No less contradictory and complex than his Andrea del Sarto, Browning’s character of Fra Lippo Lippi stands for a wholly different attitude toward art and beauty. This artist sees all the tangles that Andrea del Sarto does, but those tangles never spiral into cloying self-pity, angry accusations against beauty, or philosophical paralysis. Instead, this riven artist also mends the tears between creation and human experience, between person and person, between wonder and the disappointing brokenness of life. For Fra Lippo Lippi, this remains a sweet old world–and not so old, either. Its sweetness is not mere decoration or distraction. Beauty is not merely ornament. Shared passion is not merely debauchery or impiety. No, sweetness and beauty and shared passion are part of the world’s intense meaning. They connect the visible with the invisible. This sweet old world, impermanent, a Herclitean fire, is one important part of “the assurance of things not seen.”
“What’s it all about?” asks Fra Lippo Lippi, a question Hal David would reframe with Burt Bacharach many years later, though the question must surely predate Bacharach, David, and Browning altogether. It’s a question stimulated by tragedy, but it’s also a question provoked by beauty, by the stirrings of the body, by the simple pleasure of an overheard melody. The idea that “what it’s all about” must lie entirely elsewhere in a world disconnected from the material universe is anathema to Browning and his crazed, promiscuous, blessed monk. These artists seek wholeness, and at the same time recognize that such wholeness must not be sentimental or prematurely asserted. It’s hard work and very painful work, too, to see the world clearly and see it whole–never mind the additional work of sharing that vision with others.
But that’s the calling:
This world’s no blot or blank for us–
It means intensely, and means good.
To find its meaning is my meat and drink.