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“Ode on a Grecian Urn” and Browning’s “A Toccata of Galuppi’s”

  • Stefan Hawlin

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  • Stefan Hawlin
    University of Buckingham

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The importance of Shelley to the teenage Robert Browning, his period of radicalism, vegetarianism, and atheism under his influence—what Elizabeth Barrett Browning would later call the young Browning’s “fit of scepticism” (Kelley et al. 15.278)—was a story well known to Browning’s circle of friends in the later part of his life, and is clearly described in the earliest full biographies, so that, given Shelley’s prominence in Pauline (1833) and elsewhere in Browning’s work, twentieth-century scholarship quickly established the Shelley-Browning nexus as an important route of investigation.[[1]] This went on, culminating we might say in the 1960s, in Harold Bloom’s appropriation of this line of thinking into his own aggressively Freudian model of influence. At this point, I would argue, things narrowed and became exaggerated. Under Bloom’s Freudian and conflictual model, Shelley seemed Browning’s important, indeed his sole, “precursor” (or father), the poet he struggled anxiously against, and “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came” was declared the crucial poem that showed him to be Shelley’s “ephebe” (or son) (Bloom 106–22). While it is true that a lot of creative and illuminating comment resulted from this, in Bloom’s work and elsewhere, it was always going to be likely that the paradigm would prove too exclusive and absolute. Alexandra Sutherland Orr, Browning’s friend in old age, and his first significant biographer, whilst acknowledging the importance of Shelley to him, balances this by her reference to Keats, emphasizing that Browning discovered both poets’ work at the same time. In Sutherland Orr’s telling of the story, which is probably slightly inaccurate (see below), Browning’s mother bought for her teenage son, on the same day, “most of Shelley’s writings” and also “three volumes of the still less known John Keats,” and she then relates an anecdote which I am not aware of from another source:

They [Shelley and Keats] indeed came to him as the two nightingales which, he told some friends, sang together in the May-night which closed this eventful day: one in the laburnum in his father’s garden, the other in a copper beech which stood on adjoining ground.


Sutherland Orr was concerned, in other words, with a more nuanced weighting: “no one who has ever heard him read Ode to a Nightingale, and repeat in the same subdued tones, as if continuing his own thoughts, some line from Epipsychidion, can doubt that [Shelley and Keats] retained a lasting and almost equal place in the poet’s heart” (40–41). This is a perspective, I would argue, that we should take more seriously. While the imprint of Keats on the young Browning is less obvious than that of Shelley, it is clearly something significant through the 1830s and 1840s, before it becomes explicit and important in the early 1850s.

As George Ford pointed out a long time ago, Browning was the first of the major Victorian poets to read intensively in Keats. [[2]] It was probably in 1827, at the age of fourteen, that he came into possession of Endymion and of the Lamia volume—both still available in first editions at the booksellers—and had a strong and positive reaction to the work (Maynard 195, 432n). Sometime later—when exactly we do not know, but clearly many years before he reports it to Elizabeth Barrett Barrett—he was lent Keats’s Poems (1817) by Leigh Hunt himself, its dedicatee—one of several small connections between the young poet and the circles of people who had known Keats himself.[[3]] Unconscious allusions and echoes to Keats are dotted through the early poetry, not pervasively, but sufficiently to establish the extent to which Browning had absorbed the work.[[4]] In the love correspondence, in February 1845, Keats arose in discussion between him and Barrett (who also knew the work well) in the context, interestingly, of the issue of the relationship between the poet and his audience and the literary market-place (Kelley et al. 10.52, 71). In May 1846 he also tells her about a meeting with George Severn—whom he calls excitedly “Keats’s Severn”—at a dinner, and of seeing the posthumous portrait of Keats that Severn had brought with him for viewing (Kelley et al. 12.325). When, probably from the start of 1853 onwards, Browning began writing the poems that would eventually form Men and Women (1855), and when, as part of this effort, he self-consciously turned aside from the writing of longer works (with which his name was still associated) to focus on writing shorter lyrics, Keats would have been a natural point of reference.[[5]] In the often quoted letter to his friend Joseph Milsand, of 24 February 1853, in which he says “I am writing . . . ‘Lyrics,’ with more music & painting than before, so as to get people to hear and see,” it is tempting to see the influence of Keats behind the idea of connections between poetry and the other arts (Kelley et al. 18.339). In “Popularity,” written probably in 1853 or 1854, this love of Keats comes out into the open, as he is mentioned directly as an instance of a poet wrongly ignored by his contemporaries (65), and is also—as critics agree—the implicit model for the generic “true poet,” “God’s glow-worm,” hidden during his lifetime in God’s “clenched hand,” and only then released to the wider appreciation of the world a good while after his death (1, 6, 11). “Popularity” shows how, in the period 1853–1855, as he was writing the Men and Women poems, his mind sometimes ran on Keats. It is in this context that I want to bring forward “Ode on a Grecian Urn” as the crucial inter-text for Browning’s “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” (which was probably written early in 1853).

