How It Strikes a Contemporary  —  Robert Browning

I ONLY knew one poet in my life:
And this, or some­thing like it, was his way.

You saw go up and down Val­lad­olid,
A man of mark, to know next time you saw.
His very ser­vice­able suit of black
Was courtly once and con­scien­tious still,
And many might have worn it, though none did:
The cloak that some­what shone and shewed the threads
Had pur­pose, and the ruff, sig­ni­fic­ance.
He walked and tapped the pave­ment with his cane,
Scent­ing the world, look­ing it full in face,
An old dog, bald and blindish, at his heels.
They turned up, now, the alley by the church,
That leads no whither; now, they breathed them­selves
On the main prom­en­ade just at the wrong time.
You’d come upon his scru­tin­ising hat,
Mak­ing a peaked shade black­er than itself
Again­st the single win­dow spared some house
Intact yet with its mouldered Moor­ish work,
Or else sur­prise the fer­rel of his stick
Try­ing the mortar’s tem­per ‘tween the chinks
Of some new shop a-building, French and fine.
He stood and watched the cob­bler at his trade,
The man who slices lem­ons into drink,
The coffee-roaster’s bra­zi­er, and the boys
That volun­teer to help him turn its winch.
He glanced o’er books on stalls with half an eye,
And fly-leaf bal­lads on the vendor’s string,
And broad-edge bold-print posters by the wall.
He took such cog­nis­ance of men and things,
If any beat a horse, you felt he saw;
If any cursed a woman, he took note;
Yet stared at nobody,-they stared at him,
And found, less to their pleas­ure than sur­prise,
He seemed to know them and expect as much.
So, next time that a neighbour’s tongue was loose
It marked the shame­ful and notori­ous fact,
We had among us, not so much a spy,
As a record­ing chief-inquisitor,
The town’s true mas­ter if the town but knew !
We merely kept a Gov­ernor for form,
While this man walked about and took account
Of all thought, said, and acted, then went home,
And wro­te it fully to our Lord the King
Who has an itch to know things, He knows why,
And reads them in His bed-room of a night.
Oh, you might smile ! there wanted not a touch,
A tang of … well, it was not wholly ease
As back into your mind the man’s look came
Stricken in years a little, — such a brow
His eyes had to live under ! — clear as flint
On either side the for­mid­able nose
Curved, cut, and col­oured, like an eagle’s claw.
Had he to do with A.‘s sur­pris­ing fate ?
When alto­geth­er old B. dis­ap­peared
And young C. got his mistress,-was’t our friend,
His let­ter to the King, that did it all ?
What paid the blood­less man for so much pains ?
Our Lord the King has favour­ites man­i­fold,
And shifts his min­istry some once a month;
Our city gets new Gov­ernors at whiles,
But nev­er word or sign, that I could hear,
Noti­fied to this man about the streets
The King’s approval of those let­ters conned
The last thing duly at the dead of night.
Did the man love his office ? frowned our Lord,
Exhort­ing when none heard —” Beseech me not !
Too far above my people, — beneath Me !
I set the watch, —- how should the people know ?
For­get them, keep Me all the more in mind ! ”
Was some such under­stand­ing ‘twixt the Two ?

I found no truth in one report at least
That if you tracked him to his home, down lanes
Bey­ond the Jew­ry, and as clean to pace,
You found he ate his sup­per in a room
Blaz­ing with lights, four Titians on the wall,
And twenty naked girls to change his plate !
Poor man, he lived another kind of life
In that new, stuc­coed, third house by the bridge,
Fresh-painted, rather smart than oth­er­wise !
The whole street might o’erlook him as he sat,
Leg cross­ing leg, one foot on the dog’s back,
Play­ing a decent crib­bage with his maid
( Jacyn­th, you’re sure her name was ) o’er the cheese
And fruit, three red halves of starved winter-pears,
Or treat of radishes in April ! nine
Ten, struck the church clock, straight to bed went he.

My father, like the man of sense he was,
Would point him out to me a dozen times;
“St-St,” he’d whis­per, “the Cor­re­gidor !”
I had been used to think that per­son­age
Was one with lacquered breeches, lus­trous belt,
And feath­ers like a forest in his hat,
Who blew a trum­pet and pro­claimed the news,
Announced the bull-fights, gave each church its turn,
And mem­or­ized the mir­acle in vogue!
He had a great observ­ance from us boys
I was in error; that was not the man.

I’d like now, yet had haply been afraid,
To have just looked, when this man came to die,
And seen who lined the clean gay garret’s sides
And stood about the neat low truckle-bed,
With the heav­enly man­ner of reliev­ing guard.
Here had been, mark, the general-in-chief,
Thro’ a whole cam­paign of the world’s life and death,
Doing the King’s work all the dim day long,
In his old coat, and up to his knees in mud,
Smoked like a her­ring, din­ing on a crust,
And now the day was won, relieved at once !
No fur­ther show or need for that old coat,
You are sure, for one thing ! Bless us, all the while
How sprucely we are dressed out, you and I !
A second, and the angels alter that.
Well, I could nev­er write a verse, —- could you ?
Let’s to the Pra­do and make the most of time.