The shape of Fra Lippo Lippi's voice
April Freely '04, English 151, Brown University, 2003
Browning is effective at consistently drawing the reader into his dramatic monologues, be they long or short, because, simply as a function of this form, his language is very keen, very active, every character seems to magically breathe, dynamic spaces are created in which inference often speaks louder than what is explicitly stated. There is something here, for me, that is very reminiscent of the way in which people actually use language- as a vehicle for gesture, for play, as a place heavily dependent on and susceptible to contradiction, nuances of context, layers of reference. This is just as evident in Browning's "Fra Lippo Lippi" as in any other poem we've read thus far. This poem, like the others- left me with a very diffuse perception of why I was drawn in-- I found myself fumbling to understand the mechanics by which this particular poem had created its experience. The best way to tease this out is to look more closely at a passage or two. The first I've chosen starts on line 198:
Now, is this sense, I ask?
A fine way to paint soul, by painting body
So ill, the eye can't stop there, must go further
And can't fare worse! Thus, yellow does for white
When what you put for yellow's simply black,
And any sort of meaning looks intense
When all beside itself means and looks naught.
Why can't a painter lift each foot in turn,
Left foot and right foot, go a double step,
Make his flesh liker and his soul more like,
Both in their order?
Another short passage, in which I think some of the key elements of form of the poem are at their height, starts at line 260:
As it is,
You tell too many lies and hurt yourself:
You don't like what you only like too much,
You do like what, if given at your word,
You find abundantly detestable.
How does Browning use elements of rhyme, rhythm, repetition, and meter to establish the persona of the Fra?
How do the frequent disembodied subjects shape Browning's depiction of this character? Fragments of song? Is it possible to specify the distinct ways in which each of these elements affect the reader's understanding of the Fra's personality, and the power dynamic between he and the monk?
How do these literary tools shape our reading of the Fra's argument- are there elements of form that make him more, or less, credible or convincing? How do any of these elements of the poem indicate the extent to which the reader should be sympathetic to the Fra's somewhat earth-centered, romantic views of art, and its relationship to life and religion?
Does it seem that the energy of voice of some Browning's characters are similar, if so what types of characters are these, and why might they have similar voices? (similar themes, similar relationships to people or ideas of power? If not, can you name an element of form that contributes to this difference, or might you speculate on why this seems to be so despite the fact that many of Browning's poems confront overlapping concepts?
Modified 1 October 2003