Pacchiarotto and How He Worked in Distemper with other Poems
Category: Verse
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Pacchiarotto, and How He Worked in Distemper is a short collection of English poems by Robert Browning, published in 1876. The title poem, which ostensibly discusses the life and works of 15th Century Italian painter Giacomo Pacchiarotti, is actually a thinly veiled attack on Browning's own critics, and many other pieces in the collection take the same tone.

Pacchiarotto and How He Worked in Distemper with Other Poems

Robert Browning

Pacchiarotto and How He Worked in Distemper with other Poems


Oh, the old wall here! How I could pass
Life in a long midsummer day,
My feet confined to a plot of grass,
My eyes from a wall not once away!

And lush and lithe do the creepers clothe
Yon wall I watch, with a wealth of green:
Its bald red bricks draped, nothing loth,
In lappets of tangle they laugh between.

Now, what is it makes pulsate the robe?
Why tremble the sprays? What life o’erbrims
The body, — the house, no eye can probe, —
Divined as, beneath a robe, the limbs?

And there again! But my heart may guess
Who tripped behind; and she sang perhaps:
So, the old wall throbbed, and its life’s excess
Died out and away in the leafy wraps!

Wall upon wall are between us: life
And song should away from heart to heart!
I — prison-bird, with a ruddy strife
At breast, and a lip whence storm-notes start —

Hold on, hope hard in the subtle thing
That’s spirit: though cloistered fast, soar free;
Account as wood, brick, stone, this ring
Of the rueful neighbors, and — forth to thee!

Of Pacchiarotto, and How He Worked in Distemper


Query: was ever a quainter
Crotchet than this of the painter
Giacomo Pacchiarotto
Who took “Reform” for his motto?


He, pupil of old Fungaio,
Is always confounded (heigho!)
With Pacchia, contemporaneous
No question, but how extraneous
In the grace of soul, the power
Of hand, — undoubted dower
Of Pacchia who decked (as we know,
My Kirkup!) San Bernardino,
Turning the small dark Oratory
To Siena’s Art-laboratory,
As he made its straitness roomy
And glorified its gloomy,
With Bazzi and Beccafumi.
(Another heigho for Bazzi:
How people miscall him Razzi!)


This Painter was of opinion
Our earth should be his dominion
Whose Art could correct to pattern
What Nature had slurred — the slattern!
And since, beneath the heavens,
Things lay now at sixes and sevens,
Or, as he said, sopra-sotto
Thought the painter Pacchiarotto
Things wanted reforming, therefore.
“Wanted it” — ay, but wherefore?
When earth held one so ready
As he to step forth, stand steady
In the middle of God’s creation
And prove to demonstration
What the dark is, what the light is,
What the wrong is, what the right is,
What the ugly, what the beautiful,
What the restive, what the dutiful,
In Mankind profuse around him?
Man, devil as now he found him,
Would presently soar up angel
At the summons of such evangel,
And owe — what would Man not owe
To the painter Pacchiarotto?
Ay, look to thy laurels, Giotto!


But Man, he perceived, was stubborn,
Grew regular brute, once cub born;
And it struck him as expedient —
Ere he tried, to make obedient
The wolf, fox, bear, and monkey
By piping advice in one key, —
That his pipe should play a prelude
To something heaven-tinged not hell-hued,
Something not harsh but docile,
Man-liquid, not Man-fossil —
Not fact, in short, but fancy.
By a laudable necromancy
He would conjure up ghosts — a circle
Deprived of the means to work ill
Should his music prove distasteful
And pearls to the swine go wasteful.
To be rent of swine — that was hard!
With fancy he ran no hazard:
Pact might knock him o’er the mazard.


So, the painter Pacchiarotto
Constructed himself a grotto
In the quarter of Stalloreggi —
As authors of note allege ye.
And on each of the whitewashed sides of it
He painted — (none far and wide so fit
As he to perform in fresco) —
He painted nor cried quiesco
Till he peopled its every square foot
With Man — from the Beggar barefoot
To the Noble in cap and feather;
All sorts and conditions together.
The Soldier in breastplate and helmet
Stood frowningly — hail fellow well met —
By the Priest armed with bell, book, and candle.
Nor did he omit to handle
The Fair Sex, our brave distemperer:
Not merely King, Clown, Pope, Emperor —
He diversified too his Hades
Of all forms, pinched Labor and paid Ease,
With as mixed an assemblage of Ladies.


