Fra Lippo Lippi Questions and Answers
1. Write a critical appreciation of the poem “Fra Lippo Lippi”.
Ans. Browning’s most important poetic message regards the new conditions of urban living. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the once-rural British population had become centered in large cities, thanks to the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution. With so many people living in such close quarters, poverty, violence, and sex became part of everyday life. People felt fewer restrictions on their behavior, no longer facing the fear of non-acceptance that they had faced in smaller communities; people could act in total anonymity, without any monitoring by acquaintances or small-town busybodies. However, while the absence of family and community ties meant new-found personal independence, it also meant the loss of a social safety net. Thus for many city-dwellers, a sense of freedom mixed with a sense of insecurity.
The mid-nineteenth century also saw the rapid growth of newspapers, which functioned not as the currentevents journals of today but as scandal sheets, filled with stories of violence and carnality. Hurrying pedestrians, bustling shops, and brand-new goods filled the streets, and individuals had to take in millions of separate perceptions a minute. The resulting overstimulation led, according to many theorists, to a sort of numbness. Many writers now felt that in order to provoke an emotional reaction they had to compete with the turmoils and excitements of everyday life, had to shock their audience in ever more novel and sensational ways. Thus violence became a sort of aesthetic choice for many writers, among them Robert Browning. In many of his poems, violence, along with sex, becomes the symbol of the modern urban-dwelling condition. Many of Browning’s more disturbing poems, including “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess”, reflect this notion.
This apparent moral decay of Victorian society, coupled with an ebbing of interest in religion, led to a morally conservative backlash. So-called Victorian prudery arose as an attempt to rein in something that was seen as out-of-control, an attempt to bring things back to the way they once were. Thus everything came under moral scrutiny, even art and literature. Many of Browning’s poems, which often feature painters and other artists, try to work out the proper relationship between art and morality: Should art have a moral message? Can art be immoral? Are aesthetics and ethics inherently contradictory aims? These are all questions with which Browning’s poetry struggles. The new findings of science, most notably evolution, posed further challenges to traditional religious ideas, suggesting that empiricism-the careful recording of observable details-could serve as a more relevant basis for human endeavor, whether intellectual or artistic.
In exploring these issues of art and modernity, Browning uses the dramatic monologue. A dramatic monologue, to paraphrase M.H. Abrams, is a poem with a speaker who is clearly separate from the poet, who speaks to an implied audience that, while silent, remains clearly present in the scene. (This implied audience distinguishes the dramatic monologue from the soliloquy-a form also used by Browning-in which the speaker does not address any specific listener, rather musing aloud to him or herself). The purpose of the monologue (and the soliloquy) is not so much to make a statement about its declared subject matter, but to develop the character of the speaker. For Browning, the genre provides a sort of play-space and an alternative persona with which he can explore sometimes controversial ideas. He often further distances himself by employing historical characters, particularly from the Italian Renaissance. During the Renaissance in Italy art assumed a new humanism and began to separate from religion; concentrations of social power reached an extreme. Thus this temporal setting gives Browning a good analogue for exploring issues of art and morality and for looking at the ways in which social power could be used (and misused: the Victorian period saw many moral pundits assume positions of social importance). Additionally, the monologue form allows. Browning to explore forms of consciousness and self-representation. This aspect of the monologue underwent further development in the hands of some of Browning’s successors, among them Alfred Tennyson and T. S. Eliot.
Browning devotes much attention not only to creating a strong sense of character, but also to developing a high level of historic specificity and general detail. These concerns reflected Victorian society’s new emphasis on empiricism, and pointed the way towards the kind of intellectual verse that was to be written by the poets of high Modernism, like Eliot and Ezra Pound. In its scholarly detail and its connection to the past Browning’s work also implicitly considers the relationship of modern poets to a greater literary tradition. At least two of Browning’s finest dramatic monologues take their inspiration from moments in Shakespeare’s plays, and other poems consider the matter of one’s posterity and potential immortality as an artist. Because society had been changing so rapidly, Browning and his contemporaries could not be certain that the works of canonical artists like Shakespeare and Michelangelo would continue to have relevance in the emerging new world.
