Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, PARLEYINGS WITH CERTAIN PEOPLE OF IMPORTANCE: CHARLES AVISON, by ROBERT BROWNING



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PARLEYINGS WITH CERTAIN PEOPLE OF IMPORTANCE: CHARLES AVISON, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: How strange! But, first of all, the little fact
Last Line: "westminster's pym!"
Subject(s): Avison, Charles (1709-1770); Composers; Music & Musicians


I

How strange! -- but, first of all, the little fact
Which led my fancy forth. This bitter morn
Showed me no object in the stretch forlorn
Of garden-ground beneath my window, backed
By you worn wall wherefrom the creeper, tacked
To clothe its brickwork, hangs now, rent and racked
By five months' cruel winter, -- showed no torn
And tattered ravage worse for eyes to see
Than just one ugly space of clearance, left
Bare even of the bones which used to be
Warm wrappage, safe embracement: this one cleft --
-- Oh, what a life and beauty filled it up
Startlingly, when methought the rude clay cup
Ran over with poured bright wine! 'T was a bird
Breast-deep there, tugging at his prize, deterred
No whit by the fast-falling snow-flake: gain
Such prize my blackcap must by might and main --
The cloth-shred, still a-flutter from its nail
That fixed a spray once. Now, what told the tale
To thee, -- no townsman but born orchard-thief, --
That here -- surpassing moss-tuft, beard from sheaf
Of sun-scorched barley, horsehairs long and stout,
All proper country-pillage -- here, no doubt,
Was just the scrap to steal should line thy nest
Superbly? Off he flew, his bill possessed
The booty sure to set his wife's each wing
Greenly a-quiver. How they climb and cling,
Hang parrot-wise to bough, these blackcaps!
Strange
Seemed to a city-dweller that the finch
Should stray so far to forage: at a pinch,
Was not the fine wool's self within his range
-- Filchings on every fence? But no: the need
Was of this rag of manufacture, spoiled
By art, and yet by nature near unsoiled,
New-suited to what scheming finch would breed
In comfort, this uncomfortable March.

II

Yet -- by the first pink blossom on the larch! --
This was scarce stranger than that memory, --
In want of what should cheer the stay-at-home,
My soul, -- must straight clap pinion, well-nigh roam
A century back, nor once close plume, descry
The appropriate rag to plunder, till she pounced --
Pray, on what relic of a brain long still?
What old-world work proved forage for the bill
Of memory the far-flyer? "March" announced,
I verily believe, the dead and gone
Name of a music-maker: one of such
In England as did little or did much,
But, doing, had their day once. Avison!
Singly and solely for an air of thine,
Bold-stepping "March," foot stept to ere my hand
Could stretch an octave, I o'erlooked the band
Of majesties familiar, to decline
On thee -- not too conspicuous on the list
Of worthies who by help of pipe or wire
Expressed in sound rough rage or soft desire --
Thou, whilom of Newcastle organist!

III

So much could one -- well, thinnish air effect!
Am I ungrateful? for, your March, styled "Grand,"
Did veritably seem to grow, expand,
And greaten up to title as, unchecked,
Dream-marchers marched, kept marching, slow and sure,
In time, to tune, unchangeably the same,
From nowhere into nowhere, -- out they came,
Onward they passed, and in they went. No lure
Of novel modulation pricked the flat
Forthright persisting melody, -- no hint
That discord, sound asleep beneath the flint,
Struck -- might spring spark-like, claim due tit-for-tat,
Quenched in a concord. No! Yet, such the might
Of quietude's immutability,
That somehow coldness gathered warmth, well-nigh
Quickened -- which could not be! -- grew burning-bright
With fife-shriek, cymbal-clash and trumpet-blare,
To drum-accentuation: pacing turned
Striding, and striding grew gigantic, spurned
At last the narrow space 'twixt earth and air,
So shook me back into my sober self.

IV

And where woke I? The March had set me down
There whence I plucked the measure, as his brown
Frayed flannel-bit my blackcap. Great John Relfe,
Master of mine, learned, redoubtable,
It little needed thy consummate skill
To fitly figure such a bass! The key
Was -- should not memory play me false -- well, C.
Ay, with the Greater Third, in Triple Time,
Three crochets to a bar: no change, I grant,
Except from Tonic down to Dominant.
And yet -- and yet -- if I could put in rhyme
The manner of that marching! -- which had stopped
-- I wonder, where? -- but that my weak self dropped
From out the ranks, to rub eyes disentranced
And feel that, after all the way advanced,
Back must I foot it, I and my compeers,
Only to reach, across a hundred years,
The bandsman Avison whose little book
And large tune thus had led me the long way
(As late a rag my blackcap) from to-day
And to-day's music-manufacture, -- Brahms,
Wagner, Dvorak, Liszt, -- to where -- trumpets, shawms,
Show yourselves joyful! -- Handel reigns -- supreme?
By no means! Buononcini's work is theme
For fit laudation of the impartial few:
(We stand in England, mind you!) Fashion too
Favors Geminiani -- of those choice
Concertos: nor there wants a certain voice
Raised in thy favor likewise, famed Pepusch
Dear to our great-grandfathers! In a bush
Of Doctor's wig, they prized thee timing beats
While Greenway trilled "Alexis." Such were feats
Of music in thy day -- dispute who list --
Avison, of Newcastle organist!

