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Poetry Archives > A Toccata of Galuppi's - Browning

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message 1: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Moran | 191 comments We will be discussing this lovely poem from 2/5 to 2/11 and beyond.


message 2: by Natalie (new)

Natalie Tyler (doulton) | 186 comments A Toccata of Galuppi's
BY ROBERT BROWNING

I
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!

II
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?

III
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.

IV
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?

V
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?

VI
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?

VII
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!

VIII
"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!

IX
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!"

X
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.

XI
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.

XII
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.

XIII
"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!

XIV
"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?

XV
"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.


message 3: by Natalie (new)

Natalie Tyler (doulton) | 186 comments I think our speaker is a contemporary (to Browning--i.e. mid-19th century pianist) who is playing a toccata by Galuppi and reflecting upon the past and present.

Note the long lines and the brief rhymed stanzas. Perhaps they reflect the form of the "tocatta" which means "touch" in Italian.

I should wait, however, for Jonathan and his comments.


message 4: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Moran | 191 comments Stanzas 1-3

I've had to go through this one slowly. I'll begin with a brief summary by stanza to help me and, hopefully, others:

Stanza 1 - Like Natalie said, the speaker, perhaps, a mid-19th century pianist, is playing or listening to a toccata of Galuppi's. He/she cannot mistake Galuppi's meaning; it is sad and heavy. To miss this dark message would mean the speaker was "deaf and blind". Thus, not only does the speaker find meaning in what he/she hears, but he/she can also see meaning in Galuppi's music.

Stanza 2 - "They lived once thus at Venice" (2.2). The speaker mentions Saint Mark's, one of the most notable landmarks in Venice. Norton's Anthology has a footnote on Browning's allusion to the Doges wedding the sea: "Each year the Doge, chief magistrate of the Venetian republic, threw a ring into the sea with ceremonial words. 'We wed thee, O sea, in sign of true and everlasting dominion" (730).

Stanza 3 - "The sea's the street there" (3.1). This metaphor is an obvious reference to the gondoliers, who transport people through or across the many canals, for which Venice is known. The Speaker also mentions "Shylock's bridge", which is actually "the Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal" (731). This is the second allusion to "The Merchant of Venice" by Shakespeare if we take line 2.2 "the merchants were the king" to be one as well. Why bring up that play? The speaker had never left England, but somehow Galuppi's toccata has shown him Venice--"it's as if I saw it all" (3.3).


message 5: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Moran | 191 comments Stanzas 4-6

Stanza 4 - The speaker wonders about the "balls and masks" that took place in May (Is this a synecdoche for Spring? Or, is May important for some reason?). He/she wonders if they partied from midnight to noon and made plans (for more revelries?) for the next day.

Stanza 5 - The speaker wonders if the typical Venetian lady had round cheeks, deep red lips, a small face floating on her neck, over an ample bosom, where a man would lay his head.

Stanza 6 - When Galuppi played there in Venice, a man and a lady would gracefully stop talking so she could "bite her mask's black velvet" (6.2), and the man could "finger on his sword" (6.2).


message 6: by Jonathan (last edited Feb 06, 2017 12:27PM) (new)

Jonathan Moran | 191 comments Stanzas 7-9

Stanza 7 - The speaker wonders if Galuppi's music "told them something" too (7.2). On the face of it, the music is asking them if they must die. (I found a double-meaning here, but I will come back to it.) Galuppi's "commiserating sevenths" seem to answer that they must try to make life last (forever?) (7.21).

Stanza 8 - It seems like, through the speaker's stream of consciousness, we enter into a conversation between the man and lady. They are asking each other questions about kissing. The last line here is a reference to the music, I am not sure what it signifies.

Stanza 9 - Was line 8.3 "the answer" referred to in 9.1? In any case, the speaker refers to the octave, which simultaneously refers to the music and the poem. The toccata is finished. They praise Galuppi for his music. They were happy to stop talking while the master played.


message 7: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Moran | 191 comments Stanzas 10-12:

Stanza 10 - These former party-goers left Galuppi to attend to their pleasures, but they are dead. Some accomplished nothing in life; some should have accomplished nothing. The speaker personifies death in 10.3, and sees Death taking them "where they never see the sun."

Stanza 11 - The speaker says when he sits down to think, Galuppi's "cold music" interrupts him "till I creep through every nerve" (11.3).

