Therefore to whom turn I but to thee, the ineffable Name?
Builder and maker, thou, of houses not made with hands!
What, have fear of change from thee who art ever the same?
Doubt that thy power can fill the heart that thy power expands?
There shall never be one lost good! What was, shall live as before;
The evil is null, is nought, is silence implying sound;
What was good shall be good, with, for evil, so much good more;
On the earth the broken arcs; in the heaven, a perfect round
All we have willed or hoped or dreamed of good shall exist;
Not its semblance, but itself;
After Browning’s amazing, though not particularly popular Men & Women in 1855, Browning married Elizabeth Barrett and took a lengthy hiatus. It was not until after his wife’s death, that Browning published again, but when he did so, it was with a volume that didn’t pale compared to his earlier works in the least. The 1864 publication of Dramatic Lyrics was, to that point, Browning’s most popular book, requiring a second printing, a first for the ridiculously overlooked poet. Not least among the poems in Dramatics Lyrics, though not most either, is Abt Vogler, a meditation on coming to terms with loss and diminishment, not that Browning himself needed to worry about any such thing just yet.
Abt Vogler is written in the voice of an actual historic personage, as are many of Browning’s dramatic monologues. Vogler was a composer and musical innovator; in this poem, Browning imagines him aged, growing more infirm, meditating on the purpose and value of his life. This poem lies directly before a poem that is, I think, slightly more famous in Browning’s body of work, Rabbi Ben Ezra. In both of these luminous poems, Browning reflects on finding peace in old age, a comfort in what has been accomplished and a trust in God for the future, both in this world and out of it. The two poems make wonderful companion pieces, both being suffused with the kind of optimism that might seem maudlin, or even senile, if someone less talented than Browning tried to express it.
Vogler realizes that many of his musical achievements will not outlive him and even those that do will not be enough to assure that he is remembered. Vogler is right about this; an aficionado of classical music, I was still introduced to Vogler through Browning and he is rarely mentioned in any other context outside of very small circles. Vogler is also not so blind as to believe that he’s achieved any kind of perfection in his work or in his life. He sees his grand achievement as still “broken arcs.” He sees himself as a man who has been able to bring his grand inspiration into actual being only sporadically and only up to a point. His work has never quite been the triumph in this world that it has been in his mind and in his soul. There isn’t a creative person in the universe who will fail to understand this, save perhaps Browning’s version of Andrea del Sarto, who feels himself to have achieved a kind of perfection at least. But it’s the curse of all other artists to forever be striving for an ideal that cannot quite be reached. Vogler is no del Sarto; he has done many things of which he is proud, but he isn’t arguing for his canonization.
Yet, even with this pragmatic and clear-eyed perspective, Vogler is able to find peace and comfort in the life he has lived. He has done what he could, as Christ said of the woman with the alabaster box. He has believed in good and in God and he believes in them still, even as his talents begin to atrophy with age, even as death approaches. The poem is gifted with two astoundingly moving passages in particular. In the first, Vogler returns to his faith in God and his steadfast belief that God will ultimately be just, that the ultimate fate of the universe will be, in God’s hands, for good. Vogler unabashedly looks for a new life after this old one has passed away in a heaven where all goods that were only partial on this earth will be finally completed.
The second is the closing stanza of the poem. In it, Vogler takes himself through several chord changes in his mind, reflecting on the art of music and the technique of it too. He closes with one of the most satisfying resolutions in the history of poetry, stating that, as in his music he has brought every piece he has composed to its necessary resolution, so too he brings himself and his life. He closes, he says, resting in the “C Major of this life.” Any musician will understand the power of that central chord, that central resting place in music. It’s a thought so beautiful that it seems strange that it hadn’t already been expressed. No one can deny the absolute power of the resolving chord, not even in this post-rock era, when songs often meander away into electronic dissonance or simply fade out in progress. We love those songs, sure, but there’s something undeniably, absolutely perfect about that rock solid chord that resolves a piece of music. It’s a place we all understand intuitively and a feeling no other chord but the proper one can deliver. Pray God this, like Abt Vogler, like Rob Browning, that all our themes end there.
4 ½ out of 5 stars.