Analysis of how religion suppresses the development of identity in “Fra Lippo Lippi”

            What I found interesting in “Fra Lippo Lippi” is the poem’s connection to “Andrea Del Sarto”: specifically, Browning’s discussion of the soul in art.  He presents two similar ideas in both poems which, reveals Browning’s condescension towards the Church and how it ironically controls and contains the soul, preventing the development of artist’s true identity.

            Both poems are narrated by 15th century Florentine artists who struggle with the expression of identity in their art. In “Andrea Del Sarto”, the painter attempts to justify his painting style, a style which lacks soul and emotion but attains physical perfection.  He is frustrated by the recognition of Raphael and other artists who paint dramatized versions of life; their paintings are faulty in form and contours but are rich in emotion and beauty.

             Similarly, in “Fra Lippo Lippi”, the narrator tries to paint perfect human figures, but the Church tells him to focus more on the soul. The Prior at the convent tell him that “[his] business is not to catch men with show,/ With homage to the perishable clay, / But lift them over it, ignore it all, / make them forget there’s such a thing as flesh, / [His] business is to paint the souls of men” (“Fra Lippo Lippi” 179-183). Both artists struggle with the idea that perfection in form and representation is not good enough for the Church and thus, consumers in general.  The church values dramatized and romanticized art rather than natural human form.  Fra Lippo Lippi feels unnaturally caged just as his true artistic abilities are caged.  His nightly escapes are his way of finding some freedom.  He stifles his passion for his style of art: “I swallow my rage, / Clench my teeth, suck my lips in tight, and paint / To please them” (242-244).  This quote expresses how hard Fra Lippo Lippi has to work to hold in his desires.  There are a lot of tension filled words in these lines: “rage”, “clench”, “suck” and “tight”.  These words communicate the amount of tension between the individual and religion. Browning demonstrates how religion suppresses that personal expression with its conventions. Fra Lippo Lippi exclaims “I’m my own master. Paint now as I please” (226). The artist can only become sovereign and can identify himself when he is able to express his true abilities and desires.  The Church hypocritically tells people how to express the soul in art, but in doing so, the artists’ souls are smothered.  It seems as though identity is therefore expressed when a person fulfills their passions and desires apart from religion and conventions.

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One Response to Analysis of how religion suppresses the development of identity in “Fra Lippo Lippi”

  1. Phillip Opsasnick says:

    Since I am posting this late, I figured I should address something that wasn’t addressed in class. So, I looked closely at some of the formal/structural elements that are in play in Browning’s “Fra Lippo Lippi.”
    The meter in “Fra Lippo Lippi” is in iambic pentameter, more or less. It is intriguing, then, to look at how Browning uses this meter for the poem. One aspect of this that I noticed regards his use of enjambment and caesura.
    Since the poem is mostly in iambic pentameter, most lines (excluding the lines of song) end on a stressed syllable. This can often provide the reader with a notion of finality, to some degree. In a great amount of lines, Browning in fact punctuates the end of a line. However, as we mentioned in class, Browning enjoys the use of caesuras and often structures his lines to include some punctuation that has a pause function [commas, ellipses, dashes, hyphens, periods, exclamation points, etc. ] in the middle of a line. I found this aspect of his poetry intriguing, in that he does not fear overusing the function of a caesura. In re-reading the first parts of “Fra Lippo Lippi,” I came to notice that some of his enjambments have a partial stop or pause (such as a comma) which is further halted after the end of the first foot of the next line. This can be seen in lines 6-7: “The Car | mine’s my | clois | ter: || hunt | it up,
    Do–||har | ry out, | if you | must show | your zeal,”(6-7).
    In line 6, the meter pauses at the caesura caused by the semi-colon in the fourth foot; from this the rhythm settles for the rest of the line. However, the beginning of line 7 halts too quickly from the dash, which adds additional emphasis to the imperative of “Do”. More importantly, I think this provides a good example of how Browning can shift tone from line to line through his use of enjambment. A caesura after the first foot of a line seems to be a common technique applied to the beginning of the poem. [Line 10-11, 16-17, 22-23, 26-27]. I think that Browning might be applying this technique to capture a feeling of tension that is underlying the content of the poem. As we mentioned in class, Fra Lippo restlessly questions and is not always conclusive. He often will pose a question that has two considerably significant answers, neither of which is clearly preferred. These two options, then, sit in a tension with each other. I think that Browning’s use of enjambment along with his use of caesura in the beginning of the following line, work to establish this tension, subtly, in the beginning of the poem.

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