What we are looking at here is a very determinate instance of intertextuality, initially at least a set of one-to-one correspondences, which make the relationship between the two poems, once seen, very hard to avoid. Indeed, the poems are so entangled, that, as will become clear, Browning is essentially producing a reading of, or commentary on, the earlier poem: the relationship, in Gérard Genette’s term’s, is metatextual (4). Here, however, I do not simply want to follow Bloom in tying a text to a necessary inter-text without significant reference outward to history and context. What separates Browning from Keats is his strongly Protestant sensibility, a sensibility which, after his mother’s death in 1849, and through his writing of Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day (1850), he had in many ways deepened. This creates in Browning something of the binary between religion and the aesthetic that Matthew Arnold would later explore in Culture and Anarchy under the heads of “Hebrew” and “Hellene” or “Hebraism” and “Hellenism,” the split (as he saw it) in nineteenth-century feeling between what we might now call a luminous monologic understanding of the Bible and the expanding world of criticism, culture, and the aesthetic.

Even at first glance it is not difficult to see how this Hebrew-Hellene binary is at play in “A Toccata of Galuppi’s,” for the speaker’s mind (and Browning’s also) is divided against itself. What is “Hebrew” in the speaker is his serious-mindedness, his instinctive sense of eighteenth-century Venice as a place of decadence, shallowness, frivolity; what is “Hellene” in him is his engagement with the music of Baldassare Galuppi (1706–85) and with the beauty of the images that it conjures up of Venice, the Venetians, their life and culture. We can use phrases straight out of Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy to characterize his dilemma: on the one hand, we see the speaker’s “staunchness and [moral] earnestness” of perception, on the other hand, growing out of aesthetic engagement, a “freer play of consciousness” (186); or, to take another phrasing, we see a man given to “earnestness of doing”—in his case, via his interest in science—having a fit of “delicacy and flexibility of thinking” (190). In Arnold’s terms, his whole experience in the monologue constitutes a moment of “culture,” “a free play of thought upon [his] routine notions” (191). Arnold’s version of “Hellenism” comes partly out of his readings in John Henry Newman and Newman’s ideal of a liberal education (DeLaura, Hebrew and Hellene 3–80). This points to the way in which the binary in “Toccata” is unsettled and unsettling from a Protestant viewpoint, and how, as in “Fra Lippo Lippi,” Browning is far from being wholly in control of how it plays out (DeLaura, “The Context”). On the one hand we have (Protestant) morality, conscience, and dutifulness, as embodied in the speaker’s normal mindset, on the other hand the agenda of a wider (quasi-Catholic) liberal learning, nuance, and enlightenment, and hence a fairer-minded appreciation of the Other (as represented by Venice). In what follows I want to examine in detail the intertextual relation between “Toccata” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” seeing in the former a classic intertextual absorption of and reply to the earlier text. At the same time, I want to keep in play this religious-aesthetic binary, for the illumination which, I believe, it eventually brings, via “Toccata,” to the reading of “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