V

And here's your music all alive once more --
As once it was alive, at least: just so
The figured worthies of a waxwork-show
Attest -- such people, years and years ago,
Looked thus when outside death had life be low,
-- Could say "We are now" not "We were of yore,"
-- "Feel how our pulses leap!" and not "Ex plore --
Explain why quietude has settled o'er
Surface once all awork!" Ay, such a "Suite"
Roused heart to rapture, such a "Fugue" would catch
Soul heavenwards up, when time was: why attach
Blame to exhausted faultlessness, no match
For fresh achievement? Feat once -- ever feat!
How can completion grow still more complete?
Hear Avison! He tenders evidence
That music in his day as much absorbed
Heart and soul then as Wagner's music now,
Perfect from centre to circumference --
Orbed to the full can be but fully orbed:
And yet -- and yet -- whence comes it that "O Thou" --
Sighed by the soul at eve to Hesperus --
Will not again take wing and fly away
(Since fatal Wagner fixed it fast for us)
In some unmodulated minor? Nay.
Even by Handel's help!

VI

I state it thus:
There is no truer truth obtainable
By Man than comes of music. "Soul" -- (accept
A word which vaguely names what no adept
In word-use fits and fixes so that still
Thing shall not slip word's fetter and remain
Innominate as first, yet, free again,
Is no less recognized the absolute
Fact underlying that same other fact
Concerning which no cavil can dispute
Our nomenclature when we call it "Mind" --
Something not Matter) -- "Soul," who seeks shall find
Distinct beneath that something. You exact
An illustrative image? This may suit.

VII

We see a work: the worker works behind,
Invisible himself. Suppose his act
Be to o'erarch a gulf: he digs, transports,
Shapes and, through enginery -- all sizes, sorts,
Lays stone by stone until a floor compact
Proves our bridged causeway. So works Mind -- by stress
Of faculty, with loose facts, more or less,
Builds up our solid knowledge: all the same,
Underneath rolls what Mind may hide not tame,
An element which works beyond our guess,
Soul, the unsounded sea -- whose lift of surge,
Spite of all superstructure, lets emerge,
In flower and foam, Feeling from out the deeps
Mind arrogates no mastery upon --
Distinct indisputably. Has there gone
To dig up, drag forth, render smooth from rough
Mind's flooring, -- operosity enough?
Still the successive labor of each inch,
Who lists may learn: from the last turn of winch
That let the polished slab-stone find its place,
To the first prod of pickaxe at the base
Of the unquarried mountain, -- what was all
Mind's varied process except natural,
Nay, easy even, to descry, describe,
After our fashion? "So worked Mind: its tribe
Of senses ministrant above, below,
Far, near, or now or haply long ago
Brought to pass knowledge." But Soul's sea -- drawn whence,
Fed how, forced whither, -- by what evidence
Of ebb and flow, that's felt beneath the tread,
Soul has its course 'neath Mind's work overhead, --
Who tells of, tracks to source the founts of Soul?
Yet wherefore heaving sway and restless roll
This side and that, except to emulate
Stability above? To match and mate
Feeling with knowledge, -- make as manifest
Soul's work as Mind's work, turbulence as rest,
Hates, loves, joys, woes, hopes, fears, that rise and sink
Ceaselessly, passion's transient flit and wink,
A ripple's tinting or a spume-sheet's spread
Whitening the wave, -- to strike all this life dead,
Run mercury into a mould like lead,
And henceforth have the plain result to show --
How we Feel, hard and fast as what we Know --
This were the prize and is the puzzle! -- which
Music essays to solve: and here's the hitch
That balks her of full triumph else to boast.