Thus these writers worried over their own legacy as well. However, Browning’s poetry has lasted-perhaps precisely because of its very topical nature: its active engagement with the debates of its times, and the intelligent strategies with which it handles such era-specific material.
2 . Describe how “Fra Lippo Lippi” centers thematically around the discussion of art.
Ans. Robert Browning’s 19th-century poem entitled “Fra Lippo Lippi” centers thematically around the discussion of art. Fra Lippo Lippi is a 15th-century monk and artist whom engages in a dramatic monologue with the law. As an unreliable narrator, he reveals things about himself and those around him that perhaps he is unaware of revealing. Fra Lippo Lippi expects that his behavior is seen as wrong but dismisses it with his poetic narrative of how life has tried to shape his art, imprisoning his God-given eye. As the verse unfolds the silent audience is acquainted with the aesthetic theories of the Prior and of Fra Lippo Lippi.
Fra Lippo Lippi states the artist can capture what the normal eye would not as he frames reality; the gaze of art can serve the soul in reaching a more righteous being. The role of the artist and of his art are in battle with the body and soul as seen through the struggles of the Prior and Fra Lippo Lippi’s opposing aesthetic theories. The poem begins as Fra Lippo Lippi is being arrested for breaking curfew with prostitutes in his pious company. He declares in his capture that he is guilty of the crime but though no fault of his own. “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 the alley’s end / Where supportive ladies leave their doors ajar?” (Browning, lines 3-6). As a man of the cloth, Fra Lippo Lippi took vows of abstinence and to follow God’s absolute order.
As a man he has physical urges and is not expected to reach perfection. Fra Lippo Lippi recognizes each position as he spends the rest of his monologue explaining his choices. Fra Lippo Lippi grew up on the streets minus his deceased parents, with no home or food. His occupation became “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—” (lines 114-116). At the ripe age of eight he finds himself in the good company of the church as monks take him in as a brother. Fra Lippo Lippi fails at learning the language of the church but shows off his young talent of art.
Instead of dismissing this as the graffiti of a child, the Prior sees fame. “What if at last we got 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!” (lines 138-141). The relationship of Fra Lippo Lippi and the Prior becomes an exchange of the body for the soul. Fra Lippo Lippi will give his soul to God in order to paint the body but the Prior will only allow his body to work as an instrument to paint the soul. Fra Lippo Lippi begins to draw monks and church folk in their true and real form of being black, fat, gossips and criminals. At the Priors’ first sight of such realism on canvas, the conflict of the artist and art begins as Fra Lippo Lippi’s aesthetic theories do not match his own.
The Prior’s complaint about Fra Lippo Lippi’s art is that he does not draw the man’s soul; only drawing the body parts is not useful as it promotes entertainment and not prayer. “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–” (lines 179-183) His aesthetic theory is that of religion and lifting the soul up over the body. The Prior views Fra Lippo Lippi’s painting as the “devil’s-game” (line 178) because of the reality it exposes of the church. “Oh, that white smallish female with the breasts, She’s just my niece..” (lines 195-196). The ‘niece’ is really the Prior’s mistress and along with other true to life figures he captures from the church, Fra Lippo Lippi paints a sinful portrait of real life. How to draw the soul without the body is what the Prior wants, and he tries to explain to Fra Lippo Lippi what exactly the soul is.
“Man’s soul, and it’s a fire, smoke, no, it’s not.. It’s vapour done up like a new-born babe-” (lines 184-185). This shows a contradiction in the Prior’s theory because fire, vapor, and body are worldly and of the flesh-things he says the soul are not. Representation is a problem because an artist draws what he’s seen or has experienced.
