Dramatic Romances, by Robert Browning


Among these latter busts we count by scores,

Half-emperors and quarter-emperors,

Each with his bay-leaf fillet, loose-thonged vest,

Loric and low-browed Gorgon on the breast,

One loves a baby face, with violets there,

Violets instead of laurel in the hair,

As those were all the little locks could bear.

Now, read here. “Protus ends a period

Of empery beginning with a god;


Born in the porphyry chamber at Byzant,

Queens by his cradle, proud and ministrant:

And if he quickened breath there, ‘twould like fire

Pantingly through the dim vast realm transpire.

A fame that he was missing spread afar:

The world from its four corners, rose in war,

Till he was borne out on a balcony

To pacify the world when it should see.

The captains ranged before him, one, his hand

Made baby points at, gained the chief command.


And day by day more beautiful he grew

In shape, all said, in feature and in hue,

While young Greek sculptors, gazing on the child,

Became with old Greek sculpture reconciled.

Already sages laboured to condense

In easy tomes a life’s experience:

And artists took grave counsel to impart

In one breath and one hand-sweep, all their art,

To make his graces prompt as blossoming

Of plentifully-watered palms in spring:


Since well beseems it, whoso mounts the throne,

For beauty, knowledge, strength, should stand alone,

And mortals love the letters of his name.”

— Stop! Have you turned two pages? Still the same.

New reign, same date. The scribe goes on to say

How that same year, on such a month and day,

“John the Pannonian, groundedly believed

A blacksmith’s bastard, whose hard hand reprieved

The Empire from its fate the year before,

Came, had a mind to take the crown, and wore


The same for six years (during which the Huns

Kept off their fingers from us), till his sons

Put something in his liquor”— and so forth.

Then a new reign. Stay —“Take at its just worth”

(Subjoins an annotator) “what I give

As hearsay. Some think, John let Protus live

And slip away. ’Tis said, he reached man’s age

At some blind northern court; made, first a page,

Then tutor to the children; last, of use

About the hunting-stables. I deduce


He wrote the little tract ‘On worming dogs,’

Whereof the name in sundry catalogues

Is extant yet. A Protus of the race

Is rumoured to have died a monk in Thrace,

And if the same, he reached senility.”

Here’s John the Smith’s rough-hammered head. Great eye,

Gross jaw and griped lips do what granite can

To give you the crown-grasper. What a man!

“Protus” sets in contrast the representations by artist and annalist of the two busts and the two lives of Protus, the baby emperor of Byzantium, born in the purple, gently nurtured and cherished, yet fated to obscurity, and of John, the blacksmith’s bastard, predestined to usurp his throne and save the empire with his harder hand.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50