Stanza 12 - The speaker compares Galuppi to "a ghostly cricket" (12.1), before moving into Galuppi's message to him, which comes through his music. G seems to say these Venetians are dead (12.2), but the soul lives forever (12.3).


message 8: by Jonathan (last edited Feb 06, 2017 12:29PM) (new)

Jonathan Moran | 191 comments Stanzas 13-15:

Stanza 13: Galuppi's music, still speaking to the speaker, brings up the latter's knowledge of physics, geology, and math. "Souls shall rise in their degree" (13.2). Perhaps, the speaker has earned these degrees, and G's music, as personified here, finds some value in these accomplishments. G's music finishes by telling the speaker that unlike butterflies, he/she will never die.

Stanza 14: The idea seems to be that "Venice and her people" (14.1) may have spent their souls. G's music wonders what was left of their souls 'when the kissing had to stop' (14.3).

Stanza 15: G's music answers its own question, by relating that these Venetians are just dust and ashes. The word "creak" reminds us that G's music, further personified as a cricket, has brought the speaker this message to scold his heart (15.1). What does the speaker think about all this? He metonymically wonders what happened to the dead women's hair that used to "brush their bosoms" (15.3). He feels cold and old.


message 9: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Moran | 191 comments Sorry, if this summary was long, but I couldn't find a good resource on this poem with line-by-line analysis, so I had to do this the old-fashioned way.


message 10: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Moran | 191 comments While the speaker of the poem is relating his experience with Galuppi's music, the latter seems to be the teacher here. G's music is personified as a speaker in stanzas 12-15. What is the message there? I do believe there is a right answer to this, but I am curious to hear if anyone else came up with something different.


message 11: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Moran | 191 comments What is actually going on in Stanzas 6-8? Why is the lady biting her mask? Why is the man touching his sword? What is the meaning of "die" (7.2)? What do you make of the conversation in stanza 8? Does anyone see this is a "love scene"? If so, how far does it go? Is there double-meaning in some of the language Browning uses here?


message 12: by Lucia (new)

Lucia | 182 comments I think that the sense of this poem lies in the oxymoron used to describe Galuppi's music in stanza IX: "grave and gay". And grave is not only an antonym to gay, but it can also be referred (as burial place) to the isotopy of death running through the poem.


message 13: by Ginny (new)

Ginny (burmisgal) | 193 comments Jonathan wrote: "Stanzas 4-6

Stanza 4 - The speaker wonders about the "balls and masks" that took place in May (Is this a synecdoche for Spring? Or, is May important for some reason?). He/she wonders if they parti..."


"Mid May - Festa della Sensa. The Festa della Sensa, the ceremony which commemorates Venice's marriage to the sea, takes place on the first Sunday after Ascension Day (the Thursday that is 40 days after Easter). Historically the doge performed the ceremony, held in a special boat, of marrying Venice with the sea by throwing a gold ring into the water, however today the ceremony is performed by the mayor who uses a laurel wreath. Following the ceremony there is a big boat regatta and the day also usually includes a huge fair."
http://goitaly.about.com/od/venice-ev...


message 14: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Moran | 191 comments Good information Ginny. It seems Browning is working hard to establish the idea of marriage here. What does he do with it? I find that stanzas 6-8 depict a lovemaking session, perhaps at a ball, where the man and lady are gathered to hear Galuppi.

I find the usage of "die" in 7.2 to be innuendo for an orgasm, as Shakespeare so often used it. The sighs in (7.1) reinforce this view. The suspensions and solutions result in this metaphorical death. It is like the two lovers want this to go on, "Life might last" (7.3). But, they cannot. Nevertheless, they are left in a state of euphoria as revealed in the eighth stanza. "Were you happy?" How would this be portrayed in Hollywood? One lover turns to the other, "Was it good for you?" The answer was yes. And, the happiness lingered as the second lover must be in an euphoric state. Maybe, I have taken it too far, but, for sure, there is an extended make out session between the two listeners while Galuppi played.


message 15: by Ginny (new)

Ginny (burmisgal) | 193 comments Jonathan wrote: "While the speaker of the poem is relating his experience with Galuppi's music, the latter seems to be the teacher here. G's music is personified as a speaker in stanzas 12-15. What is the message t..."

