Beatrice Signorini

A poem by Robert Browning

This strange thing happened to a painter once:
Viterbo boasts the man among her sons
Of note, I seem to think: his ready tool
Picked up its precepts in Cortona’s school
That’s Pietro Berretini, whom they call
Cortona, these Italians: greatish-small,
Our painter was his pupil, by repute
His match if not his master absolute,
Though whether he spoiled fresco more or less,
And what’s its fortune, scarce repays your guess.
Still, for one circumstance, I save his name
Francesco Romanelli: do the same!
He went to Rome and painted: there he knew
A wonder of a woman painting too
For she, at least, was no Cortona’s drudge
Witness that ardent fancy-shape I judge
A semblance of her soul-she called, “Desire”
With starry front for guide, where sits the fire
She left to brighten Buonarroti’s house.
If you see Florence, pay that piece your vows,
Though blockhead Baldinucci’s mind, imbued
With monkish morals, bade folk “Drape the nude
And stop the scandal!” quoth the record prim
I borrow this of: hang his book and him!
At Rome, then, where these fated ones met first,
The blossom of his life had hardly burst
While hers was blooming at full beauty’s stand:
No less Francesco when half-ripe he scanned
Consummate Artemisia grew one want
To have her his and make her ministrant
With every gift of body and of soul
To him. In vain. Her sphery self was whole
Might only touch his orb at Art’s sole point.
Suppose he could persuade her to enjoint
Her life past, present, future all in his
At Art’s sole point by some explosive kiss
Of love through lips, would love’s success defeat
Artistry’s haunting curse the Incomplete?
Artists no doubt they both were, what beside
Was she? who long had felt heart, soul spread wide
Her life out, knowing much and loving well,
On either side Art’s narrow space where fell
Reflection from his own speck: but the germ
Of individual genius what we term
The very self, the God-gift whence had grown
Heart’s life and soul’s life how make that his own?
Vainly his Art, reflected, smiled in small
On Art’s one facet of her ampler ball;
The rest, touch-free, took in, gave back heaven, earth,
All where he was not. Hope, well-nigh ere birth
Came to Desire, died off all-unfulfilled.
“What though in Art I stand the abler-skilled”
(So he conceited: mediocrity
Turns on itself the self-transforming eye)
“If only Art were suing, mine would plead
To purpose: man by nature I exceed
Woman the bounded: but how much beside
She boasts, would sue in turn and be denied!
Love her? My own wife loves me in a sort
That suits us both: she takes the world’s report
Of what my work is worth, and, for the rest,
Concedes that, while his consort keeps her nest,
The eagle soars a licensed vagrant, lives
A wide free life which she at least forgives
Good Beatricé Signorini! Well
And wisely did I choose her. But the spell
To subjugate this Artemisia where?
She passionless? she resolute to care
Nowise beyond the plain sufficiency
Of fact that she is she and I am I
Acknowledged arbitrator for us both
In her life as in mine which she were loth
Even to learn the laws of? No, and no,
Twenty times over! Ay, it must be so:
I for myself, alas!”

Whereon, instead
Of the checked lover’s utterance why, he said
Leaning over her easel: “Flesh is red”
(Or some such just remark) “by no mean, white
As Guido’s practice teaches: you are right.”
Then came the better impulse: “What if pride
Were wisely trampled on, whate’er betide?
If I grow hers, not mine join lives, confuse
Bodies and spirits, gain her not but lose
Myself to Artemisia? That were love!
Of two souls one must bend, one rule above:
If I crouch under proudly, lord turned slave.
Were it not worthier both than if she gave
Herself in treason to herself to me?”

And, all the while, he felt it could not be.
Such love was true love: love that way who can!
Some one that’s born half woman, not whole man:
For man, prescribed man better or man worse,
Why, whether microcosm or universe,
What law prevails alike through great and small,
The world and man world’s miniature we call?
Male is the master. “That way” smiled and sighed
Our true male estimator “puts her pride
My wife in making me the outlet whence
She learns all Heaven allows: ’tis my pretence
To paint: her lord should do what else but paint?
Do I break brushes, cloister me turned saint?
Then, best of all suits sanctity her spouse
Who acts for Heaven, allows and disallows
At pleasure, past appeal, the right, the wrong
In all things. That’s my wife’s way. But this strong
Confident Artemisia an adept
In Art does she conceit herself? ‘Except
In just this instance,’ tell her, ‘no one draws
More rigidly observant of the laws
Of right design: yet here, permit me hint,
If the acromion had a deeper dint.
That shoulder were perfection.’ What surprise
Nay scorn, shoots black fire from those startled eyes!
She to be lessoned in design forsooth!
I’m doomed and done for, since I spoke the truth.
Make my own work the subject of dispute
Fails it of just perfection absolute
Somewhere? Those motors, flexors, don’t I know
Ser Santi, styled ‘Tirititototo
The pencil-prig,’ might blame them? Yet my wife
Were he and his nicknamer brought to life,
Tito and Titian, to pronounce again
Ask her who knows more I or the great Twain,
Our colorist and draughtsman!

