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.