Tag Archives: browning

The value and significance of flesh

One of my favorite groups of poems is Men and Women by Robert Browning. Each of these long poems is a monologue by a different person, and the ones I’ve read are fascinating. One of my favorites is Fra Lippo Lippi, about a (medieval?) monk who paints art in churches and monestaries.

In the poem, Lippi meets some men (city watchmen, I think) and tells them his story. He was homeless, living on the street at 8 years old, when the church took him in. He can’t read much Latin, he says, but he’s a shrewd judge of people and can paint them as they are. The trouble is, the head monks think his paintings are too realistic, saying:

Your 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.
Your business is to paint the souls of men—
Give us no more of body than shows soul!

Why put all thoughts of praise out of our head
With wonder at lines, colours, and what not?
Paint the soul, never mind the legs and arms!

Lippi disagrees, of course. Here are my favorite parts of his response:

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?

Can’t I take breath and try to add life’s flash,
And then add soul and heighten them three-fold?

And my whole soul revolves, the cup runs over,
The world and life’s too big to pass for a dream,

For me, I think I speak as I was taught;
I always see the garden and God there
A-making man’s wife: and, my lesson learned,
The value and significance of flesh,
I can’t unlearn ten minutes afterwards.

You speak no Latin more than I, belike;
However, you’re my man, you’ve seen the world
The beauty and the wonder and the power,
The shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades,
Changes, surprises,—and God made it all!
—For what? Do you feel thankful, ay or no,
For this fair town’s face, yonder river’s line,
The mountain round it and the sky above,
Much more the figures of man, woman, child,
These are the frame to? What’s it all about?
To be passed over, despised? or dwelt upon,
Wondered at?

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 so they are better, painted—better to us,
Which is the same thing. Art was given for that;
God uses us to help each other so,
Lending our minds out.

This world’s no blot for us,
Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good:
To find its meaning is my meat and drink.

You can read the whole thing here. It’s long, but it’s worth it.

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