Fra Lippo Lippi

By Robert Browning 1812–1889 Robert Browning

[Florentine painter, 1412-69]

I am poor brother Lippo, by your leave!
You need not clap your torches to my face.
Zooks, what's to blame? you think you see a monk!
What, 'tis past midnight, and you go the rounds,
And here you catch me at an alley's end
Where sportive ladies leave their doors ajar?
The Carmine's my cloister: hunt it up,
Do,—harry out, if you must show your zeal,
Whatever rat, there, haps on his wrong hole,
And nip each softling of a wee white mouse,
Weke, weke, that's crept to keep him company!
Aha, you know your betters! Then, you'll take
Your hand away that's fiddling on my throat,
And please to know me likewise. Who am I?
Why, one, sir, who is lodging with a friend
Three streets off—he's a certain . . . how d'ye call?
Master—a ...Cosimo of the Medici,
I' the house that caps the corner. Boh! you were best!
Remember and tell me, the day you're hanged,
How you affected such a gullet's-gripe!
But you, sir, it concerns you that your knaves
Pick up a manner nor discredit you:
Zooks, are we pilchards, that they sweep the streets
And count fair price what comes into their net?
He's Judas to a tittle, that man is!
Just such a face! Why, sir, you make amends.
Lord, I'm not angry! Bid your hang-dogs go
Drink out this quarter-florin to the health
Of the munificent House that harbours me
(And many more beside, lads! more beside!)
And all's come square again. I'd like his face—
His, elbowing on his comrade in the door
With the pike and lantern,—for the slave that holds
John Baptist's head a-dangle by the hair
With one hand ("Look you, now," as who should say)
And his weapon in the other, yet unwiped!
It's not your chance to have a bit of chalk,
A wood-coal or the like? or you should see!
Yes, I'm the painter, since you style me so.
What, brother Lippo's doings, up and down,
You know them and they take you? like enough!
I saw the proper twinkle in your eye—
'Tell you, I liked your looks at very first.
Let's sit and set things straight now, hip to haunch.
Here's spring come, and the nights one makes up bands
To roam the town and sing out carnival,
And I've been three weeks shut within my mew,
A-painting for the great man, saints and saints
And saints again. I could not paint all night—
Ouf! I leaned out of window for fresh air.
There came a hurry of feet and little feet,
A sweep of lute strings, laughs, and whifts of song, —
Flower o' the broom,
Take away love, and our earth is a tomb!
Flower o' the quince,
I let Lisa go, and what good in life since?
Flower o' the thyme—and so on. Round they went.
Scarce had they turned the corner when a titter
Like the skipping of rabbits by moonlight,—three slim shapes,
And a face that looked up . . . zooks, sir, flesh and blood,
That's all I'm made of! Into shreds it went,
Curtain and counterpane and coverlet,
All the bed-furniture—a dozen knots,
There was a ladder! Down I let myself,
Hands and feet, scrambling somehow, and so dropped,
And after them. I came up with the fun
Hard by Saint Laurence, hail fellow, well met,—
Flower o' the rose,
If I've been merry, what matter who knows?
And so as I was stealing back again
To get to bed and have a bit of sleep
Ere I rise up to-morrow and go work
On Jerome knocking at his poor old breast
With his great round stone to subdue the flesh,
You snap me of the sudden. Ah, I see!
Though your eye twinkles still, you shake your head—
Mine's shaved—a monk, you say—the sting 's in that!
If Master Cosimo announced himself,
Mum's the word naturally; but a monk!
Come, what am I a beast for? tell us, now!
I was a baby when my mother died
And father died and left me in the street.
I starved there, God knows how, a year or two
On fig-skins, melon-parings, rinds and shucks,
Refuse and rubbish. One fine frosty day,
My stomach being empty as your hat,
The wind doubled me up and down I went.
Old Aunt Lapaccia trussed me with one hand,
(Its fellow was a stinger as I knew)
And so along the wall, over the bridge,
By the straight cut to the convent. Six words there,
While I stood munching my first bread that month:
"So, boy, you're minded," quoth the good fat father
Wiping his own mouth, 'twas refection-time,—
"To quit this very miserable world?
Will you renounce" . . . "the mouthful of bread?" thought I;
By no means! Brief, they made a monk of me;
I did renounce the world, its pride and greed,
Palace, farm, villa, shop, and banking-house,
Trash, such as these poor devils of Medici
Have given their hearts to—all at eight years old.
Well, sir, I found in time, you may be sure,
'Twas not for nothing—the good bellyful,
The warm serge and the rope that goes all round,
And day-long blessed idleness beside!
"Let's see what the urchin's fit for"—that came next.
Not overmuch their way, I must confess.
Such a to-do! They tried me with their books:
Lord, they'd have taught me Latin in pure waste!
Flower o' the clove.
All the Latin I construe is, "amo" I love!
But, mind you, when a boy starves in the streets
Eight years together, as my fortune was,
Watching folk's faces to know who will fling
The bit of half-stripped grape-bunch he desires,
And who will curse or kick him for his pains,—
Which gentleman processional and fine,
Holding a candle to the Sacrament,
Will wink and let him lift a plate and catch
The droppings of the wax to sell again,
Or holla for the Eight and have him whipped,—
How say I?—nay, which dog bites, which lets drop
His bone from the heap of offal in the street,—
Why, soul and sense of him grow sharp alike,
He learns the look of things, and none the less
For admonition from the hunger-pinch.
I had a store of such remarks, be sure,
Which, after I found leisure, turned to use.
I drew men's faces on my copy-books,
Scrawled them within the antiphonary's marge,
Joined legs and arms to the long music-notes,
Found eyes and nose and chin for A's and B's,
And made a string of pictures of the world
Betwixt the ins and outs of verb and noun,
On the wall, the bench, the door. The monks looked black.
