The Blues, arguably the only distinctively American form of music, took the seminal tropes of love embodied in death (Christ’s sacrifice) and elegy embodied in longing (the state of the world after that) and made them something that fit the people. These religious ideas often kept the people obedient and working, but with this, I think, the working-class also possessed a somewhat invisible strength that was useful despite (to spite) the pressures of production. Victorian poets tried, similarly, to use the religious ideas of the day as a response to the social climate of their day. It was important to Victorians that their poetry had some social purpose while also protecting each poet’s autonomy as an artist. Robert Browning and Christina Rossetti tried to breach this binary opposition between the artist and the world by maintaining the dynamic between both sides. Each artist needed to have a way to maintain a distance between the artist and the world, and to build it up again. Using the trope of the embowered woman/artist, these poets created parallels to issues of the working-class and prevalent religious figures, by exercising artistic control over the frame of their interpretation of this trope, these artists were able to preserve their personal aesthetics as artists. I chose Browning’s “Fra Lippo Lippi” and “Andrea del Sarto”, Rossetti’s “The Heart Knoweth its own Bitterness” and “Reflection” (Browning, Men and Women. Rossetti, The Complete Poems.) I selected these poems because in addition to dealing with the same trope, they share images that illustrate major issues that occur alongside the complication of this trope. These poems can also be read as representations of related situations from different points of view.
Fra Lippo, who was held captive in the house of Medici, the ruler of Florence in the 1400s, so that he would finish the work he had been commissioned to do. This poem takes place as a city guard catches him on his way back to Medici’s palace after he has stolen away into the streets. In Browning’s “Fra Lippo Lippi” the artist has restraints placed upon his person, his body, by the guard who plays the part of silent listener, the Medici family, by the church and by his parents. But unlike Tennyson’s “Marianna”, or the Lady of Shallot, this man gets away from his high tower, with his life, and is also free to return to it. His critics, religious and otherwise, restrict Fra Lippo’s art, thus his freedom as an artist. Since he is embowered, not only is he separate from the world, but he is above others. Lippi creates this sense of height by belittling the backwards opinions of the monks who represent the influence of the church. Many of the devices Browning utilizes are factors of his form: the dramatic monologue. For Lippi, his placement as commentator and source of his own story gives him distance from the events and a position from which to spin his tale to his best light. The speaker uses popular lyrics as a way of appropriating a worldly sentiment — while maintaining his position as monk and artist who is, eventually, to return to the protection and prestige of those positions. In keeping with the strengths of poetic form, Browning uses the intratextuality that specifically placed line breaks can create in order to multiply his range of argument.
“Is it one or all of these? (“Reflections”, line 25).”
The dramatic monologue, the form of poetry that Browning created to help him troubleshoot the gap between the artist and his obligation to his social environment. The speaker is in control of the situation, and can tell the parts of the story he wishes to and leave out other details. This a form especially suited to evasion by the poet — unlike Aurora Leigh, which was semi-autobiographical, speakers in dramatic monologues are characters with their own personalities, faults, and strengths. Browning’s contemporaries couldn’t infer anything about Browning, or where he stood on any of the issues he tackled, from these poems, so as a poet he was powerful in that respect. And Browning’s speakers also were usually in a position of power over their silent listeners — if only because the speaker had a voice and the listener did not. The situation between the speaker and the listener is usually intimate- but as in “My Last Duchess” and “Cleon”, the power dynamics between the two characters usually plays a big role in the monologue.
“myself, to take myself and keep (“The Heart Knoweth its own Bitterness”, line 32)”.
