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Robert Browning (1812-1889)

Fra Lippo Lippi


              1I am poor brother Lippo, by your leave!
              2You need not clap your torches to my face.
              3Zooks, what's to blame? you think you see a monk!
              4What, 'tis past midnight, and you go the rounds,
              5And here you catch me at an alley's end
              6Where sportive ladies leave their doors ajar?
              7The Carmine's my cloister: hunt it up,
              8Do,--harry out, if you must show your zeal,
              9Whatever rat, there, haps on his wrong hole,
            10And nip each softling of a wee white mouse,
            11Weke, weke, that's crept to keep him company!
            12Aha, you know your betters! Then, you'll take
            13Your hand away that's fiddling on my throat,
            14And please to know me likewise. Who am I?
            15Why, one, sir, who is lodging with a friend
            16Three streets off--he's a certain . . . how d'ye call?
            17Master--a ...Cosimo of the Medici,
            18I' the house that caps the corner. Boh! you were best!
            19Remember and tell me, the day you're hanged,
            20How you affected such a gullet's-gripe!
            21But you, sir, it concerns you that your knaves
            22Pick up a manner nor discredit you:
            23Zooks, are we pilchards, that they sweep the streets
            24And count fair price what comes into their net?
            25He's Judas to a tittle, that man is!
            26Just such a face! Why, sir, you make amends.
            27Lord, I'm not angry! Bid your hang-dogs go
            28Drink out this quarter-florin to the health
            29Of the munificent House that harbours me
            30(And many more beside, lads! more beside!)
            31And all's come square again. I'd like his face--
            32His, elbowing on his comrade in the door
            33With the pike and lantern,--for the slave that holds
            34John Baptist's head a-dangle by the hair
            35With one hand ("Look you, now," as who should say)
            36And his weapon in the other, yet unwiped!
            37It's not your chance to have a bit of chalk,
            38A wood-coal or the like? or you should see!
            39Yes, I'm the painter, since you style me so.
            40What, brother Lippo's doings, up and down,
            41You know them and they take you? like enough!
            42I saw the proper twinkle in your eye--
            43'Tell you, I liked your looks at very first.
            44Let's sit and set things straight now, hip to haunch.
            45Here's spring come, and the nights one makes up bands
            46To roam the town and sing out carnival,
            47And I've been three weeks shut within my mew,
            48A-painting for the great man, saints and saints
            49And saints again. I could not paint all night--
            50Ouf! I leaned out of window for fresh air.
            51There came a hurry of feet and little feet,
            52A sweep of lute strings, laughs, and whifts of song, --
            53Flower o' the broom,
            54Take away love, and our earth is a tomb!
            55Flower o' the quince,
            56I let Lisa go, and what good in life since?
            57Flower o' the thyme--and so on. Round they went.
            58Scarce had they turned the corner when a titter
            59Like the skipping of rabbits by moonlight,--three slim shapes,
            60And a face that looked up . . . zooks, sir, flesh and blood,
            61That's all I'm made of! Into shreds it went,
            62Curtain and counterpane and coverlet,
            63All the bed-furniture--a dozen knots,
            64There was a ladder! Down I let myself,
            65Hands and feet, scrambling somehow, and so dropped,
            66And after them. I came up with the fun
            67Hard by Saint Laurence, hail fellow, well met,--
            68Flower o' the rose,
            69If I've been merry, what matter who knows?
            70And so as I was stealing back again
            71To get to bed and have a bit of sleep
            72Ere I rise up to-morrow and go work
            73On Jerome knocking at his poor old breast
            74With his great round stone to subdue the flesh,
            75You snap me of the sudden. Ah, I see!
            76Though your eye twinkles still, you shake your head--
            77Mine's shaved--a monk, you say--the sting 's in that!
            78If Master Cosimo announced himself,
            79Mum's the word naturally; but a monk!
            80Come, what am I a beast for? tell us, now!
            81I was a baby when my mother died
            82And father died and left me in the street.
            83I starved there, God knows how, a year or two
            84On fig-skins, melon-parings, rinds and shucks,
            85Refuse and rubbish. One fine frosty day,
            86My stomach being empty as your hat,
            87The wind doubled me up and down I went.
            88Old Aunt Lapaccia trussed me with one hand,
            89(Its fellow was a stinger as I knew)
            90And so along the wall, over the bridge,
            91By the straight cut to the convent. Six words there,
            92While I stood munching my first bread that month:
            93"So, boy, you're minded," quoth the good fat father
            94Wiping his own mouth, 'twas refection-time,--
            95"To quit this very miserable world?
            96Will you renounce" . . . "the mouthful of bread?" thought I;
            97By no means! Brief, they made a monk of me;
            98I did renounce the world, its pride and greed,
            99Palace, farm, villa, shop, and banking-house,
          100Trash, such as these poor devils of Medici
          101Have given their hearts to--all at eight years old.
          102Well, sir, I found in time, you may be sure,
          103'Twas not for nothing--the good bellyful,
          104The warm serge and the rope that goes all round,
          105And day-long blessed idleness beside!
          106"Let's see what the urchin's fit for"--that came next.
          107Not overmuch their way, I must confess.
          108Such a to-do! They tried me with their books:
          109Lord, they'd have taught me Latin in pure waste!
          110Flower o' the clove.
          111All the Latin I construe is, "amo" I love!
          112But, mind you, when a boy starves in the streets
          113Eight years together, as my fortune was,
          114Watching folk's faces to know who will fling
          115The bit of half-stripped grape-bunch he desires,
          116And who will curse or kick him for his pains,--
          117Which gentleman processional and fine,
          118Holding a candle to the Sacrament,
          119Will wink and let him lift a plate and catch
          120The droppings of the wax to sell again,
          121Or holla for the Eight and have him whipped,--
          122How say I?--nay, which dog bites, which lets drop
          123His bone from the heap of offal in the street,--
          124Why, soul and sense of him grow sharp alike,
          125He learns the look of things, and none the less
          126For admonition from the hunger-pinch.
          127I had a store of such remarks, be sure,
          128Which, after I found leisure, turned to use.
          129I drew men's faces on my copy-books,
          130Scrawled them within the antiphonary's marge,
          131Joined legs and arms to the long music-notes,
          132Found eyes and nose and chin for A's and B's,
          133And made a string of pictures of the world
          134Betwixt the ins and outs of verb and noun,
