“A Toccata of Galuppi’s” by Browning

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?
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.


Imagine that you are a person sitting in England—or anywhere, really, but you have never visited Italy. As you listen to a toccata by Galuppi (or perhaps you have the skill to play it) images range about your mind.   Art does that for us.  It can transport us elsewhere and to other times and help us to “see” differently.  Before I went to Venice I was able to almost taste it, touch it, feel it through poetry, paintings, novels.    I felt at home there and my first visit was like arriving at a place I had long known and loved.  Venice18thcenturydance

Browning uses trochaic what? Octameter? Heptameter? There seem to be 7 and 1/2 feet in most lines. The effect on the “ear” is very much as if you hear an old clavier tinkling out its song. But the message is one of nostalgic longing for a place and a time the speaker has never known. The “music” of the poem shows how powerful art can be to make us feel a part of a remote past we never knew. Galuppi’s music filled with tinkling lightness is at odds with this evocation of a somewhat seedy, weary past of romance gone boring and parties gone dull. Are people indeed merely born to “bloom and drop?”

It’s certainly much like other Victorian poets who view nature, ominously, as “red in tooth and claw” and ready to assault us, gleefully, with the grim reaper striking out wildly in all directions. I like the way that Browning uses the past, particularly the past of Renaissance Italy, to reflect upon his present.

Author: Gubbinal

Bookish, tea-drinking cat-lady who loves great poetry and music and is in the midst of dying

One thought on ““A Toccata of Galuppi’s” by Browning”

  1. I didn’t know this poem, and just looked up Galuppi online – didn’t know him, either. Pretty little Toccata on harpsichord found on YouTube. It is a strange metre, isn’t it. Reminds me of Longfellow’s loping rhythms in ‘Hiawatha’. Very difficult to sustain without lapsing into nursery rhyme territory, so Browning skilfully weaves in some dialogue and variations to stave off monotony. I can only take so much of his dramatic monologues, but taken like this individually they’re…interesting. But with that foregrounded beat I feel I’m marvelling more at his dexterity than the poem itself – but there are some chilling moments, as you say, like ‘when the kissing had to stop’. What is it about Venice that so exercises artists and visitors? I just reviewed Antal Szerb’s ‘Journey by Moonlight’, in which the action all starts going wrong in Venice!


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