The monologue is the action that is taking place — that is, the monologues aren’t narratives, though the performance of a narrative might be the focus. This gives the speaker room to act as commentator on as the story is being told. Thus the speaker has room to play a larger assortment of roles during the course of the monologue. In “Fra Lippo Lippi,” the painter-monk narrates his many stories: how he happened to be found on the street, the story of his apprenticeship, even his disputes with the monks. As the narrator of some events that occur in the past, he is free to frame them as he chooses. This is one of the factors by which Browning maintains a sense of ambiguity; the narrator is free to connect himself more closely or more distantly, as it suits him, with any of the other characters in any of his stories. Because the narration takes place in time itself, the narrator is also free to chance his mind or renegotiate alliances. Lippi stops the narrative to connect with the guard, it is in his best interest to do so, when he says, in line 270 “You understand me: I’m a beast, I know”, or upon rethinking a comment, “ — That is — you’ll not mistake an idle word/ Spoke in a huff by a poor monk (336-37).” Lippi refers specifically to his bounds and his strategy of releasing himself from them when he says, “don’t misreport me, now! / It’s natural a poor monk out of bounds/ should have his apt word to excuse himself” (lines 340-43). He can also respond freely to the demands placed upon him by the monks or anyone else. He writes of the monks entreating him to forsake the body for the soul, “I always see the garden and God there/ a-making man’s wife: and, my lesson learned” (266). So in response to the monks, and even in their voices, the commentator can present his views of art, and thus women, to the guard, his sympathetic ear. Lippi makes an important point about the relationship between art and world when he explains in a remark that resounds with imagery of the embowered female “we’re made so that we love/ first when we see them painted, things we have passed/ perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;/ and also they are better painted—better to us/ which is the same thing. Art was given for that’ (300-4). Beauty is always self-serving. Whether the inspiration of his art, or his means of escape: when he writes of a painting yet to be completed, “Where’s a hole, where’s a corner for escape? / Then steps a sweet angelic slip of a thing/ Forward, puts out a soft palm” (369-71).
that length of convent-wall across the way
holds the trees safer, huddled, more inside
— “Andrea del Sarto”, lines 42-43
Because the speaker often has a stake in the success of his dramatic monologue, the stories are displayed according to their usefulness to the goals of the speaker. In this poem, Lippi uses popular lyrics and the story of his orphan-hood to connect with the guard in order to further a point or two. Lines 53-56, “Flower o’ the broom, / Take away love, and our earth is a tomb! / Flower o’ the quince, / I let Lisa go, and what good in life since”- life is less spiritual when you forsake beautiful women, or the plea that the monk should be pitied as a starving orphan who chose the religious life out of necessity too young to know what he might have to give up. Thus, “I shuffle sideways with my blushing face/ under the cover of a hundred wings” the Fra gets away. He returns to his tower, from which the guard will be repaid, but with a painting, and in the future (378-9).
In “Andrea del Sarto”, the artist calls his wife to sit by the window with him to look out at the city of Friesolo, while he talks to her silent form about his work as an artist, his goals, his failures. After detaining her for the thirty minutes Andrea has asked, he lets his wife go off with her cousin, who, it is inferred, is most likely her lover. In this poem, the artist is restrained or has restraints placed upon him, as he chooses, by the four walls of the room in which he sits and the window from which he looks out at Friesolo. He is also indebted to the beautiful body of his wife Lucrezia, who is the model and inspiration for his work, and finally, by her contracting him out to paint for the friend of her lover. Browning creates the height of this tower by having the speaker look down upon the real woman, not just soul, who represents his estranged soul, his wife. His literary devices here are similar to the ones enlisted in “Fra Lippo Lippi”: narrative control, and appropriating the useful traits of an “other” (his voice holds Lucrezia hostage, and in appropriating her as his other half, he subverts her actual existence as a physical person). Though in contrast to the Fra, instead of maintaining an analytical distance from which to criticize the religious establishment, in this poem, what most pervades the speaker’s tone is a sense of victimization. Thus Andrea distances himself from his subsumed “other” in order to better patronize her, and inspire a sense of pity for his own plight.