          135On the wall, the bench, the door. The monks looked black.
          136"Nay," quoth the Prior, "turn him out, d'ye say?
          137In no wise. Lose a crow and catch a lark.
          138What if at last we get our man of parts,
          139We Carmelites, like those Camaldolese
          140And Preaching Friars, to do our church up fine
          141And put the front on it that ought to be!"
          142And hereupon he bade me daub away.
          143Thank you! my head being crammed, the walls a blank,
          144Never was such prompt disemburdening.
          145First, every sort of monk, the black and white,
          146I drew them, fat and lean: then, folk at church,
          147From good old gossips waiting to confess
          148Their cribs of barrel-droppings, candle-ends,--
          149To the breathless fellow at the altar-foot,
          150Fresh from his murder, safe and sitting there
          151With the little children round him in a row
          152Of admiration, half for his beard and half
          153For that white anger of his victim's son
          154Shaking a fist at him with one fierce arm,
          155Signing himself with the other because of Christ
          156(Whose sad face on the cross sees only this
          157After the passion of a thousand years)
          158Till some poor girl, her apron o'er her head,
          159(Which the intense eyes looked through) came at eve
          160On tiptoe, said a word, dropped in a loaf,
          161Her pair of earrings and a bunch of flowers
          162(The brute took growling), prayed, and so was gone.
          163I painted all, then cried " `T#is ask and have;
          164Choose, for more's ready!"--laid the ladder flat,
          165And showed my covered bit of cloister-wall.
          166The monks closed in a circle and praised loud
          167Till checked, taught what to see and not to see,
          168Being simple bodies,--"That's the very man!
          169Look at the boy who stoops to pat the dog!
          170That woman's like the Prior's niece who comes
          171To care about his asthma: it's the life!''
          172But there my triumph's straw-fire flared and funked;
          173Their betters took their turn to see and say:
          174The Prior and the learned pulled a face
          175And stopped all that in no time. "How? what's here?
          176Quite from the mark of painting, bless us all!
          177Faces, arms, legs, and bodies like the true
          178As much as pea and pea! it's devil's-game!
          179Your business is not to catch men with show,
          180With homage to the perishable clay,
          181But lift them over it, ignore it all,
          182Make them forget there's such a thing as flesh.
          183Your business is to paint the souls of men--
          184Man's soul, and it's a fire, smoke . . . no, it's not . . .
          185It's vapour done up like a new-born babe--
          186(In that shape when you die it leaves your mouth)
          187It's . . . well, what matters talking, it's the soul!
          188Give us no more of body than shows soul!
          189Here's Giotto, with his Saint a-praising God,
          190That sets us praising--why not stop with him?
          191Why put all thoughts of praise out of our head
          192With wonder at lines, colours, and what not?
          193Paint the soul, never mind the legs and arms!
          194Rub all out, try at it a second time.
          195Oh, that white smallish female with the breasts,
          196She's just my niece . . . Herodias, I would say,--
          197Who went and danced and got men's heads cut off!
          198Have it all out!" Now, is this sense, I ask?
          199A fine way to paint soul, by painting body
          200So ill, the eye can't stop there, must go further
          201And can't fare worse! Thus, yellow does for white
          202When what you put for yellow's simply black,
          203And any sort of meaning looks intense
          204When all beside itself means and looks nought.
          205Why can't a painter lift each foot in turn,
          206Left foot and right foot, go a double step,
          207Make his flesh liker and his soul more like,
          208Both in their order? Take the prettiest face,
          209The Prior's niece . . . patron-saint--is it so pretty
          210You can't discover if it means hope, fear,
          211Sorrow or joy? won't beauty go with these?
          212Suppose I've made her eyes all right and blue,
          213Can't I take breath and try to add life's flash,
          214And then add soul and heighten them three-fold?
          215Or say there's beauty with no soul at all--
          216(I never saw it--put the case the same--)
          217If you get simple beauty and nought else,
          218You get about the best thing God invents:
          219That's somewhat: and you'll find the soul you have missed,
          220Within yourself, when you return him thanks.
          221"Rub all out!" Well, well, there's my life, in short,
          222And so the thing has gone on ever since.
          223I'm grown a man no doubt, I've broken bounds:
          224You should not take a fellow eight years old
          225And make him swear to never kiss the girls.
          226I'm my own master, paint now as I please--
          227Having a friend, you see, in the Corner-house!
          228Lord, it's fast holding by the rings in front--
          229Those great rings serve more purposes than just
          230To plant a flag in, or tie up a horse!
          231And yet the old schooling sticks, the old grave eyes
          232Are peeping o'er my shoulder as I work,
          233The heads shake still--"It's art's decline, my son!
          234You're not of the true painters, great and old;
          235Brother Angelico's the man, you'll find;
          236Brother Lorenzo stands his single peer:
          237Fag on at flesh, you'll never make the third!"
          238Flower o' the pine,
          239You keep your mistr ... manners, and I'll stick to mine!
          240I'm not the third, then: bless us, they must know!
          241Don't you think they're the likeliest to know,
          242They with their Latin? So, I swallow my rage,
          243Clench my teeth, suck my lips in tight, and paint
          244To please them--sometimes do and sometimes don't;
          245For, doing most, there's pretty sure to come
          246A turn, some warm eve finds me at my saints--
          247A laugh, a cry, the business of the world--
          248(Flower o' the peach
          249Death for us all, and his own life for each!)
          250And my whole soul revolves, the cup runs over,
          251The world and life's too big to pass for a dream,
          252And I do these wild things in sheer despite,
          253And play the fooleries you catch me at,
          254In pure rage! The old mill-horse, out at grass
          255After hard years, throws up his stiff heels so,
          256Although the miller does not preach to him
          257The only good of grass is to make chaff.
          258What would men have? Do they like grass or no--
          259May they or mayn't they? all I want's the thing
          260Settled for ever one way. As it is,
          261You tell too many lies and hurt yourself:
          262You don't like what you only like too much,
          263You do like what, if given you at your word,
          264You find abundantly detestable.
          265For me, I think I speak as I was taught;
          266I always see the garden and God there
          267A-making man's wife: and, my lesson learned,
          268The value and significance of flesh,
          269I can't unlearn ten minutes afterwards.