“I help her,
Not she helps me; and neither shall demur
Because my portion is” he chose to think
“Quite other than a woman’s: I may drink
At many waters, must repose by none
Rather arise and fare forth, having done
Duty to one new excellence the more,
Abler thereby, though impotent before
So much was gained of knowledge. Best depart,
From this last lady I have learned by heart!”

Thus he concluded of himself resigned
To play the man and master: “Man boasts mind:
Woman, man’s sport calls mistress, to the same
Does body’s suit and service. Would she claim
My placid Beatricé-wife pretence
Even to blame her lord if, going hence,
He wistfully regards one whom did fate
Concede he might accept queen, abdicate
Kingship because of? one of no meek sort
But masterful as he: man’s match in short?
Oh, there’s no secret I were best conceal!
Bicé shall know: and should a stray tear steal
From out the blue eye, stain the rose cheek bah!
A smile, a word’s gay reassurance ah,
With kissing interspersed, shall make amends,
Turn pain to pleasure.”
“What, in truth so ends
Abruptly, do you say, our intercourse?”
Next day, asked Artemisia: “I’ll divorce
Husband and wife no longer. Go your ways,
Leave Rome! Viterbo owns no equal, says
The by-word, for fair women: you, no doubt,
May boast a paragon all specks without,
Using the painter’s privilege to choose
Among what’s rarest. Will your wife refuse
Acceptance from no rival of a gift?
You paint the human figure I make shift
Humbly to reproduce: but, in my hours
Of idlesse, what I fain would paint is flowers.
Look now!”
She twitched aside a veiling cloth,
“Here is my keepsake frame and picture both:
For see, the frame is all of flowers festooned
About an empty space, left thus, to wound
No natural susceptibility:
How can I guess? ’Tis you must fill, not I,
The central space with her whom you like best!
That is your business, mine has been the rest.
But judge!”
How judge them? Each of us, in flowers,
Chooses his love, allies it with past hours,
Old meetings, vanished forms and faces: no
Here let each favorite unmolested blow
For one heart’s homage, no tongue’s banal praise,
Whether the rose appealingly bade “Gaze
Your fill on me, sultana who dethrone
The gaudy tulip!” or ’twas “Me alone
Rather do homage to, who lily am,
No unabashed rose!” “Do I vainly cram
My cup with sweets, your jonquil?” “Why forget
Vernal endearments with the violet?”
So they contested yet concerted, all
As one, to circle round about, enthrall
Yet, self-forgetting, push to prominence
The midmost wonder, gained no matter whence.

There’s a tale extant, in a book I conned
Long years ago, which treats of things beyond
The common, antique times and countries queer
And customs strange to match. “’Tis said last year,”
(Recounts my author) “that the King had mind
To view his kingdom guessed at from behind
A palace-window hitherto. Announced
No sooner was such purpose than ’twas pounced
Upon by all the ladies of the land
Loyal but light of life: they formed a band
Of loveliest ones but lithest also, since
Proudly they all combined to bear their prince.
Backs joined to breasts, arms, legs, nay, ankles, wrists,
Hands, feet, I know not by what turns and twists,
So interwoven lay that you believed
’Twas one sole beast of burden which received
The monarch on its back, of breadth not scant,
Since fifty girls made one white elephant.”
So with the fifty flowers which shapes and hues
Blent, as I tell, and made one fast yet loose
Mixture of beauties, composite, distinct
No less in each combining flower that linked
With flower to form a fit environment
For whom might be the painter’s heart’s intent
Thus, in the midst enhaloed, to enshrine?

“This glory-guarded middle space is mine?
For me to fill?”
“For you, my Friend! We part,
Never perchance to meet again. Your Art
What if I mean it so to speak shall wed
My own, be witness of the life we led
When sometimes it has seemed our souls near found
Each one the other as its mate unbound
Had yours been haply from the better choice
Beautiful Bicé: ’tis the common voice,
The crowning verdict. Make whom you like best
Queen of the central space, and manifest
Your predilection for what flower beyond
All flowers finds favor with you. I am fond
Of say yon rose’s rich predominance,
While you what wonder? more affect the glance
The gentler violet from its leafy screen
Ventures: so choose your flower and paint your queen!”
Oh, but the man was ready, head as hand,
Instructed and adroit. “Just as you stand,
Stay and be made would Nature but relent
By Art immortal!”

Every implement
In tempting reach a palette primed, each squeeze
Of oil-paint in its proper patch with these,
Brushes, a veritable sheaf to grasp!
He worked as he had never dared.

