Study Guide

Fra Lippo Lippi Lines 81-128

By Robert Browning

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Lines 81-128

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.

  • It's a hard knock life for Fra Lippo Lippi. Check out this sob story: he was orphaned and basically starved in the streets. For two years all he lived off of was trash, but not just any trash: "fig-skins, melon parings, rinds and shucks" (84). These are the outsides of fruits and veggies after all the good parts have been eaten. So, there's a focus here on the surface of things without the depth (the thing that's important).
  • His poor old auntie (Aunt Lapaccia raised him, but was too poor to care for him) snatches him up (and check out how he's wary of her other hand, which as a "stinger" probably hits the boy on a regular basis) and marches him down to the local monastery.
  • So, at the tender age of eight years old, Lippo finds himself taking vows to become a monk and to renounce the material world and all of its sinful temptations.
  • We get the idea that, had the monk asked him to renounce the mouthful of bread that Lippo worries about in line 96, the answer would have been a resounding, "NO!" However, the monk's portliness is promising, and he's wiping his mouth as if just having finished eating. Things are looking up for little Lippo.
  • Major irony alert. Lippo is asked to give up the things that he doesn't have in the first place: wealth and status suggested by the "Palace, farm, villa, shop, and banking-house" (99). This is kind of like making a virtue of necessity. He doesn't have those things to renounce, but he needs food, which he's going to get… by swearing to renounce it.
  • Plus, he gets a nice robe with a rope belt and lots of free time to boot—score.
  • Not so fast—the monks want to see what little Lippo can do. He's not much for book-learnin', and he admits it would have been a sheer waste of time to have attempted to teach him Latin. All the Latin he cares about, though is "amo," which means "I love." It would seem Lippo is quite the ladykiller. Have you noticed how he keeps inserting love song lyrics into his monologue? That's definitely not something a monk should have his mind on.
  • There's a silver lining for every cloud, we guess. One good thing that comes out of starving in the streets of Florence is that Lippo learns how to read people. He learns how to notice the small details that will let him know if he's going to get food from a person, or a kick. His finely attuned senses make him aware of the churchmen who will let him take some of the wax dripping from the processional candles to re-sell, and who will call the guards to have him tried for theft.
  • And here Lippo gets a bit ashamed. Check out the use of the hyphens to suggest a sudden shift in thought at line 122. "How say I?" suggests he's struggling to tell us the next issue: how he learns to recognize which dogs will let him have their rotten ("offal") leftovers and which will bite him for his trouble. The image of eight-year-old Lippo battling it out with a cur in the streets for a meat-stripped bone really builds on our sympathy for this poor kid.
  • The "hunger-pinch" (126) is another vivid image that reinforces how Lippo's finely-tuned ability to notice how the outward, physical appearance of people suggest something of their inner temperament—just like the hunger pains are an inner sensation that links to the outer physical world that the little boy observes.

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