Browning, Michelangelo, and All That Jazz

Elizabeth Barrett BrowningA lot of interesting people were born on this day. The most important to me is probably Elizabeth Barrett Browning who was born in 1806. I tend to prefer her and other Americans (like Poe) to the British Romantic Period poets. I wish that I had one great poem I could offer you here. The problem is that she didn’t tend to write nice little poems. She wrote a lot of rather long (1000+ line) poems. And she wrote collections of poems—mostly sonnets.

The poem she is best know for, of course, is Sonnet XLIII of Sonnets From the Portuguese. Even if you think you don’t know it, you do. It starts, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” What is remarkable about it is that although that line is tired, the poem is not. Despite that beginning, it is not sentimental—at least not for a Romantic poet.

Here it is; you can skip it if you like, but I urge you to not only read it, but to read it aloud. It is quite beautiful:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

I rather like the idea of purity being deaf to praise. It is the one thing that artists most want and yet must ignore. I suspect that this idea was not foreign to her.

Michelangelo was also born on this day in 1475. I find it shocking that he lived to be 88 years old. I still remember when I saw David for the first time in Florence. Up to that time, I had no idea that art could be that powerful. It was only a week or two later that I fell in love with Rodin while in Paris. He was not born on this day.

It is Gabriel Garcia Marquez‘s 86th birthday today. I have never read him (that I know of). I’ve wanted to read One Hundred Years of Solitude, but I associate it too much with my first wife.

David Gilmour is 57 today. I am big fan of his. He is probably my favorite rock guitarist. He has a great sense of melody.

Stephen Schwartz is 65 today. I’m a great fan of musical theater and Schwartz wrote some great ones when I was a kid: Godspell and Pippin. He also wrote Wicked, which I’ve long wanted to see (especially after I learned he had written it).

Ivan Boesky is 66 and Alan Greenspan is 87. I hope that I do not have to note the birthdays next year for these evil men. One is always torn by a great artist who is a horrible human being. I mean: at least they leave us their art. But men like Boesky and Greenspan do nothing but to enrich themselves and their horrible friends. They produce nothing good for society. What is the point of their lives? They could have done something useful like plumbing. If they had, the world would certainly be a far better place.


Here is the opening of Pippin. I believe this is from a 1981 filmed version of the Broadway play. That’s 4 years after the play opened and near the end of its run. Ben Vereen came back to play the Lead Player, for which he won the Tony Award for best lead actor in a musical.

I just learned that a new ending was added to the play. The play is about Pippin who is trying to make his life meaningful. At one point he sings, “Don’t you know I want my life to be something more than long.” The Lead Player guides him through various kinds of life experiences: war, power, sex, domesticity. At the end, Pippin has found nothing that is truly fulfilling. The Lead Player then offers up a great use for his life: burn himself alive on stage and provide a great ending to the play. (It is very postmodern in that way.) Pippin is about to go through with it when Catherine and her son show up on the stage and convince him to go back to them. The Lead Player is furious. He removes the sets, the music, the costumes, everything. But Pippin decides that life with Catherine is about the best that life can be, disappointing as that may be. In the end, love conquers all.

The new addition is that the son picks up one of the gloves thrown at Pippin by the players as they went off stage. This calls the players back; they have their new Pippin and so the cycle starts again. I think it is lovely.

And here is David Gilmour doing his thing:

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Browning, Michelangelo, and All That Jazz

  1. Spot-on; that Browning poem is one most of us know and don’t know that we know. (WSB’s definition of art, if I remember correctly.) And the exact same lines caught my eye. They don’t just apply to art. That sentiment is the highest ideal (one we rarely live up to) whether it be in art, relationships, or proud performance of work we believe worthwhile.

    Also the antithesis of most religious motivation, by-the-by. Striving freely for right; The key word of course is "freely."

    I’ve never seen any "live" Michelangelo works (and I have an art-appreciation deficiency anyhoo; I realize this is a flaw, we all have them, me more than most) but I did see some original Rodins and was pretty stunned by them. This was at an isolated mansion/museum in south-central Washington state, built by the loony-tune Sam Hill. His is always a fun story to tell, so I’ll tell it.

