Study Guide

Fra Lippo Lippi Fire and Smoke, Light and Dark

By Robert Browning

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Fire and Smoke, Light and Dark

Since the poem starts out with the speaker being accosted by guards on a dark street at night, it's not surprising that light and dark would be a major starting point. Figures skulking around the darkened streets would pose a danger to other citizens. This prospect morphs throughout the poem, though, and gets to a more figurative sense of light and dark—much of which involves images of fire and smoke. So, light signifies knowledge and spiritual growth, while darkness and smoke stand in for ignorance or failure.

  • Line 2: The guardsmen have their torches all up in Lippo's grill, trying to figure out who he is. This is a very literal use of light and dark—using light to banish the dark and the dangers it can cloak at night.
  • Line 172: Lippo is super-proud of the way he's able to paint everyday figures in the monastery so true to life. He describes this as "my triumph's straw-fire," which would be a blazing strong fire. This fizzles out all too quickly under the Prior's criticism, and the fire "funked" (which means smokes out).
  • Line 184: The good bro has some difficulty describing the human soul. First, it's a fire—something bright and hot. But then he calls it "smoke," which would put it on the darker side of things—something that is not easily understood or perhaps not even existing. Think about how smoke is insubstantial and quickly dissipates. That gives us a sense of how Lippo is struggling with the concept here.
  • Line 362: Lippo paints himself into a corner—literally—as he is conceiving of the painting he'll do for the nuns of Sant'Ambrogio (which would become his masterpiece, BTW). He sees himself as one upon a "dark stair" moving "into a great light" (the figurative light of the holy figures that will surround him). We get the sense that he's starting to understand how he might reconcile his own views on art with those of the Church. He'll have to accommodate them and just do his own thing. You do you, Lippo.
  • Line 392: This idea is emphasized in the last line of the poem, when Lippo heads off into the grey dawn. He's seen the light, but it's not all bright. He'll have to submerge part of himself to please all of his masters.

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