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Short poem

Robert Browning (1812-1889)


"As certain also of your own poets have said"--
                          (Acts 17.28)

              1Cleon the poet (from the sprinkled isles,
              2Lily on lily, that o'erlace the sea
              3And laugh their pride when the light wave lisps "Greece")--
              4To Protus in his Tyranny: much health!

              5They give thy letter to me, even now:
              6I read and seem as if I heard thee speak.
              7The master of thy galley still unlades
              8Gift after gift; they block my court at last
              9And pile themselves along its portico
            10Royal with sunset, like a thought of thee:
            11And one white she-slave from the group dispersed
            12Of black and white slaves (like the chequer-work
            13Pavement, at once my nation's work and gift,
            14Now covered with this settle-down of doves),
            15One lyric woman, in her crocus vest
            16Woven of sea-wools, with her two white hands
            17Commends to me the strainer and the cup
            18Thy lip hath bettered ere it blesses mine.

            19Well-counselled, king, in thy munificence!
            20For so shall men remark, in such an act
            21Of love for him whose song gives life its joy,--
            22Thy recognition of the use of life;
            23Nor call thy spirit barely adequate
            24To help on life in straight ways, broad enough
            25For vulgar souls, by ruling and the rest.
            26Thou, in the daily building of thy tower,--
            27Whether in fierce and sudden spasms of toil,
            28Or through dim lulls of unapparent growth,
            29Or when the general work 'mid good acclaim
            30Climbed with the eye to cheer the architect,--
            31Didst ne'er engage in work for mere work's sake--
            32Hadst ever in thy heart the luring hope
            33Of some eventual rest a-top of it,
            34Whence, all the tumult of the building hushed,
            35Thou first of men might'st look out to the East:
            36The vulgar saw thy tower, thou sawest the sun.
            37For this, I promise on thy festival
            38To pour libation, looking o'er the sea,
            39Making this slave narrate thy fortunes, speak
            40Thy great words, and describe thy royal face--
            41Wishing thee wholly where Zeus lives the most,
            42Within the eventual element of calm.

