Dramatic Romances, by Robert Browning

The Statue and the Bust

There’s a palace in Florence, the world knows well,

And a statue watches it from the square,

And this story of both do our townsmen tell.

Ages ago, a lady there,

At the farthest window facing the East

Asked, “Who rides by with the royal air?”

The bridesmaids’ prattle around her ceased;

She leaned forth, one on either hand;

They saw how the blush of the bride increased —

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They felt by its beats her heart expand —

As one at each ear and both in a breath

Whispered, “The Great–Duke Ferdinand.”

That self-same instant, underneath,

The Duke rode past in his idle way,

Empty and fine like a swordless sheath.

Gay he rode, with a friend as gay,

Till he threw his head back —“Who is she?”

“A bride the Riccardi brings home today.”

Hair in heaps lay heavily

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Over a pale brow spirit-pure —

Carved like the heart of a coal-black tree,

Crisped like a war-steed’s encolure —

And vainly sought to dissemble her eyes

Of the blackest black our eyes endure.

And lo, a blade for a knight’s emprise

Filled the fine empty sheath of a man —

The Duke grew straightway brave and wise.

He looked at her, as a lover can;

She looked at him, as one who awakes:

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The past was a sleep, and her life began.

Now, love so ordered for both their sakes,

A feast was held that selfsame night

In the pile which the mighty shadow makes.

(For Via Larga is three-parts light,

But the palace overshadows one,

Because of a crime which may God requite!

To Florence and God the wrong was done,

Through the first republic’s murder there

By Cosimo and his cursed son.)

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The Duke (with the statue’s face in the square)

Turned in the midst of his multitude

At the bright approach of the bridal pair.

Face to face the lovers stood

A single minute and no more,

While the bridegroom bent as a man subdued —

Bowed till his bonnet brushed the floor —

For the Duke on the lady a kiss conferred,

As the courtly custom was of yore.

In a minute can lovers exchange a word?

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If a word did pass, which I do not think,

Only one out of the thousand heard.

That was the bridegroom. At day’s brink

He and his bride were alone at last

In a bedchamber by a taper’s blink.

Calmly he said that her lot was cast,

That the door she had passed was shut on her

Till the final catafalk repassed.

The world meanwhile, its noise and stir,

Through a certain window facing the East,

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She could watch like a convent’s chronicler.

Since passing the door might lead to a feast

And a feast might lead to so much beside,

He, of many evils, chose the least.

“Freely I choose too,” said the bride —

“Your window and its world suffice,”

Replied the tongue, while the heart replied —

“If I spend the night with that devil twice,

May his window serve as my loop of hell

Whence a damned soul looks on paradise!

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“I fly to the Duke who loves me well,

Sit by his side and laugh at sorrow!

Ere I count another ave-bell,

“’Tis only the coat of a page to borrow,

And tie my hair in a horse-boy’s trim,

And I save my soul — but not tomorrow”—

(She checked herself and her eye grew dim)

“My father tarries to bless my state:

I must keep it one day more for him.

“Is one day more so long to wait?

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Moreover the Duke rides past, I know;

We shall see each other, sure as fate.”

She turned on her side and slept. Just so!

So we resolve on a thing and sleep:

So did the lady, ages ago.

That night the Duke said, “Dear or cheap

As the cost of this cup of bliss may prove

To body or soul, I will drain it deep.”

And on the morrow, bold with love,

He beckoned the bridegroom (close on call,

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As his duty bade, by the Duke’s alcove)

And smiled, “’Twas a very funeral,

Your lady will think, this feast of ours,

A shame to efface, whate’er befall!

“What if we break from the Arno bowers,

And try if Petraja, cool and green,

Cure last night’s fault with this morning’s flowers?”

The bridegroom, not a thought to be seen

On his steady brow and quiet mouth,

Said, “Too much favour for me so mean!

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“But, alas! my lady leaves the South;

Each wind that comes from the Apennine

Is a menace to her tender youth:

“Nor a way exists, the wise opine,

If she quits her palace twice this year,

To avert the flower of life’s decline.”

Quoth the Duke, “A sage and a kindly fear.

Moreover Petraja is cold this spring:

Be our feast to-night as usual here!”

And then to himself —“Which night shall bring

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Thy bride to her lover’s embraces, fool —

Or I am the fool, and thou art the king!

“Yet my passion must wait a night, nor cool —

For to-night the Envoy arrives from France

Whose heart I unlock with thyself my tool.

“I need thee still and might miss perchance.

To-day is not wholly lost, beside,

With its hope of my lady’s countenance:

“For I ride — what should I do but ride?

And passing her palace, if I list,

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May glance at its window-well betide!”

So said, so done: nor the lady missed

One ray that broke from the ardent brow,

Nor a curl of the lips where the spirit kissed.

Be sure that each renewed the vow,

No morrow’s sun should arise and set

And leave them then as it left them now.

But next day passed, and next day yet,

With still fresh cause to wait one day more

Ere each leaped over the parapet.

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And still, as love’s brief morning wore,

With a gentle start, half smile, half sigh,

They found love not as it seemed before.

They thought it would work infallibly,

But not in despite of heaven and earth:

The rose would blow when the storm passed by.

Meantime they could profit in winter’s dearth

By store of fruits that supplant the rose:

The world and its ways have a certain worth:

And to press a point while these oppose

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Were simple policy; better wait:

We lose no friends and we gain no foes.

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

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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;

Which hovered as dreams do, still above:

But who can take a dream for a truth?

Oh, hide our eyes from the next remove!

