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A poem by Robert Browning

Youth And Art

Title:     Youth And Art
Author: Robert Browning [More Titles by Browning]

It once might have been, once only:
We lodged in a street together,
You, a sparrow on the housetop lonely,
I, a lone she-bird of his feather.

Your trade was with sticks and clay,
You thumbed, thrust, patted, and polished,
Then laughed "They will see some day,
Smith made, and Gibson demolished." 8

My business was song, song, song;
I chirped, cheeped, trilled, and twittered, 10
"Kate Brown's on the boards ere long,
And Grisi's deg. existence embittered!" 12

I earned no more by a warble
Than you by a sketch in plaster;
You wanted a piece of marble,
I needed a music-master.

We studied hard in our styles,
Chipped each at a crust like Hindoos, 18
For air, looked out on the tiles,
For fun, watched each other's windows. 20

You lounged, like a boy of the South,
Cap and blouse--nay, a bit of beard too;
Or you got it, rubbing your mouth
With fingers the clay adhered to.

And I--soon managed to find
Weak points in the flower-fence facing,
Was forced to put up a blind
And be safe in my corset-lacing.

No harm! It was not my fault
If you never turned your eye's tail up 30
As I shook upon E _in alt_,
Or ran the chromatic scale up:

For spring bade the sparrows pair.
And the boys and girls gave guesses,
And stalls in our street looked rare
With bulrush and watercresses.

Why did not you pinch a flower
In a pellet of clay and fling it?
Why did not I put a power
Of thanks in a look or sing it? 40

I did look, sharp as a lynx,
(And yet the memory rankles)
When models arrived, some minx
Tripped up stairs, she and her ankles.

But I think I gave you as good!
"That foreign fellow,--who can know
How she pays, in a playful mood,
For his tuning her that piano?"

Could you say so, and never say
"Suppose we join hands and fortunes, 50
And I fetch her from over the way,
Her, piano, and long tunes and short tunes?"

No, no: you would not be rash,
Nor I rasher and something over;
You've to settle yet Gibson's hash,
And Grisi yet lives in clover.

But you meet the Prince at the Board,
I'm queen myself at _bals-pares_,. 58
I've married a rich old lord,
And you're dubbed knight and an R.A. 60

Each life unfulfilled, you see;
It hangs still, patchy and scrappy:
We have not sighed deep, laughed free,
Starved, feasted, despaired,--been happy

And nobody calls you a dunce,
And people suppose me clever;
This could but have happened once,
And we missed it, lost it forever.


8. =Gibson, John= (1790-1866). A famous sculptor.

12. =Grisi, Giulia=. A celebrated singer (1811-1869).

18. In allusion to the asceticism of the Hindoo religious devotees.

58. =bals-pares=. Fancy-dress balls.

The poem is half-humorous, half-serious. The speaker, in her imaginary conversation, gives her own history and that of the man she thinks she might have loved. The story is on the "Maud Muller" motive, but with less of sentimentality. The setting suggests the life of art students in Paris, or in some Italian city. The poem is a plea for the freedom of the individuality of a soul against the restrictions imposed by conventional standards of value. Its touches of humor, of human nature, and its summary of two lives in brief, are admirably done. Its rhymes sometimes need the indulgence accorded to humorous writing.

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Robert Browning's poem: Youth And Art