are
evident enough: his attempts to convey the broken and irregular rhythms of
speech make it almost impossible to read the verse quickly; his elliptical
syntax sometimes disconcerts and confuses the reader but can be mastered with
little effort; certain poems, such as Sordello or "Old Pictures in Florence,"
require a considerable acquaintance with their subjects in order to be
understood; and his fondness for putting his monologues into the mouths of
charlatans and sophists, such as Mr. Sludge or Napoleon III, obliges the reader
to follow a chain of subtle or paradoxical arguments. All these characteristics
stand in the way of easy reading.

But even when individual problems of style and technique have been resolved, the
poems' interest is seldom exhausted. First, Browning often chooses an unexpected
point of view, especially in his monologues, thus forcing the reader to accept
an unfamiliar perspective. Second, he is capable of startling changes of focus
within a poem. For example, he chooses subjects in themselves insignificant, as
in "Fra Lippo Lippi" and "Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha," and treats through them
the eternal themes of poetry. This transition from particular observation to
transcendental truth presents much the same challenge to the reader as do the
metaphysical poets of the 17th century and much the same excitement. Third,
because Browning seldom presents a speaker without irony, there is a constant
demand on the reader to appreciate exactly the direction of satiric force in the
poem. Even in a melodious poem such as "A Toccata of Galuppi's," the valid
position must be distinguished from the false at every turn of the argument,
while in the major casuistic monologues, such as "Bishop Blougram's Apology,"
the shifts of sympathy are subtler still.

It has also been objected that Browning uses his poetry as a vehicle for his
philosophy, which is not of itself profound or interesting, being limited to an
easy optimism. But Browning's dramatic monologues must, as he himself insisted,
be recognized as the utterances of fictitious persons drawing their strength
from their appropriateness in characterizing the speaker, and not as expressions
of Browning's own sentiments. Thus his great gallery of imagined characters is
to be regarded as an exhaustive catalog of human motives, not as a series of
self-portraits.

Nevertheless, certain fundamental assumptions are made so regularly that they
may be taken to represent Browning's personal beliefs, such as his Christian
faith. In matters of human conduct his sympathies are with those who show loving
hearts, honest natures, and warmth of feeling; certainly these qualities are
never satirized. He is in general on the side of those who commit themselves
wholeheartedly to an ideal, even if they fail. By itself this might suggest
rather a naive system of values, yet he also, sometimes even in the same poem,
shows his understanding of those who have been forced to lower their standards
and accept a compromise. Thus, although Browning is far from taking a cynical or
pessimistic view of man's nature or destiny, his hopes for the world are not
simple and unreasoning.

During Browning's lifetime, critical recognition came rapidly after 1864; and,
although his books never sold as well as his wife's or Tennyson's, he thereafter
acquired a considerable and enthusiastic public. In the 20th century his
reputation, along with those of the other great Victorians, declined, and his
work did not enjoy a wide reading public, perhaps in part because of increasing
skepticism of the values implied in his poetry. He has, however, influenced many
modern poets, such as Robert Frost and Ezra Pound, partly through his
development of the dramatic monologue, with its emphasis on the psychology of
the individual and his stream of consciousness, but even more through his
success in writing about the variety of modern life in language that owed
nothing to convention. As long as technical accomplishment, richness of texture,
sustained imaginative power, and a warm interest in humanity are counted
virtues, Browning will be numbered
among the great English poets.

        -- EB

27 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Amit Chakrabarti said...

To borrow a phrase from EB's critical assessment: "richness of texture".
This is what
always struck me about Browning in general, and of course it struck me
about this poem
in particular.

"The poem never manages to fully transcend the singsong," says Martin. I
couldn't disagree
more. After a short introduction that clearly conveys a feeling of
darker things to come, the poem shifts to a tone so sensual and
extravagant that the hushed and somber language, when
it comes, strikes us with the full force of contrast. Having
accomplished all of this, and thrown
in a few musical conceits for good measure (pun intended), playing
strictly by prosodic rules,
Browning must surely have rested assured of having "transcended the
singsong."

viagra said...

We can find in this poem something like Verse drama, Verse drama is particularly associated with the seriousness of tragedy, providing an artistic reason to write in this form, so I think that Robert Browning is a master in this area!!22dd

Cat Repellent said...

We can search in this poetry something like Verse drama, good poetry

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