Robert Browning: “Fra Lippo Lippi”
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.
W.S. Di Piero was born in 1945 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and earned degrees from St. Joseph’s College and San Francisco State College. A poet, essayist, art critic, and translator, Di Piero has taught at institutions such as Northwestern University, Louisiana State University, and Stanford, where he is professor emeritus of...