I know had seen this poem, but I didn’t think I ever read it, but when I looked in my Norton’s Anthology of English Literature, still kept nicely since my undergraduate class some thirty plus years ago, there it was under the Robert Browning chapter, and it was evident I had read it since there were little notes penciled in the margin. Eve Tushnet, who I find an utterly fascinating person, noted the poem in her blog the other day. She recalled the poem when Deacon Greg Kandra in his blog mentioned a tradition initially performed in Venice in the year 1000, and apparently also now on the east coast of the United States, during the Feast of the Assumption, where a priest blesses the sea in what is called “the wedding of the sea.” Read also here. The wedding is the symbolic marriage of Venice to the Adriatic Sea resulting from a ship saved during a storm when a priest threw his ring into the water.
The poem contains a slight reference to the tradition in the sixth line, and Ms. Tushnet who seems to have an encyclopedic mind when it comes to literature recalled the poem. Her blog intrigued me enough for me to read and re-read the poem several times, and now, after several days of immersing myself in the poem, I find myself absorbed by it. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable poem, and in honor of the Feast of the Assumption on this coming Thursday I’m going to post it and discuss it.
Robert Browning is one of the great English poets of the Victorian era. You may know his wife, a lesser poet but perhaps more popular, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The two of them lived most of their lives in Italy. Robert Browning is thought of as a difficult poet, but frankly I’ve never felt that way. The difficulty arises in that Browning’s poems are usually in the voice of the character that the poem is about. Once you understand enough about the character, it’s easy to pick up what’s being alluded to.
In “A Toccata of Gallupi’s” the central character is an Englishman who is playing (or perhaps listening to, it’s not entirely clear) a toccata written by the Venetian musician, Baldassare Galuppi. As the Englishman listens to the music, he has a flight of fancy where he imagines Galuppi playing at a Venetian masquerade ball. He imagines young men and women at the ball in amorous exuberance. The poem is written in dramatic monologue, the narrator speaking to the reader. At one point we hear the voices of the men and women at the ball (l. 21-22) in dialogue, but that is the narrator, the Englishman, recounting what he imagines they said. We hear Galuppi speaking to the narrator (l. 34-43), but again that is the Englishman recounting an imaginary conversation.
With that overview, I think the poem is quite readable. I post the entire poem here, but go to the Victorian Web page of the poem where some more notes and commentary might help you get over some of the obscure parts.
"A Toccata of Galuppi's"
by Robert Browning.
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? 10
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?" 20
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, 40
"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 first ten stanzas set the scene and develops the Englishman’s character, contrasting him to Galuppi. At the end of the tenth stanza, the poem introduces the theme of death. The ball revelers leave off the music and move on, and in a compression of time the poem projects their lives to their ends, “death stepped tacitly and took them where they never see the sun” (l. 30). And then in the eleventh stanza the poem transitions. When the Englishman sits down to “reason,” and comes to some conclusion on the nature of life, in comes Galuppi’s music to upset his nerves. And Gallupi speaks to him through the music, ‘"Dust and ashes, dead and done with, Venice spent what Venice earned” (l. 35). What does the music (Galuppi) say to the Englishman? It says that all these people dancing—some one hundred years before—are all now dead, and Venice in her glory has now passed into middling status: ‘"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’ (l. 39-40). The poem then is an elegy to passing youth and ultimate death.
That is the standard reading of the poem. The notes at the Victorian Web site support that reading, and you can find similar readings across the internet. But I’m going to take you deeper, but, mind you, this is my personal insight, and perhaps it might be incorrect. Yes, the poem is about ultimate death, but there is more. There is a stark contrast between the Englishman living in the 19th century and Galuppi from Venice of a century before. The Englishman is said to be a scientist, or at least one whose identity is associated with science and mathematics (l. 37-38). Galuppi is a musician and composer, but perhaps more importantly a composer for St. Mark’s Cathedral, a composer of religious music. Sprinkled throughout the poem is the mention of an afterlife, the soul that lives on: “the soul, doubtless, is immortal” (l. 36) and “souls shall rise in their degree” (l. 38). What I think Browning is after is a contrast of spiritual views between his age and nation, where theistic doubt has entered culture, with that of an older, faith filled age and place.
If the poem were solely about passing youth and ultimate death, there would be no reason to locate the poem’s central consciousness with the Englishman. He could easily have had Galuppi himself speak the monologue, or perhaps a contemporary of Galuppi, either one looking back to a ball years before. The Englishman narrator is to compare the materialism and parochial ken of Browning’s age with the richness and spiritual ritual of Venice, “where Doges used to wed the sea with rings” (l. 6). There are repeated moments of undermining irony to the narrator’s discourse. He says he “can hardly misconceive” Galuppi, otherwise “it would prove him deaf and blind” (l. 2). Well, right there in the line above he misspells (or in effect mispronounces since it’s a monologue) Galuppi’s first name. He calls him Baldassaro when it’s actually Baldassare. He imagines a Venetian carnival, when he’s never been out of England (l. 9) and his knowledge of Venice seems based on Shakespeare’s play (l. 8, “Shylock’s bridge” from The Merchant of Venice) than any firsthand knowledge. It should be pointed out that the words he has Galuppi speak are not actually Galuppi’s, but what the Englishman imagines Galuppi to say. Yes, he has Galuppi say the soul is immortal, but he has him quickly undermine it with “where a soul can be discerned” (l. 36). That qualification is a metaphysical doubt, and though it’s uttered by Galuppi it’s really the Englishman’s doubt. It should be pointed out that Browning was an atheist as a young man but evolved to have belief system. The poem then is also a critique of Browning’s culture, a culture that lacks the faith, beauty, and splendor of magnificent Venice.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out some of the wonderful craft in the poem. It’s a highly unusual form, three triplets. Triplets would get tiresome over time, but here what Browning does is write in long octometer line. The long line I think stretches the rhymed words further apart than a normal pentameter line, and therefore makes the rhyme less artificial sounding. It’s interesting that musical notes are grouped as an octave, and so Browning has the rhyme an octometer apart. The meter is trochaic, that is stressed syllable followed by an unstressed, again unusual, and almost each line has a caesura, a slight pause, in the center. Let me illustrate. Take line ten, “Did young people take their pleasure when the sea was warm in May?” Notice the sing-songy stress/unstressed rhythm: DID young |PEOple |TAKE their |PLEAsure |WHEN the |SEA was |WARM in |MAY? Notice the slight pause between “did young people take their pleasure” and “when the sea was warm in May?” Notice too how each line is not sixteen syllables as you would expect from a true octometer, but fifteen. Browning does this so that the rhymed word ends on a stressed syllable, which would not occur with normal trochaic meter. It’s really quite a tour de force. Why does Browning go to such lengths in this poem? I would say it’s to replicate the highly stylized toccata’s music that is the predominant symbol at the heart of the poem.
I hope you liked the poem as much as I did. Come back to it a couple of times and hopefully it should sink in if it doesn’t right away.