And any sort of meaning looks intense
When all beside itself means and looks naught — “Fra Lippo Lippi,” line 203
The image of the woman/artist, sitting by the window, looking out, contemplatively, is performed here as Andrea and his wife together are one in the same; he appropriates the aspects of Lucrezia that are most useful to himself. They are thus “both of one mind” — both of his mind, since according to him (though she is able to figure out how to get what she wants from him) she’s not so much in possession of a brain herself (15, 126). She is Andrea: “my face, my moon, my everybody’s moon”, “my serpentining beauty” he says in lines 29-30 and 26. He seems to give her a little room in the next line, “And, I suppose is looked on by in turn,” but he undermines this statement with “While she looks—no one’s: very dear, no less (31-32).” This is typical of the woman-at-the-window except here; her gaze doesn’t even belong to her. Andrea “supposes” that Lucrezia might possibly be of the capacity to look back on others, but instead of making the action of the phrase the event of her looking back, he writes that her viewers are looked back on “while” she looks, not in her looking. This implies that “while” Lucrezia looks, there is some other action occurring. Andrea’s voice is narrating this hypothetical situation, so, possibly, Andrea is the one who is looking back on her behalf. This is supported in the fact that he also constantly directs gaze, whether towards whatever objects he deems important at the moment, or back towards the room in which they sit enclosed together (4,53-4,57). Andrea implies that his wife’s “supposed” independence is cute and unimportant, as he says, “very dear, no less”. She is not to be taken seriously; her air independence from him is what makes her appealing. In fact, it is her very separateness from him, his soul separated from his body, which supposedly causes his fall from greatness as an artist. This situation produces an interesting conundrum since which women are positioned as the inspiration of art while they occur trapped in a painting (or a poem, as in "Lady of Shallot"): Lucrezia is his embowered beauty, as she is embowered. “Besides, incentives come from the soul’s self;/ the rest avail not. Why do I need you? / What wife had Rafael, or has Agnolo? ” (134-136). In addition to calling her to sit down with him, further aids in her imprisonment as Andrea says in lines 175-176 “Let my hands frame your face in your hair’s gold, / You beautiful Lucrezia that are mine!” It is this very “gold” that he is looking for, “this is the truer light of God” that accompanies the soul of those better artists, those artists who are less skilled and further away from heaven (79). But he and she together, only make a “common” silver-grey (35).
“You don’t like what you only like too much,
you do like what, if given at your work,
you find abundantly detestable (“Fra Lippo Lippi,” lines 262-64).
Much attention is paid to the chamber walls around the both of them. They not only enclose Lucrezia, but will continue to enclose Andrea after his wife leaves. The artist, like Fra Lippo, is forbidden to leave the house; because of the heartbreak it would cause him to see his French secular patrons again (145-46). He’s working in Italy because Lucrezia want to be rich—and because, Andrea laments, he grew up poor, and is in need, “That I am something underrated here, / Poor this long while (143-4).” But Andrea is also imprisoned “in God’s hand” (49). He says, in lines 50-52,
How strange now, looks the life he makes us lead;
So free we seem, so fettered fast we are!
I feel he laid the fetter: let it lie!
And Andrea follows up with the idea that religion, and his fractured self, his fractured beauty, is keeping him in this crippled position. First he writes, “Had I been two, another and myself, / our head would have o’erlooked the world” (103). He doesn’t want to be two- another and his beauty, who has no brain and can’t thus be considered an entire self, he wants to be two, another and himself—and he equates this with being on the level of God. These ideas recur in both “Reflection” and “The Heart Knoweth its own Bitterness”. At the end of the poem, the “Four great walls in the New Jerusalem” are what enclose him (261). Andrea doesn’t seem to want to be as restricted as he is, he complains so much, but he does acknowledges that he has chosen this particular chamber of restriction. This is something Rossetti’s speakers cannot claim, the acknowledgement of his choice shows that he has the agency, if he so chooses, to select another way. If only he had his own soul and less beauty. As he points out, Leonardo, Rafael, Agnolo have no a wives
While I have mine! So—still they overcome
because there’s still Lucrezia.—as I choose. [lines 264-266]
It is difficult to argue that Browning is successful in maintaining his obligation to the social mores of the day, because the speaker in both poems uses ambiguity and the trope of the embowered-woman/artist, even poetic form, to shirk responsibility. His arguments are intellectual, but don’t bear upon the reality of his speakers. Lippi returns to his prison, and Andrea chooses his. Browning navigates the many frames of his poems in order to protect his exits as an artist and a man, but the lack of the poet’s voice — his ultimate separation from his soul, the woman — tears down his moral argument. Women, on the other hand, and especially female artists, can’t choose their restrictions, but Rossetti, as a female artist, doesn’t have that option, and thus her speakers use one of the stereotypically female strengths (which is an revered quality within the trope of the embowered artist) — her ability to wait, her patience — to create a space in which to protect her entire self from fracture. In tackling the image of the embowered woman/artist directly, Rossetti liberates a more personal and interior space in her poetry. She’s on the whole more subtle with her devices, and, I argue, she has to be, since a lack of story, or action, is where she maintains her speakers’ selfdom, and the personal artistic aesthetic of each.
