In January 1996, I wrote a 5,000-word essay with the title “‘That harmony should be prized’: Discord and resolution in Robert Browning’s music poetry”. I was in the final year of a BA in English at Middlesex University and the essay was the main part of the assessment of a module on “Victorian Poetry”. (I was then in my late 30s, having originally studied Law in Ireland but found that I wasn’t very suited to legal practice.) I was quite pleased with the essay (and myself). I no longer have anything more than the barest idea what I said in that essay. The periodic replacement of computers, succeeding generations of operating systems, failed or lost storage media and the obsolesence of the writing software I used have made sure that the essay is irrecoverable.

At first, I couldn’t even remember which poems I’d written about. I knew I’d concentrated primarily on “Abt Vogler” — that’s where the essay title came from: “Why rushed the discords in but that harmony should be prized?” (l. 84) — and knew I must at least have glanced at “A Toccata of Galuppi’s”, but what else had I discussed? With the assistance of Google, which hadn’t even existed when I was writing the original essay, I was able to jog my memory. The other poems had been “Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha” and “With Charles Avison” from Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in Their Day.

So, it occurred to me that, rather than try to reconstruct what I’d written 28½ years ago, it would make more sense to read the poems again and see what I think about them now. It soon became clear to me that what I think about them now is unlikely to bear much resemblance to what I wrote back then. In the first place, the original title suggests that I focused then on the introduction and resolution of discords. I’m surprised that I apparently managed to find enough in that topic to write 5,000 words on it. I certainly don’t think I could do that now.

The first thing I noticed this time, which I don’t remember having thought before, is that in these poems Browning presents to the reader composers of four distinct kinds: Galuppi is classical, the fictional Hugues is baroque, Vogler is romantic, and Avison … actually I’m not quite sure how to categorize Avison, but I’ll do my best to describe his work in a later post.

The second thing I noticed is that the metres and rhythms of the first three poems are untypical of Browning, who often writes in iambic pentameter. John Lennard points out that many of his dramatic monologues are in blank verse (The Poetry Handbook, p. 27). Where he departs from iambic metre, his purpose is often noticeably mimetic. Of “How They Brought The Good News from Ghent to Aix”, Adam Roberts draws attention to “how forcefully it mimics the galloping onward rush of its subject”, going on to elaborate (original italics omitted):

Most of the lines in ‘How They Brought…’ start with an unstressed syllable, stepping up briskly to three pounding dactyls, each line capped with a further stressed syllable: i SPRANG to the STIRRup, and JORis, and HE;/i GALLoped, Dirck GALLoped, we GALLoped all ThREE.

The poems that I’m discussing have nothing to do with galloping (appropriately, the word is itself a dactyl), but Roberts’s description of the metre hints at how the unusual rhythms of the music poems might be read. Lennard describes the metre of “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” as “catalectic trochaic octameter (eight trochees missing the final unstressed beat)” (The Poetry Handbook, p. 30), a description with which I’m inclined to argue on two grounds.

In my first attempt to write this post, a few days ago, I went on to spend 575 words attempting to show exactly what’s wrong with “catalectic trochaic octameter”. It was obvious that that argument was unlikely to hold anybody’s attention — it certainly didn’t hold mine — so I’ll try to summarize it in two paragraphs instead.

In writing about English verse, terms like “catalectic trochaic” and “catalectic dactylic” are, in my view, rarely helpful. Trochees and dactyls both end on unstressed syllables but “catalectic” trochaic or dactylic lines end on stresses. This has a very noticeable effect on how a line is read. Because of that final stress, so-called catalectic trochaic metre feels entirely different from fully trochaic (which is very rare in English).

If the metre here is not trochaic, neither is it octameter. That would imply eight stressed syllables or “beats”. I can hear only four, though there’s a complicating factor. “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” is composed of fifteen-syllable lines, with stresses on the third, seventh and fifteenth of each. In a regular line, the third beat will fall on the eleventh syllable. In many of these lines, including all in the first tercet, the third beat seems instead to fall on the thirteenth. This provides rhythmic variation, but is beyond my ability to describe in Derek Attridge’s terms, “promotion” and “demotion”.

