Themes and Meanings

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“Andrea del Sarto” is a poem about success and failure in life and art, as expressed through the unconscious self-analysis of a sensitive, intelligent artist.

Andrea’s mediocrity stresses the truth of a common Browning motif: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” Unfortunately, such a premise negates success for Andrea (known in history as the “faultless painter”), for he possesses an ability for technique that others “agonize” to reach. Significantly, this excellence comes facilely: “I can do with my pencil what I know,/ What I see, . . ./ Do easily, tooperfectly.” Yet, as Andrea theorizes, “In this world, who can do a thing will not;/ And who would do it, cannot, I perceive.” Therefore, since Andrea is one who “can,” he is ineffective.

His plaintive observation that others whose works lack precision “reach many a time a heaven” denied him reveals frustration; however, his very expertise, according to Browning’s credo, signifies baseness and superficiality. Andrea’s cognizance of his own ennui as, amoebalike, he is indifferent to criticism or praise, is indicative of a paralysis precluding an essential motivation, which would empower transcendence. Andrea should be “reaching that heaven might so replenish him/ Above and through his art.”

Inextricably intertwined with the preceding theme is another, focusing on the balance between mind (art) and heart (love). For Andrea, love takes preeminence, and he evaluates all experience by the light in Lucrezia’s eyes. In his art, Andrea’s efforts are not determined by his own imagination, they are subjugated to the whims of his wife, as he commercializes his art to buy her a “ruff” or pay her lover’s gambling debts. Even in France, his ultimate concern was not for self-realization or for meeting the king’s expectations, it was for meriting Lucrezia’s approval. At Lucrezia’s request, he returned to Italy, forfeiting his promising career in France. Even Michelangelo’s generous words of recognition serve only to impress his wife rather than arouse joy in his soul. His obsession has corrupted his values and destroyed his reputation. For love he became an embezzler and failed his parents.

Sacrificed, too, for love is Andrea’s dignity. Servile, Andrea begs to hold his wife’s hand; humiliated, he condones his wife’s infidelity. His “moon” has become “everybody’s.” The epitomy of shamed manhood, he exercises an annoying forbearance as he releases his wife temporarily to the arms of her lover. The extent of Andrea’s demoralization is infinitely destructive, as shown by his final sacrifice: He forgoes his final opportunity for excellence. Even in eternity, he will “choose” Lucrezia and, therefore, deny his soul again. Andrea’s unhealthy skewing of his life toward love has upset an essential balance between art and life, resulting in the betrayal of self and extinguishing the light of his soul.

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