August 16, 2019KR BlogBlogLiterature

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

This is Part Four of a series. Read parts one, two, and three.

In one example of this simultaneously spatially and temporally mobile impulse, Lippi depicts a future image of himself painting his saints, saints, and more saints, swallowing his rage, when life and desire explode the flimsy wall he has built up between it and himself:

A turn, some warm eve finds me at my saints—

A laugh, a cry, the business of the world—

(Flower o’ the peach

Death for us all, and his own life for each!) 

And my whole soul revolves, the cup runs over,

The world and life’s too big to pass for a dream,

And I do these wild things in sheer despite,

And play the fooleries you catch me at,

In pure rage!

This land is a spatially oriented one, and Lippi is like a little mouse that uses his descriptions of landscape to propel himself through it, and at times seemingly beyond it, as though he has attached little legs to his words, as he did when he was a child.

This turn he feels so sure he can expect is a figurative one, but the way he describes it makes it seem as though if we wanted to have his experience we could walk through this maze of events that he sets up. We could make the turn that takes us from our saintly work to the distractions of life (bits of songs about flowers, living, and dying) that live within a set of parentheses that we have to enter in order to hear.

Then we would continue on to his soul, spinning inside and then overturning the cup of his life. Now that it has popped out of the cup, we see that this existence is too considerable to be but a dream.

Browning’s effort to portray this sort of numinous experience through art implies a longing for a reach beyond the limits of its form, or of any mimetic form for that matter. The Prior entreats Lippi to paint the soul and not the body, but it is the body that has movement and desire. When Lippi asks, “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?”, he is demanding why paintings cannot make the body dance.

Again Browning fuses different registers (body, music, visual, and verbal) and brings in the image of limbs that arises often during the debate with the prior over whether to paint the soul or the body. He does this in order to connect art to both the body and to music (since one dances to music) in a way that emphasizes movement and the realistic possibilities of artistic representation.

Lippi highlights the limitations of visual art (it is a static form without time or movement), that Browning seeks to interfere with himself, by using one form to address another, and, ideally, enhancing both forms in the process, thereby breaking the “bounds,” just as his speaker claims he does.

This is Part Four. You can read Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.