In “The Heart Knoweth its own Bitterness”, the speaker describes her discomfort and disdain for the roles she must play while she is divided between the world, with men, and the spiritual fulfillment. Because other critics have found her poetry to be fairly explicitly autobiographical, and because her poems usually reflect, though they complicate, a female point of view, I will follow suit and situate my argument in the theory Rossetti’s speakers are versions of herself. In this poem the artist is physically restricted by the “you” of the poem (who’s is described in a manner that conjures up images of the artist’s loom), and by her responsibility to respond, like Lucrezia, to the call of this “you”. She is also pressed by Time (the gap between the physical world and a lifeless religious future), and by her responsibility as a woman to be satisfied with less than everything. Instead of demeaning religion, or other women, the Rossetti creates distance for her speaker by putting down the “you” of the poem, who aren’t smart enough, or worthy enough to understand her if they tried. Rossetti uses similar devices to protect her artistic power over the frame of her poetry. She makes use of religious themes and tropes, though only as they suit her, and situates her speakers within the image world of the working-class. Since waiting is at the forefront, tense shifts create a sense of ambiguity, and illuminate her dilemma. Spatial boundaries are also loosed, textually, which reflects the creation of control over the space of her confinement. The height of her tower is created by representing her would-be readers as incompetent (I argue that they are patronizing men).
But all the play, the insight and the stretch—
Out of me, out of me! And wherefore out? —"Andrea del Sarto," lines 166-67)
Time is the main adversary, or point of contention, in Rossetti’s poems, since her speakers’ ability to wait is their strength. In “Andrea del Sarto”, the speaker says to Lucrezia, “No, my Lucrezia; bear with me for once”, “Don’t count the time lost either, you must serve (2, 23)”. But instead of places images of the working-class and religion in positions of usefulness, Rossetti’s speakers complicate these associations so that her arguments about religion and class seem to be more effective. In the third stanza, Rossetti destabilizes the religious temporal progression towards wholeness with God by creating a parallel between her striving for pleasure and planning for her soul’s future. Instead of progressing from pleasure to a protected soul, both these endeavors are written in the past tense. Between them, in the present tense, is a question (in “Reflections”, Rossetti also uses questions as a literary device). The speaker wonders whether or not she should limit herself to one or the other. “No doubt, there’s something strikes a balance. Yes” (Andrea del Sarto, line 257). Rossetti places, “I used to labour, used to strive”, and “I used to dream alone, to plan” parallel to each other, (17,21). One of the attractions of religion and heaven is that everything is settled, “There God shall join and no man part (55).” With secular life, people become “restless” (it was Lucrezia’s restlessness that took Andrea away from his beloved France in line 166 of Browning’s poem). This is the framework into which Rossetti places the question in this stanza; she writes, “Now if I save my soul alive/ all else what matters, good or ill?” This places the text within the social phase of the artist where the work happens “alone” and it is the artist that does her own saving (21). She asks what happens when the soul is alive, as the artist in the tower, but the body is dead? Is it enough? She ends the stanza with these two lines, 23-4, “Of all my past this is the sum--/I will not lean on child of man.” This seems to imply that Rossetti has decided to side with the religious pole. But even this is complicated in that, Christ is also known as the son of man, another reading is that the speaker has found it disadvantageous to depend on the men of her time to make this decision for her. Either way, the present remains unresolved, since both possible answers were tried in the past, and neither were enough. This is her solution: she resolves to wait. “I must bear it all,” says Andrea del Sarto in line 148 of that poem. Rossetti writes, “Your vessels are by much too strait:/ Were I to pour, you could not hold.—Bear with me: I must bear to wait, / a fountain sealed through heat and cold (41-44). Here, she describes her dissatisfaction over either of the poles, by situating herself as a fountain sealed by both the extremes of hot and cold- this is also a religious illustration, the fount filled with the blood of Christ by which sinners loose their sins.
