Robert Browning (1812-1889)
A Toccata of Galuppi's
1Oh Galuppi, Baldassaro, this is very sad to find!
2I can hardly misconceive you; it would prove me deaf and blind;
3But although I take your meaning, 'tis with such a heavy mind!
4Here you come with your old music, and here's all the good it brings.
5What, they lived once thus at Venice where the merchants were the kings,
6Where Saint Mark's is, where the Doges used to wed the sea with rings?
7Ay, because the sea's the street there; and 'tis arched by . . . what you call
8. . . Shylock's bridge with houses on it, where they kept the carnival:
9I was never out of England--it's as if I saw it all.
10Did young people take their pleasure when the sea was warm in May?
11Balls and masks begun at midnight, burning ever to mid-day,
12When they made up fresh adventures for the morrow, do you say?
13Was a lady such a lady, cheeks so round and lips so red,--
14On her neck the small face buoyant, like a bell-flower on its bed,
15O'er the breast's superb abundance where a man might base his head?
16Well, and it was graceful of them--they'd break talk off and afford
17--She, to bite her mask's black velvet--he, to finger on his sword,
18While you sat and played Toccatas, stately at the clavichord?
19What? Those lesser thirds so plaintive, sixths diminished, sigh on sigh,
20Told them something? Those suspensions, those solutions--"Must we die?"
21Those commiserating sevenths--"Life might last! we can but try!
22"Were you happy?" --"Yes."--"And are you still as happy?"--"Yes. And you?"
23--"Then, more kisses!"--"Did I stop them, when a million seemed so few?"
24Hark, the dominant's persistence till it must be answered to!
25So, an octave struck the answer. Oh, they praised you, I dare say!
26"Brave Galuppi! that was music! good alike at grave and gay!
27"I can always leave off talking when I hear a master play!"
28Then they left you for their pleasure: till in due time, one by one,
29Some with lives that came to nothing, some with deeds as well undone,
30Death stepped tacitly and took them where they never see the sun.
31But when I sit down to reason, think to take my stand nor swerve,
32While I triumph o'er a secret wrung from nature's close reserve,
33In you come with your cold music till I creep thro' every nerve.
34Yes, you, like a ghostly cricket, creaking where a house was burned:
35"Dust and ashes, dead and done with, Venice spent what Venice earned.
36"The soul, doubtless, is immortal--where a soul can be discerned.
37"Yours for instance: you know physics, something of geology,
38"Mathematics are your pastime; souls shall rise in their degree;
39"Butterflies may dread extinction,--you'll not die, it cannot be!
40"As for Venice and her people, merely born to bloom and drop,
41"Here on earth they bore their fruitage, mirth and folly were the crop:
42"What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?
43"Dust and ashes!" So you creak it, and I want the heart to scold.
44Dear dead women, with such hair, too--what's become of all the gold
45Used to hang and brush their bosoms? I feel chilly and grown old.
1] First published in volume I of Men and Women, 1855, but almost certainly written earlier (between 1847 and 1853). Baldassare Galuppi (1706-1785) was a famous Venetian composer, at one time organist at St. Mark's, now best known for his light operas. A toccata is a composition for the keyboard originally intended to exercise the touch, as its name suggests. It comes to serve as an exhibition of the player's technical virtuosity.
6] In an annual ceremony on Ascension Day, the Doge (from dux) or chief magistrate of Venice "wed" the city to the sea by dropping a ring into the Adriatic, to symbolize the city's close union with the sea and power over it. Venice was for long the greatest maritime power in Europe.
8] Shylock's bridge: the famous Rialto bridge over the Grand Canal, the speaker as a modern Englishman "never out of England," naturally thinks of Venice in terms of The Merchant of Venice.
19] lesser thirds, sixths diminished, sevenths, suspensions, solutions: the chords Galuppi is using in the toccata.
24] The seventh chord on the dominant or fifth, one of the "suspensions," demands the resolution of the "octave" or tonic chord.
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:
RPO poem editor: F. E. L. Priestley
RP edition: 3RP 3.128.
Recent editing: 2:2001/12/13
Other poems by Robert Browning