Robert Browning

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Frà Lippo Lippi

from

Men and Women

   
   
    I am poor brother Lippo, by your leave!
    You need not clap your torches to my face.
    Zooks, what’s to blame? you think you see a monk!
    What, ’tis past midnight, and you go the rounds,
5   And here you catch me at an alley’s end
    Where sportive ladies leave their doors ajar?
    The Carmine’s my cloister: hunt it up,
    Do, – harry out, if you must show your zeal,
    Whatever rat, there, haps on his wrong hole,
10   And nip each softling of a wee white mouse,
    Weke, weke, that’s crept to keep him company!
    Aha, you know your betters! Then, you’ll take
    Your hand away that’s fiddling on my throat,
    And please to know me likewise. Who am I?
15   Why, one, sir, who is lodging with a friend
    Three streets off – he’s a certain . . . how d’ye call?
    Master – a . . . Cosimo of the Medici,
    I’ the house that caps the corner. Boh! you were best!
    Remember and tell me, the day you’re hanged,
20   How you affected such a gullet’s gripe!
    But you, sir, it concerns you that your knaves
    Pick up a manner nor discredit you:
    Zooks, are we pilchards, that they sweep the streets
    And count fair price what comes into their net?
25   He’s Judas to a tittle, that man is!
    Just such a face! Why, sir, you make amends.
    Lord, I’m not angry! Bid your hangdogs go
    Drink out this quarter-florin to the health
    Of the munificent House that harbors me
30   (And many more beside, lads! more beside!)
    And all’s come square again. I’d like his face –
    His, elbowing on his comrade in the door
    With the pike and lantern – for the slave that holds
    John Baptist’s head a-dangle by the hair
35   With one hand (‘Look you, now,’ as who should say)
    And his weapon in the other, yet unwiped!
    It’s not your chance to have a bit of chalk,
    A wood-coal or the like? or you should see!
    Yes, I’m the painter, since you style me so.
40   What, brother Lippo’s doings, up and down,
    You know them and they take you? like enough!
    I saw the proper twinkle in your eye –
    ’Tell you, I liked your looks at very first.
    Let’s sit and set things straight now, hip to haunch.
45   Here’s spring come, and the nights one makes up bands
    To roam the town and sing out carnival,
    And I’ve been three weeks shut within my mew,
    A-painting for the great man, saints and saints
    And saints again. I could not paint all night –
50   Ouf! I leaned out of window for fresh air.
    There came a hurry of feet and little feet,
    A sweep of lute strings, laughs, and whifts of song, –
    Flower o’ the broom,
    Take away love, and our earth is a tomb!
55   Flower o’ the quince,
    I let Lisa go, and what good is life since?
    Flower o’ the thyme – and so on. Round they went.
    Scarce had they turned the corner when a titter
    Like the skipping of rabbits by moonlight, – three slim shapes,
60   And a face that looked up . . . zooks, sir, flesh and blood,
    That’s all I’m made of! Into shreds it went,
    Curtain and counterpane and coverlet,
    All the bed-furniture – a dozen knots,
    There was a ladder! Down I let myself,
65   Hands and feet, scrambling somehow, and so dropped,
    And after them. I came up with the fun
    Hard by Saint Laurence, hail fellow, well met, –
    Flower o’ the rose,
    If I’ve been merry, what matter who knows?
70   And so as I was stealing back again
    To get to bed and have a bit of sleep
    Ere I rise up to-morrow and go work
    On Jerome knocking at his poor old breast
    With his great round stone to subdue the flesh,
75   You snap me of the sudden. Ah, I see!
    Though your eye twinkles still, you shake your head –
    Mine’s shaved – a monk, you say – the sting’s in that!
    If Master Cosimo announced himself,
    Mum’s the word naturally; but a monk!
80   Come, what am I a beast for? tell us, now!
    I was a baby when my mother died
    And father died and left me in the street.
    I starved there, God knows how, a year or two
    On fig skins, melon parings, rinds and shucks,
85   Refuse and rubbish. One fine frosty day,
    My stomach being empty as your hat,
    The wind doubled me up and down I went.
    Old Aunt Lapaccia trussed me with one hand,
    (Its fellow was a stinger as I knew)
90   And so along the wall, over the bridge,
    By the straight cut to the convent. Six words there,
    While I stood munching my first bread that month:
    ‘So, boy, you’re minded,’ quoth the good fat father
    Wiping his own mouth, ’twas refection time, –
95   ‘To quit this very miserable world?
    Will you renounce’ . . . ‘the mouthful of bread?’ thought I;
    By no means! Brief, they made a monk of me;
    I did renounce the world, its pride and greed,
    Palace, farm, villa, shop, and banking house,
100   Trash, such as these poor devils of Medici
    Have given their hearts to – all at eight years old.
    Well, sir, I found in time, you may be sure,
    ’Twas not for nothing – the good bellyful,
    The warm serge and the rope that goes all round,
105   And day-long blessed idleness beside!
    ‘Let’s see what the urchin’s fit for’ – that came next.
    Not overmuch their way, I must confess.
    Such a to-do! They tried me with their books:
    Lord, they’d have taught me Latin in pure waste!
110   Flower o’ the clove.
    All the Latin I construe is, ‘amo’ I love!
    But, mind you, when a boy starves in the streets
    Eight years together, as my fortune was,
    Watching folk’s faces to know who will fling
115   The bit of half-stripped grape bunch he desires,
    And who will curse or kick him for his pains, –
    Which gentleman processional and fine,
    Holding a candle to the Sacrament,
    Will wink and let him lift a plate and catch
120   The droppings of the wax to sell again,
    Or holla for the Eight and have him whipped, –