"Nay," quoth the Prior, "turn him out, d'ye say?
In no wise. Lose a crow and catch a lark.
What if at last we get our man of parts,
We Carmelites, like those Camaldolese
And Preaching Friars, to do our church up fine
And put the front on it that ought to be!"
And hereupon he bade me daub away.
Thank you! my head being crammed, the walls a blank,
Never was such prompt disemburdening.
First, every sort of monk, the black and white,
I drew them, fat and lean: then, folk at church,
From good old gossips waiting to confess
Their cribs of barrel-droppings, candle-ends,—
To the breathless fellow at the altar-foot,
Fresh from his murder, safe and sitting there
With the little children round him in a row
Of admiration, half for his beard and half
For that white anger of his victim's son
Shaking a fist at him with one fierce arm,
Signing himself with the other because of Christ
(Whose sad face on the cross sees only this
After the passion of a thousand years)
Till some poor girl, her apron o'er her head,
(Which the intense eyes looked through) came at eve
On tiptoe, said a word, dropped in a loaf,
Her pair of earrings and a bunch of flowers
(The brute took growling), prayed, and so was gone.
I painted all, then cried "'Tis ask and have;
Choose, for more's ready!"—laid the ladder flat,
And showed my covered bit of cloister-wall.
The monks closed in a circle and praised loud
Till checked, taught what to see and not to see,
Being simple bodies,—"That's the very man!
Look at the boy who stoops to pat the dog!
That woman's like the Prior's niece who comes
To care about his asthma: it's the life!''
But there my triumph's straw-fire flared and funked;
Their betters took their turn to see and say:
The Prior and the learned pulled a face
And stopped all that in no time. "How? what's here?
Quite from the mark of painting, bless us all!
Faces, arms, legs, and bodies like the true
As much as pea and pea! it's devil's-game!
Your business is not to catch men with show,
With homage to the perishable clay,
But lift them over it, ignore it all,
Make them forget there's such a thing as flesh.
Your business is to paint the souls of men—
Man's soul, and it's a fire, smoke . . . no, it's not . . .
It's vapour done up like a new-born babe—
(In that shape when you die it leaves your mouth)
It's . . . well, what matters talking, it's the soul!
Give us no more of body than shows soul!
Here's Giotto, with his Saint a-praising God,
That sets us praising—why not stop with him?
Why put all thoughts of praise out of our head
With wonder at lines, colours, and what not?
Paint the soul, never mind the legs and arms!
Rub all out, try at it a second time.
Oh, that white smallish female with the breasts,
She's just my niece . . . Herodias, I would say,—
Who went and danced and got men's heads cut off!
Have it all out!" Now, is this sense, I ask?
A fine way to paint soul, by painting body
So ill, the eye can't stop there, must go further
And can't fare worse! Thus, yellow does for white
When what you put for yellow's simply black,
And any sort of meaning looks intense
When all beside itself means and looks nought.
Why can't a painter lift each foot in turn,
Left foot and right foot, go a double step,
Make his flesh liker and his soul more like,
Both in their order? Take the prettiest face,
The Prior's niece . . . patron-saint—is it so pretty
You can't discover if it means hope, fear,
Sorrow or joy? won't beauty go with these?
Suppose I've made her eyes all right and blue,
Can't I take breath and try to add life's flash,
And then add soul and heighten them three-fold?
Or say there's beauty with no soul at all—
(I never saw it—put the case the same—)
If you get simple beauty and nought else,
You get about the best thing God invents:
That's somewhat: and you'll find the soul you have missed,
Within yourself, when you return him thanks.
"Rub all out!" Well, well, there's my life, in short,
And so the thing has gone on ever since.
I'm grown a man no doubt, I've broken bounds:
You should not take a fellow eight years old
And make him swear to never kiss the girls.
I'm my own master, paint now as I please—
Having a friend, you see, in the Corner-house!
Lord, it's fast holding by the rings in front—
Those great rings serve more purposes than just
To plant a flag in, or tie up a horse!
And yet the old schooling sticks, the old grave eyes
Are peeping o'er my shoulder as I work,
The heads shake still—"It's art's decline, my son!
You're not of the true painters, great and old;
Brother Angelico's the man, you'll find;
Brother Lorenzo stands his single peer:
Fag on at flesh, you'll never make the third!"
Flower o' the pine,
You keep your mistr ... manners, and I'll stick to mine!
I'm not the third, then: bless us, they must know!
Don't you think they're the likeliest to know,
They with their Latin? So, I swallow my rage,
Clench my teeth, suck my lips in tight, and paint
To please them—sometimes do and sometimes don't;
For, doing most, there's pretty sure to come
A turn, some warm eve finds me at my saints—
A laugh, a cry, the business of the world—
(Flower o' the peach
Death for us all, and his own life for each!)
And my whole soul revolves, the cup runs over,
The world and life's too big to pass for a dream,
And I do these wild things in sheer despite,
And play the fooleries you catch me at,
In pure rage! The old mill-horse, out at grass
After hard years, throws up his stiff heels so,
Although the miller does not preach to him
The only good of grass is to make chaff.
What would men have? Do they like grass or no—
May they or mayn't they? all I want's the thing
Settled for ever one way. As it is,
You tell too many lies and hurt yourself:
You don't like what you only like too much,
You do like what, if given you at your word,
You find abundantly detestable.
For me, I think I speak as I was taught;
I always see the garden and God there
A-making man's wife: and, my lesson learned,
The value and significance of flesh,
I can't unlearn ten minutes afterwards.