The main point I want to make, though, is that a fifteen-syllable line with only four beats contains eleven unstressed syllables. The stressed syllables are equally spaced in time, so that the more unstressed syllables that occur between them, the faster the line will be read. With this unusual metre, Browning is suggesting — though not attempting accurate mimesis of — a fast, rhythmically complex piece of music being played by a virtuoso performer who sits “stately at the clavichord” (l. 18).

Is the music actually being played? Galuppi, the composer and imagined performer, is long since dead by the time the poem’s speaker responds to the music. Is the speaker playing it himself, merely reading the sheet music, or listening to a performance by someone else? He’s is a scientifically minded rationalist who “was never out of England” (l. 9) but has clearly heard much about Venice and imagines that the music is evoking for him the pleasure-filled lives of the young people who are now “Dust and ashes, dead and done with” (l. 35).

The significance of the music is not the same for the speaker as it was for Galuppi’s contemporary audience. There’s been no shortage of argument and confusion since the poem appeared as to what Browning may have meant by “sixths diminished” in line 19. I certainly don’t expect to be able to resolve it. (One possibility might be that he wanted to suggest “diminished sevenths”, couldn’t find a way to make it scan, and was happy to let his speaker — who undoubtedly is not as well informed as he thinks — appear confused.)

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!”

A suspension is a note held from the previous chord, creating a temporary discord and briefly delaying the harmonic resolution that the listener is expecting. The speaker imagines the original young audience as hearing the suspension as an intimation of mortality, before being reassured by the resolution which promptly follows it. He sees things very differently: for him the various “plaintive” chords, the dissonances, questions and doubts are resolved only in death. That’s why the music that to the young Venetians had seemed enlivening strikes him as “cold”, causing him to “creep thro’ every nerve” (l. 33), and leaves him feeling “chilly and grown old” (l. 45).

The music is deceptive: it proclaims “you’ll not die, it cannot be!” (l. 39) but the poem’s speaker knows that this isn’t true. So, it would be tempting to interpret the poem as suggesting that the music’s significance, or “meaning”, changes with the context, or with the passage of time. This would be a mistake. Insofar as the music seems to say “you’ll not die”, it’s wrong in any context and at any time; and the youth of eighteenth-century Venice should not be any easier to fool in this respect than a nineteenth-century English scientist — unless they wanted to be fooled.

The “meaning” of a piece of music also features in “Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha” and “Abt Vogler”. As in “A Toccata of Galuppi’s”, in “Master Hugues”, an unnamed speaker, an approximate contemporary of Browning’s, addresses a composer who is no longer alive, while responding to that composer’s music. The speaker in “Master Hugues” is a church organist who has been attempting to play one of the compositions of the fictional Hugues. The piece is technically demanding:

Friend, your fugue taxes the finger:
Learning it once, who would lose it? (ll. 131–2)

The organist supposes that, if he could only understand the composer’s intent, he would find the effort of mastering the piece worthwhile and also play it better, giving effect to the subtleties (presumably) envisaged by the composer, but that can never be fully expressed in the score. He imagines Hugues’s ghost, looking out at him from the sheet music, and taking exactly the same view:

Sure you were wishful to speak?
 You, with brow ruled like a score,
Yes, and eyes buried in pits on each cheek,
 Like two great breves, as they wrote them of yore,
Each side of that bar, your straight beak!


Sure you said — “Good, the mere notes!
 Still, couldst thou take my intent … (ll. 41–7)

Of course, the imagined composer (if he still existed!) might be using “intent” in a different sense from that intended by the organist when he asks “What do you mean by your mountainous fugues?” (l. 4). The organist is asking what the music signifies, assuming that it signifies anything, what (anterior) meaning it’s supposed to communicate. The composer might be saying the same thing, or he might simply be referring to how he intends the notes to be played.