VIII

All Arts endeavor this, and she the most
Attains thereto, yet fails of touching: why?
Does Mind get Knowledge from Art's ministry?
What's known once is known ever: Arts arrange,
Dissociate, re-distribute, interchange
Part with part, lengthen, broaden, high or deep
Construct their bravest, -- still such pains produce
Change, not creation: simply what lay loose
At first lies firmly after, what design
Was faintly traced in hesitating line
Once on a time, grows firmly resolute
Henceforth and evermore. Now, could we shoot
Liquidity into a mould, -- some way
Arrest Soul's evanescent moods, and keep
Unalterably still the forms that leap
To life for once by help of Art! -- which yearns
To save its capture: Poetry discerns,
Painting is 'ware of passion's rise and fall,
Bursting, subsidence, intermixture -- all
A-seethe within the gulf. Each Art a-strain
Would stay the apparition, -- nor in vain:
The Poet's word-mesh, Painter's sure and swift
Color-and-line-throw -- proud the prize they lift!
Thus felt Man and thus looked Man, --passions caught
I' the midway swim of sea, -- not much, if aught,
Of nether-brooding loves, hates, hopes and fears,
Enwombed past Art's disclosure. Fleet the years,
And still the Poet's page holds Helena
At gaze from topmost Troy -- "But where are they,
My brothers, in the armament I name
Hero by hero? Can it be that shame
For their lost sister holds them from the war?"
-- Knowing not they already slept afar
Each of them in his own dear native land.
Still on the Painter's fresco, from the hand
Of God takes Eve the life-spark whereunto
She trembles up from nothingness. Outdo
Both of them, Music! Dredging deeper yet,
Drag into day, -- by sound, thy master-net, --
The abysmal bottom-growth, ambiguous thing
Unbroken of a branch, palpitating
With limbs' play and life's semblance! There it lies,
Marvel and mystery, of mysteries
And marvels, most to love and laud thee for!
Save it from chance and change we most abhor!
Give momentary feeling permanence,
So that thy capture hold, a century hence,
Truth's very heart of truth as, safe to-day,
The Painter's Eve, the Poet's Helena
Still rapturously bend, afar still throw
The wistful gaze! Thanks, Homer, Angelo!
Could Music rescue thus from Soul's profound,
Give feeling immortality by sound,
Then were she queenliest of Arts! Alas --
As well expect the rainbow not to pass!
"Praise 'Radamisto' -- love attains therein
To perfect utterance! Pity -- what shall win
Thy secret like 'Rinaldo'?" -- so men said:
Once all was perfume -- now, the flower is dead --
They spied tints, sparks have left the spar!
Love, hate,
Joy, fear, survive, -- alike importunate
As ever to go walk the world again,
Nor ghost-like pant for outlet all in vain
Till Music loose them, fit each filmily
With form enough to know and name it by
For any recognizer sure of ken
And sharp of ear, no grosser denizen
Of earth than needs be. Nor to such appeal
Is Music long obdurate: off they steal --
How gently, dawn-doomed phantoms! back come they
Full-blooded with new crimson of broad day --
Passion made palpable once more. Ye look
Your last on Handel? Gaze your first on Gluck!
Why wistful search, O waning ones, the chart
Of stars for you while Haydn, while Mozart
Occupies heaven? These also, fanned to fire,
Flamboyant wholly, -- so perfections tire, --
Whiten to wanness, till ... let others note
The ever-new invasion!

IX

I devote
Rather my modicum of parts to use
What power may yet avail to re-infuse
(In fancy, please you!) sleep that looks like death
With momentary liveliness, lend breath
To make the torpor half inhale. O Relfe,
An all-unworthy pupil, from the shelf
Of thy laboratory, dares unstop
Bottle, ope box, extract thence pinch and drop
Of dusts and dews a many thou didst shrine
Each in its right receptacle, assign
To each its proper office, letter large
Label and label, then with solemn charge,
Reviewing learnedly the list complete
Of chemical reactives, from thy feet
Push down the same to me, attent below,
Power in abundance: armed wherewith I go
to play the enlivener. Bring good antique stuff!
Was it alight once? Still lives spark enough
For breath to quicken, run the smouldering ash
Red right-through. What, "stone-dead" were fools so rash
As style my Avison, because he lacked
Modern appliance, spread out phrase unracked
By modulations fit to make each hair
Stiffen upon his wig? See there -- and there!
I sprinkle my reactives, pitch broadcast
Discords and resolutions, turn aghast
Melody's easy-going, jostle law
With license, modulate (no Bach in awe)
Change enharmonically (Hudl to thank)
And lo, upstart the flamelets, -- what was blank
Turns scarlet, purple, crimson! Straightway scanned
By eyes that like new lustre -- Love once more
Yearns through the Largo, Hatred as before
Rages in the Rubato: e'en thy March,
My Avison, which, sooth to say -- (ne'er arch
Eyebrows in anger!) -- timed, in Georgian years
The step precise of British Grenadiers
To such a nicety, -- if score I crowd,
If rhythm I break, if beats I vary, -- tap
At bar's off-starting turns true thunder-clap,
Ever the pace augmented till -- what's here?
Titanic striding toward Olympus!

X

Fear
No such irreverent innovation! Still
Glide on, go rolling, water-like, at will --
Nay, were thy melody in monotone,
The due three-parts dispensed with!