The Prior has not seen the soul represented, so he can not explain it to Fra Lippo Lippi, who, in turn, has not represented the soul in a way that fits the Prior’s expectations. Fra Lippo Lippi believes that he has painted the soul because the soul shines through each person, and it is his [the artist’s] job to see it and capture it. God’s spirit infuses every object no matter what the artist paints; there is nothing that isn’t beautiful because all of God’s creations are beautiful.
“First when we see them painted, things we have passed Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see; And so they are better, paintedbetter 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!” (lines 301-311). Fra Lippo Lippi feels that God gives to the artist a special insight which the artist must make use of. He explains that the average person does not see the beauty of everyday things until he/she sees it as a painting. God himself has given this talent to only a few, the artists, whose duty it is to fulfill God’s wishes to paint.
Fra Lippo Lippi’s aesthetic theory is that because God is found in everything he must paint everything-including ordinary objects and everyday life that the Prior views as ungodly. As an artist, Fra Lippo Lippi admits that he also is given the rights to put more qualities into what he paints, some how playing the role of God. It was no accident that he ran into the law as he has broken curfew before but this time wanted to stop and share his story. Fra Lippo Lippi wanted someone, anyone, to hear why he is who he is and why he does the things he does. He needs his audience to know that being a monk was not solely by his own choice–he was a starving child and the monks offered him food in return to swearing off the girls.
His paintings were not welcomed with open arms by the church because of the suggested ‘evil’ that Fra Lippo Lippi did not feel he was representing. The Prior’s niece and the fat monks are what the artist sees for himself, by God’s given talent, and so me must paint them. Fra Lippo Lippi has connected society with religion and as an artist he has a duty to make shown for the average person will not see it until they see it as art. Art is based on life and life is based on art but not until you see something represented which is what Fra Lippo Lippi is trying to do. In the end of his dramatic monologue Fra Lippo Lippi hints to the next painting he will create in six months which he urges his audience to go and view. He will paint the painting the Prior wants to see, one of the soul and spirit in company of God, Madonna, Saints and an unexpected guest.
Fra Lippo Lippi will also be in the holy crowd, “moonstruck” (line 364) and ready to shrink back. The artist competes with God as he creates his art and now he is in the company of God who created him. In an instant Fra Lippo Lippi redeems his aesthetic theory and has confidence that he should be there with the celestial crowd because he is the only one who can paint. “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-” (lines 374-377). This is the painting that will settle the battle between the Prior and Fra Lippo Lippi’s difference of opinion on the role of the artist and of art. The Prior will be happy to see the soul and Fra Lippo will be happy to be present in the painting; the body and soul together.
3. Analyse the theme and the meaning of celibacy in the poem “Fra Lippo Lippi”.
Ans. Throughout the poem “Fra Lippo Lippi”, Browning seems to be engaging in a dialogue with the Church regarding celibacy-both in the artistic and sexual sense. The feelings of the poem’s narrator can easily be seen as Browning’s own critique and while the main theme concerns art, the strict sense in which the church views artistic pursuits and products is similar to the way it requires priests to live celibate lives. While the church’s main argument is that art should be presented as something “higher” than the base representation of the human form, this denies the essential humanity of the subject, God’s people. Along these same lines, the way the church frowns upon sexual, lustful activity on the part of its clergy by demanding celibacy is exactly the same request as for the artist. Both demands of the church, artistic and sexual are idealized conceptions of how humans should be represented and both, according to the narrator of the poem, are entirely unrealistic and misguided. Through this poem, Browning is arguing against mandatory celibacy for priests and is suggesting, through the story and artistic struggle of Fra Lippo Lippi, that the demands of the church go against human nature. We are all, to use Browning’s word, “beasts” thus prone to the same desires that the church wishes to “rub out”.
