Before returning to a consideration of a novel next week, I would like to once more (as I did in the last article’s analysis of two-centuries-old anti-slavery poetry) carefully examine a classic poem. In this case, it will be the poem “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” from (originally) the 1855 collection Men and Women by Robert Browning, who is known for pieces of poetry with a distinct narrative voice (such that his poems can be read as dramatic monologues). “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” is about art and death and beautiful music, and the analysis below is considerably lengthy, but I hope you will grant me the time.
An attention to artifice suffuses the act of invention whereby Robert Browning’s poems proceed from deeply characterized speakers. This attention to artifice necessarily involves a consideration of the relation between that which is artificial and that which is actual—a relation that can be understood as the more general form of which the relation between art and life is a particular form.
In his poem, “A Toccata of Galuppi’s,” the relationship between art and life becomes a subject of direct address for both the speaker of the poem and the performance represented by the poem itself. The poem expresses a view of art as a permanent representation of impermanent life. For those who consume the art, it becomes a reminder of the ephemerality of pleasure and life even as it discourses on a particular subject or aspect of life, and even as it operates in a tone far afield from melancholy.
Further, the act of consuming art, Browning’s speaker contends, is an economic act wherein time is traded for participation, contributing to life’s aforementioned brevity. Browning’s poem seamlessly blends a dramatic consideration of art as an inadequate-because-eternal approximation of human life with an evaluation of the grim commodification of art as a temporal purchase. Through this combination, “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” reflects on the inadequacy of art to quell anxieties about mortality.
The Toccata of “A Toccata of Galuppi’s:”
The speaker’s explicit commentary on the toccata forms the basis of the work’s discussion of art as an imperfect representation of life. The speaker reveals at the outset that the toccata presents a vision of reality which fails to substantively overcome the sadness it unintentionally imparts: “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” (lines 3-4).
This preemptive dismissal of the speaker’s apparent transportation into a Carnival celebration in Venice as “all the good it brings” hints that the most affective aspect of the work of art is divorced from its attempt to present reality. Also, the situation of the music as “old” foreshadows the concern with aging which the speaker will later uncover as the reason for the heaviness of his mind.
As the speaker goes on to depict his impressions of a pair of Carnival-goers experiencing the piece, their reactions utilize sonorous poetic techniques to ally art with an unintentional conflation of somber impressions and pleasurable impressions: “[. . .] 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!’” (lines 25-27).
The alliterative ‘g’ sounds on line 26 link the artist’s name at once with quality, solemnity, and gaiety. This binding of the music’s happiness to the obvious double-denotation of “grave” as ‘serious’ and ‘burial site’ implies that, in addition to death being bound to pleasure, the single piece of music does equally well at demonstrating either mood.
Further, the rhyming across these lines of the exclamatory “say!” and “gay!” and “play!” ties happiness to performance, as though to point both in exuberance and association to an artificiality or superficiality in art’s project of representation.
The toccata itself, however, is only a constituent element of the poem’s conception of art, and the poetic techniques which depict the toccata are only a constituent part of the entire poem’s use of self-conscious form to make a statement about life.
The Content of “A Toccata of Galuppi’s:”
Why art is unable to correctly mirror life becomes apparent when pausing on how the poem itself acts as a performance analogous to that of the toccata. The similarity between the piece of music and Browning’s poem is readily apparent in the speaker’s address to the dead composer in the twelfth stanza: “Yes, you, like a ghostly cricket, creaking where a house was burned” (line 34).
The work of art is separated from the reality of its content and composition by its incessant existence. A work can not help but become associated with the loss of everyone involved with it: from whatever is the subject, to those who are the original audience, to the one that composes it, and even to the physical surroundings of said participants. With the “house,” its entire environment, gone, the continued “creaking” of the art becomes a “ghostly” perennial reminder of that environment’s absence.
In this case, the reminder takes the form of the imagined speech of Galuppi that follows, which unhelpfully twice reassures the speaker of the soul’s immortality, only to twice qualify or call into question the soul’s immortality. By extension, this reminder can not help but instill in subsequent consumers a consciousness of their own and their environment’s eventual demise. This complication of art’s attempts at consolation as active doubt of consolation is essential to the poem’s form.
The Meter of “A Toccata of Galuppi’s:”
The unwelcome, impending end of the non-eternal art-consumer is infused, via musical and metrical conventions, into the very structure of the poem. The entire poem is written in trochaic octameter catalectic.
This choice can be understood, first, as a further attachment of the music to the poem; the eight metrical feet can be understood as analogous to the eight notes often used to bridge an octave in music.
This choice can be understood, second, as a utilization of that musical analogy to present art’s un-life-like eternality; the catalectic nature of the lines leave the octave navigation incomplete. In this way, the words of the poem continuously dwell in the unconsummated, immortal happiness of the Carnival-goers in the eighth stanza, prior to the music’s “octave [striking] the answer,” lingering on the tail of “Those commiserating sevenths—‘Life might last! we can but try!’” (lines 25, 21).