          270You understand me: I'm a beast, I know.
          271But see, now--why, I see as certainly
          272As that the morning-star's about to shine,
          273What will hap some day. We've a youngster here
          274Comes to our convent, studies what I do,
          275Slouches and stares and lets no atom drop:
          276His name is Guidi--he'll not mind the monks--
          277They call him Hulking Tom, he lets them talk--
          278He picks my practice up--he'll paint apace.
          279I hope so--though I never live so long,
          280I know what's sure to follow. You be judge!
          281You speak no Latin more than I, belike;
          282However, you're my man, you've seen the world
          283--The beauty and the wonder and the power,
          284The shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades,
          285Changes, surprises,--and God made it all!
          286--For what? Do you feel thankful, ay or no,
          287For this fair town's face, yonder river's line,
          288The mountain round it and the sky above,
          289Much more the figures of man, woman, child,
          290These are the frame to? What's it all about?
          291To be passed over, despised? or dwelt upon,
          292Wondered at? oh, this last of course!--you say.
          293But why not do as well as say,--paint these
          294Just as they are, careless what comes of it?
          295God's works--paint any one, and count it crime
          296To let a truth slip. Don't object, "His works
          297Are here already; nature is complete:
          298Suppose you reproduce her--(which you can't)
          299There's no advantage! you must beat her, then."
          300For, don't you mark? we're made so that we love
          301First when we see them painted, things we have passed
          302Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;
          303And so they are better, painted--better to us,
          304Which is the same thing. Art was given for that;
          305God uses us to help each other so,
          306Lending our minds out. Have you noticed, now,
          307Your cullion's hanging face? A bit of chalk,
          308And trust me but you should, though! How much more,
          309If I drew higher things with the same truth!
          310That were to take the Prior's pulpit-place,
          311Interpret God to all of you! Oh, oh,
          312It makes me mad to see what men shall do
          313And we in our graves! This world's no blot for us,
          314Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good:
          315To find its meaning is my meat and drink.
          316"Ay, but you don't so instigate to prayer!"
          317Strikes in the Prior: "when your meaning's plain
          318It does not say to folk--remember matins,
          319Or, mind you fast next Friday!" Why, for this
          320What need of art at all? A skull and bones,
          321Two bits of stick nailed crosswise, or, what's best,
          322A bell to chime the hour with, does as well.
          323I painted a Saint Laurence six months since
          324At Prato, splashed the fresco in fine style:
          325"How looks my painting, now the scaffold's down?"
          326I ask a brother: "Hugely," he returns--
          327"Already not one phiz of your three slaves
          328Who turn the Deacon off his toasted side,
          329But's scratched and prodded to our heart's content,
          330The pious people have so eased their own
          331With coming to say prayers there in a rage:
          332We get on fast to see the bricks beneath.
          333Expect another job this time next year,
          334For pity and religion grow i' the crowd--
          335Your painting serves its purpose!" Hang the fools!