The fugue is clearly very complex and it’s not surprising that “the poor organist” (l. 6), as he describes himself, finds it difficult and not necessarily rewarding to play it. It seems to combine five distinct themes or harmonic phrases. I’ve read some commentary on the poem which speaks of five “voices”; but stanza XVI seems more apt as a description of different phrases or themes than of voices (which would usually be soprano, alto, tenor, bass):

One is incisive, corrosive;
 Two retorts, nettled, curt, crepitant;
Three makes rejoinder, expansive, explosive;
 Four overbears them all, strident and strepitant: Five … O Danaides, O Sieve! (ll. 76–80)

The lone organist would have to play all of this with just his ten fingers and two feet. (Incidentally, the stanza suggests that he’s already made some progress towards interpreting the “meaning” of the fugue.)

The complexity of the music is reflected in the prosody. If one were to insist on describing the metre in terms of feet, it would be labeled dactylic. Most stanzas would then be catalectic dactylic metre, though several, including XVI which I’ve just quoted, are regularly dactylic (apart from the last line, of course, which ends on a stressed syllable). Or, to put it in terms I’m happier with, each line has more unstressed syllables than stressed, so the unstressed ones take less time to sound: they’re faster.

You’ll notice that I didn’t say what kind of dactylic metre it is. Is it trimeter, tetrameter or something else? In fact, the line length varies within the stanza. Lines 1, 3 and 5 are trimeter (three beats) while 2 and 4 are tetrameter. The rhyme scheme follows a different pattern: ababa. The effect is pleasantly fugal or contrapuntal.

The final stanza varies all of this. Each of the first four and the last of its nine lines ends in an unstressed syllable (but not in a dactyl). The third line has four beats but the fourth reverts to three. Lines 5 to 8 of the stanza have four beats each and they’re all a-rhymes, as if he were trying to build suspense. And, in the first and third lines, he rhymes “there” with itself.

On my first dozen or more readings of “Master Hugues” I was wholly sympathetic to the speaker’s plight. The note in the Norton edition of Browning’s poetry quotes Browning himself as having described Hugues as “one of those dry-as-dust imitators [of Bach] who would elaborate some such subject … for a dozen pages together” (Robert Browning’s Poetry, p. 154). Eventually, it was that final stanza that made me question whether I hadn’t been taking the organist’s complaint too much at face value.

The last stanza doesn’t necessarily reveal him to be unreliable or prone to exaggeration, but it does make it clear that he’s grumpy and bad-tempered. The sacristan has been clearing up the church, while the organist addresses the deceased composer via the sheet music of his difficult composition. He explains his lingering by saying that he’s fixing a crank pedal. By the end of the poem the sacristan has finished up and, evidently forgetting all about the organist, has gone out, either taking the light with him or extinguishing it.

What, you want, do you, to come unawares,
Sweeping the church up for first morning-prayers,
And find a poor devil has ended his cares
At the foot of your rotten-runged, rat-riddled stairs?
 Do I carry the moon in my pocket? (ll. 145–9)

So maybe he’s just someone who enjoys complaining. In “Abt Vogler” too, the final stanza provokes a kind of reassessment or rethinking.

I had intended to deal with all four poems in a single post, but partly because of my false start with the metre of “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” and partly because I was busy with other things this week, I didn’t have time to do that. There are things I want to say about both “Abt Vogler” and “With Charles Avison” but I’m going to have to postpone them, probably for a month or two. When I do get around to writing about them, I’ll probably post the result on my personal site rather than here on Talk about books, but I’ll include a link in my newsletter.

Works referred to

Derek Attridge, Poetic Rhythm: an introduction, Cambridge University Press, 1995;

John Lennard, The Poetry Handbook, Oxford University Press, 1996;

James F. Loucks, ed. Robert Browning’s Poetry Norton Critical Edition, 1979.