The questions the musical cricket asks is "What about the soul?" Is there such a thing? With your knowledge of science and math, can you devise a proof for the existence of the soul? What happened to the soul(s) of Venice?

I think Venice as a setting and as a symbol is central here. Although the speaker says the music is enough to "see it all", it seems that Browning was likely in Venice when he wrote this. The frantic festival atmosphere in the 18th century was doomed even while it was going on. Wandering the calles of Venice, lost in the mazes of stone, coming upon yet another lonely canal one wonders where did the life that created this go? When those frivolous party people listening to Galuppi's music paused to listen did they reflect on the existence of the soul? Not likely. I think it's the thought that there is no such thing that leaves the speaker feeling chilly.


message 16: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Moran | 191 comments I think Browning is insisting that Venice, as represented metonymically by the two lovers, has misspent Galuppi. When addressing the speaker of the poem, G's music says,"Venice spent what Venice earned." The personified music then says Venice was "born to bloom and drop" (14.1). The music already established that the soul was immortal (12.3). If the soul is immortal, then how is Venice born to simply bloom and drop? Was there anything left of Venice's soul after the kissing stopped (14.3)? 15.1 answers this question indirectly. What is left of Venice or its soul? "Dust and ashes." This thought first came up in 10.3, when the speaker says the people of Venice, those who forsook Galuppi for their pleasure (10.1), upon their death, were taken to a place where the sun did not shine (10.3).

Not only does the speaker insinuate that Venice came to this dead state because it forsook Galuppi in favor of its own pleasure, as represented in the love scene, but the music itself, when it spoke, accused Venice of only producing the fruit of "mirth and folly" (14.2).

Venice lost its soul because it enjoyed the wrong kind of pleasure.


message 17: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Moran | 191 comments Ginny wrote: " I think it's the thought that there is no such thing that leaves the speaker feeling chilly. "

I believe that the poem is telling us that the poem's speaker has an immortal soul, and this is the case because he has produced good fruit with his life, as seen in his myriad of degrees in fields such as physics, geology, and math. The music tells him, "Butterflies may dread extinction-you'll not die, it cannot be!" (13.2)

The music has already established that the soul is immortal (12.3). But this is true only in cases in which "the soul can be discerned" (12.3).

But, the music argues that the soul of Venice has disintegrated to "dust and ashes" (15.1). Thusly, I understand the last line to mean that the speaker is mourning for Venice.


message 18: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Moran | 191 comments Lucia wrote: "I think that the sense of this poem lies in the oxymoron used to describe Galuppi's music in stanza IX: "grave and gay". And grave is not only an antonym to gay, but it can also be referred (as bur..."

I agree that the dichotomy between life and death is essential to understanding the meaning of the poem as well as the form. This is a great observation Lucia. I hadn't noticed this little alliterative phrase. I would extrapolate this phrase to represent what Galuppi's music means to the speaker. It is gay for the speaker, because the music tells him he will live forever. It is grave for Venice, whose indiscernible soul seems to be lost forever.


message 19: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Moran | 191 comments Natalie wrote: "Note the long lines and the brief rhymed stanzas. Perhaps they reflect the form of the "tocatta" which means "touch" in Italian."

There is definitely a lot of comparisons made to the music here. The tocatta is "designed to exhibit the performer's touch and technique." This makes it personal to the performer. I think this emphasizes the fact that Venice left Galuppi "for their pleasure" (10.1). In the scene, the two lovers abandoned Galuppi for their pleasure, while he is demonstrating his virtuosity. The fact that he is playing a tocatta, which shows off his touch, makes the Music take it even more personally than if he were playing a less important piece.


message 20: by Lucia (new)

Lucia | 182 comments Jonathan wrote: "I agree that the dichotomy between life and death is essential to understanding the meaning of the poem as well as the form. .."

I was taught by my English Literature professor at university that form and structure can tell us a great deal about the meaning.


message 21: by Clarissa (new)

Clarissa (clariann) | 526 comments The notes I read on this poem said it deals with a theme that Browning explores throughout his work: what is the role of the artist and what is the limitations of the artist?

The speaker in the poem is critical of Galuppi for descending into lightness and pleasure rather than portraying the reality of death, his music becomes a lie, even though it gets praised for its pleasant sound, it makes no difference, the Venetians leave and die.


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