The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 646

“Andrea del Sarto” is a meandering poem of 267 lines in blank verse, broken unevenly into three stanzas of 243, 23, and 1 line(s). The title identifies the subject of the poem, Andrea del Sarto, a distinguished artist of the Florentine School of painting. The poem is written in the first person, the speaker being Andrea, not Robert Browning. Andrea, conversing with his silent wife, Lucrezia, reflects on his life and art, thereby dramatically revealing his moral and aesthetic failure.

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The poem begins with Andrea’s placative request to Lucrezia to sit with him and not “quarrel any more.” The failure of the marriage quickly becomes evident as Andrea acknowledges that her physical presence affords no guarantee of intimacy or rapport. His wife’s consent to sit is rewarded with a promise that he will accede to her wishes, permitting Lucrezia’s friends to dictate the circumference and price of his art. His most persuasive ploy for the pleasure of her company—even for a few evening hours—is his pledge to “shut the money” from his work in her hand.

As Andrea muses over the state of his life and his art, detailing his experiences and implying his dreams, he becomes an unconscious study in the complexity of failure: an artist possessing an uncommon aptitude for perfection in execution, but lacking the personal character traits to achieve success. Andrea views in all that he has touched—his life, his marriage, and his paintings—a “common greyness.” He gropes desultorily for the cause of this diminution of his promise.

He first speculates that his failure is attributable to determinism; an authoritative, controlling god predestines individual accomplishments. Such rationale, however, is too simplistic for the sensitive, intelligent artist. He reflects on his potential. Self-confident, he affirms his innate genius: Unlike others, he does not have to struggle for perfection in line and color; for him, process is facile. Michelangelo has even identified him as a serious Renaissance contender—that is, he would be if he were as motivated and dedicated as the masters are.

Momentarily elated at his recollection and seeking to demonstrate this ability to his wife, Andrea almost presumes to correct a flawed line of a copy of a master painting; belatedly, however, withdrawing his brush from the surface of the painting, he surmises that technique is not the critical factor determining greatness. More significant is the soul of the artist. Andrea ponders over Lucrezia’s influence on his work: If she “had a mind,” if she were spiritual rather than carnal, he might have triumphed. He concludes, however, that incentive is not an external, but an internal phenomenon.

Nostalgically, Andrea reflects on his year of prominence, basking in the favor of King Francis I and his royal court. Those golden years had ended abruptly at his decision to return to Italy and Lucrezia (at her request) and his embezzlement of money intrusted to him by the king for art purchases. Now, alienated from that glory, cuckolded—and aware of it—he prostitutes his art to delight Lucrezia and even to pay the debts of her lover.

The dispassionate Andrea seems resigned to the diminished state of his life and art as the second stanza begins. Experiencing guilt over his neglect of his aged, impoverished parents and his betrayal of the king, he purports consolation at “having” Lucrezia. His sense of frustration, however, continues; in one last effort at consolation, he speculates on the afterlife. He will compete successfully with Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo in the New Jerusalem. His obsession with Lucrezia and his resignation, however, surface once more: Even in heaven—at his choice—his wife will take precedence, negating any change in his performance.

The extent of Andrea’s decadence is further emphasized in the concluding, one-line stanza: The effete husband, with seeming nonchalance, releases his wife to her lover at his casual whistle.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 428

The dramatic monologue has become synonymous with Robert Browning’s genius, and in “Andrea del Sarto” the poet probes the nature of one human failure. Form follows content, the language being informal as is natural in conversation. In harmony with the dwindling quality of Andrea’s life, the tone is subdued, reflecting the passive resignation that feeds Andrea’s impotence. In meter, also, the rhythm yields to the emotional tenor of the speaker’s reverie, moving from the placid acceptance of the present through a lively reflection on his Fontainebleau years to the wistful contemplation of eternity. His low-pulsed “quietly, quietly the evening through” is interrupted by brief spurts of broken rhythm and faster-paced patterns: “Dream? strive to do, and agonize to do,/ And fail in doing.”

The diction is sometimes oblique and indirect, conveying the ambiguity of Andrea’s perception of truth. Browning also employs a rhetorical technique of questions and answers to advance the reader through time and provide details of the speaker’s past. The questions are not directly responded to, but answers emerge through roundabout discourse: Andrea’s “you turn your face, but does it bring your heart” arouses doubt concerning Lucrezia’s affection for her husband, but his subsequent bribe—an offer to prostitute his art for her greed—turns the skepticism into a certainty that she is indifferent not only to Andrea but also to art in general.

Browning relies heavily on irony in “Andrea del Sarto.” Overall there is a pervasive cosmic irony that Andrea, rarely gifted, lacks the ardor and capability to animate his paintings. Fate, too, seems to deny any personal or professional fulfillment; whatever the extent of his desire or the magnitude of his sacrifice, he falls short. Ironically, too, Andrea’s introspection and his matter-of-fact observations about Lucrezia convey truths to the reader that he cannot even surmise. Incongruously, his words are often denied by the reality of his reverie: An assertion of “peace” initiates a return to the inner turmoil attendant to failure.

“A common greyness silvers everything,” muses Andrea, thereby opening the monologue to the juxtaposition of two color images, “grey” and “golden,” to symbolize mediocrity and transcendence, respectively. The concept of “grey” is expanded metaphorically in “toned down,” “autumn in everything,” “a twilight piece,” and “a settled dusk now,” becoming synonymous with Andrea himself. In marked contrast is “golden.” Andrea’s halcyon days in France were “golden.” There he basked in the “golden looks” and wore “golden chains.” Lucrezia, too, is included among these transcendent moments, Andrea making reference to her “hair’s gold.”

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