And she turned from the picture at night to scheme of tearing it out for herself next sun.

From Robert Browning’s The Statue and The Bust (142-153), online in full here.

Meantime, worse fates than a lover’s fate,
Who daily may ride and pass and look
Where his lady watches behind the grate!

And she — she watched the square like a book
Holding one picture and only one,
Which daily to find she undertook:

When the picture was reached the book was done,
And she turned from the picture at night to scheme
Of tearing it out for herself next sun.

So weeks grew months, years; gleam by gleam
The glory dropped from their youth and love,
And both perceived they had dreamed a dream;

I give four stanzas for more stable context but it’s really only the image in the second and third that I’m especially struck by. Browning was always tinkering with his work and this one had a couple of small but possibly significant tweaks along the way. The 1855 proofs of Men and Women read:

When the picture came the book was done,
And she turned from it all night to scheme
Of tearing it out for herself next sun.

And an 1863 Selections alters the second line above to:

And she turned from the picture all night

I somewhat like the 1855 proof version more than the final. The picture is of course the Duke Ferdinand and his actively riding by is what puts an end to the unnamed lady’s ‘reading’ each day (since the picture can’t ‘be reached’ without his ‘coming’). Then ‘all night’ over ‘at night’ seems better to hit the lady’s subjective sense of their separation’s painful duration .

But if the final reading loses something inside the image, it seems better to blend with the poem overall. The grammatical passivity of ‘was reached’ can be aligned with the moral failing of characters who continue waiting for a resolution to ‘be presented’ to them. ‘Was reached’ then contributes to what feels a meaningful splitting of verbs throughout the stanza – two passives (was reached, was done) and one active with a negative value (turn from). Given the nature of the characters, it is appropriate both that passivity would dominate and that the single action actively taken would move not towards resolution but a resetting and perpetuation of the situation. That line of reasoning pushes further if you include the negative values of the nonfinite verbals ‘to scheme’ and ‘tearing it out.’ Finally, ‘at night’ over ‘all night’ I take as emphasizing the iterative element – that by the time of narration the action is a routine one that has somewhere lost the pain and become so sadly – because simply accepted – neutral.

Nor hope rekindling at the end descried, so much as gladness that some end might be

The second, third, and fourth stanzas of Robert Browning’s Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, after Roland encounters the ‘hoary cripple, with malicious eye’ who points the way to the tower:

What else should he be set for, with his staff?
What, save to waylay with his lies, ensnare
All travellers who might find him posted there,
And ask the road? I guess’d what skull-like laugh
Would break, what crutch ’gin write my epitaph
For pastime in the dusty thoroughfare,

If at his counsel I should turn aside
Into that ominous tract which, all agree,
Hides the Dark Tower. Yet acquiescingly
I did turn as he pointed: neither pride
Nor hope rekindling at the end descried,
So much as gladness that some end might be.

For, what with my whole world-wide wandering,
What with my search drawn out thro’ years, my hope
Dwindled into a ghost not fit to cope
With that obstreperous joy success would bring,—
I hardly tried now to rebuke the spring
My heart made, finding failure in its scope.

Louise Macneice – who did a radio play adaptation of the poem in the mid 40s – said of its meaning:

‘a work which does not admit of a completely rational analysis and [one which] still less adds up to any clear moral or message. This poem has the solidity of a dream; the writer of such a poem, though he may be aware of the “meanings” implicit in his dream, must not take the dream to pieces, … must allow the story to persist as a story and not dwindle into a diagram.

Several decades later Harold Bloom – who, in my experience, never refused his intellect the delight of diagramming – had this opening to his article How to Read a Poem: Browning’s Childe Rolande (Georgia Review 28.3):

The reader, like Browning’s belated quester, might wish to separate origins like from Browning’s aims, but the price of internalization in poetic as in human romance, is that aims wander back towards origins. A study of misprision allows the reader to see that interpretation of Browning’s great poem is mocked by the poem itself, since Roland’s monologue is his sublime and grotesque exercise of the will-to-power over the interpretation of his own text. Roland rides with us as interpreter; his every interpretation is a powerful misreading; and yet the union of those misreadings enables him to accept destruction in the triumphant realization that his ordeal, his trial by landscape, has provided us with one of the most powerful of texts that any hero-villain since Milton’s Satan has given us.