    Hill was a robber-baron (logging, I think) who got besotted by some European royalty he’d once barely met named "Mary" (I forget from which country.) He decided to lure her to his Eastern Washington "empire." So he built a small-scale replica of Stonehenge on the north side of the Columbia River, not far from John Day, thinking this would be a huge tourist attraction. As the Columbia wasn’t dammed and flood-controlled at this point, he built the first road through the Gorge from Portland. You know the slow drive up on the cliffs, past all the waterfalls, with all the amazing Italian stonemasonry? Hill built that.

    He also built his dream wedded-bliss mansion in the same area. Needless to say, the mini-Henge never drew tourists and never drew Mary, but the mansion’s still there, called "Maryhill." It has some crappy period American paintings and a really extensive collection of Rodin originals (like working models he made for his larger, famous statues.) The staff will say they know nothing of this unrequited Mary story, but I got it from an aged regional historian, and I believe him.

    Hill’s grave is a treacherous hike down the bluffs from his Stonehenge. You have to look hard for the signs, it’s not well-marked. It’s a small tombstone, with the inscription, "Amidst Nature’s Unrest, He Sought Rest."

    Maybe my favorite kooky robber-baron story ever. I like to think the dead expression "what the sam hill are you doing?" (indicating shock at dumb behavior) came from him, but it may be from somewhere else. It’s a better story if that actually refers to Sam Hill.

  2. @JMF – I have been to the Maryhill. You are slightly off on the Mary story, I think. Mary was his wife and he tried to get her to move from the east, but she preferred civilization. I didn’t realize that he was buried there. And you know the Stonehenge replica (which is really cool) is not oriented correctly. Anyway, you’ve got to love a man as zany as Sam Hill.

    I don’t know what paintings you are talking about, but the Maryhill has one of the best collections of American Classical Realist paintings in the world. I wrote about it here:

    When you mentioned that you had seen some Rodin, I immediately thought of the Maryhill because that collection is pretty famous. However, after the Musee Rodin, it was quite a disappointment. I really must make some money so I can visit Paris again. Of the Maryhill!

  3. Thanks for responding, as always. (BTW, I’m glad you’ve gone back to more posts on the front page.)

    Well, it’s a "he said/she said" when it comes to Sam Hill and Mary. I aesthetically prefer the version I got from the grizzled old Oregon historian. However, simplest explanations are usually the truest, so yours is probably right. (The old coot’s is more fun, though, you gotta admit that.)

    I am, as I wrote, art-deficient. Perhaps the American art collection at Maryhill is outstanding; I’m not qualified to dig it. The Rodins at Maryhill really broke through my artlessness, however; there was pain and passion in those little models. Kinda blew my mind. Maybe because I am a geography freak and the pathetic, beautiful fake Stonehenge (with Hill’s grave down the bluff) had a tactile, 3D sense of sadness I don’t see in paintings. Rodin’s stuff did too. There are a lot of things I wish I could appreciate more!

  4. @JMF – Some variation of a blown mind is what I get from art. I remember when I first understood middle age religious art. When I was younger, it just seemed stupid. Then one day: it was like a roof collapsed on me. Whenever that happens, it is a great experience–regardless of the purpose. And it either happens or it doesn’t. You can’t force it; it isn’t intellectual.

    I suspect both stories are true: especially if he’s buried there and she isn’t. Maybe the real reason she wouldn’t move there was that she couldn’t stand him anymore. Maybe neither of them could and it was all just for show. Regardless, it is a fine museum. And my wife and I had a picnic under the trees on the side of it. It was great.

    Also: there were lots of other paintings there. The ACR were all in one small room upstairs. They are powerful. And reproductions are never the same as the real thing.

  5. A few years ago, I got to visit Europe for the first time. Hearing locals opine on American politics was cool, but what I most enjoyed was seeing the ancient churches. A "pulpit" is a raised platform, put in the back of the church, where preachers could speak to the unwashed masses. (The rich people sat up front.)

    You see this stuff and it blows you away. How many thousands/millions of people were spooked and amazed by it. That history makes it spooky and amazing. I guess I have no point with this; just that art hits me when it hits me, and painting hasn’t, yet.

  6. @JMF – I really like the old churches too. For what you’re talking about, I recommend watching [i]Cadfael[/i] the TV movies with Derek Jacobi. They take place in the 13th century (or so), and I think they do a good job of showing how the people think of the church as this magical entity.

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