I. Basic Intertextual Linkage

(i) Structure: In “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “A Toccata of Galuppi’s,” both speakers contemplate works of art, and in each case the speaker is enraptured by the art-work. The first speaker responds to the images on the urn and enters imaginatively into the world of antiquity. In a similar way, in response to the mode and manner of Galuppi’s music, the second speaker puts together various images of eighteenth-century Venice. In both cases their imaginations depart the here-and-now, and readers follow them, leaving behind symbolic Order and intelligibility, to be caught up in the world of Desire. From a climax, a point of intensity—stanza 4 in “Ode,” stanza 8 in “Toccata”—the poems fall back to earth. The Ode speaker finds himself outside reverie’s warmth, the urn just an object once more. The speaker in “Toccata” goes off to his study or laboratory—presumably having finished playing the toccata on the piano—so as to begin work on some scientific experiment, since for him too reverie has ended. Both speakers evaluate what has happened to them and the meaning of the art-work. This move into, and out of, engagement provides the shape of the argument in each case. As Jack Stillinger characterizes it, we have the “basic Keatsian structure . . . a literal or metaphorical excursion and return.” This paradigm can be applied to “Toccata” as easily as to “Ode”:

The speaker . . . begins in the real world, takes off in mental flight to visit the ideal, and then—for a variety of reasons, but most often because he finds something wanting in the imagined ideal . . . returns home to the real. But he has not simply arrived back where he began. . . . He has acquired something—a new understanding of a situation, a change in attitude towards it—from the experience of the flight.

Keats xvii

(ii) Questions: “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” can also be compared via the ways in which they share the interrogatory mode in relation to their respective art-works. There are ten questions in “Ode,” and eight in “Toccata.” In “Ode” most of the questions are of the “What?” kind (there is one “Who?” and one “To what?”). “Toccata” has a more varied pattern, with two “What?” questions, and others commencing “Where?,” “ ’tis?,” “Did?,” “do you say?,” “Was?,” and “they’d?” (i.e. “they would?”). These questions enact attentive excitement. They show the speakers’ imaginations becoming locked into the art-work. The questions move the speakers from being outside the art-work into a quality of engagement that takes them inside the art-work. By the fourth stanza of “Ode” the speaker seems to be within the landscape of ancient Greece, looking at the religious procession. In “Toccata,” by stanza 8, the speaker seems almost present in the eighteenth-century Venetian salon or theatre, listening to Galuppi’s playing, and so overhearing the lovers’ conversation. These series of questions function to thicken the descriptions of the urn and the toccata respectively, and of the worlds from which they come. They also help to create an air of spontaneity, suggesting that the experience of becoming enraptured by the art-work is one that is not wholly controlled.

(iii) The Erotic: A third point of comparison between the two poems concerns the way in which we are taken on journeys into scenes where love and sex are prominent. In “Ode” we begin with a scene of sexual pursuit and flight, with “maidens loth,” “mad pursuit,” and “wild ecstasy” (8, 9, 10), a scene somewhat obscured by vagueness but clearly bacchanalian or sexual in some way. Initially it may appear that “Toccata” starts more slowly, that the erotic is only seriously introduced in the fourth stanza, but actually (if at a slightly lower pulse) the speaker is also deeply stirred. His excitement is indicated by the way in which “they” in line 5 turns out to be the “young people” of line 10. This anticipatory effect within the arrangement of the sentences combines with the use of ellipsis in stanza 3 to give a sense of quick, impressionistic thinking similar to “Ode.” Just as the Ode speaker quickly moves to the images of “men” or “gods” chasing women, so the speaker of “Toccata” is thinking immediately of the hedonistic Venetians in pursuit of pleasure. It is in relation to “Ode” lines 5–10 that we should read the tumbled-up excitement of stanza 4 in “Toccata,” a scene in which, perhaps, there are also “maidens loth” and “struggles to escape”:

Did young people take their pleasure when the sea was

 warm in May?

Balls and masks begun at midnight, burning ever to


When they made up fresh adventures for the morrow, do

 you say?


The erotic continues into the central images of both poems. In the second and third stanzas of “Ode” the scene focuses on a “Bold Lover” (17) reaching towards a maiden for a kiss, while somewhere near him a “happy melodist” (23) plays beautifully on a pipe. This lovers-with-music vignette is replicated in “Toccata” in the scene in the theatre or salon, where the young lovers sit next to each other whilst they listen to Galuppi playing his toccata at the clavichord (16–24). Like Keats’s lovers, these Venetian lovers are not actually kissing, but yearning to kiss. In their case, they have stopped kissing, partly because of the proprieties required by the formal situation, partly because of some small quarrel between them. Their whispered conversation, however, is all about resuming their kissing:

“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?”


Browning seems to have Keats’s “More happy love! more happy, happy love!” (25) ringing in his mind, and again clearly this love of the Venetians is “For ever panting, and for ever young” (27).