The poem’s opening swerve is marked rhetorically by the trope of irony, imagistically by an interplay of presence and absence, and psychologically by Roland’s reaction-formation against his own destructive impulses. All this is as might be expected, but Browning’s enormous skill at substitution is evident as his poem gets underway, for the strong poet shows his saving difference from himself as well as others even in his initial phrases. Roland says one thing and means another, and both the saying and the meaning seek to void a now intolerable presence. For a Post-Enlightment poem to begin, it must know and demonstrate that nothing is in its right place. Displacement affects at once the precursor and the poet’s own earlier or idealized self, as these were a near-identity. But the precursor, like the idealized self, does not locate only in the superego or ego ideal. For a poet, both the youth he was and his imaginative father reside also in the poetic equivalent of the id. In Romantic quest or internalized romance, an object of desire or even a sublimated devotion to an abstract idea cannot replace the precursor-element in the id, but it does replace the ego ideal, as Freud posited. For Roland, the Dark Tower has been put in the place of the ego ideal of traditional quest, but the obsessed Childe remains haunted by precursor-forces and traces of his own former self in the id. Against these forces, his psyche has defended itself by the cramping reaction-the formation of his will-to-fail, his perverse and negative stance that begins the poem.

Heaven opened to a soul while yet on earth, Earth forced on a soul’s use while seeing heaven

From Robert Browning’s An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, The Arab Physician, in his Men and Women. The full poem – an outsider’s account of encountering Lazarus long after his resurrection – is online here.

Not terribly related but John Ruskin made amusing mention of this one in a letter to Browning about the collection – “I can’t say I have really made out any one yet … except the epistle from the Arabian physician, which I like immensely.”

This grown man eyes the world now like a child.
Some elders of his tribe, I should premise,
Led in their friend, obedient as a sheep,
To bear my inquisition. While they spoke, 120
Now sharply, now with sorrow, told the case,
He listened not except I spoke to him,
But folded his two hands and let them talk,
Watching the flies that buzzed: and yet no fool.
And that’s a sample how his years must go.
Look, if a beggar, in fixed middle-life,
Should find a treasure, can he use the same
With straitened habits and with tastes starved small,
And take at once to his impoverished brain
The sudden element that changes things, 130
That sets the undreamed-of rapture at his hand
And puts the cheap old joy in the scorned dust?
Is he not such an one as moves to mirth—
Warily parsimonious, when no need,
Wasteful as drunkenness at undue times?
All prudent counsel as to what befits
The golden mean, is lost on such an one:
The man’s fantastic will is the man’s law.
So here—we call the treasure knowledge, say,
Increased beyond the fleshly faculty— 140
Heaven opened to a soul while yet on earth,
Earth forced on a soul’s use while seeing heaven:
The man is witless of the size, the sum,
The value in proportion of all things,
Or whether it be little or be much.
Discourse to him of prodigious armaments
Assembled to besiege his city now,
And of the passing of a mule with gourds—
‘T is one! Then take it on the other side,
Speak of some trifling fact, he will gaze rapt 150
With stupor at its very littleness,
(Far as I see) as if in that indeed
He caught prodigious import, whole results;
And so will turn to us the bystanders
In ever the same stupor (note this point)
That we too see not with his opened eyes.
Wonder and doubt come wrongly into play,
Preposterously, at cross purposes.
Should his child sicken unto death, why, look
For scarce abatement of his cheerfulness, 160
Or pretermission of the daily craft!
While a word, gesture, glance from that same child
At play or in the school or laid asleep,
Will startle him to an agony of fear,
Exasperation, just as like. Demand
The reason why—”‘t is but a word,” object—
“A gesture”—he regards thee as our lord
Who lived there in the pyramid alone,
Looked at us (dost thou mind?) when, being young,
We both would unadvisedly recite 170
Some charm’s beginning, from that book of his,
Able to bid the sun throb wide and burst
All into stars, as suns grown old are wont.
Thou and the child have each a veil alike
Thrown o’er your heads, from under which ye both
Stretch your blind hands and trifle with a match
Over a mine of Greek fire, did ye know!
He holds on firmly to some thread of life—
(It is the life to lead perforcedly)
Which runs across some vast distracting orb 180
Of glory on either side that meagre thread,
Which, conscious of, he must not enter yet—
The spiritual life around the earthly life:
The law of that is known to him as this,
His heart and brain move there, his feet stay here.
So is the man perplext with impulses
Sudden to start off crosswise, not straight on,
Proclaiming what is right and wrong across,
And not along, this black thread through the blaze—
“It should be” balked by “here it cannot be.” 190
And oft the man’s soul springs into his face
As if he saw again and heard again
His sage that bade him “Rise” and he did rise.
Something, a word, a tick o’ the blood within
Admonishes: then back he sinks at once
To ashes, who was very fire before,
In sedulous recurrence to his trade
Whereby he earneth him the daily bread;
And studiously the humbler for that pride,
Professedly the faultier that he knows 200
God’s secret, while he holds the thread of life.

