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The Struggle Between the Visual and Verbal in Robert Browning’s “Fra Lippo Lippi”

A paradigmatic ekphrastic poem, such as W.H. Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts, with its central description of how the everyday life of the painting goes on as usual in Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus while its titular character drowns, demonstrates clearly James Heffernan’s definition of ekphrasis: “The verbal representation of visual representation.”

This is not to say that ekphrasis is without nuance. Foundational ekphrastic theorist Murray Krieger makes this clear in his essay, “The Ekphrastic Principle and the Still Moment of Poetry; or Laokoon Revisited,” in which he frames ekphrasis as artistic representation that employs “a plastic object as a symbol of the frozen, stilled world of plastic relationships which must be superimposed upon literature’s turning world to ‘still’ it.” He concludes that, as a result, “the poem takes on the ‘still’ elements of plastic form which we normally attribute to the spatial arts” and its “generic spatiality.”

While Lawrence J. Starzyk and various other critics are correct in referring to Robert Browning’s “Fra Lippo Lippi” as ekphrastic, this poem also spills over the edges of that definition because in it Browning does more than merely describe a work of visual art; he gives voice to his own version of the 15th century Italian painter Filippo Lippi, and really to his own vision of art, and then lets it run amuck in poetic space. Granted, there are ekphrastic elements in this poem, as in the case where Browning/the painter speaker refers to works of art created by the real Lippi; however, that Browning’s Lippi also refers to paintings he never painted implies that Browning is up to more than merely forming a narrative in response to a work of visual art.

Yet, while Heffernan’s and Krieger’s definitions of ekphrasis may not give us the whole key to Browning’s poem, they help us understand how Browning’s poem behaves: Lippi acts as artistic sensibility set free to wander and narrate both the words of poetry and the space of art. This essay will argue that in “Fra Lippo Lippi,” Browning attempts to enact Krieger’s concept of ekphrastic spatiality while simultaneously trying to resist the stillness that Krieger claims is its inevitable byproduct.

The ekphrastic tendency in art is nothing new. Painting and poetry, for example, have been interwoven in diverse ways for centuries, from as far back as Horace’s “ut pictura poesis” to Schlegel’s comment that the painter “must be a poet” in “exemplifying the poetic idea of things” and Alexis-François Rio’s 1836 book that treated the “Christian poetry” of painting. With this in mind, one passage of “Fra Lippo Lippi” sets the stage for the poem’s blurring of the lines between the visual and the verbal. In it, Lippi takes us on his journey from studying faces as a form of survival to studying faces as a form of art. As a child growing up on the streets, he learns how to tell from people’s appearances who will help him and who will harm him. Not surprisingly, this experience strengthens his powers of observation significantly:

Why, soul and sense of him grow sharp alike,

He learns the look of things, and none the less

For admonition from the hunger-pinch.

I had a store of such remarks, be sure,

Which, after I found leisure, turned to use.

I drew men’s faces on my copy-books,

Scrawled them within the antiphonary’s marge,

Joined legs and arms to the long music-notes,

Found eyes and nose and chin for A’s and B’s,

And made a string of pictures of the world

Betwixt the ins and outs of verb and noun,

On the wall, the bench, the door. The monks looked black.

Thus, it is a safety measure that the homeless young Lippi must take that leads to his talent for art when he starts sketching in his lesson books. This interweaving of language and image is the start of his project to capture his surroundings.The conceptual difference between the reason he learned to be so observant (survival or “sense”) and the use he puts this ability to (art or “soul”) is reminiscent of the aesthetic argument that pervades the poem–the Prior’s arguing that the artist should portray the soul and Lippi’s countering that the painter should depict the flesh.

Because of this philosophical schism at the center of the poem, one would think that soul and sense would be played against one another in this passage, yet both grow in Lippi as he gains a visual and instinctual knowledge of his world. This is because, although Browning plays the Prior against Lippi in his poem, he does not do so in order to have one side victor, which would result in a homogeneous aesthetic; rather, in a decision that makes for a far more thought provoking work, Browning sets forth opposing registers in order to produce a heterogeneous creative product that struggles with itself. This can be seen in his decision to write, or produce verbal art, about a visual artist and his visual artistic productions. It is this very ekphrastic impulse that allows Browning to work on two different wavelengths at once.

It must be noted that Lippi draws faces in his antiphonary, or the book that contains the verses or songs that are sung in alternate parts or in response to a section of the sermon. This book’s structure resembles that of the poem—one main narrative (Lippi’s) with other voices and debates that enter from time to time in response to his tale. In this model, the poem is the antiphonary (a place where words call out in response to pictures) into which Browning inserts his pictorial concerns, penciling faces in the margins, so to speak. Lippi goes on to say that he created a veritable musical-verbal-visual Frankenstein (again, like the poem itself) by connecting limbs to the musical notes and locating facial features for the letters. This is quite a visual description. We are left imagining a being with letters for a face and musical notes for a body. Taking this image one step further, we discover that if these music notes have arms and legs, theoretically, they could both move and paint and write.

This detail gives music the ability to “walk” in and out of the poem, as it does in the case of the stornelli, or the lyrics of various carnival songs that Lippi overhears and that continue to invade his consciousness throughout the course of the poem. This gives “Fra Lippo Lippi” some of the motion that Krieger denies the ekphrastic poem when he argues that it is traded for the spatiality that the description of the work of visual art lends the poem. That is to say that Browning seems to leverage Krieger’s ekphrastic spatial in an effort to avoid succumbing to the stillness that Krieger indicates is an inevitable result of ekphrasis.

Furthermore, the young Lippi does not merely doodle idle images here and there; he creates a sequence of faces that he inserts between the letters. This image is fitting, once again, for conceiving of Browning’s painter poems. This idea that he “made a string of pictures of the world / Betwixt the ins and outs of verb and noun” indicates an engagement with negative space that resonates with Herbert Tucker’s conception of the lyric: “The dramatic monologue is our genre of genres for training in how to read between the lines…In the reading of a dramatic monologue we do not so much scrutinize the ellipses and blank spaces of the text as we people those openings by attending to the overtones of the different discourses that flank them.”

Yet another spatial element of the poem is that we as readers are drawn into this in-between location that Lippi describes, scuttling back-and-forth between the different perspectives on the debates about what lies at the core of art that go on implicitly (the contest between words and images enacted by the ekphrastic project of this poem) and explicitly (the aesthetic argument between Lippi and the Prior) around us, shuttling back-and-forth between word and image, soul and text. Thus, by inserting pictures into text, Lippi performs a sleight of hand similar to Browning’s—he effectively creates a visual-verbal hybrid language all his own. In reference to this achievement, in a letter to Joseph Milsand, Browning referred to his painter poems as, “Lyrics with more music and painting than before, so as to get people to hear and see” (DeLaura 377).

Finally, the young Lippi doesn’t merely color within the lines, but takes his drawing habit beyond his copy books and onto the “wall, the bench, the door” while the monks look on, none too pleased. In this manner, Lippi takes his creative impulses beyond the traditional bounds of the poem—the page—and starts scribbling right on the three dimensional world. (Even the fact that the line describing this transaction contains eleven syllables–rather than the traditional ten of the poem’s blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter–reflects Lippi’s transcending through art the conventional borders of a life circumscribed by the religious imperative.) It is this tridimensional construction that Browning seems to strive to erect in “Fra Lippo Lippi” through the marriage of the verbal and visual.

This is the first post in a series. Read part two here.