Study Guide

Fra Lippo Lippi Lines 212-269

By Robert Browning

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Lines 212-269

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 thereA-making man's wife: and, my lesson learned,
The value and significance of flesh,
I can't unlearn ten minutes afterwards.

  • Can't he, Lippo argues, paint a woman's eyes and add "breath" and "life's flash" and also the "soul" (213-214), which will elevate the image to be three times as powerful? What would be wrong with that?
  • On the other hand (he rambles), what if he just paints pure beauty with no soul at all? He calls this "simple beauty" (217), and lets us in on his viewpoint that this is best thing that God has invented, because simple beauty in some way gets the viewer to see his or her own soul in that beauty. That sounds good to us.
  • He mocks the Prior by shouting, "Rub all out!" and seems to identify this as the main conflict of his life in the monastery.
  • But wait—there's more. Lippo's also pretty ticked that, because of his vows, he misses out on a lot of action with the ladies. Check out that bitter tone when he says, "You should not take a fellow eight years old/ and make him swear to never kiss the girls" (224-225). And it's clear that Brother Lippo has been breaking those vows. That's what the whole "escape down the sheet ladder" teenage-like escapades are all about.
  • Now, though, Lippo has a different master—one who lives in the Corner House. This probably refers to Cosimo Medici, powerful and rich patron of Lippo.
  • But even though he gets more of a free hand with this patron, the monks are still standing over him being all judgy about his art.
  • Lippo gives us yet another dramatic monologue within the main one, which basically tells him: "Brothers Angelico and Lorenzo are way better than you. And if you keep on with painting realistically, you'll never be the third greatest." (Don't know who Angelico and Lorenzo are? Well, head on over to "Shout Outs" for the 4-1-1).
  • Better tuck in your Freudian slip, Lippo, 'cuz it's all hangin' out. He launches into yet another snatch of song lyrics, and slips up by almost mentioning "mistress." He quickly corrects himself to the more acceptable (for a monk) "manners" (239).
  • And isn't it also kind of suspicious that Lippo thinks of a mistress right after he pretends to be the Prior? This might shed a bit more light on who the "niece" is that Lippo brings up earlier. It's starting to sound like the Prior has broken some vows of his own.
  • Getting mad, Lippo sarcastically points out that these monks with their Latin are, of course, the best authorities, so they should know good art when they see it (not).
  • So, he just grits his teeth and buries his anger like a good little obedient monk, and gets on with it, painting what they want to see.
  • But "the business of the world" (247) continually intrudes, distracting him from painting the boring old saints that the Church types want him to paint.
  • And it's not just painting that's important to him, but living. He wants to experience life and not focus all of his attention on the afterlife. Browning expresses the lesser importance the Church puts on the material world by having Lippo call it a "dream." We get the impression that the idea of an afterlife is to Lippo more of a dream, and he'd much rather experience real life—warts and all.
  • So, to spite them, he sneaks out, revels, and gets his drink (and womanizing) on.
  • Lippo drops an extended metaphor on us in lines 254-257. He says that an old mill horse (a horse that powers a mill that grinds grain) will frolic around and enjoy himself eating grass, even though the miller isn't constantly preaching to him that grass is only good for making "chaff" (the dried out, dead hay that the grass becomes after it is cut and dried).
  • How do we apply this metaphor to Lippo's situation? Well, Lippo would be the horse and the Prior would be the miller and the grass would largely stand for worldly experience. The chaff represents the spiritual or religious life.
  • Lippo suggests through this metaphor that it's natural to be attached to worldly things. He just wants to know once and for all if this is okay. According to the churchy-y types at his monastery, it's not.
  • People are lying liars who lie: they really want what they claim to not like, while they don't want what they actually clamor for. Got that? It's kind of confusing, but that's totes appropriate for the type of drunken rambling Lippo is chatting up the guard with.
  • Plus, it so totally points to the hypocrisy of the Church. Remember the Prior's so-called niece?
  • The bottom line here is that Lippo's firmly attached to the world and its pleasures. After all, he knows the story about God and the Garden of Eden. God made woman for man, and the good monk just can't unlearn what he's been taught: "the value and significance of flesh" (268). We get the idea that old Lippo's talking about both in an artistic sense and a more lustful sense.

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