And the whole is well worth thinking o’er when autumn comes

Robert Browning’s By the Fire-Side. It is very long but somehow not easily found online and deserves to be.

A useless personal aside – the premise of this one also reminds me a bit of a hike my wife and I did from Montalcino to the Abbey of Sant’Antimo – using a combination of a 30 year old guidebook and 15 year old forum posts, both of which I somehow thought would not have fallen out of date. There are some new roads in the Val d’Orcia and many old landmarks have disappeared.

BY THE FIRESIDE

How well I know what I mean to do
When the long dark autumn evenings come;
And where, my soul, is thy pleasant hue?
With the music of all thy voices, dumb
In life’s November too!

I shall be found by the fire, suppose,
O’er a great wise book as beseemeth age,
While the shutters flap as the cross-wind blows,
And I turn the page, and I turn the page,
Not verse now, only prose!

Till the young ones whisper, finger on lip,
“There he is at it, deep in Greek:
Now then, or never, out we slip
To cut from the hazels by the creek
A mainmast for our ship!”

I shall be at it indeed, my friends!
Greek puts already on either side
Such a branch-work forth as soon extends
To a vista opening far and wide,
And I pass out where it ends.

The outside-frame, like your hazel-trees—
But the inside-archway widens fast,
And a rarer sort succeeds to these,
And we slope to Italy at last
And youth, by green degrees.

I follow wherever I am led,
Knowing so well the leader’s hand:
Oh woman-country, wooed not wed,
Loved all the more by earth’s male-lands,
Laid to their hearts instead!

Look at the ruined chapel again
Half-way up in the Alpine gorge!
Is that a tower, I point you plain,
Or is it a mill, or an iron forge
Breaks solitude in vain?

A turn, and we stand in the heart of things;
The woods are round us, heaped and dim;
From slab to slab how it slips and springs,
The thread of water single and slim,
Through the ravage some torrent brings!

Does it feed the little lake below?
That speck of white just on its marge
Is Pella; see, in the evening-glow,
How sharp the silver spear-heads charge
When Alp meets heaven in snow!

On our other side is the straight-up rock;
And a path is kept ‘twixt the gorge and it
By boulder-stones where lichens mock
The marks on a moth, and small ferns fit
Their teeth to the polished block.

Oh the sense of the yellow mountain-flowers,
And thorny halls, each three in one,
The chestnuts throw on our path in showers!
For the drop of the woodland fruit’s begun,
These early November hours,

That crimson the creeper’s leaf across
Like a splash of blood, intense, abrupt,
O’er a shield else gold from rim to boss,
And lay it for show on the fairy-cupped
Elf-needled mat of moss,

By the rose-flesh mushrooms, undivulged
Last evening—nay, in to-day’s first dew
Yon sudden coral nipple bulged,
Where a freaked fawn-colored flaky crew
Of toad-stools peep indulged.

And yonder, at foot of the fronting ridge
That takes the turn to a range beyond,
Is the chapel reached by the one-arched bridge
Where the water is stopped in a stagnant pond
Danced over by the midge.

The chapel and bridge are of stone alike,
Blackish-gray and mostly wet;
Cut hemp-stalks steep in the narrow dyke.
See here again, how the lichens fret
And the roots of the ivy strike!

Poor little place, where its one priest comes
On a festa-day, if he comes at all,
To the dozen folk from their scattered homes,
Gathered within that precinct small
By the dozen ways one roams—

To drop from the charcoal-burners’ huts,
Or climb from the hemp-dressers’ low shed,
Leave the grange where the woodman stores his nuts,
Or the wattled cote where the fowlers spread
Their gear on the rock’s bare juts.

It has some pretension too, this front,
With its bit of fresco half-moon-wise
Set over the porch, Art’s early wont:
‘T is John in the Desert, I surmise,
But has borne the weather’s brunt—

Not from the fault of the builder, though,
For a pent-house properly projects
Where three carved beams make a certain show,
Dating—good thought of our architect’s—
‘Five, six, nine, he lets you know.

