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George Eliot on violin-making obsession and the genius of Stradivarius

To mark the UK's National Poetry Day, 8th October, here's George Eliot's great poem about violin making and the obsession with which Stradivarius worked, and indeed the obsession with which any great maker views their 'monotonous task'. She also includes and interesting allegation about Guarneri 'del Gesù' and his 'over-drinking':


Your soul was lifted by the wings today

Hearing the master of the violin:

You praised him, praised the great Sebastian too

Who made that fine Chaconne; but did you think

Of old Antonio Stradivari? – him

Who a good century and a half ago

Put his true work in that brown instrument

And by the nice adjustment of its frame

Gave it responsive life, continuous

With the master's finger-tips and perfected

Like them by delicate rectitude of use.

That plain white-aproned man, who stood at work

Patient and accurate full fourscore years,

Cherished his sight and touch by temperance,

And since keen sense is love of perfectness

Made perfect violins, the needed paths

For inspiration and high mastery.

No simpler man than he; he never cried,

'why was I born to this monotonous task

Of making violins?' or flung them down

To suit with hurling act well-hurled curse

At labour on such perishable stuff.

Hence neighbors in Cremona held him dull,

Called him a slave, a mill-horse, a machine.

Naldo, a painter of eclectic school,

Knowing all tricks of style at thirty-one,

And weary of them, while Antonio

At sixty-nine wrought placidly his best,

Making the violin you heard today –

Naldo would tease him oft to tell his aims.

'Perhaps thou hast some pleasant vice to feed –

the love of louis d'ors in heaps of four,

Each violin a heap – I've naught to blame;

My vices waste such heaps. But then, why work

With painful nicety?'

Antonio then:

'I like the gold – well, yes – but not for meals.

And as my stomach, so my eye and hand,

And inward sense that works along with both,

Have hunger that can never feed on coin.

Who draws a line and satisfies his soul,

Making it crooked where it should be straight?

Antonio Stradivari has an eye

That winces at false work and loves the true.'

Then Naldo: ''Tis a petty kind of fame

At best, that comes of making violins;

And saves no masses, either. Thou wilt go

To purgatory none the less.'

But he:

''Twere purgatory here to make them ill;

And for my fame – when any master holds

'Twixt chin and hand a violin of mine,

He will be glad that Stradivari lived,

Made violins, and made them of the best.

The masters only know whose work is good:

They will choose mine, and while God gives them skill

I give them instruments to play upon,

God choosing me to help him.

'What! Were God

at fault for violins, thou absent?'


He were at fault for Stradivari's work.'

'Why, many hold Giuseppe's violins

As good as thine.

'May be: they are different.

His quality declines: he spoils his hand

With over-drinking. But were his the best,

He could not work for two. My work is mine,

And, heresy or not, if my hand slacked

I should rob God – since his is fullest good –

Leaving a blank instead of violins.

I say, not God himself can make man's best

Without best men to help him.

'Tis God gives skill,

But not without men's hands: he could not make

Antonio Stradivari's violins

Without Antonio. Get thee to thy easel.'

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