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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Italy: Vols. XI–XIII. 1876–79.


Old Pictures in Florence

By Robert Browning (1812–1889)

THE MORN when first it thunders in March,

The eel in the pond gives a leap, they say.

As I leaned and looked over the aloed arch

Of the villa-gate, this warm March day,

No flash snapt, no dumb thunder rolled

In the valley beneath, where, white and wide,

Washed by the morning’s water-gold,

Florence lay out on the mountain-side.

River and bridge and street and square

Lay mine, as much at my beck and call,

Through the live translucent bath of air,

As the sights in a magic crystal ball.

And of all I saw and of all I praised,

The most to praise and the best to see,

Was the startling bell-tower Giotto raised:

But why did it more than startle me?

Giotto, how, with that soul of yours,

Could you play me false who loved you so?

Some slights if a certain heart endures

It feels, I would have your fellows know!

Faith, I perceive not why I should care

To break a silence that suits them best,

But the thing grows somewhat hard to bear

When I find a Giotto join the rest.

On the arch where olives overhead

Print the blue sky with twig and leaf

(That sharp-curled leaf they never shed),

’Twixt the aloes I used to lean in chief,

And mark through the winter afternoons,

By a gift God grants me now and then,

In the mild decline of those suns like moons,

Who walked in Florence, besides her men.

They might chirp and chaffer, come and go

For pleasure or profit, her men alive,—

My business was hardly with them, I trow,

But with empty cells of the human hive;

With the chapter-room, the cloister-porch,

The church’s apsis, aisle or nave,

Its crypt, one fingers along with a torch,—

Its face, set full for the sun to shave.

Wherever a fresco peels and drops,

Wherever an outline weakens and wanes

Till the latest life in the painting stops,

Stands one whom each fainter pulse-tick pains!

One, wishful each scrap should clutch its brick,

Each tinge not wholly escape the plaster,—

A lion who dies of an ass’s kick,

The wronged great soul of an ancient master.

For O, this world and the wrong it does!

They are safe in heaven with their backs to it,

The Michaels and Rafaels you hum and buzz

Bound the works of, you of the little wit;

Do their eyes contract to the earth’s old scope,

Now that they see God face to face,

And have all attained to be poets, I hope?

’T is their holiday now, in any case.