            43Thy letter's first requirement meets me here.
            44It is as thou hast heard: in one short life
            45I, Cleon, have effected all those things
            46Thou wonderingly dost enumerate.
            47That epos on thy hundred plates of gold
            48Is mine,--and also mine the little chant,
            49So sure to rise from every fishing-bark
            50When, lights at prow, the seamen haul their net.
            51The image of the sun-god on the phare,
            52Men turn from the sun's self to see, is mine;
            53The Pœo'er-storied its whole length,
            54As thou didst hear, with painting, is mine too.
            55I know the true proportions of a man
            56And woman also, not observed before;
            57And I have written three books on the soul,
            58Proving absurd all written hitherto,
            59And putting us to ignorance again.
            60For music,--why, I have combined the moods,
            61Inventing one. In brief, all arts are mine;
            62Thus much the people know and recognize,
            63Throughout our seventeen islands. Marvel not.
            64We of these latter days, with greater mind
            65Than our forerunners, since more composite,
            66Look not so great, beside their simple way,
            67To a judge who only sees one way at once,
            68One mind-point and no other at a time,--
            69Compares the small part of a man of us
            70With some whole man of the heroic age,
            71Great in his way--not ours, nor meant for ours.
            72And ours is greater, had we skill to know:
            73For, what we call this life of men on earth,
            74This sequence of the soul's achievements here
            75Being, as I find much reason to conceive,
            76Intended to be viewed eventually
            77As a great whole, not analyzed to parts,
            78But each part having reference to all,--
            79How shall a certain part, pronounced complete,
            80Endure effacement by another part?
            81Was the thing done?--then, what's to do again?
            82See, in the chequered pavement opposite,
            83Suppose the artist made a perfect rhomb,
            84And next a lozenge, then a trapezoid--
            85He did not overlay them, superimpose
            86The new upon the old and blot it out,
            87But laid them on a level in his work,
            88Making at last a picture; there it lies.
            89So, first the perfect separate forms were made,
            90The portions of mankind; and after, so,
            91Occurred the combination of the same.
            92For where had been a progress, otherwise?
            93Mankind, made up of all the single men,--
            94In such a synthesis the labour ends.
            95Now mark me! those divine men of old time
            96Have reached, thou sayest well, each at one point
            97The outside verge that rounds our faculty;
            98And where they reached, who can do more than reach?
            99It takes but little water just to touch
          100At some one point the inside of a sphere,
          101And, as we turn the sphere, touch all the rest
          102In due succession: but the finer air
          103Which not so palpably nor obviously,
          104Though no less universally, can touch
          105The whole circumference of that emptied sphere,
          106Fills it more fully than the water did;
          107Holds thrice the weight of water in itself
          108Resolved into a subtler element.
          109And yet the vulgar call the sphere first full
          110Up to the visible height--and after, void;
          111Not knowing air's more hidden properties.
          112And thus our soul, misknown, cries out to Zeus
          113To vindicate his purpose in our life:
          114Why stay we on the earth unless to grow?
          115Long since, I imaged, wrote the fiction out,
          116That he or other god descended here
          117And, once for all, showed simultaneously
          118What, in its nature, never can be shown,
          119Piecemeal or in succession;--showed, I say,
          120The worth both absolute and relative
          121Of all his children from the birth of time,
          122His instruments for all appointed work.
          123I now go on to image,--might we hear
          124The judgment which should give the due to each,
          125Show where the labour lay and where the ease,
          126And prove Zeus' self, the latent everywhere!
          127This is a dream:--but no dream, let us hope,
          128That years and days, the summers and the springs,
          129Follow each other with unwaning powers.
          130The grapes which dye thy wine are richer far,
          131Through culture, than the wild wealth of the rock;
          132The suave plum than the savage-tasted drupe;
          133The pastured honey-bee drops choicer sweet;
          134The flowers turn double, and the leaves turn flowers;
          135That young and tender crescent-moon, thy slave,
          136Sleeping above her robe as buoyed by clouds,
          137Refines upon the women of my youth.
          138What, and the soul alone deteriorates?
          139I have not chanted verse like Homer, no--
          140Nor swept string like Terpander, no--nor carved
          141And painted men like Phidias and his friend:
          142I am not great as they are, point by point.
          143But I have entered into sympathy
          144With these four, running these into one soul,
          145Who, separate, ignored each other's art.
          146Say, is it nothing that I know them all?
          147The wild flower was the larger; I have dashed
          148Rose-blood upon its petals, pricked its cup's
          149Honey with wine, and driven its seed to fruit,
          150And show a better flower if not so large:
          151I stand myself. Refer this to the gods
          152Whose gift alone it is! which, shall I dare
          153(All pride apart) upon the absurd pretext
          154That such a gift by chance lay in my hand,
          155Discourse of lightly or depreciate?
          156It might have fallen to another's hand: what then?
          157I pass too surely: let at least truth stay!

          158And next, of what thou followest on to ask.
          159This being with me as I declare, O king,
          160My works, in all these varicoloured kinds,
          161So done by me, accepted so by men--
          162Thou askest, if (my soul thus in men's hearts)
          163I must not be accounted to attain
          164The very crown and proper end of life?
          165Inquiring thence how, now life closeth up,
          166I face death with success in my right hand:
          167Whether I fear death less than dost thyself
          168The fortunate of men? "For" (writest thou)
          169"Thou leavest much behind, while I leave nought.
          170Thy life stays in the poems men shall sing,
          171The pictures men shall study; while my life,
          172Complete and whole now in its power and joy,
          173Dies altogether with my brain and arm,
          174Is lost indeed; since, what survives myself?
          175The brazen statue to o'erlook my grave,
          176Set on the promontory which I named.
          177And that--some supple courtier of my heir
          178Shall use its robed and sceptred arm, perhaps,
          179To fix the rope to, which best drags it down.
          180I go then: triumph thou, who dost not go!"

