Critical Appreciation of Fra Lippo Lippi Browning’s Poems

Browning’s poem Fra Lippo Lippi was published in 1855 in his collection Men and Women. The poem is written in the first person and is a classical example of a dramatic monologue. To grasp Browning‘s Fra Lippo Lippi completely it is useful to have a look at the historical background of the poem.

Fra Lippo Lippi (1412-69), the painter, was the son of a butcher in Florence. His mother died while he was a baby, and his father two years later than his mother. His aunt, Monna Lapaccia, took him to her home, but in 1420, when the boy was but eight years old, placed him in the community of the Carmelites of the Carmine in Florence. He stayed at the monastery till 1432, and there became a painter. He seems to have ultimately received a more or less complete dispensation from his religious vows. In 1452 he was appointed chaplain to the convent of S. Giovannino in Florence, and in 1457 he was made rector of S. Quirico at Legnaia. At this time he made a large income; but ever and again fell into poverty, probably on account of the numerous love affairs in which he was constantly indulging. Lippi died at Spoleto on or about Oct. 8th, 1469. Vasari, in his Lives of the Painters, tells the whole romantic story of his life.

About the Poem

Brother Lippo the painter, working for the munificent House of the Medici, has been mewed up in the Palace, painting saints for Cosimo dei Medici. Unable to tolerate the restraint any longer (for he was a dissolute friar, with no vocation for the religious life), he has tied his sheets and counterpane together and let himself out of the window for a night’s frolic with the girls whom he heard singing and skipping in the street below. He has been arrested by the watchmen of the city, who noticed his monastic garb, and did not consider it in accord with his present occupation. He is making his defence and bribing them to let him go. He tells them his history: how he was a baby when his mother and father died, and he was left starving in the street, picking up fig skins and melon parings, refuse and rubbish as his only food. One day he was taken to the monastery, and while munching his first bread that month was induced to renounce the pomps and varieties of this wicked world, and so became a monk when eight years old. They tried him with books, and taught him some Latin; as his hard life had given him abundant opportunity for reading peoples faces, he found he could draw them in his copybooks, and so began to make pictures everywhere. The Prior noticed this, and thought he detected genius, and would not hear of turning the boy out: he might become a great painter and do our church up fine, he said. So the lad prospered; he began to draw the monks the fat, the lean, the black, the white; then the folks at church. But he was too realistic in his work: his faces, arms and legs were too true to nature, and the Prior shook his head

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And stopped all that in no time.”

He told him his business was to paint men’s souls and forget there was such a thing as flesh:

Paint the soul, never mind the legs and arms”
And so they made him rub all out. The painter asks if this was sense:

“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”

He maintained that if we get beauty we get the best thing God invents. But he rubs out his picture and paints what they like, clenching his teeth with rage the while; but sometimes, when a warm evening finds him painting saints, the revolt is complete, and he plays the fooleries they have caught him at. He knows he is a beast, but he can appreciate the beauty, the wonder and the power in the shapes of things, which God has made to make us thankful for them. They are not to be passed over and despised, but dwelt upon and wondered at, and painted too, for we must count it crime to let a truth slip. We are so made that we love things first when we see them painted, though we have passed them over unnoticed a hundred times before:

And so they are better, painted-better tous,
Art was given for that.”

The world is no blot for us, nor blank; it means intensely, and means good.Ah, but, says the Prior, your work does not make people pray!But a skull and cross-bones are sufficient for that; you don’t need art at all……..

And then the poor monk begs the guard not to report him: he will make amends for the offence done to the Church; give him six months time, he will paint such a picture for a convent! It will please the nuns. So six months hence. Good-bye! No lights: I know my way back. !

Thus, Fra Lippo Lippi has a very dramatic beginning. This abrupt beginning is followed by self-introspection on the part of the speaker, and the whole gamut of his moods, emotions, reflections and meditations is given. The listeners are the members of the watch who have arrested Lippo while he was engaged in a nocturnal adventure.

The speaker s thoughts range freely over the past and the future, and so there is no logical and chronological development. The past and the future are focused in the present, and the unity is emotional rather than logical.

The opening of this most successful poem is a good example of the way Browning sets the scene and give us the information to use Mark Roberts’ words. If Lippo is by any standards an unusual monk, the poem is the most delightful poem Browning ever wrote. The frank sensuality of the painter-monk, his ribaldry, his impudence, his description at the end of the poem of the mischievous painting he is going to do(a religious painting with himself in it) all these things give to the central idea the flesh and blood that Lippo, and Browning himself, were so keen on. The result is a richly human portrait which at the same time tells us much that is of the greatest importance for the understanding of Browning’s view on art. Leaving aside a few references to the art and artists of Italy, the style of the poem is free from the usual weakness of Browning’s style. In short, “The poem is admirable for its undercurrent of humour, its impressionistic descriptions, its imaginative insight into the complex character of the friar-artist, and for certain lines thathave the unescapable ring of great poetry, like the following, which sums up in the noble words the theme of the poem”.

He says:

The beauty and the wonder and the power
The shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades,
Changes, surprises, and God made them all!

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