The Poem

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“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 get back to his patron’s dwelling before his absence was noticed.

To his new friend, who appears sympathetic but is obviously somewhat puzzled by this monk’s behavior, Fra Lippo Lippi explains that he does not feel himself bound by monastic vows, since he had no choice about becoming a monk; he had been left with the Carmelites when he was only eight years old. Later, when it was realized that the boy had artistic talent, the prior decided to make him their official painter. From the time he completed his first painting on the wall of the cloister, however, Fra Lippo Lippi has been criticized for making his works too realistic.

In the second section of the poem, the monk continues his argument for realism, insisting that instead of turning humanity’s attention away from God, his creations reveal the glories of God’s creation to people who might not otherwise have noticed them. He admits, however, that there are practical disadvantages to his kind of painting; one of his paintings has been defaced by the pious, who have scratched off the faces of three evil characters tormenting a saint.

In the third section, the monk fears that he has been too outspoken, and he begs the captain not to report him. Then, after describing a great painting that he will complete in six months, the monk notices that dawn is approaching, shakes hands with his listener, and hurries toward his lodging.

Forms and Devices

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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...

(This entire section contains 432 words.)

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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 Lippo Lippi’s responses, even through his pauses, Browning makes the suppressed speeches of others as clear as if they had been spoken. For example, when the monk says, “Yes, I’m the painter, since you style me so,” it is evident that the captain has said something like, “Oh, I know your name, you are the painter, aren’t you?” In lines 76 and 79, a more complicated dialogue is suggested. Shaking his head in disapproval, the captain has pointed out that the painter is a monk, while still reassuring him that he will not report him to his Medici patron. It is this comment from the captain that causes Fra Lippo Lippi to relate his life story.

By using interjections and colloquialisms, parenthetical comments and incomplete sentences, even snatches of a popular song, in “Fra Lippo Lippi” Browning captures the flavor of casual speech. This effect, however, is the result of painstaking artistry, for the entire poem is constructed in the most skillfully crafted blank verse, worthy of Browning’s Elizabethan predecessors in dramatic writing.