In his two poems “Fra Lippo Lippi” and “Andrea Del Sarto,” Browning meditates on the nature of defeat. Each poem contains an intelligent and talented speaker, who finds himself oppressed by either his external circumstances or his intrinsic shortcomings. The tone, form, and diction of each poem all help to illustrate the theme of defeat, and by presenting this theme in two different forms, Browning asks the reader to contemplate its varying causes and effects.
“Fra Lippo Lipp” is a poem about a young artist who joined the monkhood at the age of eight in a desperate attempt to escape a childhood composed of poverty and starvation. “When a boy starves in the streets,” begins the speaker on line 112, “watching folk’s faces to know who will fling / the bit of half-stripped grape-bunch he desires / which gentleman… will wink and let him lift and catch / the droppings of wax to say again / how say i?” (Browning, 112). The idea of food and shelter comforts the poor child, and he resolves to allow himself to be taken into the priesthood. The narrator goes on to state that considering his young age, it was unfair of the Church to expect him to understand the commitment to a life of celibacy, and spends the entirety of his poem detailing the trials and tribulations he suffers as a monk.
“Andrea Del Sarto” concerns another young artist and his journey through what can accurately be described as a mid-life crisis. He compares his work to those of the world’s most renowned artists ever to have lived, such as Michelangelo and Rafael. He concludes that although he achieves a level of “flawlessness” not present in the works of the Great Masters, their work is more beautiful and respectable because it contains emotions that his does not. On line 98 Sarto exclaims “All is silver-gray, placid with my art: the Worse!” To make matters worse, he is nearing the end of his marriage, and ends up sending off to be with her lover so he can brood in solitude.
Both poems prompt the same question: Why are these two talented and articulate individuals so unhappy and unsuccessful. The fact that they are both dramatic monologues written in blank verse creates a form in which Browning can easily convey a sense of rambling, inarticulate disappointment. Each narrator, however, suffers from a defeat with a radically different cause. According to the speaker of “Fra Lippo Lippi,” he is a product of his environment, and his discontent is the direct result of manipulation of the part of the Church. The speaker’s problems in “Andrea del Sarto,” in contrast stem from an inability to capture the essence of the beauty in his artistic surroundings. If Sarto could replicate the passion and emotion found in Michelangelo’s artwork, he would not be riddled with strife.