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Analysis of Poem 'Fra Lippo Lippi' by Robert Browning

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Robert Browning

Robert Browning

Robert Browning and a Summary of 'Fra Lippo Lippi'

'Fra Lippo Lippi' is one of Browning's best-known poems. It's a long dramatic monologue in blank verse that brings painter and monk, brother Lippo, centre stage.

Based on a real life Florentine painter who lived from 1406–1469, this speaker exemplifies Browning's ability to create authentic characters for his longer poems. Lippo is capable of developing complex arguments whilst bringing a personal slant to all the goings on in his life.

He is an artist who passionately wants to paint simple beauty of human form but is put off by the constant criticism and demands of the Prior and the learned who cry: Paint the soul, never mind the legs and arms!

  • So the main theme of this poem is that of artistic honesty—should Lippo paint real people, flesh and all, or paint the souls of men in an attempt to lift them above things of the flesh?
  • Basically the question being posed is: Should religious art portray humans as refined creatures with soul or should religious art reflect reality, warts and all?
  • Browning's gift is to bring Lippo colourfully alive through dynamic use of language and ally this with genuine interaction on the street as the monk meets and tells of various people, working his way through the subject of art and personal history.
  • Lippo's character is subtle, crafty, gossipy, astute and knowledgeable. It's difficult to tell just exactly what he's been up to in the city, but he is keen to impress his opinion on the watchmen/policemen who stop him.

In one sense, this is a slice of drama disguised as a poem—it could have been taken straight out of a play, such is the quality of the monologue, the storyline and the involvement of Lippo in real life and in the arguments with his religious elders.

The reader is taken in immediately because the first-person speaker gets straight into action when he's apprehended by two city policemen at midnight. They grab hold of him thinking he's a monk (in the vicinity of the red light district) but he soon reveals all—in line 39—when he declares Yes, I'm the painter.

Lippo goes on to tell them his life story, how he was abandoned as a child and taken in by those at the monastery. Most thought him an 'urchin', a good-for-nothing who should be thrown out, but Lippo got used to monastic life and eventually started to draw and paint.

A great many lines in this poem deal with the subject of religious art and what it should represent and why, according to Lippo or his elders. The fascination comes in the characterful expression of Lippo which, when delved into, provides added universal interest for the reader as the monologue progresses.

In some respects, Lippo is the mouthpiece of Browning himself, who preferred the earthy and realistic in art rather than the ideal.

It was first published in 1855 in the book Men and Women.

'Fra Lippo Lippi' by Robert Browning

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!

Analysis of 'Fra Lippo Lippi': Lines 1–269

Fra Lippo Lippi focuses on the life of one poor brother monk Lippo, also a painter living in Florence during the 15th century.

He is the speaker, the voice, created by Browning to put forward the argument for realistic religious art, legs and arms and flesh, as opposed to the saintly portrayal of the soul, which his monastic elders demand.

  • The first thirty eight lines focus on the excitable character of Lippo, caught by one of the city's night watchmen (guards or policemen) who apprehend him around midnight.
  • The fact that he's close to the red light district must have raised their suspicions.
  • This is a first person narrative throughout.

Lippo is somewhat shocked by their actions—in lines 13 and 20 he refers to the fact that a hand is around his throat, which doesn't anger him but inspires him to say that he, Lippo, is the equivalent of a pilchard, caught up in a net.

Browning's keen sense of humour and farce begins to show its face. His diction is full of colour and texture and of course, drama.

Lippo then tries to bribe the watchmen with a quarter-florin (a coin first struck in Florence in the 13th century) which will make amends for their physical approach to him but nothing seems to come of this.

Eventually Lippo focuses in on the face of one of the watchmen, comparing it to that of Judas, and asks if any of them have a piece of chalk or charcoal (wood-coal) handy? Because he presumably would like to sketch him.

  • So it is that in line 39 Lippo admits to being the painter and sits down to tell the watchmen how he came to be out on the street at such a late hour.
  • This explanation stretches out up to line 80.

It appears that Lippo has spent three weeks in his mew (cage) cooped up painting saints and saints and saints again . . . for the great man, which must be the Prior or God.

No doubt fatigued by this burdensome toil he happened to be distracted by a passing band of musicians. They sounded so full of fun and mirth that, on impulse, Lippo there and then decided that he must join them.

So without hesitation he tore up his bed furniture and made an escape ladder down from the window to the street.

Basically Lippo his claiming his innocence—all he wanted was a bit of fun, some light relief from all the painting, so he joined the band for some late night laughs and was just on his way back home when they, the policemen, caught him.

