The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Fra Lippo Lippi” is a long poem in blank verse. It is one of Robert Browning’s numerous dramatic monologues, written in phrases and segments, which assume periodic unwritten questions and responses from the listener. The speaker in this poem is a historical character, Fra Lippo Lippi, who was a monk and a painter in fifteenth century Florence. Taking his point of departure from an incident described by the Italian painter and biographer Giorgio Vasari in The Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Architects, Painters and Sculptors (1550, 1568), Browning imagines how Fra Lippo Lippi might have seen his own life and his art.

The setting of “Fra Lippo Lippi” is an alley in Florence. The time is midnight. The watchmen on their rounds have just stopped a suspicious character slipping through the shadows. As the poem begins, the monk identifies himself and then explains that he is staying with a member of the powerful Medici family. Giving the men some money with which to drink to his health, the monk then settles down with their leader, who obviously wants to hear the full story.

The poem is divided into three sections. In the first, Fra Lippo Lippi explains that his patron has had him shut up for three weeks, so that the monk would paint instead of drinking or carousing. On this spring night, however, the temptation was too much, and Fra Lippo Lippi sneaked out a window to have some fun. When the watch caught him, he was trying to...

(The entire section is 494 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Browning’s dramatic monologues are standard selections in interpretive reading competitions because all of them are essentially one-actor plays. The poet describes the setting of his drama, indicates the appearance of his characters, gives stage directions, including entrances and exits, and suggests the speeches of the silent actors, all through the words of his protagonist.

For example, at the beginning of the poem, while he is making his explanation to the watch, Fra Lippo Lippi mentions the time, midnight, and the setting, an alley in the red-light district. Later, he speaks of the man who was holding him as having a face like Judas; in contrast, the captain of the guard has a “twinkle” in his eye.

Browning’s stage directions are also woven skillfully into the monologue. For example, again at the beginning of the poem, by telling the men what not to do, not to push their torches so close to his face, not to hold him by the neck, the monk is actually describing what they are doing. When Fra Lippo Lippi tells the captain to send his men for a drink, it is assumed that they exit. A few lines later, when the monk says, “Let’s sit and set things straight now,” it can be assumed that the two men do so. At the end of the poem, Fra Lippo Lippi’s exit is just as clearly outlined. He shakes hands with the captain, refuses his offer of a light, and then, seeing the sky turning, exclaims and hastens offstage.

Through Fra...

(The entire section is 432 words.)