Actual Title: The Flesh is the Soul
In Fra Lippo Lippi Robert Browning explores a number of elements of art, but in particular he explores the way the church expected art to be both aesthetically and conceptually. The artist in the poem (Fra Filippo Lippi) paints for the church on a regular basis, but has to a certain point become fed up with the way the church deals with art, and in particular the soul:
“Your business is to paint the souls of men-/Man’s soul, and it’s a fire, smoke . . . no, it’s not . . ./It’s vapour done up like a new-born babe-/(In that shape when you die it leaves your mouth)/It’s . . . well, what matters talking, it’s the soul!/Give us no more of body than shows soul!” (183-188)
Here Filippo expresses his frustration at the church and its inconsistencies. They don’t know how to define the soul but are telling him how to, or at least attempting to. The vague attempts at defining the soul and describing it all fail, and in the end the mocked imaginary speaker gives up and in the final line simply demands what they want. They don’t know what they want, yet demand Lippi paints it for them.
Lippi has his own beliefs as to how the soul should be presented. He suggests that the soul is instead within the flesh, that the flesh is just as important as the soul is:
“For me, I think I speak as I was taught;/I always see the garden and God there/A-making man’s wife: and, my lesson learned,/The value and significance of flesh,/I can’t unlearn ten minutes afterwards.” (265-269)
He believes that since his god made both man and woman their appearances and flesh are just as important and godly as the soul itself. If god constructed them, are they not heavenly? He is refusing to revoke this realization just because the church tells him so, and he wants to stand firmly and continue to paint the way he intends.
This view is, however, poisoned by the fact that he is found suspiciously close to a well-known red light district. This implies that he is interested in flesh for other, less savory, reasons. This puts the argument as a whole into a different light, and to a certain point even seems to present the other side of the argument. Just the fact that he’s at that particular location gives the entire argument a new meaning; perhaps he is incorrect and is instead trying to justify his lifestyle? That or he’s arguing against the lifestyle of the monks in their entirety. Browning makes excellent use of setting in this poem to make the poem into more than just a one sided argument; the setting inspires the reader to consider the other side of this debate.