Fra Lippo Lippi – Discussion Questions
Browning talks like "a man bouncing up from the table with his mouth full of bread and cheese and saying that he meant no blasted nonsense." – Gerard Manley Hopkins
"I cannot begin writing poetry till my imaginary reader has conceded licenses to me . . . . You would have me paint it all plain out, which can't be; but by various artifices I try to make shift with touches and bits of outlines which succeed if they bear the conception from me to you. You ought, I think, to keep pace with the thought" – Browning to John Ruskin
Please note: As is true of most dramatic monologues, "Fra Lippo Lippi" must be read with great care. It works with stylistic and allusive compression, so that every line carries weight and significance. Work your way through the poem slowly and with concentration---not unlike the speaker himself, casual as his tone may be.
The Poem's Opening
- Fra Lippo Lippi is, apparently, caught by a patrol of policemen on his way home from a nightly excursion---a field trip, so to speak. Speculate on the nature of this field trip. What motivated FLL to embark on such a nocturnal escapade? What can we say, even at this point in the poem, about FLL's aesthetic sensibilities? (approx. lines 1-80).
The Beginning of Fra Lippo Lippi
- To plead his case with the watchmen, FLL narrates his background that made him a "monk" and painter. What may Fra Lippo Lippi be suggesting about the practices of the Catholic Church both in regard to his own recruitment as well as life in the convent? How did Fra Lippo Lippi's early life of poverty prepare him for his vocation? How do the various members of his convent respond to his first assignment? (approx. lines 81-225)
Fra Lippo Lippi's Theory of Art
- Throughout the poem, partly but not exclusively in contrast to the ecclesiastical establishment, Fra Lippo Lippi articulates his own theory of art. What does this theory (in broad brush strokes, one might say) consist of? What are its major elements? In what relation does his own theory of art stand to the religion he and his brothers profess (albeit in different ways)? What might Browning be trying to say about artistic endeavor and creation? Locate the major passages.
"Fra Roberto Browning."
- Without trying to be presumptuous---and keeping in mind the narrative intricacies of the dramatic monologue---it is fairly safe to suggest that Browning develops part of his own artistic beliefs through the voice of Fra Lippo Lippi. What points of contact can you see between, say, painting and writing as two forms of artistic expression? (Painting, in that sense, can be seen as a figurative scene of writing.) Where in the poem does this conjunction become visible, if only momentarily? What form(s) of artistic representation might Browning be trying to advocate here?
The Medieval Revival and The Contemporary World
- "Fra Lippo Lippi" could be seen as attempting to transcend medieval attitudes toward life and art. In that sense, the poem goes beyond what we have come to know as the "medieval revival" in nineteenth-century England. Nevertheless, as with many of his contemporaries, Browning likes to dwell in the distant past both to nostalgify a time gone by (occasionally) and to comment on his own historical moment (leaving aside the critique leveled at the practices of the Catholic Church during the Renaissance, and perhaps in the 19th century as well). What may Browning be trying to say about mid-Victorian England: its political climate, socio-economic disparities, sexual mores, attitudes toward art, etc.? What, generally speaking, does the poem's contemporary relevance consist of? (Speculate and theorize, as Picard would say to Data.)
"Old Hippety-Hop o' the accents" – Ezra Pound on RB
"[T]he dramatic monologue, which once had depended for its effect upon being a departure from the norm of poetry, now became in one form or another the norm." – Randall Jarrell
"[N]one of the odd ones have been so great and none of the great ones been so odd." – Henry James, at Browning's funeral