The narrator of the poem by Browning, Fra Lippo Lippi argues that his life in cloister has been unnatural and restraining and bemoans the lack of life he is allowed to experience (although he obviously breaks the rules). The mandatory celibacy is made even more absurd when the Fra point out, “You should not take a fellow eight years old/ And make him swear to never kiss the girls” (224-25). Earlier in the poem, he speaks of this in terms of other boys that had been brought into cloister by openly saying with great meaning, “Trash, such as these poor devils of Medicil Have given their hearts to-all at eight years old” (100-101). He seems to see this celibacy as a terrible waste of youth and life-both of which he values above all else. He seeks to represent truth through art, despite the fact that everything in his life is geared towards a completely celibate existence-both in art, sexuality, and life. The story of his life can be summed up in the simple phrase on line 221, “Rub all out!’ Well, well, there’s my life in short”. He has been told to extinguish the art and the humanity, thus the keen sexual desire that longs to be free.
Browning, through the character of Fra Lippo Lippi, creates meaning of the poem by suggesting that the unreal expectations thrust upon him by the church authority go against all that is natural in human beings. Just as his artwork seeks to preserve the central nature of the human form, his mindset and lustful appetites are part of this preservation of unrealistic ideals of celibacy. In mocking the demands put upon by the church, the narrator relates these demands: “Your business is not to catch men with show, / with homage to the perishable clay, / But life them over it, ignore it all, / Make them forget there’s such a thing as flesh” (179-182). The church’s desire for unrealistic representation extends from art to the idea that celibacy should be adhered to and they wish to make parishioners and clergy alike wipe out ideas of the sinful flesh.
Ultimately, the whole of the poem is a criticism on mandatory celibacy, which is told through the metaphor of art. If art, like sexual desire, cannot be expressed, then it would seem that religion is somehow a lie, that there is always something lurking under the surface. The narrator points out not only the hypocrisy of these celibacy rules, but the inherent flaws that exist within them, namely, that humans are creatures of the flesh.
SHORT QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
1. Why ? is Browning so interested in the Renaissance ?
Ans. The Renaissance saw a major shift in theories of art. As Fra Lippo Lippi discusses, a new realism, based on observation and detail, was coming to be valued, while traditional, more abstract and more didactic forms of art were losing favor. This shifting in priorities is analogous to the shifting views on art and morality in Browning’s time. The Renaissance, like the Victorian era, was also a time of increasing secularism and concentration of wealth and power (“My Last Duchess”). All of these aspects make the Renaissance and the Victorian era rather similar. By talking about the Renaissance, Browning can make his cultural criticism somewhat less biting. He also gains access to a wealth of sensuous detail and historical reference, which he can then use to add vibrancy to his verse. The historical connection, furthermore, lets him talk about his place in the literary tradition: if we still appreciate Renaissance art, hopefully future generations will still appreciate Browning’s poetry.
2. What kinds of meter and other poetic forms does he use? Why is his language so often rough and “un-poetic”?
Ans. Browning aspires to redefine the aesthetic. The rough language of his poems often matches the personalities of his speakers. Browning uses colloquialisms, inarticulate sounds (like “Grr”), and rough meter to portray inner conflict and to show characters living in the real world. In his earlier poems this kind of speech often accompanies patterned rhyme schemes; “My Last Duchess”, for example, uses rhymed couplets. The disjunction between form and content or form and language suggests some of the conflict being described in the poems, whether the conflict is between two moral contentions or is a conflict between aesthetics and ethics as systems. Browning’s rough meters and un-poetic language test a new range for the aesthetic.
3. Why is there so much violence against women in Browning’s poetry? What symbolic purpose might it serve?
Ans. Women, particularly for the Victorians, symbolize the home-the repository of traditional values. Their violent death can stand in for the death of society. The women in Browning’s poetry in particular are often depicted as sexually open: this may show that society has transformed so radically that even the domestic, the traditional, has been altered and corrupted. This violence also suggests the struggle between aesthetics and morals in Victorian art: while women typically serve as symbols of values (the moral education offered by the mother, the purity of one who stays within the confines of the home and remains untainted by the outside world), they also represent traditional foci for the aesthetic (in the form of sensual physical beauty); the conflict between the two is potentially explosive. Controlling and even destroying women is a way to try to prevent such explosions, to preserve a society that has already changed beyond recognition.
