Bidding my organ obey, calling its keys to their work,
Claiming each slave of the sound, at a touch, as when Solomon willed
Armies of angels that soar, legions of demons that lurk,
Man, brute, reptile, fly,—alien of end and of aim,
Adverse, each from the other heaven-high, hell-deep removed,—
Should rush into sight at once as he named the ineffable Name,
And pile him a palace straight, to pleasure the princess he loved!
Would it might tarry like his, the beautiful building of mine,
This which my keys in a crowd pressed and importuned to raise!
Ah, one and all, how they helped, would dispart now and now combine,
Zealous to hasten the work, heighten their master his praise!
And one would bury his brow with a blind plunge down to hell,
Burrow awhile and build, broad on the roots of things,
Then up again swim into sight, having based me my palace well,
Founded it, fearless of flame, flat on the nether springs.
And another would mount and march, like the excellent minion he was,
Ay, another and yet another, one crowd but with many a crest,
Raising my rampired walls of gold as transparent as glass,
Eager to do and die, yield each his place to the rest:
For higher still and higher (as a runner tips with fire,
When a great illumination surprises a festal night—
Outlining round and round Rome's dome from space to spire)
Up, the pinnacled glory reached, and the pride of my soul was in sight.
In sight? Not half! for it seemed, it was certain, to match man's birth,
Nature in turn conceived, obeying an impulse as I;
And the emulous heaven yearned down, made effort to reach the earth,
As the earth had done her best, in my passion, to scale the sky:
Novel splendours burst forth, grew familiar and dwelt with mine,
Not a point nor peak but found and fixed its wandering star;
Meteor-moons, balls of blaze: and they did not pale nor pine,
For earth had attained to heaven, there was no more near nor far.
Nay more; for there wanted not who walked in the glare and glow,
Presences plain in the place; or, fresh from the Protoplast,
Furnished for ages to come, when a kindlier wind should blow,
Lured now to begin and live, in a house to their liking at last;
Or else the wonderful Dead who have passed through the body and gone,
But were back once more to breathe in an old world worth their new:
What never had been, was now; what was, as it shall be anon;
And what is,—shall I say, matched both? for I was made perfect too.
All through my keys that gave their sounds to a wish of my soul,
All through my soul that praised as its wish flowed visibly forth,
All through music and me! For think, had I painted the whole,
Why, there it had stood, to see, nor the process so wonder-worth:
Had I written the same, made verse—still, effect proceeds from cause,
Ye know why the forms are fair, ye hear how the tale is told;
It is all triumphant art, but art in obedience to laws,
Painter and poet are proud in the artist-list enrolled:—
But here is the finger of God, a flash of the will that can,
Existent behind all laws, that made them and, lo, they are!
And I know not if, save in this, such gift be allowed to man,
That out of three sounds he frame, not a fourth sound, but a star.
Consider it well: each tone of our scale in itself is nought;
It is everywhere in the world—loud, soft, and all is said:
Give it to me to use! I mix it with two in my thought:
And, there! Ye have heard and seen: consider and bow the head!
Well, it is gone at last, the palace of music I reared;
Gone! and the good tears start, the praises that come too slow;
For one is assured at first, one scarce can say that he feared,
That he even gave it a thought, the gone thing was to go.
Never to be again! But many more of the kind
As good, nay, better, perchance: is this your comfort to me?
To me, who must be saved because I cling with my mind
To the same, same self, same love, same God: ay, what was, shall be.
Therefore to whom turn I but to thee, the ineffable Name?
Builder and maker, thou, of houses not made with hands!
What, have fear of change from thee who art ever the same?
Doubt that thy power can fill the heart that thy power expands?
There shall never be one lost good! What was, shall live as before;
The evil is null, is nought, is silence implying sound;
What was good shall be good, with, for evil, so much good more;
On the earth the broken arcs; in the heaven, a perfect round.
All we have willed or hoped or dreamed of good shall exist;
Not its semblance, but itself; no beauty, nor good, nor power
Whose voice has gone forth, but each survives for the melodist
When eternity affirms the conception of an hour.