          336--That is--you'll not mistake an idle word
          337Spoke in a huff by a poor monk, God wot,
          338Tasting the air this spicy night which turns
          339The unaccustomed head like Chianti wine!
          340Oh, the church knows! don't misreport me, now!
          341It's natural a poor monk out of bounds
          342Should have his apt word to excuse himself:
          343And hearken how I plot to make amends.
          344I have bethought me: I shall paint a piece
          345... There's for you! Give me six months, then go, see
          346Something in Sant' Ambrogio's! Bless the nuns!
          347They want a cast o' my office. I shall paint
          348God in the midst, Madonna and her babe,
          349Ringed by a bowery, flowery angel-brood,
          350Lilies and vestments and white faces, sweet
          351As puff on puff of grated orris-root
          352When ladies crowd to Church at midsummer.
          353And then i' the front, of course a saint or two--
          354Saint John' because he saves the Florentines,
          355Saint Ambrose, who puts down in black and white
          356The convent's friends and gives them a long day,
          357And Job, I must have him there past mistake,
          358The man of Uz (and Us without the z,
          359Painters who need his patience). Well, all these
          360Secured at their devotion, up shall come
          361Out of a corner when you least expect,
          362As one by a dark stair into a great light,
          363Music and talking, who but Lippo! I!--
          364Mazed, motionless, and moonstruck--I'm the man!
          365Back I shrink--what is this I see and hear?
          366I, caught up with my monk's-things by mistake,
          367My old serge gown and rope that goes all round,
          368I, in this presence, this pure company!
          369Where's a hole, where's a corner for escape?
          370Then steps a sweet angelic slip of a thing
          371Forward, puts out a soft palm--"Not so fast!"
          372--Addresses the celestial presence, "nay--
          373He made you and devised you, after all,
          374Though he's none of you! Could Saint John there draw--
          375His camel-hair make up a painting brush?
          376We come to brother Lippo for all that,
          377Iste perfecit opus! So, all smile--
          378I shuffle sideways with my blushing face
          379Under the cover of a hundred wings
          380Thrown like a spread of kirtles when you're gay
          381And play hot cockles, all the doors being shut,
          382Till, wholly unexpected, in there pops
          383The hothead husband! Thus I scuttle off
          384To some safe bench behind, not letting go
          385The palm of her, the little lily thing
          386That spoke the good word for me in the nick,
          387Like the Prior's niece . . . Saint Lucy, I would say.
          388And so all's saved for me, and for the church
          389A pretty picture gained. Go, six months hence!
          390Your hand, sir, and good-bye: no lights, no lights!
          391The street's hushed, and I know my own way back,
          392Don't fear me! There's the grey beginning. Zooks!

