Browning’s “Fra Lippo Lippi” gets the creative juices flowing…

I have been led astray by laziness, bamboozled by banter and have become a dilettante to desire  – which is why I haven’t posted or written in, what seems like (and is), a very long time. The most pertinent part of that last sentence was laziness (I was just trying to sound ridiculously pernicious so as to castigate myself but failing miserably in the process) so forgive my transgression – please.

Please also forgive my language as its just that I am a little out of practice and it feels like getting back into your favourite sports car after an age spent cycling or walking: one is always trying to see whether the turbos still work and pushing the boundaries of good driving. In this case they do, I am happy to admit, though they are in need of a good clean!

What got the creative juices flowing again was a request from my 16 year old son, who has just started his A’Level English Literature course, to help him write something on the late, great, Robert Browning of Fra Lippo Lippi fame (also husband to the late, and perhaps greater poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning). Now the key, when helping our young ‘uns, is to get them to do the thinking rather than write the piece for them – well that is my opinion and I am sticking to it. So, I wrote something that was borderline hard, yet, I hope for his sake, held enough depth in it for him to form an opinion of his own and easily “translatable” into his own words. 

Here it is:


Is art shackled by moral strictures forced upon us or freed through them?

An analysis of tone in “Fra Lippo Lippi” by Robert Browning and its effect on the verse


As is often the case, the tone of one’s life is reflected in one’s art, and Robert Browning is no exception. Born in the year of the war of the same name, 1812, the sacking of Moscow by Napoleon, and Lord Byron’s initiation into the House of Lords, Browning is considered one of the masters of the soliloquy in drama and the dramatic monologue in poetry. His father was grandson to a wealthy slave plantation owner from the West Indies who eschewed wealth gained through such nefarious means and settled back into life in London as a well-to-do clerk in the Bank of England with a generous stipend that allowed Robert, his son, to live a life of leisure and contemplation and writing. Thus, the influence of a liberal family (his father was an abolitionist) and growing up in an era when the Victorian quest for knowledge was reaching its zenith with Darwin’s Evolution of the Species, meant that Browning could contemplate science, changing social strictures and morality with relative freedom.

It was an age of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and Browning was affected by the growth of cities like London and the effect they had on the morality of the day (notwithstanding the Victorian prudish backlash to loosening morals that resulted from mass migration into places like London and the juxtaposition of extreme wealth and shameful poverty). Browning’s use of the famed Renaissance artist, Fra Lippo Lippi, patronised by the Medici and Cosimo in particular, sets the tone of the piece: a monk and self-taught artist who joined the brotherhood, not because of religious conviction but because of hunger, in the most famed city in Italy at the time birth of the Renaissance when art itself metamorphosed and became something more than just a reflection of the power of the Roman Catholic church, but a questioning of form and morality:

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; 

It is with this in the background that the poet enters the fray with Fra Lippo Lippi being accosted by Cosimo’s guards one night as he is tempted out of his closed cloisters in the Medici household by the fragrant waft and sound of merriment. Browning, through the diversity of the tone of his language conjures up an imagery that is almost real in the minds’ eye:

 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 … 

An image that tempts the Friar to forsake his “incarceration” and risk the wrath of his Patron and his minions by frequenting the more ribald parts of Florence and enjoying mortal pleasures as opposed to the paintings that he is forced to make. The verse, with its ellipses, trochees, spondees typifies the mood of Friar. At times deadly serious, at times frivolous, holding a discourse with Medici soldiers, and explaining to them, in “plain” language, how his humanism was dislocating itself from his religion, a reflection of the times perhaps:

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. 

Thus he induces realism into his paintings and disguises reverence in a normality that is questioning how religion is portrayed; the imposition of thought on mankind, the imposition of shackles on freedom and the imposition of morality on animals (in the Darwinian context):

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 — 

With this the tone shifts, and he, Browning, through his alter ego, Lippi, denies with vehemence the chains placed upon him and wishes to be free of his bondage. To paint reality with all its warts and carbuncles and imperfections of the flesh as opposed to the ideology that the Church wishes to portray in the disguise of enlightenment and religion. The skipping tonality of the monologue, at times a diatribe on morality, at other times a friendly conversation with the guards, is inherent to getting the point across – across social, moral and religious boundaries that are imposed rather than accepted. It underlines Lippi’s own confusion of the mortal form: confusion between tangible rewards like food, or intangible ideals like religion where confusion is created to explore ideas like self-representation and conformity and mask immoral thoughts and actions in a holy context:

That woman’s like the Prior’s niece who comes
To care about his asthma: it’s the life!” 

Where the Prior’s mistress is now portrayed as his niece, lest the “curse” of immorality enter into Lippi’s art and shock the masses who come to gaze upon his work. Thus, Browning, a master of the tone of blank verse, explores the reaches of his own conscience and uses the language to portray serious themes that have been discussed in detail (the seriousness or flippancy expressed specifically in the tonality of the introspection or spoken word) or in general throughout English Literature from Shakespeare to the later poets and dramatists like TS Eliot and Ezra Pound who were influenced by his work.



    1. Thanks – he asked me to write something for him thinking I would write the essay (hehe!) and I think he didn’t expect that particular one. But as I mentioned in the post, I hope it gets him to think about the subject. Anyway, I wasn’t expecting anyone to read it – so a big THANK YOU for doing that and commenting too! :))


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