(iv) Desire versus Death: In the two poems both sets of lovers are frozen into the eternal moment in which their speakers place them, but they are also shadowed by real human time. The Venetians are hearing the toccata played by the very man who composed it, but they are mainly oblivious to its sad harmonies and implicit message: “Those lesser thirds so plaintive, sixths diminished, sigh on sigh” (19) should have told them something of the fleeting nature of time but—as the speaker makes clear—did not do so. The equivalent in Keats is the “heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d, / A burning forehead, and a parching tongue’ (29–30), the tristesse of satiety that remains unfulfilled, the sensual world bound for the grave. In terms of the youth-time-death matrix, the two speakers take slightly different routes to the same end. The “Toccata” speaker has brought the lovers alive to his imagination: for these flickering moments of stanzas 5 to 9 they are really there at the concert, tense with their own fresh reality. Stanza 10 then tolls their doom. In “Ode” the lovers are timeless because never really or wholly alive. In both poems it is a mode of heavy irony that shadows the lovers and makes clear the delusion of their eternality. Both poems also make the classic connection between youth and spring-time. Keats’s lovers exist against the backdrop of the “happy, happy boughs!” that never “bid the spring adieu” (21–22); in “Toccata,” even more sensuously, the love-affair takes place “when the sea was warm in May” (10).

(v) The Endings: The first point of correspondence between the endings concerns the issue of distancing. From line 41 onwards in “Ode,” and line 31 onwards in “Toccata,” the speakers have stepped outside the warm, breathing reality of the ideal world and returned to reality. At this point, the art-work each speaker has been contemplating ceases to be something overwhelming or palpable. In Keats the phrasing “with brede / Of marble men and maidens overwrought” (41–42) has sometimes been criticised, but is in fact just right in the way in which “brede” suggests how the speaker’s vision has refocused, how the figures on the urn have shrunk to a pattern. The Grecian urn is now given the relatively simple synonym of “Attic shape” (41) since it is an object once more. Similarly the toccata, which vividly brought alive the world of Venice, is now “cold music,” “a ghostly cricket, creaking where a house was burned” (33, 34). “Cold music” suggests Browning’s wider thinking on how music quickly goes out of fashion, how a particular style of music can cease to have an easy effect on listeners as they become accustomed to something new (Hawlin 205–6). To Victorians of the mid century, their ears attuned or attuning themselves to Berlioz, Chopin, Schumann and other Romantic composers, the timbres and sound textures of mid-eighteenth-century music were starting to sound lifeless and dated. The “cricket” image (34) suggests a mechanical aspect to the sound: an aura has died; the sensuousness of Venice and its music are chill. At this point, both speakers are negotiating a new relationship between ideal and real.

The second similarity in the endings concerns the way in which thoughts of mortality come to the fore as the flood of imagination abates. “Toccata” is fuller in this respect, giving us a series of similar or synonymous phrases: Venice and its citizens are “Dust and ashes, dead and done with,” “Dust and ashes,” and “Dear dead women” (35, 43, 44). “Dust and ashes,” from the Book of Genesis (18.27) and the funeral service of the Book of Common Prayer, tolls like a passing-bell on its alliterating /d/ through the close of the poem. The equivalent in Keats is just that one vivid line “When old age shall this generation waste” (46), where “this generation” suggests both the specific generation and the infinite series of the generations. Death is entwined with coldness: for all its fineness, the urn is now a “Cold Pastoral” (45), and the toccata just “cold music” (33).

Thirdly, and finally, in these depressive contexts, both art-works have a gnomic but sagacious message to deliver. Of course the wisdom of the urn has proved elusive for many readers, while (at first) the irony of the toccata’s speech may seem to work in a simpler way. But, as we will see later, the messages of both art-works have a lot to say about “Beauty” and “Truth” and the relationship between them.

II. Metatextual Commentary

If this similarity of patterning is overwhelming—as I hope has now been shown—what exactly does this tell us about Browning’s engagement with “Ode on a Grecian Urn”? His profound response to the Keatsian structure is writ large in “Toccata,” but what should we make of those points where he significantly departs from the precursor poem? It is now, I think, that nuance needs to come into play, for it is via disparity or revision that we can most easily see how Browning reads Keats, and how his reading negotiates with the Hebrew-Hellene binary. In the sections which follow, I take these points of revision or distancing in their logical order: firstly, the presentation of the speakers; secondly, the relationship between eighteenth-century Venice and ancient Greece; finally, the messages delivered by the two art-works.