The high that proved too high, the heroic for earth too hard,
The passion that left the ground to lose itself in the sky,
Are music sent up to God by the lover and the bard;
Enough that he heard it once: we shall hear it by and by.
And what is our failure here but a triumph's evidence
For the fulness of the days? Have we withered or agonized?
Why else was the pause prolonged but that singing might issue thence?
Why rushed the discords in, but that harmony should be prized?
Sorrow is hard to bear, and doubt is slow to clear,
Each sufferer says his say, his scheme of the weal and woe:
But God has a few of us whom he whispers in the ear;
The rest may reason and welcome; 'tis we musicians know.
Well, it is earth with me; silence resumes her reign:
I will be patient and proud, and soberly acquiesce.
Give me the keys. I feel for the common chord again,
Sliding by semitones till I sink to the minor,—yes,
And I blunt it into a ninth, and I stand on alien ground,
Surveying awhile the heights I rolled from into the deep;
Which, hark, I have dared and done, for my resting-place is found,
The C Major of this life: so, now I will try to sleep.
Abt Vogler is written in the voice of an actual historic personage, as are many of Browning’s dramatic monologues. Vogler was a composer and musical innovator; in this poem, Browning imagines him aged, growing more infirm, meditating on the purpose and value of his life. This poem lies directly before a poem that is, I think, slightly more famous in Browning’s body of work, Rabbi Ben Ezra. In both of these luminous poems, Browning reflects on finding peace in old age, a comfort in what has been accomplished and a trust in God for the future, both in this world and out of it. The two poems make wonderful companion pieces, both being suffused with the kind of optimism that might seem maudlin, or even senile, if someone less talented than Browning tried to express it.
Vogler realizes that many of his musical achievements will not outlive him and even those that do will not be enough to assure that he is remembered. Vogler is right about this; an aficionado of classical music, I was still introduced to Vogler through Browning and he is rarely mentioned in any other context outside of very small circles. Vogler is also not so blind as to believe that he’s achieved any kind of perfection in his work or in his life. He sees his grand achievement as still “broken arcs.” He sees himself as a man who has been able to bring his grand inspiration into actual being only sporadically and only up to a point. His work has never quite been the triumph in this world that it has been in his mind and in his soul. There isn’t a creative person in the universe who will fail to understand this, save perhaps Browning’s version of Andrea del Sarto, who feels himself to have achieved a kind of perfection at least. But it’s the curse of all other artists to forever be striving for an ideal that cannot quite be reached. Vogler is no del Sarto; he has done many things of which he is proud, but he isn’t arguing for his canonization.
Yet, even with this pragmatic and clear-eyed perspective, Vogler is able to find peace and comfort in the life he has lived. He has done what he could, as Christ said of the woman with the alabaster box. He has believed in good and in God and he believes in them still, even as his talents begin to atrophy with age, even as death approaches. The poem is gifted with two astoundingly moving passages in particular.
In the first, Vogler returns to his faith in God and his steadfast belief that God will ultimately be just, that the ultimate fate of the universe will be, in God’s hands, for good. Vogler unabashedly looks for a new life after this old one has passed away in a heaven where all goods that were only partial on this earth will be finally completed.
The second is the closing stanza of the poem. In it, Vogler takes himself through several chord changes in his mind, reflecting on the art of music and the technique of it too. He closes with one of the most satisfying resolutions in the history of poetry, stating that, as in his music he has brought every piece he has composed to its necessary resolution, so too he brings himself and his life. He closes, he says, resting in the “C Major of this life.” Any musician will understand the power of that central chord, that central resting place in music. It’s a thought so beautiful that it seems strange that it hadn’t already been expressed. No one can deny the absolute power of the resolving chord, not even in this post-rock era, when songs often meander away into electronic dissonance or simply fade out in progress. We love those songs, sure, but there’s something undeniably, absolutely perfect about that rock solid chord that resolves a piece of music. It’s a place we all understand intuitively and a feeling no other chord but the proper one can deliver. Pray God this, like Abt Vogler, like Rob Browning, that all our themes end there.