“Unclasp
My Art from yours who can!” he cried at length,
As down he threw the pencil “Grace from Strength
Dissociate, from your flowery fringe detach
My face of whom it frames, the feat will match
With that of Time should Time from me extract
Your memory, Artemisia!” And in fact,
What with the priming impulse, sudden glow
Of soul head, hand cooperated so
That face was worthy of its frame, ’tis said
Perfect, suppose!
They parted. Soon instead
Of Rome was home, of Artemisia well,
The placid-perfect wife. And it befell
That after the first incontestably
Blessedest of all blisses ( wherefore try
Your patience with embracings and the rest
Due from Calypso’s ail-unwilling guest
To his Penelope?) there somehow came
The coolness which as duly follows flame.
So, one day, “What if we inspect the gifts
My Art has gained us?”

Now the wife uplifts
A casket-lid, now tries a medal’s chain
Round her own lithe neck, fits a ring in vain
Too loose on the fine finger, vows and swears
The jewel with two pendent pearls like pears
Betters a lady’s bosom witness else!
And so forth, while Ulysses smiles.

“Such spells
Subdue such natures sex must worship toys
Trinkets and trash: yet, ah, quite other joys
Must stir from sleep the passionate abyss
Of such an one as her I know not this
My gentle consort with the milk for blood!
Why, did it chance that in a careless mood
(In those old days, gone never to return
When we talked she to teach and I to learn)
I dropped a word, a hint which might imply
Consorts exist how quick flashed fire from eye,
Brow blackened, lip was pinched by furious lip!
I needed no reminder of my slip:
One warning taught me wisdom. Whereas here . . .
Aha, a sportive fancy! Eh, what fear
Of harm to follow? Just a whim indulged!

“My Beatricé, there’s an undivulged
Surprise in store for you: the moment’s fit
For letting loose a secret: out with it!
Tributes to worth, you rightly estimate
These gifts of Prince and Bishop, Church and State:
Yet, may I tell you? Tastes so disagree!
There’s one gift, preciousest of all to me,
I doubt if you would value as well worth
The obvious sparkling gauds that men unearth
For toy-cult mainly of you womankind;
Such make you marvel, I concede: while blind
The sex proves to the greater marvel here
I veil to balk its envy. Be sincere!
Say, should you search creation far and wide,
Was ever face like this?”

He drew aside
The veil, displayed the flower-framed portrait kept
For private delectation.

No adept
In florist’s lore more accurately named
And praised or, as appropriately, blamed
Specimen after specimen of skill,
Than Bicé. “Rightly placed the daffodil
Scarcely so right the blue germander. Gray
Good mouse-ear! Hardly your auricula
Is powdered white enough. It seems to me
Scarlet not crimson, that anemone:
But there’s amends in the pink saxifrage.
O darling dear ones, let me disengage
You innocents from what your harmlessness
Clasps lovingly! Out thou from their caresss,
Serpent!”
Whereat forth-flashing from her coils
On coils of hair, the spilla in its toils
Of yellow wealth, the dagger-plaything kept
To pin its plaits together, life-like leapt
And woe to all inside the coronal!
Stab followed stab, cut, slash, she ruined all
The masterpiece. Alack for eyes and mouth
And dimples and endearment North and South.
East. West, the tatters in a fury flew:
There yawned the circlet. What remained to do?
She flung the weapon, and, with folded arms
And mien defiant of such low alarms
As death and doom beyond death, Bicé stood
Passively statuesque, in quietude
Awaiting judgment.

And out judgment burst
With frank unloading of love’s laughter, first
Freed from its unsuspected source. Some throe
Must needs unlock love’s prison-bars, let flow
The joyance.
“Then you ever were, still are,
And henceforth shall be no occulted star
But my resplendent Bicé, sun-revealed,
Full-rondure! Woman-glory unconcealed,
So front me, find and claim and take your own
My soul and body yours and yours alone,
As you are mine, mine wholly! Heart’s love take
Use your possession stab or stay at will
Here hating, saving woman with the skill
‘To make man beast or god!”

And so it proved:
For, as beseemed new godship, thus he loved,
Past power to change, until his dying day,
Good fellow! And I fain would hope some say
Indeed for certain that our painter’s toils
At fresco-splashing, finer stroke in oils,
Were not so mediocre after all;
Perhaps the work appears unduly small
From having loomed too large in old esteem,
Patronized by late Papacy. I seem
Myself to have cast eyes on certain work
In sundry galleries, no judge needs shirk
From moderately praising. He designed
Correctly, nor in color lagged behind
His age: but both in Florence and in Rome
The elder race so make themselves at home
That scarce we give a glance to ceilingfuls
Of such like as Francesco. Still, one culls
From out the heaped laudations of the time
The pretty incident I put in rhyme.

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