Presentation of the speakers

In Men and Women, where “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” was first published, there are basically two kinds of relationship between the dramatic monologue and history: there are monologues that emerge from a rich, actual historical matrix, and monologues where history is treated more lightly, where there is no pressing historical context. In the first category are monologues like “Andrea del Sarto,” a real Renaissance painter, and “Bishop Blougram’s Apology,” a fictional character but based upon Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman (1802–1865). In the second category are monologues like “A Woman’s Last Word” or “Love Among the Ruins,” where no particular historical individuals are intended, and where we only know a limited amount about the speakers. “Toccata” is of this second kind. The speaker is not a well-known historical personage: he is a nineteenth-century man looking back to the eighteenth century (1, 4–5); he has never travelled outside England, let alone visited Italy (9); he is a serious amateur of science and mathematics (37–38). What follows from this—and from his attitudes and from his tone—is that he regards himself as a worthy person who does not particularly enjoy contemplating Venice in the period of its decline. Of course “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is not dramatic in this kind of way, so that Browning’s dramatic element, however slight, is his modification of Keats, his setting up of distance between text and inter-text. (We could imagine “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” without these elements, but then it would be so like its precursor as to make their relationship too obvious.)

What is fascinating here is that Browning clearly read “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in dramatic terms. Rather than simply thinking of the poem as spoken by Keats, or even as spoken (as we would now say) by an Ode speaker, he immediately picks up on the particular situation that the poem implies. Straight away he places emphasis on the excited, absorbed voice that we hear in “Ode,” the sheer enthusiasm of engagement with the ancient artefact. It is as though Browning had asked himself “Who is this person so quickly carried away, so quickly made excited, by this ancient urn?” In Browning’s way of reading we have to imagine a particular individual, perhaps wandering around the British Museum, coming upon the urn on display, and looking at it, and then being suddenly wrapped up in its contemplation.

At this point, one suspects, Browning was guided by what he knew of Keats and his work, and what “Ode” itself told him. Browning was friends with Richard Monckton Milnes, Keats’s first significant biographer, and so familiar with his Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats (1848). He was in fact given a copy of this by its publisher, Edward Moxon, who was also his own publisher (Kelley and Coley 137). In volume 1, he would have encountered the crucial letters where Keats brings forward the binary of the sensuous versus the intellectual: “What the Imagination seizes as Beauty must be Truth . . . O for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts!”; “I have been hovering for some time between an exquisite sense of the luxurious, and a love for philosophy”; “What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the cameleon poet” (Milnes 1.64, 104, 221). This binary, of course, plays straight into the Hellene-Hebrew binary we are focused on here, as the speaker turns from the “exquisite sense of the luxurious” (represented by Venice) to his own sense of what is reasonably or philosophically true. Browning would have also known, of course, Keats’s various writings of the ashen “death” that might follow on the fading of the sensuous dream, as for example the endings of Lamia and “La Belle Dame sans Merci.” The speaker of “Toccata,” having virtually fallen in love with the beautiful Venetian woman he describes in stanza 5 (“cheeks so round and lips so red”), is then (in terms of Lamia) his own Apollonius. Browning’s decision to make the speaker an amateur scientist might have been influenced by the lines on “cold philosophy” at the end of Lamia, lines which wholly tally in their effect with the ending of “Toccata”:

 Do not all charms fly

At the mere touch of cold philosophy?

There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:

We know her woof, her texture; she is given

In the dull catalogue of common things.

Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,

Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,

Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine


In relation to these contexts, “Toccata” makes clear Browning’s deductions about the speaker of “Ode.” Keats’s speaker cannot be an expert in the art of antiquity any more than Browning’s scientist speaker is an expert in eighteenth-century music. Both are enthusiastic amateurs: just as the speaker of “Ode” cannot quickly or exactly identify the scenes decorating the urn, just so the speaker of “Toccata” has to grope about to imagine the historical context of Galuppi’s music. Next, the speaker of “Ode” must clearly be feeling the pressure of time and age,—hence Browning’s decision to make his own speaker feel that he is middle-aged: “I feel chilly and grown old” (45). Finally, Browning decides that the speaker of “Ode” must be a passionate man because of all his excited questions. He follows through with this insight by deliberately contrasting his own speaker’s intense questions with his more everyday mentality: the speaker of “Toccata” is normally (as he himself implies) stalwart or phlegmatic, even somewhat dry-minded—dedicated to looking down his microscope, “triumph[ing] o’er a secret wrung from nature’s close reserve” (32). For the time of the poem, however, his unconscious erupts, and Desire floods his mind with sensuous images in response to the music. This is one aspect of Browning’s reading of “Ode.” The first four lines of “Ode” appear quiet and meditative, but (Browning implies) they are not really: the true sensibility of the speaker is that revealed in lines 5–10, where the passionate questions tumble over one another. In “Toccata” Browning imitates this switch from (apparent) meditative voice to excited voice in the movement from the seemingly slow-paced nature of stanzas 1 and 2 to the quicker pace of stanzas 3 to 5. This provides a simple but rich insight into Keats’s ode: the ode is not spoken neutrally or from a position of indifference. Immediately it is an excited and passionate poem, caught up in the wonderment of looking at something marvellous and mysterious.

Eighteenth-century venice and ancient greece

What exactly does Browning’s substitution of eighteenth-century Venice for ancient Greece tell us about his reading of “Ode”? This is a more nuanced and complex question, and to answer it we have to bear in mind both what we have just said about the speaker and what we can deduce (below) about the two endings. For most of “Toccata”—from stanzas 1 to 10—the speaker does not express his sense of Venice’s moral failure in heavy terms, and when the sense of that failure is strongly expressed, in stanzas 12 to 14, it is via the ironic message of the music, one which cannot be taken at face value. If we miss this subtlety, the danger is that we assume on Browning’s part a Ruskin-like, heavily moralized attitude to Venetian decadence: “the dying city, magnificent in her dissipation, and graceful in her follies” (Ruskin 47). Browning was certainly aware of this attitude—as a Protestant and a Liberal, how could he not be?—and it is certainly one tendency within his speaker’s perceptions about Venice. La Serenissima, the Most Serene Maritime Republic of Venice, was now ruled by the Austro-Hungary empire; to the standard English Protestant imagination its Catholicism was as exotic and remote as ever. But the poem actually swerves around a heavy moralizing sentiment, for it is more double-minded and Shakespearean in its overall strategy. There is a clear distinction, in other words, between Browning’s and his speaker’s response to Venice. Within the same Protestant-aesthetic paradigm evoked here (also present in “Fra Lippo Lippi”), Browning both approves and disapproves of the Venetians—their sense of the value of the body being right, their hedonism being wrong—and he also disapproves (unlike his speaker) of self-righteous moralizing at their expense. His own attitude towards them is more level, lighter, more detached. Almost certainly the comedies of the Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni (1707–93) are one of the poem’s background sources, and this in part accounts for Browning’s more tender view of the eighteenth-century Venetian scene.[[6]] The tone of Browning’s much later sonnet “Goldoni,” written to commemorate the unveiling of a statue in honour of the playwright in Venice (in 1883), can usefully be placed next to “Toccata” to verify this, especially since the octave picks up vocabulary from the poem (“good,” “gay,” “souls”). In the sestet Browning refers affectionately to eighteenth-century Carnival and Venetian crowds as reflected in Goldoni’s plays:

There throng the People: how they come and go,

Lisp the soft language, flaunt the bright garb,—see,—

On Piazza, Calle, under Portico,

And over Bridge! Dear King of Comedy,

Be honoured! Thou who didst love Venice so,—

Venice, and we who love her, all love thee!