And all day long a bird sings there,
And a stray sheep drinks at the pond at times;
The place is silent and aware;
It has had its scenes, its joys and crimes,
But that is its own affair.

My perfect wife, my Leonor,
Oh heart, my own, oh eyes, mine too,
Whom else could I dare look backward for,
With whom beside should I dare pursue
The path gray heads abhor?

For it leads to a crag’s sheer edge with them;
Youth, flowery all the way, there stops—
Not they; age threatens and they contemn,
Till they reach the gulf wherein youth drops,
One inch from life’s safe hem!

With me, youth led … I will speak now,
No longer watch you as you sit
Reading by fire-light, that great brow
And the spirit-small hand propping it,
Mutely, my heart knows how—

When, if I think but deep enough,
You are wont to answer, prompt as rhyme;
And you, too, find without rebuff
Response your soul seeks many a time
Piercing its fine flesh-stuff.

My own, confirm me! If I tread
This path back, is it not in pride
To think how little I dreamed it led
To an age so blest that, by its side,
Youth seems the waste instead?

My own, see where the years conduct!
At first, ‘t was something our two souls
Should mix as mists do; each is sucked
In each now: on, the new stream rolls,
Whatever rocks obstruct.

Think, when our one soul understands
The great Word which makes all things new.
When earth breaks up and heaven expands,
How will the change strike me and you
In the house not made with hands?

Oh, I must feel your brain prompt mine,
Your heart anticipate my heart,
You must be just before, in fine,
See and make me see, for your part,
New depths of the divine!

But who could have expected this
When we two drew together first
Just for the obvious human bliss,
To satisfy life’s daily thirst
With a thing men seldom miss?

Come back with me to the first of all,
Let us lean and love it over again,
Let us now forget and now recall,
Break the rosary in a pearly rain
And gather what we let fall!

What did I say?—that a small bird sings
All day long, save when a brown pair
Of hawks from the wood float with wide wings
Strained to a bell: ‘gainst noonday glare
You count the streaks and rings.

But at afternoon or almost eve
‘T is better; then the silence grows
To that degree, you half believe
It must get rid of what it knows,
Its bosom does so heave.

Hither we walked then, side by side,
Arm in arm and cheek to cheek,
And still I questioned or replied,
While my heart, convulsed to really speak,
Lay choking in its pride.

Silent the crumbling bridge we cross,
And pity and praise the chapel sweet,
And care about the fresco’s loss,
And wish for our souls a like retreat,
And wonder at the moss.

Stoop and kneel on the settle under,
Look through the window’s grated square:
Nothing to see! For fear of plunder,
The cross is down and the altar bare,
As if thieves don’t fear thunder.

We stoop and look in through the grate,
See the little porch and rustic door,
Read duly the dead builder’s date;
Then cross the bridge that we crossed before,
Take the path again—but wait!

Oh moment, one and infinite!
The water slips o’er stock and stone;
The West is tender, hardly bright:
How gray at once is the evening grown—
One star, its chrysolite!

We two stood there with never a third,
But each by each, as each knew well:
The sights we saw and the sounds we heard,
The lights and the shades made up a spell
Till the trouble grew and stirred.

Oh, the little more, and how much it is!
And the little less, and what worlds away!
How a sound shall quicken content to bliss,
Or a breath suspend the blood’s best play,
And life be a proof of this!

Had she willed it, still had stood the screen
So slight, so sure, ‘twixt my love and her:
I could fix her face with a guard between,
And find her soul as when friends confer,
Friends—lovers that might have been.

For my heart had a touch of the woodland-time,
Wanting to sleep now over its best.
Shake the whole tree in the summer-prime,
But bring to the last leaf no such test!
“Hold the last fast!” runs the rhyme.

For a chance to make your little much,
To gain a lover and lose a friend,
Venture the tree and a myriad such,
When nothing you mar but the year can mend:
But a last leaf—fear to touch!

Yet should it unfasten itself and fall
Eddying down till it find your face
At some slight wind—best chance of all!
Be your heart henceforth its dwelling-place
You trembled to forestall!

Worth how well, those dark gray eyes,
That hair so dark and dear, how worth
That a man should strive and agonize,
And taste a veriest hell on earth
For the hope of such a prize!

You might have turned and tried a man,
Set him a space to weary and wear,
And prove which suited more your plan,
His best of hope or his worst despair,
Yet end as he began.

But you spared me this, like the heart you are,
And filled my empty heart at a word.
If two lives join, there is oft a scar,
They are one and one, with a shadowy third;
One near one is too far.