Much have I paid, yet much is due — “The Heart Knoweth its own Bitterness”, line 15
Rossetti uses words like “paid”, “strive”, “craving” “bartered”, due”, “beggared”, “labor”, “sum” and “outweigh” to connect both with religious ideas and with the textual currency of economics (lines 14,17, 10,12, 15). In contrast to del Sarto, she positions herself with the poor by action, not by appropriation of the "other's" exotic wealth. Thus this mismatch of actions and terms, without obvious personal interest to the speaker, is able to make a statement about the class structure of her society. Her diction brings up images of the artist at her loom, working for half of a whole life: the representation of life- and being denied the other half: actual experience of it. The loom, and the speakers female engendering is especially evident when the speaker laments the impossibility of her whole self being appreciated in lines 33-36, “You scratch my surface with your pin, / you stroke me smooth with hushing breath--/nay pierce, nay probe, nay dig within, / Probe my quick core and sound my depth.” (Coincidentally, del Sarto entreats Lucrezia to sit with him “Quietly, quietly” before delivering a 267-line monologue (line 17).) These words are simultaneously reminiscent of the working-class while also having religious applications, but they also reflect the female-male power dynamic. It is because of this easy transference between phases of social life, that one cannot tell from where the speaker’s imprisonment comes. This variety of interpretation does not fracture the poem, but creates something more complete. This is what her speaker wants when she laments in lines 26-28, “I long to pour myself, my soul, / Not to keep back or count or leave, / But king with king to give the whole.” Rossetti retains her power over frame, and keeps her freedom in her ambiguity. Interestingly, she ends the po! em with, “I full of Christ and Christ of me.” Even this line is unclear; to be full of Christ is the usual religious ideal, but “Christ full of me” sounds more like she wants to be a “king with [a] king (56, 28).”Even the word that crops up several times in almost every stanza, “enough”- is by nature a term that cannot be confined, and as if that wasn’t enough, in the poem it is always written in quotation marks.
In “Reflection”, a speaker bombards its soul’s soul with questions, only to be answered by silence. Ultimately the speaker decides the answer is unimportant, and is content to prepare for the soul’s burial. In this poem, the speaker is restricted physically by burden of looking from many windows: the image of the contemplative woman at the window is multiplied at least three times. She also is constrained by the “I” of the poem, who I read as the compliment to the “you” in “The Heart Knoweth its own Bitterness” who also never understands its own soul, and is responsible for her burial. Here, Rossetti reflects the male poet from her own point of view, as he looks to consume and understand another beautiful soul. Like the Lady of Shallot, the soul is finally restricted by her burial- which endlessly only reflects the struggle of the “I” to comprehend, and apprehend, her. Again, the height of the embowering tower is created in the soul’s denying of her “self”, the artist’s silence in the face of an unworthy calling. Despite it all, her speaker keeps herself through her silence and her resolve to wait for fulfillment, which cannot be domesticated, though in this poem it is attempted. Here, the soul has the power to deny the self.
“I painting from myself and to myself, / I know what I do, am unmoved by men’s blame/ or their praise either (“Andrea del Sarto,” lines 90-92).”