You understand me: I'm a beast, I know.
But see, now—why, I see as certainly
As that the morning-star's about to shine,
What will hap some day. We've a youngster here
Comes to our convent, studies what I do,
Slouches and stares and lets no atom drop:
His name is Guidi—he'll not mind the monks—
They call him Hulking Tom, he lets them talk—
He picks my practice up—he'll paint apace.
I hope so—though I never live so long,
I know what's sure to follow. You be judge!
You speak no Latin more than I, belike;
However, you're my man, you've seen the world
—The beauty and the wonder and the power,
The shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades,
Changes, surprises,—and God made it all!
—For what? Do you feel thankful, ay or no,
For this fair town's face, yonder river's line,
The mountain round it and the sky above,
Much more the figures of man, woman, child,
These are the frame to? What's it all about?
To be passed over, despised? or dwelt upon,
Wondered at? oh, this last of course!—you say.
But why not do as well as say,—paint these
Just as they are, careless what comes of it?
God's works—paint any one, and count it crime
To let a truth slip. Don't object, "His works
Are here already; nature is complete:
Suppose you reproduce her—(which you can't)
There's no advantage! you must beat her, then."
For, don't you mark? we're made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;
And so they are better, painted—better to us,
Which is the same thing. Art was given for that;
God uses us to help each other so,
Lending our minds out. Have you noticed, now,
Your cullion's hanging face? A bit of chalk,
And trust me but you should, though! How much more,
If I drew higher things with the same truth!
That were to take the Prior's pulpit-place,
Interpret God to all of you! Oh, oh,
It makes me mad to see what men shall do
And we in our graves! This world's no blot for us,
Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good:
To find its meaning is my meat and drink.
"Ay, but you don't so instigate to prayer!"
Strikes in the Prior: "when your meaning's plain
It does not say to folk—remember matins,
Or, mind you fast next Friday!" Why, for this
What need of art at all? A skull and bones,
Two bits of stick nailed crosswise, or, what's best,
A bell to chime the hour with, does as well.
I painted a Saint Laurence six months since
At Prato, splashed the fresco in fine style:
"How looks my painting, now the scaffold's down?"
I ask a brother: "Hugely," he returns—
"Already not one phiz of your three slaves
Who turn the Deacon off his toasted side,
But's scratched and prodded to our heart's content,
The pious people have so eased their own
With coming to say prayers there in a rage:
We get on fast to see the bricks beneath.
Expect another job this time next year,
For pity and religion grow i' the crowd—
Your painting serves its purpose!" Hang the fools!