    How say I? – nay, which dog bites, which lets drop
    His bone from the heap of offal in the street, –
    Why, soul and sense of him grow sharp alike,
125   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,
130   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,
135   On the wall, the bench, the door. The monks looked black.
    ‘Nay,’ quoth the Prior, ‘turn him out, d’ye say?
    In no wise. Lose a crow and catch a lark.
    What if at last we get our man of parts,
    We Carmelites, like those Camaldolese
140   And Preaching Friars, to do our church up fine
    And put the front on it that ought to be!’
    And hereupon he bade me daub away.
    Thank you! my head being crammed, the walls a blank,
    Never was such prompt disemburdening.
145   First, every sort of monk, the black and white,
    I drew them, fat and lean: then, folk at church,
    From good old gossips waiting to confess
    Their cribs of barrel droppings, candle ends, –
    To the breathless fellow at the altar-foot,
150   Fresh from his murder, safe and sitting there
    With the little children round him in a row
    Of admiration, half for his beard and half
    For that white anger of his victim’s son
    Shaking a fist at him with one fierce arm,
155   Signing himself with the other because of Christ
    (Whose sad face on the cross sees only this
    After the passion of a thousand years)
    Till some poor girl, her apron o’er her head,
    (Which the intense eyes looked through) came at eve
160   On tiptoe, said a word, dropped in a loaf,
    Her pair of earrings and a bunch of flowers
    (The brute took growling), prayed, and so was gone.
    I painted all, then cried ‘’Tis ask and have;
    Choose, for more’s ready!’ – laid the ladder flat,
165   And showed my covered bit of cloister wall.
    The monks closed in a circle and praised loud
    Till checked, taught what to see and not to see,
    Being simple bodies, – ‘That’s the very man!
    Look at the boy who stoops to pat the dog!
170   That woman’s like the Prior’s niece who comes
    To care about his asthma: it’s the life!’
    But there my triumph’s straw-fire flared and funked;
    Their betters took their turn to see and say:
    The Prior and the learned pulled a face
175   And stopped all that in no time. ‘How? what’s here?
    Quite from the mark of painting, bless us all!
    Faces, arms, legs, and bodies like the true
    As much as pea and pea! it’s devil’s-game!
    Your business is not to catch men with show,
180   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 –
    Man’s soul, and it’s a fire, smoke . . . no, it’s not . . .
185   It’s vapour done up like a newborn babe –
    (In that shape when you die it leaves your mouth)
    It’s . . . well, what matters talking, it’s the soul!
    Give us no more of body than shows soul!
    Here’s Giotto, with his Saint a-praising God,
190   That sets us praising – why not stop with him?
    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!
    Rub all out, try at it a second time.
195   Oh, that white smallish female with the breasts,
    She’s just my niece . . . Herodias, I would say, –
    Who went and danced and got men’s heads cut off!
    Have it all out!’ Now, is this sense, I ask?
    A fine way to paint soul, by painting body
200   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.
205   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? Take the prettiest face,
    The Prior’s niece . . . patron-saint – is it so pretty
210   You can’t discover if it means hope, fear,
    Sorrow or joy? won’t beauty go with these?
    Suppose I’ve made her eyes all right and blue,
    Can’t I take breath and try to add life’s flash,
    And then add soul and heighten them threefold?
215   Or say there’s beauty with no soul at all –
    (I never saw it – put the case the same – )
    If you get simple beauty and naught else,
    You get about the best thing God invents:
    That’s somewhat: and you’ll find the soul you have missed,
220   Within yourself, when you return him thanks.
    ‘Rub all out!’ Well, well, there’s my life, in short,
    And so the thing has gone on ever since.
    I’m grown a man no doubt, I’ve broken bounds:
    You should not take a fellow eight years old
225   And make him swear to never kiss the girls.
    I’m my own master, paint now as I please –
    Having a friend, you see, in the Corner-house!
    Lord, it’s fast holding by the rings in front –
    Those great rings serve more purposes than just
230   To plant a flag in, or tie up a horse!
    And yet the old schooling sticks, the old grave eyes
    Are peeping o’er my shoulder as I work,
    The heads shake still – ‘It’s art’s decline, my son!
    You’re not of the true painters, great and old;
235   Brother Angelico’s the man, you’ll find;
    Brother Lorenzo stands his single peer:
    Fag on at flesh, you’ll never make the third!’
    Flower o’ the pine,
    You keep your mistr . . . manners, and I’ll stick to mine!
240   I’m not the third, then: bless us, they must know!
    Don’t you think they’re the likeliest to know,
    They with their Latin? So, I swallow my rage,
    Clench my teeth, suck my lips in tight, and paint
    To please them – sometimes do and sometimes don’t;
245   For, doing most, there’s pretty sure to come
    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!)
250   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! The old mill-horse, out at grass
255   After hard years, throws up his stiff heels so,
    Although the miller does not preach to him
    The only good of grass is to make chaff.
    What would men have? Do they like grass or no –
    May they or mayn’t they? all I want’s the thing
260   Settled forever one way. 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 you at your word,
    You find abundantly detestable.
265   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.
   