A moment after, and hands unseen
Were hanging the night around us fast;
But we knew that a bar was broken between
Life and life: we were mixed at last
In spite of the mortal screen.

The forests had done it; there they stood;
We caught for a moment the powers at play;
They had mingled us so, for once and good,
Their work was done—we might go or stay,
They relapsed to their ancient mood.

How the world is made for each of us!
How all we perceive and know in it
Tends to some moment’s product thus,
When a soul declares itself—to wit,
By its fruit, the thing it does!

Be hate that fruit or love that fruit,
It forwards the general deed of man,
And each of the Many helps to recruit
The life of the race by a general plan;
Each living his own, to boot.

I am named and known by that moment’s feat;
There took my station and degree;
So grew my own small life complete,
As nature obtained her best of me—
One born to love you, sweet!

And to watch you sink by the fireside now
Back again, as you mutely sit
Musing by fire-light, that great brow
And the spirit-small hand propping it,
Yonder, my heart knows how!

So, earth has gained by one man the more,
And the gain of earth must be heaven’s gain too;
And the whole is well worth thinking o’er
When autumn comes: which I mean to do
One day, as I said before.

This world’s no blot for us, nor blank; it means intensely, and means good: To find its meaning is my meat and drink.

From Robert Browning’s Fra Lippo Lippi – with the full text here

You speak no Latin more than I, belike;
However, you’re my man, you’ve seen the world
—The beauty and the wonder and the power,
The shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades,
Changes, surprises,—and God made it all!
—For what? Do you feel thankful, ay or no,
For this fair town’s face, yonder river’s line,
The mountain round it and the sky above,
Much more the figures of man, woman, child,
These are the frame to? What’s it all about?
To be passed over, despised? or dwelt upon,
Wondered at? oh, this last of course!—you say.
But why not do as well as say,—paint these
Just as they are, careless what comes of it?
God’s works—paint any one, and count it crime
To let a truth slip. Don’t object, “His works
Are here already; nature is complete:
Suppose you reproduce her—(which you can’t)
There’s no advantage! you must beat her, then.”
For, don’t you mark? we’re made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;
And so they are better, painted—better to us,
Which is the same thing. Art was given for that;
God uses us to help each other so,
Lending our minds out. Have you noticed, now,
Your cullion’s hanging face? A bit of chalk,
And trust me but you should, though! How much more,
If I drew higher things with the same truth!
That were to take the Prior’s pulpit-place,
Interpret God to all of you! Oh, oh,
It makes me mad to see what men shall do
And we in our graves! This world’s no blot for us,
Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good:
To find its meaning is my meat and drink.
“Ay, but you don’t so instigate to prayer!”
Strikes in the Prior: “when your meaning’s plain
It does not say to folk—remember matins,
Or, mind you fast next Friday!” Why, for this
What need of art at all? A skull and bones,
Two bits of stick nailed crosswise, or, what’s best,
A bell to chime the hour with, does as well.
I painted a Saint Laurence six months since
At Prato, splashed the fresco in fine style:
“How looks my painting, now the scaffold’s down?”
I ask a brother: “Hugely,” he returns—
“Already not one phiz of your three slaves
Who turn the Deacon off his toasted side,
But’s scratched and prodded to our heart’s content,
The pious people have so eased their own
With coming to say prayers there in a rage:
We get on fast to see the bricks beneath.
Expect another job this time next year,
For pity and religion grow i’ the crowd—
Your painting serves its purpose!” Hang the fools!

Law’s a machine from which, to please the mob, truth the divinity must needs descend

The opening of Book IV of Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book:

True, Excellency—as his Highness says,
Though she’s not dead yet, she’s as good as stretched
Symmetrical beside the other two;
Though he’s not judged yet, he’s the same as judged,
So do the facts abound and superabound:
And nothing hinders that we lift the case
Out of the shade into the shine, allow
Qualified persons to pronounce at last,
Nay, edge in an authoritative word
Between this rabble’s-brabble of dolts and fools
Who make up reasonless unreasoning Rome.
“Now for the Trial!” they roar: “the Trial to test
“The truth, weigh husband and weigh wife alike
“I’ the scales of law, make one scale kick the beam!”
Law’s a machine from which, to please the mob,
Truth the divinity must needs descend
And clear things at the play’s fifth act—aha!

Yet by a special gift, an art of arts, more insight and more outsight

From Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book (1.700-775ish).  I find it impossible to make tidy extracts from Browning.  He piles and piles and only grows better.

