Oh, Galuppi, Baldassaro, this is very sad to find!
I can hardly misconceive you; it would prove me deaf and blind;
But although I give you credit, ’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 St. Marks 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 came tacitly and took them where they never see the sun.
But when I sit down to reason,—think to take my stand nor swerve
Till 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 its 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.
Published in the 1855 volume Men and Women, “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” gives the reflections of a man who is either playing or listening to a piece by the 18th-century Venetian composer Baldassare Galuppi. A toccata is a short, showy piece meant to allow a musician to show off his skill. The music inspires in the speaker visions of Venice: he sees these images in rich detail, even though he has not left England. He envisions a masked ball at which Galuppi performs, and he invents a conversation between two lovers at the ball, who speak of love and happiness in trivial terms. The sense of corruption and decay hangs heavy over the scene, though, and the speaker imagines Galuppi berating Venice for its soullessness and wild ways. The combined melancholy and gaiety produce a powerful effect on the speaker.
This poem is famous for its form. It is one of the few poems in English to be written in octameter: sixteen-syllable, or eight-stress, lines. Moreover, the stresses display a trochaic pattern (stressed followed by unstressed syllables), which can be difficult to sustain in English. Just as a toccata is a kind of virtuoso performance, so this poem represents a kind of metrical bravado: Browning shows off his technical skills. He performs yet another flourish by writing in rhyming triplets, another difficult poetic task in English, which has a vocabulary short on rhymes compared to that of many European languages. The poem’s language therefore attains a kind of flamboyant, musical effect, which, although it can obscure the poem’s content at times, constitutes an accomplishment in itself.
This poem’s air of ruined decadence can be seen as a logical continuation of earlier poems such as “My Last Duchess,” which celebrate high Renaissance glory. The poem introduces science as an alternative to art: some critics theorize that the speaker of this poem is actually supposed to be a scientist himself (see stanza 13). However, whether we cling to science or art, ultimately neither has proven able to keep humanity from decay. (On the other hand, the power that Galuppi’s toccata possesses over the speaker seems to suggest that art and music may offer some residual immortality.)
Galuppi’s music most interests the speaker is its persistent motifs of discord followed by resolution: the struggle within the music seems to echo the struggles of life. Indeed, the triplet form of the poem itself mirrors this: the third rhyming line dangles and is only resolved when the next stanza introduces a new rhyme. Discord can find only temporary resolution, though—for each following stanza, like each following generation, contains its own, new conflicts.
Melancholy figures prominently in Victorian literature, and the speaker’s attitude at the end of “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” evokes a decidedly melancholy mood. This poem suggests that the kind of art that evokes melancholy may best reflect the reality of life.