9–14 (Pettigrew and Collins 2.963) [7]

When we play all this back into Keats, Browning’s response starts to become clear. What Browning registers immediately in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is that it evokes a pagan world: he is aware, in other words, of the attitude that would feel a jarring in bringing forward the (Christian) word “Truth” in the context of a description of pagan antiquity—the attitude that might see “Ode” as no more than “a Very pretty piece of Paganism” (to use the description Wordsworth is alleged to have applied to the “Ode to Pan”) (Gill 326–27). Browning assumes that the Ode speaker is roughly Christian and Liberal in his own terms, and therefore that—in his imaginative venturing into pagan antiquity—the speaker is on a journey into a markedly different world. This is what he transfers into his own poem, and what it is easy for our more secularized imaginations to miss. The world of mortals and “gods,” of “pipes and timbrels,” of colourful animal sacrifice (8, 10, 32–34) is exotic certainly, but from some viewpoints it is also improper, superstitious, or plain dangerous. We need to remember the kind of sarcasm that was thrown at Keats’s work by some contemporary critics: “Mr Keats, seemingly, can think or write of scarcely any thing else than the ‘happy pieties’ of Paganism” (Condor 237). Browning imitates this journey into the Other via the way in which he makes his nineteenth-century English gentleman venture back into a world that challenges his own presuppositions, a world of “pleasure,” “Balls and masks,” love-affairs, and “clavichord[s]” (10, 11, 18): an upside-down world where, bizarrely from this (monarchically inclined) Englishman’s point of view “the merchants were the kings” (5). He even has a hint of the effect of the Ode’s fourth stanza. From the reference to “carnival” (8) it seems reasonable to assume that the main scene of “Toccata” takes place during the pre-Lent festivities, but “when the sea was warm in May” (10) then suggests a later time. Of course the Englishman speaks impressionistically, so there is no formal anachronism here, but we can see how Browning wants to include “May” (i.e. spring-time, symbolic of youth) and Carnival (i.e. a hint of the Roman Catholic exotic and other).

Here, then, we have a clear point of Kristevan or Bakhtinian dialogism, an ideologeme in other words. Putting the above in short terms, we can say that Browning takes seriously, in “Ode,” the ambiguity in the adjectives in “O mysterious priest,” and “this pious morn” (32, 37, emphasis added). These are indeed cases of words with two or more significances, of words becoming “ambivalent,” of “‘the literary word’ as an intersection of textual surfaces rather than a point (a fixed meaning), as a dialogue among several writings: that of the writer, the addressee . . . and the contemporary or earlier cultural contexts” (Kristeva 65). “Mysterious” means “dealing with or versed in mysteries” (OED, A. 2.), viz. with religious rituals. As Browning reads them, “mysterious” and “pious” deliberately place the Ode speaker on the borders between the urn’s world and the real world of the nineteenth century, for the first question is “Mysterious or pious to whom?” Obviously the Greek townsfolk have no problem with seeing this as a “pious” day, but does the speaker always regard it in this light? Or only in this moment of empathy? Or is he self-consciously setting up a challenge to certain kinds of Protestant reader by deliberately downplaying the Christian-pagan dichotomy? How many Evangelicals in the nineteenth century would have been happy with this designation for a pagan feast-day? Browning is sensitive to the whiff of Regency élan, the overplay, in Keats’s deployment of this vocabulary. As far as he is concerned, via these words Keats engages controversially with certain kinds of readers with whose presuppositions he disagrees. “Toccata” brings this matter alive through a similar double-take. Browning’s implicitly Protestant and Liberal speaker ventures into a world that is quasi-pagan from the perspective of his usual outlook, virtually as remote from his usual attitudes as the pagan world of ancient Greece.

Messages of urn and toccata

Both poems began with questions, and with a certain buoyancy of tone. Anticipating the pictures he will conjure in the middle stanzas, the Ode speaker talks of the urn as a “Sylvan historian, who canst thus express / A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme” (3–4). The “Toccata” speaker is more cautious of the value of the “tale” he conjures from the toccata, but he is still reasonably sanguine, the bold trochaic octameters giving a lilt to what he says. The endings, however, enact what Stillinger calls the “return home to the real” (Keats xvii), and give us two seemingly complex arguments.