I find first
Writ down for very A B C of fact,
“In the beginning God made heaven and earth;”
From which, no matter with what lisp, I spell
And speak you out a consequence—that man,
Man,—as befits the made, the inferior thing,—
Purposed, since made, to grow, not make in turn,
Yet forced to try and make, else fail to grow,—
Formed to rise, reach at, if not grasp and gain
The good beyond him,—which attempt is growth,—
Repeats God’s process in man’s due degree,
Attaining man’s proportionate result,—
Creates, no, but resuscitates, perhaps.
Inalienable, the arch-prerogative
Which turns thought, act—conceives, expresses too!
No less, man, bounded, yearning to be free,
May so proiect his surplusage of soul
In search of body, so add self to self
By owning what lay ownerless before,—
So find, so fill full, so appropriate forms—
That, although nothing which had never life
Shall get life from him, be, not having been,
Yet, something dead may get to live again,
Something with too much life or not enough,
Which, either way imperfect, ended once:
An end whereat man’s impulse intervenes,
Makes new beginning, starts the dead alive,
Completes the incomplete and saves the thing.
Man’s breath were vain to light a virgin wick,—
Half-burned-out, all but quite-quenched wicks o’ the lamp
Stationed for temple-service on this earth,
These indeed let him breathe on and relume!
For such man’s feat is, in the due degree,
—Mimic creation, galvanism for life,
But still a glory portioned in the scale.
Why did the mage say,—feeling as we are wont
For truth, and stopping midway short of truth,
And resting on a lie,—”I raise a ghost”?
“Because,” he taught adepts, “man makes not man.
“Yet by a special gift, an art of arts,
“More insight and more outsight and much more
“Will to use both of these than boast my mates,
“I can detach from me, commission forth
“Half of my soul; which in its pilgrimage
“O’er old unwandered waste ways of the world,
“May chance upon some fragment of a whole,
“Rag of flesh, scrap of bone in dim disuse,
“Smoking flax that fed fire once: prompt therein
“I enter, spark-like, put old powers to play,
“Push lines out to the limit, lead forth last
“(By a moonrise through a ruin of a crypt)
“What shall be mistily seen, murmuringly heard,
“Mistakenly felt: then write my name with Faust’s!”
Oh, Faust, why Faust? Was not Elisha once?—
Who bade them lay his staff on a corpse-face.
There was no voice, no hearing: he went in
Therefore, and shut the door upon them twain,
And prayed unto the Lord: and he went up
And lay upon the corpse, dead on the couch,
And put his mouth upon its mouth, his eyes
Upon its eyes, his hands upon its hands,
And stretched him on the flesh; the flesh waxed warm:
And he returned, walked to and fro the house,
And went up, stretched him on the flesh again,
And the eyes opened. ‘T is a credible feat
With the right man and way.

Well, if a good laugh and a jovial word Could bridle age which blew bad humours forth, That were a kind of help, too!

From Robert Browning’s Balaustion’s Adventure (1600-1800).  I can’t say how much I’ve enjoyed his translation-commentary-retelling of Alcestis.  The genius is the setup – creating a frame narrative from which a character then reports the play while both  commenting on performance elements and adding interpretational arguments (often Browning’s rebuttals to period criticism of Euripides vs. Sophocles and Aeschylus).

Wherewith, the sad procession wound away,
Made slowly for the suburb sepulchre.
And lo, — while still one’s heart, in time and tune,
Paced after that symmetric step of Death
Mute-marching, to the mind’s eye, at the head
O’ the mourners — one hand pointing out their path
With the long pale terrific sword we saw,
The other leading, with grim tender grace,
Alkestis quieted and consecrate, — ⁠1610
Lo, life again knocked laughing at the door!
The world goes on, goes ever, in and through,
And out again o’ the cloud. We faced about,
Fronted the palace where the mid-hall-door
Opened — not half, nor half of half, perhaps —
Yet wide enough to let out light and life,
And warmth, and bounty, and hope, and joy, at once.
Festivity burst wide, fruit rare and ripe
Crushed in the mouth of Bacchos, pulpy-prime,
All juice and flavour, save one single seed ⁠1620
Duly ejected from the God’s nice lip,
Which lay o’ the red edge, blackly visible —
To wit, a certain ancient servitor:
On whom the festal jaws o’ the palace shut,
So, there he stood, a much-bewildered man.
Stupid? Nay, but sagacious in a sort:
Learned, life-long, i’ the first outside of things,
Though bat for blindness to what lies beneath
And needs a nail-scratch ere ‘t is laid you bare.
This functionary was the trusted one ⁠1630
We saw deputed by Admetos late
To lead in Herakles and help him, soul
And body, to such snatched repose, snapped-up
Sustainment, as might do away the dust
O’ the last encounter, knit each nerve anew
For that next onset sure to come at cry
O’ the creature next assailed, — nay, should it prove
Only the creature that came forward now
To play the critic upon Herakles!