270   You understand me: I’m a beast, I know.
    But see, now – why, I see as certainly
    As that the morning star’s about to shine,
    What will hap some day. We’ve a youngster here
    Comes to our convent, studies what I do,
275   Slouches and stares and lets no atom drop:
    His name is Guidi – he’ll not mind the monks –
    They call him Hulking Tom, he lets them talk –
    He picks my practice up – he’ll paint apace.
    I hope so – though I never live so long,
280   I know what’s sure to follow. You be judge!
    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,
285   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,
290   These are the frame to? What’s it all about?
    To be passed over, despised? or dwelt upon,
    Wondered at? oh, this last of course! – you say.
    But why not do as well as say, – paint these
    Just as they are, careless what comes of it?
295   God’s works – paint any one, and count it crime
    To let a truth slip. Don’t object, ‘His works
    Are here already; nature is complete:
    Suppose you reproduce her – (which you can’t)
    There’s no advantage! you must beat her, then.’
300   For, don’t you mark? 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;
305   God uses us to help each other so,
    Lending our minds out. Have you noticed, now,
    Your cullion’s hanging face? A bit of chalk,
    And trust me but you should, though! How much more,
    If I drew higher things with the same truth!
310   That were to take the Prior’s pulpit-place,
    Interpret God to all of you! Oh, oh,
    It makes me mad to see what men shall do
    And we in our graves! This world’s no blot for us,
    Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good:
315   To find its meaning is my meat and drink.
    ‘Ay, but you don’t so instigate to prayer!’
    Strikes in the Prior: ‘when your meaning’s plain
    It does not say to folk – remember matins,
    Or, mind you fast next Friday!’ Why, for this
320   What need of art at all? A skull and bones,
    Two bits of stick nailed crosswise, or, what’s best,
    A bell to chime the hour with, does as well.
    I painted a Saint Laurence six months since
    At Prato, splashed the fresco in fine style:
325   ‘How looks my painting, now the scaffold’s down?’
    I ask a brother: ‘Hugely,’ he returns –
    ‘Already not one phiz of your three slaves
    Who turn the Deacon off his toasted side,
    But it’s scratched and prodded to our heart’s content,
330   The pious people have so eased their own
    With coming to say prayers there in a rage:
    We get on fast to see the bricks beneath.
    Expect another job this time next year,
    For pity and religion grow i’ the crowd –
335   Your painting serves its purpose!’ Hang the fools!
   