XI

This alone
Comes of my tiresome talking: Music's throne
Seats somebody whom somebody unseats,
And whom in turn -- by who knows what new feats
Of strength -- shall somebody as sure push down,
Consign him dispossessed of sceptre, crown,
And orb imperial -- whereto? Never dream
That what once lived shall ever die! They seem
Dead -- do they? lapsed things lost in limbo?
Bring
Our life to kindle theirs, and straight each king
Starts, you shall see, stands up, from head to foot
No inch that is not Purcell! Wherefore? (Suit
Measure to subject, first -- no marching on
Yet in thy bold C major, Avison,
As suited step a minute since: no: wait --
Into the minor key first modulate --
Gently with A, now -- in the Lesser Third!)

XII

Of all the lamentable debts incurred
By Man through buying knowledge, this were worst:
That he should find his last gain prove his first
Was futile -- merely nescience absolute,
Not knowledge in the bud which holds a fruit
Haply undreamed of in the soul's Spring-tide,
Pursed in the petals Summer opens wide,
And Autumn, withering, rounds to perfect ripe, --
Not this, -- but ignorance, a blur to wipe
From human records, late it graced so much.
"Truth -- this attainment? Ah, but such and such
Beliefs of yore seemed inexpugnable
When we attained them! E'en as they, so will
This their successor have the due morn, noon,
Evening and night -- just as an old - world tune
Wears out and drops away, until who hears
Smilingly questions -- 'This it was brought tears
Once to all eyes, -- this roused heart's rapture once?'
So will it be with truth that, for the nonce,
Styles itself truth perennial: 'ware its wile!
Knowledge turns nescience, -- foremost on the file,
Simply proves first of our delusions."

XIII

Now --
Blare it forth, bold C major! Lift thy brow,
Man, the immortal, that wast never fooled
With gifts no gifts at all, nor ridiculed --
Man knowing -- he who nothing knew! As Hope,
Fear, Joy, and Grief, -- though ampler stretch and scope
They seek and find in novel rhythm, fresh phrase, --
Were equally existent in far days
Of Music's dim beginning -- even so,
Truth was at full within thee long ago,
Alive as now it takes what latest shape
May startle thee by strangeness. Truths escape
Time's insufficient garniture: they fade,
They fall -- those sheathings now grown sere, whose aid
Was infinite to truth they wrapped, saved fine
And free through March frost: May dews crystalline
Nourish truth merely, -- does June boast the fruit
As -- not new vesture merely but, to boot,
Novel creation? Soon shall fade and fall
Myth after myth -- the husk-like lies I call
New truth's corolla-safeguard: Autumn comes,
So much the better!

XIV

Therefore -- bang the drums
Blow the trumpets, Avison! March-motive? that's
Truth which endures resetting. Sharps and flats,
Lavish at need, shall dance athwart thy score
When ophicleide and bombardon's uproar
Mate the approaching trample, even now
Big in the distance -- or my ears deceive --
Of federated England, fitly weave
March-music for the Future!

XV

Or suppose
Back, and not forward, transformation goes?
Once more some sable-stoled procession -- say
From Little-ease to Tyburn -- wends its way,
Out of the dungeon to the gallows-tree
Where heading, hacking, hanging is to be
Of half-a-dozen recusants -- this day
Three hundred years ago! How duly drones
Elizabethan plain-song -- dim antique
Grown clarion-clear the while I humbly wreak
A classic vengeance on thy March! It moans --
Larges and Longs and Breves displacing quite
Crotchet-and-quaver pertness -- brushing bars
Aside and filling vacant sky with stars
Hidder till now that day return to night.

XVI

Nor night nor day: one purpose move us both
Be thy mood mine! As thou wast minded, Man's
The cause our music champions: I were loth
To think we cheered our troop to Preston Pans
Ignobly: back to times of England's best!
Parliament stands for privilege -- life and limb
Guards Hollis, Haselrig, Strode, hampden, Pym,
The famous Five. There's rumor of arrest
Bring up the Train Bands, Southwark! They protest:
Shall we not all join chorus? Hark the hymn,
-- Rough, rude, robustious -- homely heart throb,
Harsh voice a-hallo, as beseems the mob!
How good is noise! what's silence but de spair
Of making sound match gladness never there?
Give me some great glad "subject," glorious Bach,
Where cannon-roar not organ-peal we lack!
Join in, give voice robustious rude and rough, --
Avison helps -- so heart lend noise enough!

Fife, trump, drum, sound! and singers then
Marching say "Pym, the man of men!"
Up, heads, your proudest, -- out throats, your loudest --
"Somerset's Pym!"

Strafford from the block, Eliot from the den,
Foes, friends, shout "Pym, our citizen!"
Wail, the foes he quelled, -- hail, the friends he held,
"Tavistock's Pym!"
Hearts prompt heads, hands that ply the pen
Teach babes unborn the where and when.
-- Tyrants, he braved them, -- patriots, he saved them --
"Westminster's Pym!"





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