  • Lippo now outlines his personal history, his life story, beginning in line 81. This develops into the story of his artistic endeavours and his growing up in the monastery.
  • Soon the reader becomes aware of the tensions arising from the needs and demands of the Prior and the learned regarding religious art, (174-198) and the personal preferences of Lippo.
  • By line 222, Lippo has given his life story and basic foundation for his artistic argument.
  • By line 269, more detail emerges about his take on why art should be realistic and the personal strain he's under to fulfill his role.

'Fra Lippo Lippi' Lines 81–269

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 " `T#is 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.

Analysis of 'Fra Lippo Lippi': Lines 270–335

Lippo continues his argument for realism, addressed to the watchmen. He gives as example the surrounds of the city, the landscape, and asks if it is to be passed over, despised or wondered at?

The idea is that, as humans, we do not see for real until an artist depicts what is naturally all around us—we take it for granted—God's own handiwork—but when painted we fall in love with it.

In line 315, Lippo sums up his approach to painting—as a means to understand the world he lives in:

To find its meaning is my meat and drink.

Lippo then mocks the church elders by saying that if the purpose of a painting is to get the followers to come to morning prayers (matins) or to fast on a Friday . . . then:

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.

In the end, in line 335, Lippo becomes exasperated, exclaiming Hang the fools!

'Fra Lippo Lippi': Lines 270–335

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!

Analysis of 'Fra Lippo Lippi': Lines 336–392

Lippo now goes on to confess to the watchmen that the church knows all about his reservations when it comes to painting and that he now wants to make amends for all the trouble he has caused them.

He plans to paint something special in Sant' Ambrogio's (Coronation of the Virgin) which will please both himself and the church. He urges the watchmen to go visit in six months time.

He'll paint God, the Madonna and baby and saints and even Job out of the old testament. This will hopefully keep the Prior and the betters quiet. In addition, to satisfy himself and his quest for realism, he will paint . . . himself!

Lippo manages to have a pop at the traditionalists and make a joke at the expense of Saint John, whilst also incorporating the Prior's niece (perhaps he has a crush on her, or suspects her? After all, she's mentioned three times) who will be a sweet angelic slip of a thing and speak up for him.

So, with a handshake and a goodbye, Lippo slips off into the dawn, having got much off his chest regarding religious art done soulfully, which he detests, but puts up with, because that's how he makes a living and keeps on the right side of God, and his immediate elders.

Off he goes home for a good night's sleep through the hushed streets of Florence.

Browning's mouthpiece Lippo finds beauty, truth and authenticity in realism, in the flesh, legs and arms, profiles and landscapes wherein resides the soul, the natural soul you could say, as opposed to the false, pious, saintly approach to art upheld by the Prior and the establishment, which is a surface only used to dupe the followers into more prayer and fasting.

Blank Verse of 'Fra Lippo Lippi'

'Fra Lippo Lippi' is written in blank verse which traditionally has lines of iambic pentameter, that is, with a steady rhythm based on the iambic foot—daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM—so five feet with the first syllable unstressed and the second stressed.

  • But, as will become immediately clear to the reader, Browning doesn't stick to the iambic pentameter rhythm throughout as this would make the poem sound ridiculous and not be a true reflection of real and active speech.

Everyday speech is a mix of all kinds of rhythms and stresses and Browning's lines echo this faithfully.

Let's take a closer look at some of the lines:

I am / poor broth / er Lip / po, by / your leave!

You need / not clap / your tor / ches to / my face.

The first line has a trochee and a spondee in the first two feet which alter the iambic beat. Iambs complete the rest of the line.

The second line is pure iambic pentameter, with a steady rhythm.

Scarce had / they turned / the cor / ner when / a titter

Like the skip / ping of rab / bits by moon / light - three / slim shapes,

The first line (58) starts off with a spondee, two stresses, and ends with an extra beat, often called a hyperbeat, the eleventh beat.

The following line (59) starts off with three anapaests (dadaDUM) which create a tripping rising rhythm to boost the rabbit movement. There are 13 syllables in total, the final three all stressed.

This metrical mix continues throughout, with the template iambic, but broken here and there as the syntax challenges.

Browning took inspiration from previous masters of blank verse such as Milton, Shakespeare and Wordsworth, bringing his own inimitable touch to a form that is still commonly used.

Browning's Syntax

In 'Fra Lippo Lippi', Browning's use of syntax to reinforce meaning and develop character shines through. Syntax is the way words are sequenced within the poem as a whole; it's to do with clauses and grammar, how they work together to produce a poetic effect.

Certain passages within the poem illustrate how Browning skillfully orders words and sentences (along with punctuation and poetic device) to create rich, absorbing and characterful lines.

Look at this section, lines 58–69, which develops Lippo's telling of how, cooped up in his room for three weeks solid, painting saintly pictures for the Prior, he hears some musicians down on the street:

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?

That first line is enjambed (enjambment), without punctuation, and runs into the next line which happens to be the longest in the whole poem, 13 syllables, contains a simile and then a dash - pausing the reader with a comma.

The next several lines are awash with dots, dashes, commas, caesurae (pauses mid-line) and alliteration . . . Curtains, counterpane, coverlet . . . the excitement of Lippo enhanced as the lines reflect a stuttery speech pattern. Lippo tears up his bedding to make a ladder so that he can descend and join in with the fun and frolics of the musicians.

Reading through these lines is to be right alongside the monk Lippo, sorry, the painter Lippo, as he first hears the fun-loving musicians, then sees them and is so sparked by their titters decides to escape.

The poem settles down, relatively speaking, after line 69 but you're never left completely at ease as the narrative shifts so and the syntax once again threatens to burst its seams.

Footnotes and Explanations

  • Lippo - Florentine painter 1406 - 1469. Browning had read a biography during his years in Florence.
  • by your leave! - with your permission.
  • Zooks - short for Gadzooks, an exclamation of mild shock. (archaic)
  • Carmine - cloister of monastery Santa Maria del Carmine. Lippo ended up here as a boy and became a monk.
  • harry out - chase out
  • Weke, weke - the sound of a softling mouse.
  • Cosimo of the Medici - wealthy patron and politician of Florence 1389 - 1464
  • gullet's-gripe -the grip on the throat.
  • Judas - one of the watchmen (policemen) looks like Judas (the traitor of Christ) in the picture.
  • quarter-florin - coin minted first in Florence
  • pike - long spear
  • John Baptist's - from the bible, John the Baptist prophesied the coming of Christ.
  • my mew - mew is an old word meaning cage or enclosure.
  • whifts of song - whifts means hints of
  • counterpane - old word for bedspread, a top cover or spread.
  • Saint Laurence - the church of San Lorenzo, close to the Medici palace.
  • Jerome - a painting of Saint Jerome in the desert.
  • Mum's the word - say nothing
  • shucks - outer coverings of pod, especially ear of maize.
  • Old Aunt Lapaccia - Mona Lapaccia, his father's sister.
  • stinger - refers to the other hand of Aunt Lapaccia which must have slapped him a few times, hence the sting.
  • refection-time - meal time.
  • Flower o' the clove...etc - small verse of song related to the others.
  • holla for the Eight - call for the magistrates (known as I Santi, the Saints) made up of citizens.
  • antiphonary's marge - margin of the book containing antiphons, responses chanted during the liturgy.
  • We Carmelites, like those Camaldolese - Carmelites belong to the order of the brothers of the blessed virgin Mary of Mount Carmel...Camaldolese are members of a Benedictine order at Camaldoli in the Appennines.
  • Preaching Friars - of the Dominican order.
  • Giotto - Florentine painter Giotto di Bondone (1267 - 1337)
  • funked - expired in smoke.
  • Herodias - Salome's mother, wife of Herod Antipas. The mother demanded John the Baptist be imprisoned and it was after Salome had danced for Herod that he promised her anything. She asked for John's head on a platter (Matthew 14, 1 - 12)
  • Corner-house - Medici palace.
  • Brother Angelico - Fra Angelico, painter 1395 - 1455
  • Brother Lorenzo - Fra Lorenzo Monaco, painter and illustrator, 1370 - 1425
  • Fag on - keep toiling
  • Guidi/Hulking Tom - born Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone aka Masaccio, painter 1401 - 1428
  • let's no atom drop - doesn't miss a thing, is one for small detail
  • Your cullions...- cullion is an archaic word meaning rascal.
  • matins - Christian morning prayer service
  • Saint Laurence - one of the seven deacons of Rome, martyred.
  • Prato - small town close to Florence where Lippo painted.
  • phiz - short for phizzog, slang term for face.
  • Deacon - reference to St Laurence and his death by roasting on a gridiron. He is said to have urged his executioners to turn him over because he was toasted on one side.
  • God wot - God knows
  • Chianti wine - wine from the region of Chianti in Tuscany
  • Sant' Ambrogio's…- a church in Florence where Lippo painted the Coronation of the Virgin in 1439 - 1447
  • orris-root - root of the flower which is made into smooth powder for the face.
  • Saint John - San Giovanni, patron saint of Florence
  • Saint Ambrose - saint, bishop of Milan 4th century AD
  • Job - character from the bible, a righteous man tested by God.
  • The man of Uz - Job lived in the land of Uz according to the Book of Job from the bible's old terstament.
  • Iste perfecit opus - latin for This man made the work!
  • kirtles - in middle ages a garment or tunic
  • play hot cockles - a game where a 'penitent' buries their head into the lap of another and holds a hand out flat on the back. Others come and slap the hand and the penitent has to guess and accuse someone.
  • Saint Lucy - or Lucia, Christian martyr of Syracuse


© 2019 Andrew Spacey