4. Write a short note on the theme of the poem.
Ans .The dramatic monologue verse form allowed Browning to explore and probe the minds of specific characters in specific places struggling with specific sets of circumstances. In The Ring and the Book, Browning tells a suspenseful story of murder using multiple voices, which give multiple perspectives and multiple versions of the same story. Dramatic monologúes allow readers to enter into the minds of various characters and to see an event from that character’s perspective.
Understanding the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of a character not only gives readers a sense of sympathy for the characters but also helps readers understand the multiplicity of perspectives that make up the truth. In effect, Browning’s work reminds readers that the nature of truth or reality fluctuates, depending on one’s perspective or view of the situation. Multiple perspectives illustrate the idea that no one sensibility or perspective sees the whole story and no two people see the same events in the same way. Browning further illustrated this idea by writing poems that work together as companion pieces, such as “Fra Lippo Lippi” and “Andrea del Sarto”. Poems such as these show how people with different characters respond differently to similar situations, as well as depict how a time, place, and scenario can cause people with similar personalities to develop. or change quite dramatically.
The Purposes of Art : Browning wrote many poems about artists and poets, including such dramatic monologues as “Pictor Ignotus” (1855) and “Fra Lippo Lippi”. Frequently, Browning would begin by thinking about an artist, an artwork, or a type of art that he admired or disliked. Then he would speculate on the character or artistic philosophy that would lead to such a success or failure. His dramatic monologues about artists attempt to capture some of this philosophizing because his characters speculate on the purposes of art. For instance, the speaker of “Fra Lippo Lippi” proposes that art heightens our powers of observation and helps us notice things about our own lives. According to some of these characters and poems, painting idealizes the beauty found in the real world, such as the radiance of a beloved’s smile. Sculpture and architecture can memorialize famous or important people, as in “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church” (1845) and “The Statue and the Bust” (1855). But art also helps its creators to make a living, and it thus has a purpose as pecuniary as creative, an idea explored in “Andrea del Sarto”.
The Relationship between Art and Morality: Throughout his work, Browning tried to answer questions about an artist’s responsibilities and to describe the relationship between art and morality. He questioned whether artists had an obligation to be moral and whether artists should pass judgment on their characters and creations. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Browning populated his poems with evil people, who commit crimes and sins ranging from hatred to murder. The dramatic monologue format allowed Browning to maintain a great distance between himself and his creations: by channeling the voice of a character, Browning could explore evil without actually being evil himself. His characters served as personae that let him adopt different traits and tell stories about horrible situations. In “My Last Duchess”, the speaker gets away with his wife’s murder since neither his audience (in the poem) nor his creator judges or criticizes him. Instead, the responsibility of judging the character’s morality is left to readers, who find the duke of Ferrara a vicious, repugnant person even as he takes us on a tour of his art gallery.
5. Write a short note on the motif of the poem.
Ans. Browning set many of his poems in medieval and Renaissance Europe, most often in Italy. He drew on his extensive knowledge of art, architecture, and history to fictionalize actual events, including a seventeenthcentury murder in The Ring and the Book, and to channel the voices of actual historical figures, including a biblical scholar in medieval Spain in “Rabbi Ben Ezra” (1864) and the Renaissance painter in the eponymous “Andrea del Sarto”. The remoteness of the time period and location allowed Browning to critique and explore contemporary issues without fear of alienating his readers. Directly invoking contemporary issues might seem didactic and moralizing in a way that poems set in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries would not. For instance, the speaker of “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church” is an Italian bishop during the late Renaissance. Through the speaker’s pompous, vain musings about monuments, Browning indirectly criticizes organized religion, including the Church of England, which was in a state of disarray at the time of the poem’s composition in the mid-nineteenth century.