          181Nay, thou art worthy of hearing my whole mind.
          182Is this apparent, when thou turn'st to muse
          183Upon the scheme of earth and man in chief,
          184That admiration grows as knowledge grows?
          185That imperfection means perfection hid,
          186Reserved in part, to grace the after-time?
          187If, in the morning of philosophy,
          188Ere aught had been recorded, nay perceived,
          189Thou, with the light now in thee, couldst have looked
          190On all earth's tenantry, from worm to bird,
          191Ere man, her last, appeared upon the stage--
          192Thou wouldst have seen them perfect, and deduced
          193The perfectness of others yet unseen.
          194Conceding which,--had Zeus then questioned thee,
          195"Shall I go on a step, improve on this,
          196Do more for visible creatures than is done?"
          197Thou wouldst have answered, "Ay, by making each
          198Grow conscious in himself--by that alone.
          199All's perfect else: the shell sucks fast the rock,
          200The fish strikes through the sea, the snake both swims
          201And slides, forth range the beasts, the birds take flight,
          202Till life's mechanics can no further go--
          203And all this joy in natural life is put
          204Like fire from off thy finger into each,
          205So exquisitely perfect is the same.
          206But 'tis pure fire, and they mere matter are;
          207It has them, not they it: and so I choose
          208For man, thy last premeditated work
          209(If I might add a glory to the scheme),
          210That a third thing should stand apart from both,
          211A quality arise within his soul,
          212Which, intro-active, made to supervise
          213And feel the force it has, may view itself,
          214And so be happy." Man might live at first
          215The animal life: but is there nothing more?
          216In due time, let him critically learn
          217How he lives; and, the more he gets to know
          218Of his own life's adaptabilities,
          219The more joy-giving will his life become.
          220Thus man, who hath this quality, is best.

          221But thou, king, hadst more reasonably said:
          222Let progress end at once,--man make no step
          223Beyond the natural man, the better beast,
          224Using his senses, not the sense of sense."
          225In man there's failure, only since he left
          226The lower and inconscious forms of life.
          227We called it an advance, the rendering plain
          228Man's spirit might grow conscious of man's life,
          229And, by new lore so added to the old,
          230Take each step higher over the brute's head.
          231This grew the only life, the pleasure-house,
          232Watch-tower and treasure-fortress of the soul,
          233Which whole surrounding flats of natural life
          234Seemed only fit to yield subsistence to;
          235A tower that crowns a country. But alas,
          236The soul now climbs it just to perish there!
          237For thence we have discovered ('tis no dream--
          238We know this, which we had not else perceived)
          239That there's a world of capability
          240For joy, spread round about us, meant for us,
          241Inviting us; and still the soul craves all,
          242And still the flesh replies, "Take no jot more
          243Than ere thou clombst the tower to look abroad!
          244Nay, so much less as that fatigue has brought
          245Deduction to it." We struggle, fain to enlarge
          246Our bounded physical recipiency,
          247Increase our power, supply fresh oil to life,
          248Repair the waste of age and sickness: no,
          249It skills not! life's inadequate to joy,
          250As the soul sees joy, tempting life to take.
          251They praise a fountain in my garden here
          252Wherein a Naiad sends the water-bow
          253Thin from her tube; she smiles to see it rise.
          254What if I told her, it is just a thread
          255From that great river which the hills shut up,
          256And mock her with my leave to take the same?
          257The artificer has given her one small tube
          258Past power to widen or exchange--what boots
          259To know she might spout oceans if she could?
          260She cannot lift beyond her first thin thread:
          261And so a man can use but a man's joy
          262While he sees God's. Is it for Zeus to boast,
          263"See, man, how happy I live, and despair--
          264That I may be still happier--for thy use!"
          265If this were so, we could not thank our lord,
          266As hearts beat on to doing; 'tis not so--
          267Malice it is not. Is it carelessness?
          268Still, no. If care--where is the sign? I ask,
          269And get no answer, and agree in sum,
          270O king, with thy profound discouragement,
          271Who seest the wider but to sigh the more.
          272Most progress is most failure: thou sayest well.