One day as the lady saw her youth

Depart, and the silver thread that streaked

Her hair, and, worn by the serpent’s tooth,

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The brow so puckered, the chin so peaked,

And wondered who the woman was,

Hollow-eyed and haggard-cheeked,

Fronting her silent in the glass —

“Summon here,” she suddenly said,

“Before the rest of my old self pass,

“Him, the Carver, a hand to aid,

Who fashions the clay no love will change

And fixes a beauty never to fade.

“Let Robbia’s craft so apt and strange

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Arrest the remains of young and fair,

And rivet them while the seasons range.

“Make me a face on the window there,

Waiting as ever, mute the while,

My love to pass below in the square!

“And let me think that it may beguile

Dreary days which the dead must spend

Down in their darkness under the aisle,

“To say, ‘What matters it at the end?

‘I did no more while my heart was warm

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Than does that image, my pale-faced friend.’

“Where is the use of the lip’s red charm,

The heaven of hair, the pride of the brow,

And the blood that blues the inside arm —

“Unless we turn, as the soul knows how,

The earthly gift to an end divine?

A lady of clay is as good, I trow.”

But long ere Robbia’s cornice, fine,

With flowers and fruits which leaves enlace,

Was set where now is the empty shrine —

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(And, leaning out of a bright blue space,

As a ghost might lean from a chink of sky,

The passionate pale lady’s face —

Eyeing ever, with earnest eye

And quick-turned neck at its breathless stretch,

Some one who ever is passing by)

The Duke had sighed like the simplest wretch

In Florence, “Youth — my dream escapes!

Will its record stay?” And he bade them fetch

Some subtle moulder of brazen shapes —

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“Can the soul, the will, die out of a man

Ere his body find the grave that gapes?

“John of Douay shall effect my plan,

Set me on horseback here aloft,

Alive, as the crafty sculptor can,

“In the very square I have crossed so oft:

That men may admire, when future suns

Shall touch the eyes to a purpose soft,

“While the mouth and the brow stay brave in bronze —

Admire and say, ‘When he was alive

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How he would take his pleasure once!’

“And it shall go hard but I contrive

To listen the while, and laugh in my tomb

At idleness which aspires to strive.”


So! While these wait the trump of doom,

How do their spirits pass, I wonder,

Nights and days in the narrow room?

Still, I suppose, they sit and ponder

What a gift life was, ages ago,

Six steps out of the chapel yonder.

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Only they see not God, I know,

Nor all that chivalry of his,

The soldier-saints who, row on row,

Burn upward each to his point of bliss —

Since, the end of life being manifest,

He had burned his way thro’ the world to this.

I hear you reproach, “But delay was best,

For their end was a crime.” Oh, a crime will do

As well, I reply, to serve for a test,

As a virtue golden through and through,

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Sufficient to vindicate itself

And prove its worth at a moment’s view!

Must a game be played for the sake of pelf

Where a button goes, ’twere an epigram

To offer the stamp of the very Guelph.

The true has no value beyond the sham:

As well the counter as coin, I submit,

When your table’s a hat, and your prize a dram.

Stake your counter as boldly every whit,

Venture as warily, use the same skill,

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Do your best, whether winning or losing it,

If you choose to play! — is my principle.

Let a man contend to the uttermost

For his life’s set prize, be it what it will!

The counter our lovers staked was lost

As surely as if it were lawful coin:

And the sin I impute to each frustrate ghost

Is — the unlit lamp and the ungirt loin,

Though the end in sight was a vice, I say.

You of the virtue (we issue join)

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How strive you? De te, fabula!

“The Statue and the Bust” creates the characters and the situation, and dramatically represents a story which is based on a Florentine tradition that Duke Ferdinand I placed his equestrian statue in the Piazza dell’ Annunziata so that he might gaze forever towards the old Riccardi Palace, where a lady he loved was imprisoned by her jealous husband. The bride and her ducal lover are seen exchanging their first looks, through which they perceive the genuineness of their love; and the temporizing of each is presented, through which, for the sake of petty conveniences, they submit to be thwarted by the wary husband, and to have the end they count supreme delayed until love and youth have gone, and the best left them is the artificial gaze interchanged by a bronze statue in the square and a clay face at the window. The closing stanzas point the moral against the palsy of the will, whose strenuous exercise is life’s main gift.

I. There’s a palace in Florence: refers to the old Riccardi Palace, now the Palazzo Antinori, in the square of the Annunziata, where the statue still stands.

22. encolure: neck and shoulder of a horse

33. The pile which the mighty shadow makes: refers to another palace in the Via Larga where the duke (not the lady) lived, and which is today known as the Riccardi Palace. Cooke’s “Browning Guide Book” and Berdoe’s “Browning Cyclopaedia” both confuse the two, attributing error to Browning in spite of his letter about it. This confusion was cleared up by Harriet Ford (Poet-lore, Dec. 1891, vol. iii. p. 648, “Browning right about the Riccardi Palace”).

36. Because of a crime, etc.: refers to the destroying of the liberties of the Florentine republic by Cosimo dei Medici and his grandson, Lorenzo, who lived in the then Medici (now Riccardi) Palace, whose darkening of the street with its bulk symbolizes the crime which took the light from Florence.

57. catafalk: the stage or scaffolding for a coffin whilst in the church

94. Arno bowers: the palace by the Arno, the river flowing through Florence.

95. Petraja: a Florentine suburb.

169. Robbia’s craft: the Robbia family were skilled in shaping the bisque known as Della Robbia ware which was long one of the Florentine manufactures, and traces of which, when Browning wrote, still adorned the outer cornice of the palace.

202. John of Douay [Giovanni of Bologna], sculptor (1524–1608). The statue is one of his finest works.

250.. De te, fabula! Concerning thee, this fable!

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/browning/robert/dramatic/poem23.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32