Which work done, dry, — he rested him,
Cleaned palette, washed brush, divested him
Of the apron that suits frescanti,
And, bonnet on ear stuck jaunty,
This hand upon hip well planted,
That, free to wave as it wanted,
He addressed in a choice oration
His folk of each name and nation,
Taught its duty to every station.
The Pope was declared an arrant
Impostor at once, I warrant.
The Emperor — truth might tax him
With ignorance of the maxim
“Shear sheep but nowise flay them!”
And the Vulgar that obey them,
The Ruled, well-matched with the Ruling,
They failed not of wholesome schooling
On their knavery and their fooling.
As for Art — where’s decorum? Pooh-poohed it is
By Poets that plague us with lewd ditties,
And Painters that pester with nudities!


Now, your rater and debater
Is balked by a mere spectator
Who simply stares and listens
Tongue-tied, while eye nor glistens
Nor brow grows hot and twitchy,
Nor mouth, for a combat itchy,
Quivers with some convincing
Reply — that sets him wincing?
Nay, rather — reply that furnishes
Your debater with just what burnishes
The crest of him, all one triumph,
As you see him rise, hear him cry “Humph!
Convinced am I? This confutes me?
Receive the rejoinder that suits me!
Confutation of vassal for prince meet —
Wherein all the powers that convince meet,
And mash my opponent to mincemeat!”


So, off from his head flies the bonnet,
His hip loses hand planted on it,
While t’ other hand, frequent in gesture,
Slinks modestly back beneath vesture,
As — hop, skip and jump, — he’s along with
Those weak ones he late proved so strong with!
Pope, Emperor, lo, he’s beside them,
Friendly now, who late could not abide them,
King, Clown, Soldier, Priest, Noble, Burgess;
And his voice, that out-roared Boanerges,
How minikin-mildly it urges
In accents how gentled and gingered
Its word in defence of the injured!
“Oh, call him not culprit, this Pontiff!
Be hard on this Kaiser ye won’t if
Ye take into con-si-der-ation
What dangers attend elevation!
The Priest — who expects him to descant
On duty with more zeal and less cant?
He preaches but rubbish he’s reared in.
The Soldier, grown deaf (by the mere din
Of battle) to mercy, learned tippling
And what not of vice while a stripling.
The Lawyer — his lies are conventional.
And as for the Poor Sort — why mention all
Obstructions that leave barred and bolted
Access to the brains of each dolt-head?”


He ended, you wager? Not half! A bet?
Precedence to males in the alphabet!
Still, disposed of Man’s A B C, there’s X
Y Z want assistance, — the Fair Sex!
How much may be said in excuse of
Those vanities — males see no use of —
From silk shoe on heel to laced poll’s-hood!
What’s their frailty beside our own falsehood?
The boldest, most brazen of … trumpets,
How kind can they be to their dumb pets!
Of their charms — how are most frank, how few venal!
While as for those charges of Juvenal —
Quæ nemo dixisset in toto
Nisi (ædepol) ore illoto —
He dismissed every charge with an “Apage!”


Then, cocking (in Scotch phrase) his cap a-gee,
Right hand disengaged from the doublet
— Like landlord, in house he had sublet
Resuming of guardianship gestion,
To call tenants’ conduct in question —
Hop, skip, jump, to inside from outside
Of chamber, he lords, ladies, louts eyed
With such transformation of visage
As fitted the censor of this age.
No longer an advocate tepid
Of frailty, but champion intrepid
Of strength, — not of falsehood but verity, —
He, one after one, with asperity
Stripped bare all the cant-clothed abuses,
Disposed of sophistic excuses,
Forced folly each shift to abandon,
And left vice with no leg to stand on.
So crushing the force he exerted,
That Man at his foot lay converted!


True — Man bred of paint-pot and mortar!
But why suppose folks of this sort are
More likely to hear and be tractable
Than folks all alive and, in fact, able
To testify promptly by action
Their ardor, and make satisfaction
For misdeeds non verbis sed factis?
“With folks all alive be my practice
Henceforward! O mortar, paint-pot O,
Farewell to ye!” cried Pacchiarotto,
“Let only occasion intérpose!”


It did so: for, pat to the purpose
Through causes I need not examine,
There fell upon Siena a famine.
In vain did the magistrates busily
Seek succor, fetch grain out of Sicily,
Nay, throw mill and bakehouse wide open —
Such misery followed as no pen
Of mine shall depict ye. Faint, fainter
Waxed hope of relief: so, our painter,
Emboldened by triumph of recency,
How could he do other with decency
Than rush in this strait to the rescue,
Play schoolmaster, point as with fescue
To each and all slips in Man’s spelling
The law of the land? — slips now telling
With monstrous effect on the city,
Whose magistrates moved him to pity
As, bound to read law to the letter,
They minded their hornbook, no better.