—That is—you'll not mistake an idle word
Spoke in a huff by a poor monk, God wot,
Tasting the air this spicy night which turns
The unaccustomed head like Chianti wine!
Oh, the church knows! don't misreport me, now!
It's natural a poor monk out of bounds
Should have his apt word to excuse himself:
And hearken how I plot to make amends.
I have bethought me: I shall paint a piece
... There's for you! Give me six months, then go, see
Something in Sant' Ambrogio's! Bless the nuns!
They want a cast o' my office. I shall paint
God in the midst, Madonna and her babe,
Ringed by a bowery, flowery angel-brood,
Lilies and vestments and white faces, sweet
As puff on puff of grated orris-root
When ladies crowd to Church at midsummer.
And then i' the front, of course a saint or two—
Saint John' because he saves the Florentines,
Saint Ambrose, who puts down in black and white
The convent's friends and gives them a long day,
And Job, I must have him there past mistake,
The man of Uz (and Us without the z,
Painters who need his patience). Well, all these
Secured at their devotion, up shall come
Out of a corner when you least expect,
As one by a dark stair into a great light,
Music and talking, who but Lippo! I!—
Mazed, motionless, and moonstruck—I'm the man!
Back I shrink—what is this I see and hear?
I, caught up with my monk's-things by mistake,
My old serge gown and rope that goes all round,
I, in this presence, this pure company!
Where's a hole, where's a corner for escape?
Then steps a sweet angelic slip of a thing
Forward, puts out a soft palm—"Not so fast!"
—Addresses the celestial presence, "nay—
He made you and devised you, after all,
Though he's none of you! Could Saint John there draw—
His camel-hair make up a painting brush?
We come to brother Lippo for all that,
Iste perfecit opus! So, all smile—
I shuffle sideways with my blushing face
Under the cover of a hundred wings
Thrown like a spread of kirtles when you're gay
And play hot cockles, all the doors being shut,
Till, wholly unexpected, in there pops
The hothead husband! Thus I scuttle off
To some safe bench behind, not letting go
The palm of her, the little lily thing
That spoke the good word for me in the nick,
Like the Prior's niece . . . Saint Lucy, I would say.
And so all's saved for me, and for the church
A pretty picture gained. Go, six months hence!
Your hand, sir, and good-bye: no lights, no lights!
The street's hushed, and I know my own way back,
Don't fear me! There's the grey beginning. Zooks!

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Poet Robert Browning 1812–1889

POET’S REGION England

SCHOOL / PERIOD Victorian

Subjects Christianity, Philosophy, Arts & Sciences, Religion, Painting & Sculpture

Poetic Terms Blank Verse, Dramatic Monologue, Persona

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Robert Browning: “Fra Lippo Lippi”

In the realm of the world-class talkers.