Notes

1] First published in Men and Women, 1855. In this poem, Browning makes use of the account of Lippi in Vasari's Lives of the Painters, from which the following is an extract: "The Carmelite monk, Fra Filippo di Tommaso Lippi (1412-1469), was born at Florence in a bye-street called Ardiglione, under the Canto alla Cuculia, and behind the convent of the Carmelites. By the death of his father he was left a friendless orphan at the age of two years, his mother having also died shortly after his birth. The child was for some time under the care of a certain Mona Lapaccia, his aunt, the sister of his father, who brought him up with very great difficulty till he had attained his eighth year, when, being no longer able to support the burden of his maintenance, she placed him in the above-named convent of the Carmelites. Here, in proportion as he showed himself dexterous and ingenious in all works performed by hand, did he manifest the utmost dullness and incapacity in letters, to which he would never apply himself, nor would he take any pleasure in learning of any kind. The boy continued to be called by his worldly name of Filippo, and being placed with others, who like himself were in the house of the novices, under the care of the master, to the end that the latter might see what could be done with him; in place of studying, he never did anything but daub his own books, and those of the other boys, with caricatures, whereupon the prior determined to give him all means and every opportunity for learning to draw. The chapel of the Carmine had then been newly painted by Masaccio, and this being exceedingly beautiful, pleased Fra Filippo greatly, wherefore he frequented it daily for his recreation, and, continually practising there, in company with many other youths, who were constantly drawing in that place, he surpassed all the others by very much in dexterity and knowledge .... Proceeding thus, and improving from day to day, he has so closely followed the manner of Masaccio, and his works displayed so much similarity to those of the latter, that many affirmed the spirit of Masaccio to have entered the body of Fra Filippo .... "It is said that Fra Filippo was much addicted to the pleasures of sense, insomuch that he would give all he possessed to secure the gratification of whatever inclination might at the moment be predominant .... It was known that, while occupied in the pursuit of his pleasures, the works undertaken by him received little or none of his attention; for which reason Cosimo de' Medici, wishing him to execute a work in his own palace, shut him up, that he might not waste his time in running about; but having endured this confinement for two days, he then made ropes with sheets of his bed, which he cut to pieces for that purpose, and so having let himself down from a window, escaped, and for several days gave himself up to his amusements. When Cosimo found that the painter had disappeared, he caused him to be sought, and Fra Filippo at last returned to his work, but from that time forward Cosimo gave him liberty to go in and out at his pleasure, repenting greatly of having previously shut him up, when he considered the danger that Fra Filippo had incurred by his folly in descending from the window; and ever afterwards labouring to keep him to his work by kindness only, he was by this means much more promptly and effectually served by the painter, and was wont to say that the excellencies of rare genius were as forms of light and not beasts of burden."