          273The last point now:--thou dost except a case--
          274Holding joy not impossible to one
          275With artist-gifts--to such a man as I
          276Who leave behind me living works indeed;
          277For, such a poem, such a painting lives.
          278What? dost thou verily trip upon a word,
          279Confound the accurate view of what joy is
          280(Caught somewhat clearer by my eyes than thine)
          281With feeling joy? confound the knowing how
          282And showing how to live (my faculty)
          283With actually living?--Otherwise
          284Where is the artist's vantage o'er the king?
          285Because in my great epos I display
          286How divers men young, strong, fair, wise, can act--
          287Is this as though I acted? if I paint,
          288Carve the young Ph{oe}bus, am I therefore young?
          289Methinks I'm older that I bowed myself
          290The many years of pain that taught me art!
          291Indeed, to know is something, and to prove
          292How all this beauty might be enjoyed, is more:
          293But, knowing nought, to enjoy is something too.
          294Yon rower, with the moulded muscles there,
          295Lowering the sail, is nearer it than I.
          296I can write love-odes: thy fair slave's an ode.
          297I get to sing of love, when grown too grey
          298For being beloved: she turns to that young man,
          299The muscles all a-ripple on his back.
          300I know the joy of kingship: well, thou art king!

          301"But," sayest thou--(and I marvel, I repeat,
          302To find thee trip on such a mere word) "what
          303Thou writest, paintest, stays; that does not die:
          304Sappho survives, because we sing her songs,
          305And Aeschylus, because we read his plays!"
          306Why, if they live still, let them come and take
          307Thy slave in my despite, drink from thy cup,
          308Speak in my place. Thou diest while I survive?
          309Say rather that my fate is deadlier still,
          310In this, that every day my sense of joy
          311Grows more acute, my soul (intensified
          312By power and insight) more enlarged, more keen;
          313While every day my hairs fall more and more,
          314My hand shakes, and the heavy years increase--
          315The horror quickening still from year to year,
          316The consummation coming past escape,
          317When I shall know most, and yet least enjoy--
          318When all my works wherein I prove my worth,
          319Being present still to mock me in men's mouths,
          320Alive still, in the praise of such as thou,
          321I, I the feeling, thinking, acting man,
          322The man who loved his life so over-much,
          323Sleep in my urn. It is so horrible,
          324I dare at times imagine to my need
          325Some future state revealed to us by Zeus,
          326Unlimited in capability
          327For joy, as this is in desire for joy,
          328--To seek which, the joy-hunger forces us:
          329That, stung by straitness of our life, made strait
          330On purpose to make prized the life at large--
          331Freed by the throbbing impulse we call death,
          332We burst there as the worm into the fly,
          333Who, while a worm still, wants his wings. But no!
          334Zeus has not yet revealed it; and alas,
          335He must have done so, were it possible!

          336Live long and happy, and in that thought die:
          337Glad for what was! Farewell. And for the rest,
          338I cannot tell thy messenger aright
          339Where to deliver what he bears of thine
          340To one called Paulus; we have heard his fame
          341Indeed, if Christus be not one with him--
          342I know not, nor am troubled much to know.
          343Thou canst not think a mere barbarian Jew,
          344As Paulus proves to be, one circumcised,
          345Hath access to a secret shut from us?
          346Thou wrongest our philosophy, O king,
          347In stooping to inquire of such an one,
          348As if his answer could impose at all!
          349He writeth, doth he? well, and he may write.
          350Oh, the Jew findeth scholars! certain slaves
          351Who touched on this same isle, preached him and Christ;
          352And (as I gathered from a bystander)
          353Their doctrine could be held by no sane man.


1] The motto is from St. Paul's speech to the philosophers of Athens, Acts. 17: 28. Cleon and King Protus are both imaginary characters.
sprinkled isles: the Sporades, near Crete.

4] tyranny: kingdom. In the Greek sense, tyrant simply means absolute ruler, and implies no misgovernment or oppressions.

53] Pœcile: the Portico in Athens.

140] Terpander: founder of the first Greek School of music (late seventh century B.C.).

141] Phidias: famous Greek sculptor who supervised the construction of the Parthenon, and made the great statue of Pallas Athene for it. Died 432 B.C. "His friend" was Pericles, ruler of Athens from 460-429 B.C.

305] Aeschylus: the earliest of the great writers of Greek tragedy (525-456 B.C.).

Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: Robert Browning, Men and Women, 2 vols. (1855). Rev. 1863.
First publication date: 1855
RPO poem editor: F. E. L. Priestley
RP edition: 3RP 3.158.
Recent editing: 2:2001/12/17

Rhyme: unrhyming

Other poems by Robert Browning