I ought to have told you, at starting,
How certain, who itched to be carting
Abuses away clean and thorough
From Siena, both province and borough,
Had formed themselves into a company
Whose swallow could bolt in a lump any
Obstruction of scruple, provoking
The nicer throat’s coughing and choking:
Fit Club, by as fit a name dignified
Of “Freed Ones” — “Bardotti” — which signified
“Spare-Horses” that walk by the wagon
The team has to drudge for and drag on.
This notable Club Pacchiarotto
Had joined long since, paid scot and lot to,
As free and accepted “Bardotto.”
The Bailiwick watched with no quiet eye
The outrage thus done to society,
And noted the advent especially
Of Pacchiarotto their fresh ally.


These Spare-Horses forthwith assembled:
Neighed words whereat citizens trembled
As oft as the chiefs, in the Square by
The Duomo, proposed a way whereby
The city were cured of disaster.
“Just substitute servant for master,
Make Poverty Wealth and Wealth Poverty,
Unloose Man from overt and covert tie,
And straight out of social confusion
True Order would spring!” Brave illusion —
Aims heavenly attained by means earthy!


Off to these at full speed rushed our worthy, —
Brain practised and tongue no less tutored,
In argument’s armor accoutred, —
Sprang forth, mounted rostrum, and essayed
Proposals like those to which “Yes” said
So glibly each personage painted
O’ the wall-side where with you’re acquainted.
He harangued on the faults of the Bailiwick:
“Red soon were our State-candle’s paly wick,
If wealth would become but interfluous,
Fill voids up with just the superfluous;
If ignorance gave way to knowledge
— Not pedantry picked up at college
From Doctors, Professors et cætera
(They say: ‘kai ta loipa’ — like better a
Long Greek string of kappas, taus, lambdas,
Tacked on to the tail of each damned ass) —
No knowledge we want of this quality,
But knowledge indeed — practicality
Through insight’s fine universality!
If you shout ‘Bailiffs, out on ye all! Fie,
Chief of our forces, Amalfi,
shieldest the rogue and the clotpoll!’
If you pounce on and poke out, with what pole
I leave ye to fancy, our Siena’s
Beast-litter of sloths and hyenas — ”
(Whoever to scan this is ill able
Forgets the town’s name’s a dissyllable) —
“If, this done, ye did — as ye might — place
For once the right man in the right place,
If you listened to me” …


At which last “If”
There flew at his throat like a mastiff
One Spare-Horse — another and another!
Such outbreak of tumult and pother,
Horse-faces a-laughing and fleering,
Horse-voices a-mocking and jeering,
Horse-hands raised to collar the caitiff
Whose impudence ventured the late “If” —
That, had not fear sent Pacchiarotto
Off tramping, as fast as could trot toe,
Away from the scene of discomfiture —
Had he stood there stock-still in a dumb fit — sure
Am I he had paid in his person
Till his mother might fail to know her son,
Though she gazed on him never so wistful,
In the figure so tattered and tristful.
Each mouth full of curses, each fist full
Of cuffings — behold, Pacchiarotto,
The pass which thy project has got to,
Of trusting, nigh ashes still hot — tow!
(The paraphrase — which I much need — is
From Horace “per ignes incedis.”)


Right and left did he dash helter-skelter
In agonized search of a shelter.
No purlieu so blocked and no alley
So blind as allowed him to rally
His spirits and see — nothing hampered
His steps if he trudged and not scampered
Up here and down there in a city
That’s all ups and downs, more the pity
For folks who would outrun the constable.
At last he stopped short at the one stable
And sure place of refuge that’s offered
Humanity. Lately was coffered
A corpse in its sepulchre, situate
By St. John’s Observance. “Habituate
Thyself to the strangest of bedfellows,
And, kicked by the live, kiss the dead fellows!”
So Misery counselled the craven.
At once he crept safely to haven
Through a hole left unbricked in the structure.
Ay, Misery, in have you tucked your
Poor client and left him conterminous
With — pah! — the thing fetid and verminous!
(I gladly would spare you the detail,
But History writes what I retail.)


Two days did he groan in his domicile:
“Good Saints, set me free and I promise I’ll
Abjure all ambition of preaching
Change, whether to minds touched by teaching
— The smooth folk of fancy, mere figments
Created by plaster and pigments, —
Or to minds that receive with such rudeness
Dissuasion from pride, greed and lewdness,
— The rough folk of fact, life’s true specimens
Of mind — ‘hand in posse sed esse mens’
As it was, is, and shall be forever
Despite of my utmost endeavor.
O live foes I thought to illumine,
Henceforth lie untroubled your gloom in!
I need my own light, every spark, as
I couch with this sole friend — a carcase!”