17] Cosimo of the Medici (1389-1464): the real ruler of Florence, and a patron of art and literature.

53] The snatches of song represent a species of Italian folk-song called Stornelli; each consisting of three lines of a set form, and containing the name of a flower in the first line.

67] Saint Laurence: the Church at San Lorenzo, now famous for the tombs of the Medici, the work of Michael Angelo.

73] Jerome: one of the Christian Fathers, translated the Bible into Latin; he led a life of extreme asceticism.

117-18] A reference to the procession carrying the consecrated wafer.

121] the Eight: a body of magistrates who kept order.

130] antiphonary: the service-book.

140] Preaching Friars: the Dominicans.

172] funked: turned to smoke.

176 ff.] Lippi belonged to the naturalistic school which developed among the Florentines. These showed a greater attention to natural form and beauty, as opposed to the conventional school, who were men under the influence of earlier artists and inherited an ascetic timidity in the representation of material things.

189] Giotto (1267-1337): the earliest of the greater Florentine painters.

196] Herodias: sister-in-law of Herod, and mother of Salome. See Matthew, 14 for the story of Salome's dance and the beheading of John the Baptist.

227] See line 18 above.

235] Brother Angelico: Fra Angelico (1387-1455), "By purity of life, habitual elevation of thought, and natural sweetness of disposition, he was enabled to express the sacred affections upon the human countenance, as no one ever did before or since" (Ruskin).

236] Lorenzo: Lorenzo Monaco (1370-1425), a Camaldolese friar who painted in Florence.

273 ff.] Tommaso Guidi (1401-28) better known as Masaccio (which means "hulking") "because," says Vasari, "of his excessive negligence and disregard of himself." He was the teacher--not, as here represented, the pupil--of Filippo Lippi (see first note above).

324] Prato: a town some dozen miles from Florence; in the Cathedral are frescoes by Filippo, but they represent St. Stephen, and the Baptist, not St. Laurence.

328] According to tradition, St. Laurence was roasted on a gridiron.

339] Chianti wine: the common red wine of Tuscany.

346] Browning proceeds to put into Fra Filippo's mouth a description of what is considered his masterpiece --a Coronation of the Virgin--which he painted for the nuns of Sant' Ambrogio. Browning, following Vasari, believes that the painter put a self-portrait in the lower corner of the picture. Recent research has shown that the figure is a portrait, not of Fra Filippo, but of the benefactor who ordered the picture for the church. In this case, perfecit opus means "caused the work to be made," not, as Browning takes it, "completed the work himself."

354] St. John the Baptist is the patron saint of the Florentines.


Online text copyright © 2005, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: Robert Browning, Men and Women, 2 vols. (1855.) Rev. 1863.
First publication date: 1855
RPO poem editor: F. E. L. Priestley
RP edition: 3RP 3.131.
Recent editing: 2:2002/1/10*1:2005/1/11

Rhyme: unrhyming


Other poems by Robert Browning