“Many the guests” — so he soliloquized ⁠1640
In musings burdensome to breast before,
When it seemed not too prudent, tongue should wag —
“Many, and from all quarters of this world,
The guests I now have known frequent our house,
For whom I spread the banquet; but than this,
Never a worse one did I yet receive
At the hearth here! One who seeing, first of all,
The master’s sorrow, entered gate the same,
And had the hardihood to house himself.
Did things stop there! But, modest by no means, ⁠1650
He took what entertainment lay to hand,
Knowing of our misfortune, — did we fail
In aught of the fit service, urged us serve
Just as a guest expects! And in his hands
Taking the ivied goblet, drinks and drinks
The unmixed product of black mother-earth,
Until the blaze o’ the wine went round about
And warmed him: then he crowns with myrtle sprigs
His head, and howls discordance — two-fold lay
Was thereupon for us to listen to — ⁠1660
This fellow singing, namely, nor restrained
A jot by sympathy with sorrows here —
While we o’ the household mourned our mistress — mourned,
That is to say, in silence — never showed
The eyes, which we kept wetting, to the guest —
For there Admetos was imperative.
And so, here am I helping make at home
A guest, some fellow ripe for wickedness,
Robber or pirate, while she goes her way
Out of our house: and neither was it mine ⁠1670
To follow in procession, nor stretch forth
Hand, wave my lady dear a last farewell,
Lamenting who to me and all of us
Domestics was a mother: myriad harms
She used to ward away from every one,
And mollify her husband’s ireful mood.
I ask then, do I justly hate or no
This guest, this interloper on our grief?”

“Hate him and justly!” Here’s the proper judge
Of what is due to the house from Herakles! ⁠1680
This man of much experience saw the first
O’ the feeble duckings-down at destiny,
When King Admetos went his rounds, poor soul,
A-begging somebody to be so brave
As die for one afraid to die himself —
“Thou, friend? Thou, love? Father or mother, then!
None of you? What, Alkestis must Death catch?
O best of wives, one woman in the world!
But nowise droop: our prayers may still assist:
Let us try sacrifice; if those avail ⁠1690
Nothing and Gods avert their countenance,
Why, deep and durable the grief will be!”
Whereat the house, this worthy at its head,
Re-echoed “deep and durable our grief!”
This sage, who justly hated Herakles,
Did he suggest once “Rather I than she!”
Admonish the Turannos — “Be a man!
Bear thine own burden, never think to thrust
Thy fate upon another, and thy wife!
It were a dubious gain could death be doomed ⁠1700
That other, yet no passionatest plea
Of thine, to die instead, have force with fate;
Seeing thou lov’st Alkestis: what were life
Unlighted by the loved one? But to live —
Not merely live unsolaced by some thought,
Some word so poor — yet solace all the same —
As ‘Thou i’ the sepulchre, Alkestis, say!
Would I, or would not I, to save thy life,
Die, and die on, and die for ever more?’
No! but to read red-written up and down ⁠1710
The world ‘This is the sunshine, this the shade,
This is some pleasure of earth, sky or sea,
Due to that other, dead that thou may’st live!’
Such were a covetable gain to thee?
Go die, fool, and be happy while ‘t is time!”
One word of counsel in this kind, methinks,
Had fallen to better purpose than Ai, ai,
Pheu, pheu, e, papai, and a pother of praise
O’ the best, best, best one! Nothing was to hate
In king Admetos, Pheres, and the rest ⁠1720
O’ the household down to his heroic self!
This was the one thing hateful: Herakles
Had flung into the presence, frank and free,
Out from the labour into the repose,
Ere out again and over head and ears
I’ the heart of labour, all for love of men:
Making the most o’ the minute, that the soul
And body, strained to height a minute since,
Might lie relaxed in joy, this breathing-space,
For man’s sake more than ever; till the bow, ⁠1730
Restrung o’ the sudden, at first cry for help,
Should send some unimaginable shaft
True to the aim and shatteringly through
The plate-mail of a monster, save man so.
He slew the pest o’ the marish yesterday:
To-morrow he would bit the flame-breathed stud
That fed on man’s-flesh: and this day between —
Because he held it natural to die,
And fruitless to lament a thing past cure,
So, took his fill of food, wine, song and flowers, ⁠1740
Till the new labour claimed him soon enough, —
“Hate him and justly!”