By W. S. Di Piero

It’s past midnight in Florence’s red-light district in the mid-15th century, and a man dressed as a monk has just been strong-armed by the police and questioned about his presence in such a place. Wait, he says, I can explain everything.

That’s where we find ourselves at the beginning of Browning’s “Fra Lippo Lippi.” What follows is a wild improvisation on assorted themes—lust, want, religion, art-making, and the nature of beauty. The good Fra Lippo—Carmelite Friar and in-house painter for Cosimo De’ Medici—does explain his presence, explains in fact pretty much his entire life and art, over the course of nearly 400 lines. He is, like other of Browning’s monologists, a world-class talker.

Browning wrote many kinds of poems, but the ones I like best and have been rereading for years are the dramatic monologues, in which the ventriloquist poet throws his voice and we hear a dummy (usually an actual historical personage) talk itself into existence. Although the speaker usually directs his gab to a particular person or persons, he may as well be talking to himself. The Duke of Ferrara in “My Last Duchess” is in love with the sound of his own voice and its homicidal menace. A dramatic monologue also lets the poet shape and set loose a voice that reveals something that matters not just to the speaker but to Browning, too. The “unknown painter” whose voice we hear in “Pictor Ignotus” is soured by what he feels to be his contemporaries’ indifference toward his work. In every monologue we hear the speaker (or what I think of as the consciousness of the poem) working through a crisis, conducting an argument, or rationalizing inclinations, actions, and beliefs.

Some of these poems, such as “Fra Lippo Lippi” and “Pictor Ignotus,” are about painting and are spoken by artists, which makes them ekphrastic poems; that is, they have to do with images—ekphrasis is Greek for description. Even those not in artists’ voices usually involve art. The dying ecclesiast in “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church,” whose thoughts should be concentrated on last things and the afterlife, obsesses about architecture, stonemasonry, and sculpture.

Every Browning monologue discloses an idiosyncratic, preoccupied mind, and the imaginative arc that connects us to that mind is the same arc we make when reading Shakespeare: it’s a character that speaks to us, not the poet, though it’s the poet who gives spirit and voice to the character’s passions. Browning, like Shakespeare, is everywhere and nowhere in the voices he creates. In “Fra Lippo Lippi,” he has his character argue for the realistic style developed in Renaissance art because he wants to make a case for the vivid textures and psychological realism of his own poems, a prime instance of which is the very monologue we’re reading. In this and other poems, we’re suddenly made eavesdroppers to an already strung-out dramatic situation; it’s like hearing one side of a telephone conversation we’ve tuned into after it has already started.

Browning takes nasty delight in dropping us into situations that engage moral questions attached to rough, unpleasant realities, though his tone is high-spirited and racy, not morose. “Andrea del Sarto,” spoken by the 16th-century artist described by one of his contemporaries as “the faultless painter,” starts with del Sarto’s attempt to have a “relationship talk” with his wife: “But do not let us quarrel any more, / No, my Lucrezia; bear with me for once.” A few years earlier, Lucrezia persuaded him to return from the Court of France (where he’d been invited and won acclaim and prosperity) to Florence—that is, to her and her claims on him—which he fears may have cost him the supreme fame of a Michelangelo or Raphael. We follow the movements of his mind as it dances through various subjects: good technique, nostalgia, fame, and covetousness. We learn that he’s henpecked but loves his wife (in part because she’s a reliable model), that he’s sensitive to personal and professional slights, and that he’s not entirely convinced that being a “perfect painter” is such a good thing after all.

In “My Last Duchess,” the greatest modern poem I know about, the acidic, potentially murderous dynamics of jealousy, the duke of Ferrara is showing his art collection to the representative of a nobleman whose daughter the duke is betrothed to. The collection’s centerpiece is a portrait of his lately deceased duchess, who in life—the duke lets the go-between (and us) know—distributed her attention to the world too indiscriminately to please the egomaniacal owner “of a nine-hundred-years-old name.” Was the duchess superficial and flirty? Did she smile too much at everything alike? We have only the duke’s word for it. There’s no ambiguity about the duke’s solution, though: “I gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together.” Listening to him, we’re like Othello depending on an Iago for our intelligence.