    – That is – you’ll not mistake an idle word
    Spoke in a huff by a poor monk, God wot,
    Tasting the air this spicy night which turns
    The unaccustomed head like Chianti wine!
340   Oh, the church knows! don’t misreport me, now!
    It’s natural a poor monk out of bounds
    Should have his apt word to excuse himself:
    And hearken how I plot to make amends.
    I have bethought me: I shall paint a piece
345   . . . There’s for you! Give me six months, then go, see
    Something in Sant’ Ambrogio’s! Bless the nuns!
    They want a cast o’ my office. I shall paint
    God in the midst, Madonna and her babe,
    Ringed by a bowery, flowery angel brood,
350   Lilies and vestments and white faces, sweet
    As puff on puff of grated orris-root
    When ladies crowd to Church at midsummer.
    And then i’ the front, of course a saint or two –
    Saint John, because he saves the Florentines,
355   Saint Ambrose, who puts down in black and white
    The convent’s friends and gives them a long day,
    And Job, I must have him there past mistake,
    The man of Uz (and Us without the z,
    Painters who need his patience). Well, all these
360   Secured at their devotion, up shall come
    Out of a corner when you least expect,
    As one by a dark stair into a great light,
    Music and talking, who but Lippo! I! –
    Mazed, motionless, and moonstruck – I’m the man!
365   Back I shrink – what is this I see and hear?
    I, caught up with my monk’s things by mistake,
    My old serge gown and rope that goes all round,
    I, in this presence, this pure company!
    Where’s a hole, where’s a corner for escape?
370   Then steps a sweet angelic slip of a thing
    Forward, puts out a soft palm – ‘Not so fast!’
    – Addresses the celestial presence, ‘nay –
    He made you and devised you, after all,
    Though he’s none of you! Could Saint John there draw –
375   His camel-hair make up a painting brush?
    We come to brother Lippo for all that,
    Iste perfecit opus!’ So, all smile –
    I shuffle sideways with my blushing face
    Under the cover of a hundred wings
380   Thrown like a spread of kirtles when you’re gay
    And play hot cockles, all the doors being shut,
    Till, wholly unexpected, in there pops
    The hothead husband! Thus I scuttle off
    To some safe bench behind, not letting go
385   The palm of her, the little lily thing
    That spoke the good word for me in the nick,
    Like the Prior’s niece . . . Saint Lucy, I would say.
    And so all’s saved for me, and for the church
    A pretty picture gained. Go, six months hence!
390   Your hand, sir, and good-bye: no lights, no lights!
    The street’s hushed, and I know my own way back,
    Don’t fear me! There’s the grey beginning. Zooks!
   

First published 1855.

Contributed by Robert Clark.