This rhythmic structure of “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” also offers another ironic layer: while its lack of an ending syllable indicates art’s permanence, it does so by means of an unexpectedly abrupt end, highlighting the contrast between eternal art and temporary life.
This maneuver is then reinforced by the whole poem being just fifteen stanzas in length (as opposed to two full sets of eight), as the musical importance of reaching an eighth in the content and the line rhythm now resurfaces, only to again end at a seventh. What role, under these circumstances, art can be shown to have in interacting with society, comes across in thinking of art as an object.
The Economic Relationships of “A Toccata of Galuppi’s:”
Along with the above general comments on art’s representation of life in “A Toccata of Galuppi’s,” the speaker’s conception of the Venetian art patrons and the Venetian artist reveals a specific interaction with art as a commodity, for which the price, whether monetary, is temporal.
The speaker’s diction in thinking about the interaction between the Venetians and the toccata is instructive: “[. . .] they’d break talk off and afford / [. . .] While you sat and played” (lines 16, 18). In these lines, the pair is involved in a literal transaction of life for art, as time which could be spent talking is instead used to “afford” the performance.
Indeed, this also calls into the conversation the time it takes for the artist to compose and perform a work of art; while Galuppi or the speaker plays the toccata, time is spent in the same way as it is spent by any who listen to it.
This same utilization of time as currency is visible further into the poem as well, when the speaker imagines the composer’s expression as verbal: “Dust and ashes, dead and done with, Venice spent what Venice earned / The soul, doubtless, is immortal—where a soul can be discerned” (lines 35-36).
The meaning of line 35 is double, that Venice’s monetary wealth and glory has changed hands to other places and other people, and that Venice’s tremendous heyday has been used up across time. The promise of line 36, with its even qualification, does little to detract from the impact of the “Dust and ashes” which the imagined Galuppi has just presented as the aftermath of Venice spending all of its temporal capital. Yet, the speaker’s thoughts about the artist and art-consumers of the past are not alone in expressing the cost of art.
The Speaker of “A Toccata of Galuppi’s:”
Similarly, the depiction of the speaker himself presents a further complication of the position of art as commodity and of fear of mortality as justified. The closing lines of the poem betray the speaker’s contemplation of time and art in transactional terms: “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” (lines 44-45).
Both the monetary value of “all the gold” and the intrinsic (if not monetary) value of “their bosoms” and “such hair” are tragic losses in the speaker’s estimation. The absence or loss of these objects of value, traded for the art of a Venice gone by, inspires the speaker to feel the immediacy of his anxiety.
The depth of this anxiety is underscored by the characterization of the speaker presented two stanzas earlier: “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!” (lines 37-39).
The speaker’s knowledge of physical sciences offers a path into the worries about the soul’s immortality which he projects into Galuppi’s speech. This poem was published in 1855, and, in the Longman Anthology’s section on “Religion and Science,” the preface indicates that a geology in conflict with religion arose as early as the 1830s: “Increasingly, though, scientists began to question the evidence of God’s artistry. In Principles of Geology (1830-1833), Charles Lyell argued that geological phenomena resulted from the gradual actions of nature over immense stretches of time” (page 1291).
Geological concerns with both fossils and the age of the earth were casting doubts on the account of reality offered by Christianity. In this context, the degree to which humanity understands the natural world, and to what degree humans need to fear sharing the fate of extinction-conscious “Butterflies,” are immediately relevant to the worry over how much existing Browning’s speaker gets to do.
This also explains the defensiveness apparent in the reiteration of “it cannot be!” Meanwhile, in the context of the use of time as a currency for experiencing life and art, his study of mathematics also comes into grim focus as a tool for determining the remaining balance. At last, for the poem, art seems to make immediate—or difficult to ignore—concerns which already occupy its consumer, in this case the speaker, if not the reader.
In the understanding of time as the money with which art and life are bought, the question of how much “soul was left [. . .] when the kissing had to stop” (line 43) becomes an assessment of a remaining bank account subsequent to a purchase.
This evaluation of art in “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” as a dear-bought commodity makes all the more extreme the general relationship between art’s effective immortality and the mortal life it attempts to approximate.
Finally, beauty in art becomes related to the superficial attraction of a work of art’s explicit representational aims. This portrayal of beauty underlies the distraction by art which prevents the speaker from enjoying knowledge in the eleventh stanza and the distraction by pleasure which prevents the Venetians from leading meaningful lives in the tenth stanza.
Perhaps, the insufficient, superficial vision of Venice presented by the speaker of “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” in the third stanza at last reveals the true role of art, whose inadequacy as an accurate substitute for lived experience leaves only its taunting immortality to provide its consumer with truth, however unpleasantly mortal that truth may be.
In the end, the young Venetian lovers Browning’s speaker conjures up become every bit as harrowing as the figures on Keats’ urn, themselves, and the speaker, elements of a work of art, as immortal as humans are not.
Browning, Robert. “A Toccata of Galuppi’s.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 4th ed. Vol. 2B.: Pearson. 1336-7. Print.
“Perspectives: Religions and Science (Preface).” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 4th ed. Vol. 2B.: Pearson. 1291-2. Print.
A Soliloquy of Browning’s: