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We know what you're thinking, gang: why would Shmoop bother with a poem that sold badly right out of the gate? We can't argue with you on that point. Robert Browning's 1855 Men and Women was a two-volume collection of 51 short poems and… well, let's just say it didn't exactly fly off the shelves.
Now, though, it's highly admired for containing some of Browning's best works—"Fra Lippo Lippi" among them. Browning uses the real-life Fra Lippo Lippi—a monk living in Italy between about 1412-1469—to examine some really profound concepts having to do with art and religion and whether the twain should ever meet (maybe not in dark alleys).
Browning knew something about pairings. In fact, he was part of a literary power-couple. He married Elizabeth Barrett in a secret ceremony in 1846 (aww, how romantic), because her pops wasn't too keen on having Robert as a son-in-law. Not surprisingly, he dedicated Men and Women to Elizabeth, his main squeeze.
Even still, folks in Browning's day were more likely to say, "What, that Men and Women rag? Oh, yeah… it's by that guy who married Elizabeth Barrett." It wasn't until he published The Ring and the Book in 1868 that Browning started to earn any kind of poetry cred with which we now view him. Today, "Fra Lippo Lippi" is now lauded as one of his best works, right up there with some of Browning's most studied and respected dramatic monologues. And all of Browning's contemporary haters are dead—so there.
Buried within this poem's drunken monologue (for shame, Bro Lippo—try setting a better example) are some seriously pithy philosophical implicit arguments relating to art and religion and the "right" way for art to convey religious ideas.
The Church wants Brother Lippo to highlight the soul and really ignore that whole body thing that humans are stuck with, while the artist himself wants to highlight the realistic human details that contribute to human beauty—illuminating the soul at the same time.
So, if you stop to think about it, this poem is wrestling with the same issue of censorship in the realms of art and literature that keeps rearing its ugly head. What should be considered offensive? And exactly who gets to decide? If it's the church, then which church? Just who gets to decide what makes up "proper" subjects for art and how much license an artist can have?
Don't take our word for the fact that this is totes a thing. Just google up "Robert Mapplethorpe" or "Charlie Hebdo" to see the full furor that has been unleashed on hapless artists when folks don't like what they have to say.
That stuff kind of makes our old Bro Lippo look like small potatoes. But we can certainly look at him as one of their forefathers who tried to stand up to the Man.
Brown, Browned, Browning
Check out the Victorian Web's links to all things Robert Browning, from his political leanings to his views on gender. Plus, they're arranged in a diamond. Cute?
Fra Filippo Lippi
Here's your one-stop guide to the biography and complete works of Renaissance Italy's famous painter.
What's Up Doc
Get your Lippi on with part one of this twenty-minute introduction to Fra Filippo Lippi and the world of Renaissance art.
"Beauty and Madness"
Read the band's lyrics on the screen and see if they share any themes with the poem.
Beardy Browning, Part 1
There's nothing like a good neck-beard to get you feeling poetic.
Beardy Browning, Part 2: The Beard Returns
He's looking way less creepy and way more Santa-Clausey here, in a snapshot from 1889, the year he died.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning: Interviews and Recollections
This is an interesting book that pulls together recollections from fellow writers (like Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Henry James), as well as interviews with the Brownings themselves. It's pretty spendy to order, but worth checking out from your local library.
The Dramatic Imagination of Robert Browning: A Literary Life
Richard S. Kennedy and Donald S. Hair, both Professors Emeriti (which means they know their stuff), have written this biography of Browning that you might want to check out.
Robert Browning's Poetry (Norton Critical Edition)
If you're clamoring for more of the Beardy Poet's wordplay (and really, who wouldn't?), but you're also hankering for some cultural and historical context, plus some other neat-o features, then the Norton Critical Edition has your back.