The title of this poem reflects the conflict that occurs between the artist and her obligations. The first stanza of reflections states,
Gazing thro’ her chamber window
Sits my soul’s dear soul;
Looking northward, looking southward,
Looking to the goal,
Looking back without control. [1-5]
There are many soul/selves here, but all of them pointing in a different direction. Rossetti also uses questions and silence to project a sense of the embowered space. Almost every stanza ends in a question. Questions cap each period of description so that the questions spatially mimic a sense of enclosure. And the speakers asks the questions any reader of Rossetti have been hoping for the answers to:
Is it love she looks and longs for;
Is it rest or peace;
Is it slumber self-forgetful
in its utter ease;
Is it one or all of these?
Is it knowledge, love, or pride? [21-25,35]
Rossetti writes, “Now if I could guess her secret/ Were it worth the guess...what care I for no or yes (41-2,45)?” The speaker isn’t even able to answer these questions, and doesn’t really want to. Instead, the soul’s self begins to plan the burial of the soul, a burial that will be a testament to the self’s striving (46, 51). ,“Who can guess or read her will?” anyway? (15). And the speakers asks the questions any reader of Rossetti have been hoping for the answers to: “Is it love she looks and longs for;/ Is it rest or peace; / Is it slumber self-forgetful/ in its utter ease;/ Is it one or all of these? Is it knowledge, love, or pride (21-25,35)?” Rossetti writes, “Now if I could guess her secret/ Were it worth the guess...What care I for no or yes (41-2,45)?” The speaker isn’t even able to answer these questions, and doesn’t really want to. Instead, the soul’s self begins to plan the burial of the soul, a burial that will be a tes! tament to the self’s striving (46, 51).
And I do all these wild things in sheer despite — “Fra Lippo Lippi, ” line 252
Rossetti’s choice of pronoun (first, third, second person, plural or possessive) function to demarcate the boundaries between the many embowered selves and the speaker, and between the embowered selves and the “I”, who herself finds this boundary insurmountable. Use of third person possessive pronouns here, “her”, and not “our”(first person plural possessive) shows that the speaker doesn’t herself have any privileged knowledge into the soul’s will. The self calls the soul’s soul “beloved” in line 6, after having, similar to “After Death”, created a shrine of “plumed meadowsweet, / Iris and pale perfumed lilies (7-8).”The poem ends with the following lines, “Have her carved in alabaster, / as she dreamed and leant/ While I wondered shat she meant” which seems as if she just stepped out of a painting by one of the Pre-Raphelite artists (53-55).
Instead of being a haven from responsibility, the ambiguity that Rossetti establishes (the redeeming quality of her speakers is that they are never able to be pinned down) is a way of protecting both the speaker, and also personal aesthetics of each as an artist. Though uncomfortable, but in solidarity common to the working class, and the religious- patience, grief, is the new death, and death is, paradoxically, the female artist’s exit. In both of Browning’s poems, the silent listener has to wait to get their due, whether bribe, or a reflection of gratefulness. Rossetti takes that waiting and uses it. If the Victorian artist’s aim is to be true both the public self and the private self, Rossetti has been fairly successful through the parallels she creates. But Rossetti is still true to her difficulty as an artist- by not appropriating anything of anyone else, but using her control, as the poet, over the frame of her poetry.
“How could it end in any other way?” (“Andrea del Sarto,” line 171).
Foucault writes, of a corporeal system, in Discipline and Punish: The birth of the prison, “It takes back with one hand what it seems to exclude with the other. It saves everything, including what it punishes. It is unwilling to waste even what it has decided to disqualify.” This seems to be a fitting response to the essential weaknesses that afflict the trope of the embowered woman. It seems that both artists, Rossetti and Browning, have included some things and excluded others. While revealing the sloppiness of the prison and its boundaries, these artists have finally kept everything — their freedom, and their imprisonment. Each imprisoned the system by choosing, as artists, what to frame- they made its strengths and weakness work to both of their advantages. One does wonder, though, whether the cause of social reform might have been bettered served by a different system.
Modified 18 December 2003