Now for both speakers the worry of time comes to the fore. In “Ode,” “waste” and “woe” interact as heavy words (46, 47). Their effect is replicated in “Toccata” by the phrases “Dust and ashes,” “dread extinction,” “born to bloom and drop” (35, 39, 40). The emerging arguments turn on the mystery of human mortality versus the art-work’s survival in time. The urn survives though Ancient Greece is mainly gone. The Most Serene Republic of Venice is now like a burnt-out “house” (34), yet Galuppi’s toccata sounds as gaily and gravely in the 1850s as when it was first performed in the 1750s. It is the ungraspable mystery of this, its numinousness and oddity, that registers so finely in “Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity” (44–45). Browning’s gloss on these lines has his speaker trying to pin down an exact scientific fact, and then being unsettled and perturbed by the music:

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


In you come with your cold music, till I creep thro’ every


Yes, you, like a ghostly cricket, creaking where a house

 was burned—


The encounters with Urn and Toccata are both accounts of what happens in our deepest engagements with works of art. As far as Browning is concerned, the message spoken by the toccata in lines 35–43 is really one that has been deduced by the speaker himself as a result of his imaginative encounter with the music. This suggests that Browning thought that “Ode” operates in the same way: the speaker in “Ode” is essentially the conjurer of his own wisdom from out of his imaginative encounter with the urn. Browning, in other words, reads “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’” (49) not as some absolute or definitive statement, but as a concessionary statement taking its meaning from the fluid process of thought on death and time that surrounds it.

In “Toccata” the words that the toccata “creaks” are ironic, and to see what this speech means we have to balance it against the final lines of the poem, which the speaker delivers directly in his own person. If we decode the irony of the toccata’s message in lines 35–42 we come out with something like this: “Previously, you [the speaker], have believed yourself morally superior to the Venetians, and somehow—because of your serious-mindedness and dedication—immune to death. Actually, you are just as mortal as the Venetians. Self-righteousness is hollow. Think harder about your response to them.” Taking this to heart, in the final lines of the poem the speaker, partly at least, accepts the way in which the music has moved him and accepts aspects of the reverie it has provoked: he accepts in part his own positive response to the sheer “Beauty” of his reverie of Venice and youthful loveliness. This is what is registered in his final ubi sunt for the golden hair of the Venetian women:

“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.


The implicit exchange between the toccata’s speech and the speaker’s thought here embodies Browning’s reading of Keats’s beauty-truth equation. Within a certain ambivalent mood, the fact of mortality presses on his speaker, and within that mood what was previously trivial becomes precious. The otherness, the loveliness, the refinement of eighteenth-century Venice (“Beauty,” in Keats’s terms)—previously seemingly irrelevant to the speaker’s version of modernity, and tinged, as he sees it, with the accusation that they are decadent—become now a value (“Truth”) because they are perceived afresh and empathetically as human matters worthy of regard. Just so, the pagan world of the urn, exotic and other, but also beautiful and similar, must be recognized as a human value relevant to the present. What Browning assumes is the pressure of counter-viewpoints based on different cultural-religious presuppositions, most obviously the “Hebraic” viewpoint that would definitively declare eighteenth-century Venice to be decadent, morally lax, and Roman Catholic, and hence a world that has nothing to say to the mid-nineteenth-century world of progress, earnestness, Protestantism, and Empire. The poem flirts with this Protestant-Puritan, anti-aesthetic insularity of viewpoint. Browning’s speaker is aware of this perspective, and partly attracted to it as it is embodied in the ironic speech of the music (35–42), but in the end he chooses not to affirm it. But that is all that can be said—hence the ambivalence. The speaker does not endorse the “Hebraic” viewpoint, neither does he disown it. He is poised, we might say, between “Hebrew” and “Hellene,” between a certain monologic (Protestant-Puritan) assessment and a wider, more nuanced (religious humanist) appreciation. The whole poem is founded on this tension in his imagination.

Browning’s reading of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” clearly works on lines similar to this. In his reading Keats’s ode becomes essentially a defence of the aesthetic, of Arnold’s “Hellenism,” as a value, and hence also a defence of a liberal-minded, ecumenical, or simply vague Christian sensibility. The opposition is the kind of Protestant-Puritan sensibility that would minimize the value of the aesthetic (“Beauty”) by taking an aggressive view of the Christian-pagan dichotomy (“Truth”): i.e. that would take the view that paganism, for all its graceful beauty, has nothing to say to the present. It is, for him, this latter viewpoint that is overturned in “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’” In this way, we can see the real place of “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” within Men and Women as a whole. In “Toccata” Browning reaches back and draws Keats in sympathetically into the struggle within himself between “Hebrew” and “Hellene,” at the same time as he challenges those kind of nineteenth-century “Hebraic” readers who would dismiss Keats as a merely sensuous, trivial, or pagan poet.