True, Charopé mine!
The man surmised not Herakles lay hid
I’ the guest; or knowing it, was ignorant
That still his lady lived — for Herakles;
Or else judged lightness needs must indicate
This or the other caitiff quality:
And therefore — had been right if not so wrong!
For who expects the sort of him will scratch
A nail’s depth, scrape the surface just to see ⁠1750
What peradventure underlies the same?
So, he stood petting up his puny hate,
Parent-wise, proud of the ill-favoured babe.
Not long! A great hand, careful lest it crush,
Startled him on the shoulder: up he stared,
And over him, who stood but Herakles?
There smiled the mighty presence, all one smile
And no touch more of the world-weary God,
Through the brief respite! Just a garland’s grace
About the brow, a song to satisfy ⁠1760
Head, heart and breast, and trumpet-lips at once,
A solemn draught of true religious wine.
And, — how should I know? — half a mountain goat
Torn up and swallowed down, — the feast was fierce
But brief: all cares and pains took wing and flew,
Leaving the hero ready to begin
And help mankind, whatever woe came next.
Even though what came next should be nought more
Than the mean querulous mouth o’ the man, remarked
Pursing its grievance up till patience failed ⁠1770
And the sage needs must rush out, as we saw,
To sulk outside and pet his hate in peace.
By no means would the Helper have it so:
He who was just about to handle brutes
In Thrace, and bit the jaws which breathed the flame, —
Well, if a good laugh and a jovial word
Could bridle age which blew bad humours forth,
That were a kind of help, too!

Or thrust and parry in bright monostich, / Teaching Euripides to Syracuse

From Robert Browning’s Balaustion’s Adventure lines ~125-180- a sunnier version here of the fate of the remnants of the Athenian expedition against Sicily:

So were we at destruction’s very edge,
When those o’ the galley, as they had discussed
A point, a question raised by somebody,
A matter mooted in a moment, — “Wait!”
Cried they (and wait we did, you may be sure)
“That song was veritable Aischulos,
Familiar to the mouth of man and boy,
Old glory: how about Euripides?
The newer and not yet so famous bard,
He that was born upon the battle-day
While that song and the salpinx sounded him
Into the world, first sound, at Salamis —
Might you know any of his verses too?”

Now, some one of the Gods inspired this speech:
Since ourselves knew what happened but last year —
How, when Gulippos gained his victory ⁠
Over poor Nikias, poor Demosthenes,
And Syracuse condemned the conquered force
To dig and starve i’ the quarry, branded them —
Freeborn Athenians, brute-like in the front
With horse-head brands, — ah, “Region of the Steed”! —
Of all these men immersed in misery,
It was found none had been advantaged so
By aught in the past life he used to prize
And pride himself concerning, — no rich man
By riches, no wise man by wisdom, no ⁠
Wiser man still (as who loved more the Muse)
By storing, at brain’s edge and tip of tongue,
Old glory, great plays that had long ago
Made themselves wings to fly about the world, —
Not one such man was helped so at his need
As certain few that (wisest they of all)
Had, at first summons, oped heart, flung door wide
At the new knocking of Euripides,
Nor drawn the bolt with who cried “Decadence!
And, after Sophokles, be nature dumb!” ⁠
Such, — and I see in it God Bacchos’ boon
To souls that recognized his latest child,
He who himself, born latest of the Gods,
Was stoutly held impostor by mankind, —
Such were in safety: any who could speak
A chorus to the end, or prologize,
Roll out a rhesis, wield some golden length
Stiffened by wisdom out into a line.
Or thrust and parry in bright monostich,
Teaching Euripides to Syracuse — ⁠
Any such happy man had prompt reward:
If he lay bleeding on the battle-field
They staunched his wounds and gave him drink and food;
If he were slave i’ the house, for reverence
They rose up, bowed to who proved master now,
And bade him go free, thank Euripides!
Ay, and such did so: many such, he said,
Returning home to Athens, sought him out,
The old bard in the solitary house,
And thanked him ere they went to sacrifice. ⁠
I say, we knew that story of last year!