Two days thus he maundered and rambled;
Then, starved back to sanity, scrambled
From out his receptacle loathsome.
“A spectre!” — declared upon oath some
Who saw him emerge and (appalling
To mention) his garments a-crawling
With plagues far beyond the Egyptian.
He gained, in a state past description,
A convent of months, the Observancy.


Thus far is a fact: I reserve fancy
For Fancy’s more proper employment:
And now she waves wing with enjoyment,
To tell ye how preached the Superior,
When somewhat our painter’s exterior
Was sweetened. He needed (no mincing
The matter) much soaking and rinsing,
Nay, rubbing with drugs odoriferous,
Till, rid of his garments pestiferous,
And, robed by the help of the Brotherhood
In odds and ends, — this gown and t’ other hood, —
His empty inside first well-garnished, —
He delivered a tale round, unvarnished.


“Ah, Youth!” ran the Abbot’s admonishment,
“Thine error scarce moves my astonishment.
For — why shall I shrink from asserting? —
Myself have had hopes of converting
The foolish to wisdom, till, sober,
My life found its May grow October.
I talked and I wrote, but, one morning,
Life’s Autumn bore fruit in this warning:
‘Let tongue rest, and quiet thy quill be!
Earth is earth and not heaven, and ne’er will be.’
Man’s work is to labor and leaven —
As best he may — earth here with heaven;
’T is work for work’s sake that he’s needing:
Let, him work on and on as if speeding
Work’s end, but not dream of succeeding!
Because if success were intended,
Why, heaven would begin ere earth ended.
A Spare-Horse? Be rather a thill-horse,
Or — what’s the plain truth — just a mill-horse!
Earth’s a mill where we grind and wear mufflers:
A whip awaits shirkers and shufflers
Who slacken their pace, sick of lugging
At what don’t advance for their tugging.
Though round goes the mill, we must still post
On and on as if moving the mill-post.
So, grind away, mouth-wise and pen-wise,
Do all that we can to make men wise!
And if men prefer to be foolish,
Ourselves have proved horse-like not mulish:
Sent grist, a good sackful, to hopper,
And worked as the Master thought proper.
Tongue I wag, pen I ply, who am Abbot;
Stick, thou, Son, to daub-brush and dab-pot!
But, soft! I scratch hard on the scab hot?
Though cured of thy plague, there may linger
A pimple I fray with rough finger?
So soon could my homily transmute
Thy brass into gold? Why, the man’s mute!”


“Ay, Father, I’m mute with admiring
How Nature’s indulgence untiring
Still bids us turn deaf ear to Reason’s
Best rhetoric — clutch at all seasons
And hold fast to what’s proved untenable!
Thy maxim is — Man’s not amenable
To argument: whereof by consequence —
Thine arguments reach me: a non-sequence!
Yet blush not discouraged, O Father!
I stand unconverted, the rather
That nowise I need a conversion.
No live man (I cap thy assertion)
By argument ever could take hold
Of me. ’T was the dead thing, the clay-cold,
Which grinned ‘Art thou so in a hurry
out of warm light thou must scurry
join me down here in the dungeon
above, one’s Jack and one — John,
swift in the race, one — a hobbler,
a crowned king and one — a capped cobbler,
and poor, sage and fool, virtuous, vicious?
complain? Art thou so unsuspicious
all’s for an hour of essaying
fit and who’s unfit for playing
His part in the after-construction
Heaven’s Piece whereof Earth’s the Induction?
rarely go smooth at Rehearsal.
patient the change universal,
act, and let act, in existence!
as thou art clapped hence or hissed hence,
hast thy promotion or otherwise.
why must wise thou have thy brother wise
in rehearsal thy cue be
shine by the side of a booby?
polishing garnet to ruby!
well that ends well — through Art’s magic.
end, whether comic or tragic,
Artist has purposed, be certain!
at the fall of the curtain —
showing thy wisdom at odds with
folly: he tries men and gods with
problem for weak wits to solve meant,
one worth such Author’s evolvement.
back nor disturb play’s production
giving thy brother instruction
throw up his fool’s-part allotted!
haply thyself prove besotted
stript, for thy pains, of that costume
Of sage, which has bred the imposthume
prick to relieve thee of, — Vanity!’


“So, Father, behold me in sanity!
I’m back to the palette and mahlstick:
And as for Man — let each and all stick
To what was prescribed them at starting!
Once planted as fools — no departing
From folly one inch, sæculorum
In sæcula! Pass me the jorum,
And push me the platter — my stomach
Retains, through its fasting, still some ache —
And then, with your kind Benedicite,


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