To read these poems is to experience how a unique consciousness answers to reality. Whatever the monologist says about the world of circumstance is not a shared truth, it’s a person-specific interpretation. Every detail he chooses to include reveals something essential about character. Fra Lippo’s improvised self-defense becomes an eloquent, at times hilarious resume of his orphaned, street-urchin beginnings and how those circumstances shaped his art. This painter, so gifted at rendering psychological subtleties in physiognomies, was once a starving kid who watched people’s faces “to know who will fling / The bits of half-stripped grape-bunches he desires, / And who will curse him or kick him for his pains.” Want taught him to value the pleasures of the flesh. The deprived child grew to become a man who, though a member of a religious order, chases girls. He’s one of several clerics Browning loved to tease for their randy worldliness. The dying priest in “The Bishop Orders His Tomb” moans reverentially about the blue vein in the Blessed Virgin’s breast.

It’s not only the what of the monologues that wakes us into recognitions of character. The how matters just as much. Browning was vilified by critics for obscurity and abused as a language mangler. The speed of the thoughts that issue from his speakers’ mouths sometimes blurs clarity. But the stream of consciousness is a crooked stream, and in the monologues Browning intentionally allows his speakers to indulge in interruptions and gnarly obliqueness. We have to pay attention to his speakers’ patterns of reasoning, however corrupted or manipulative. (Browning’s speakers always represent their own interests, as we do when we conduct monologues in life.) He varies effects from poem to poem. “My Last Duchess,” a viper of a poem, its beautifully reasoned discourse venomous with insinuation at every turn, is quite unlike the twisty confusions of the bishop’s last thoughts on his deathbed, which snap back and forth from his envy of another cleric’s tomb to his resentment toward his sons (don’t ask) to his obsession with lapis lazuli and correct Latin.

The monologues are crafted to reveal the moral character of the speakers, and the crafting depends on the sonorities and rhythms of versification. Browning favored the blank-verse line—unrhymed iambic pentameter. In its stiffest form, with its ten syllable and alternating stressed/unstressed units, the line would sound like “I am, I am, I am, I am, I am.” Gifted versifiers such as Browning work endless variations on this rudimentary pattern. When Fra Lippo gets serious about the relation of art-making to appetite, his meters turn blunt: “This world’s no blot for us, / Nor blank; It means intensely, and means good: / To find its meaning is my meat and drink.”

But when he describes how, while painting night after night all those saints and Madonnas, his attention was drawn by a sound outside his window, the meters dramatize the excitement and arrested attention he felt when he looked out and saw “Like the skipping of rabbits by moonlight—three slim shapes.” The first half of the line prances toward those last three monosyllabic attention-stoppers. When he rhymed, he could do so to chilling effect. The rhyming couplets spoken by the smug, righteous duke in “My Last Duchess” growl with wounded vanity: “She liked whate’er / She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.”

Selfhood in Browning is a mass of disheveled fragments of experience, and the monologues give form to what it feels like to actually live them, what it feels like to work at understanding meaning, with little more to go on than memory, desire, and circumstance. He loves to rake life’s casual messiness across apparent certitude and aphoristic confidence. “Andrea del Sarto” contains Browning’s most famous maxim: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for.” A sparkling nugget, that one. But all around it one hears about the dozens of tiny rips and rents in del Sarto’s marriage, artistic practice, and worldly career. Readers like me who savor these poems go to them not for confirmation of what we already know but to experience the lurching, unstable process of making sense of things.

Fra Lippo Lippi

By Robert Browning 1812–1889 Robert Browning
 Robert  Browning

Biography

Although the early part of Robert Browning’s creative life was spent in comparative obscurity, he has come to be regarded as one of the most important poets of the Victorian period. His dramatic monologues and the psycho-historical epic The Ring and the Book (1868-1869), a novel in verse, have established him as a major figure in the history of English poetry. His claim to attention as a children’s writer is more modest, resting . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Christianity, Philosophy, Arts & Sciences, Religion, Painting & Sculpture

POET’S REGION England

SCHOOL / PERIOD Victorian

Poetic Terms Blank Verse, Dramatic Monologue, Persona

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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