Psychological Portrait : Dramatic monologues feature a solitary speaker addressing at least one silent, usually unnamed person, and they provide interesting snapshots of the speakers and their personalities. Unlike soliloquies, in dramatic monologues the characters are always speaking directly to listeners. Browning’s characters are usually crafty, intelligent, argumentative, and capable of lying. Indeed, they often leave out more of a story than they actually tell. In order to fully understand the speakers and their psychologies, readers must carefully pay attention to word choice, to logical progression, and to the use of figures of speech, including any metaphors or analogies. For instance, the speaker of “My Last Duchess” essentially confesses to murdering his wife, even though he never expresses his guilt outright. Similarly, the speaker of “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” inadvertently betrays his madness by confusing Latin prayers and by expressing his hate for a fellow friar with such vituperation and passion. Rather than state the speaker’s madness, Browning conveys it through both what the speaker says and how the speaker speaks.
Grotesque Images: Unlike other Victorian poets, Browning filled his poetry with images of ugliness, violence, and the bizarre. His contemporaries, such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, in contrast, mined the natural world for lovely images of beauty. Browning’s use of the grotesque links him to novelist Charles Dickens, who filled his fiction with people from all strata of society, including the aristocracy and the very poor. Like Dickens, Browning created characters who were capable of great evil. The early poem “Porphyria’s Lover” (1836) begins with the lover describing the arrival of Porphyria, then it quickly descends into a depiction of her murder at his hands. To make the image even more grotesque, the speaker strangles Porphyria with her own blond hair. Although “Fra Lippo Lippi” takes place during the Renaissance in Florence, at the height of its wealth and power, Browning sets the poem in a back alley beside a brothel, not in a palace or a garden. Browning was instrumental in helping readers and writers understand that poetry as an art form could handle subjects both lofty, such as religious splendor and idealized passion, and base, such as murder, hatred, and madness, subjects that had previously only been explored in novels.
6. Comment on the use of symbol in the poem.
Ans. : Browning’s interest in culture, including art and architecture, appears throughout his work in depictions of his characters’ aesthetic tastes. His characters’ preferences in art, music, and literature reveal important clues about their natures and moral worth. For instance, the duke of Ferrara, the speaker of “My Last Duchess”, concludes the poem by pointing out a statue he commissioned of Neptune taming a sea monster: The duke’s preference for this sculpture directly corresponds to the type of man he is that is, the type of man who would have his wife killed but still stare lovingly and longingly at her portrait. Like Neptune, the duke wants to subdue and command all aspects of life, including his wife. Characters also express their tastes by the manner in which they describe art, people, or landscapes. Andrea del Sarto, the Renaissance artist who speaks the poem “Andrea del Sarto”, repeatedly uses the adjectives gold and silver in his descriptions of paintings. His choice of words reinforces one of the major themes of the poem: the way he sold himself out. Listening to his monologue, we learn that he now makes commercial paintings to earn a commission, but he no longer creates what he considers to be real art. His desire for money has affected his aesthetic judgment, causing him to use monetary vocabulary to describe art objects.
Evil and Violence : Synonyms for, images of, and symbols of evil and violence abound in Browning’s poetry. “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister”, for example, begins with the speaker trying to articulate the sounds of his “heart’s abhorrence” for a fellow friar. Later in the poem, the speaker invokes images of evil pirates and a man being banished to hell. The diction and images used by the speakers expresses their evil thoughts, as well as indicate their evil natures. “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” (1855) portrays a nightmarish world of dead horses and war-torn landscapes. Yet another example of evil and violence comes in “Porphyria’s Lover”. in which the speaker sits contentedly alongside the corpse of Porphyria, whom he murdered by strangling her with her hair. Symbols of evil and violence allowed Browning to explore all aspects of human psychology, including the base and evil aspects that don’t normally appear in poetry.