Robert Browning’s Poetry
“Andrea del Sarto”
But do not let us quarrel any more,
No, my Lucrezia; bear with me for once:
Sit down and all shall happen as you wish.
You turn your face, but does it bring your heart?
I’ll work then for your friend’s friend, never fear,
Treat his own subject after his own way,
Fix his own time, accept too his own price,
And shut the money into this small hand
When next it takes mine. Will it? tenderly?
Oh, I’ll content him,—but to-morrow, Love!
I often am much wearier than you think,
This evening more than usual, and it seems
As if—forgive now—should you let me sit
Here by the window with your hand in mine
And look a half-hour forth on Fiesole,
Both of one mind, as married people use,
Quietly, quietly the evening through,
I might get up to-morrow to my work
Cheerful and fresh as ever. Let us try.
To-morrow, how you shall be glad for this!
Your soft hand is a woman of itself,
And mine the man’s bared breast she curls inside.
Don’t count the time lost, neither; you must serve
For each of the five pictures we require:
It saves a model. So! keep looking so—
My serpentining beauty, rounds on rounds!
—How could you ever prick those perfect ears,
Even to put the pearl there! oh, so sweet—
My face, my moon, my everybody’s moon,
Which everybody looks on and calls his,
And, I suppose, is looked on by in turn,
While she looks—no one’s: very dear, no less.
You smile? why, there’s my picture ready made,
There’s what we painters call our harmony!
A common greyness silvers everything,—
All in a twilight, you and I alike
—You, at the point of your first pride in me
(That’s gone you know),—but I, at every point;
My youth, my hope, my art, being all toned down
To yonder sober pleasant Fiesole.
There’s the bell clinking from the chapel-top;
That length of convent-wall across the way
Holds the trees safer, huddled more inside;
The last monk leaves the garden; days decrease,
And autumn grows, autumn in everything.
Eh? the whole seems to fall into a shape
As if I saw alike my work and self
And all that I was born to be and do,
A twilight-piece. Love, we are in God’s hand.
How strange now, looks the life he makes us lead;
So free we seem, so fettered fast we are!
I feel he laid the fetter: let it lie!
This chamber for example—turn your head—
All that’s behind us! You don’t understand
Nor care to understand about my art,
But you can hear at least when people speak:
And that cartoon, the second from the door
—It is the thing, Love! so such things should be—
Behold Madonna!—I am bold to say.
I can do with my pencil what I know,
What I see, what at bottom of my heart
I wish for, if I ever wish so deep—
Do easily, too—when I say, perfectly,
I do not boast, perhaps: yourself are judge,
Who listened to the Legate’s talk last week,
And just as much they used to say in France.
At any rate ’tis easy, all of it!
No sketches first, no studies, that’s long past:
I do what many dream of, all their lives,
—Dream? strive to do, and agonize to do,
And fail in doing. I could count twenty such
On twice your fingers, and not leave this town,
Who strive—you don’t know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,—
Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says,
(I know his name, no matter)—so much less!
Well, less is more, Lucrezia: I am judged.
There burns a truer light of God in them,
In their vexed beating stuffed and stopped-up brain,
Heart, or whate’er else, than goes on to prompt
This low-pulsed forthright craftsman’s hand of mine.
Their works drop groundward, but themselves, I know,
Reach many a time a heaven that’s shut to me,
Enter and take their place there sure enough,
Though they come back and cannot tell the world.
My works are nearer heaven, but I sit here.
The sudden blood of these men! at a word—
Praise them, it boils, or blame them, it boils too.
I, painting from myself and to myself,
Know what I do, am unmoved by men’s blame
Or their praise either. Somebody remarks
Morello’s outline there is wrongly traced,
His hue mistaken; what of that? or else,
Rightly traced and well ordered; what of that?
Speak as they please, what does the mountain care?
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for? All is silver-grey,
Placid and perfect with my art: the worse!
I know both what I want and what might gain,
And yet how profitless to know, to sigh
“Had I been two, another and myself,
“Our head would have o’erlooked the world!” No doubt.
Yonder’s a work now, of that famous youth
The Urbinate who died five years ago.
(’Tis copied, George Vasari sent it me.)
Well, I can fancy how he did it all,
Pouring his soul, with kings and popes to see,
Reaching, that heaven might so replenish him,
Above and through his art—for it gives way;
That arm is wrongly put—and there again—
A fault to pardon in the drawing’s lines,
Its body, so to speak: its soul is right,
He means right—that, a child may understand.
Still, what an arm! and I could alter it:
But all the play, the insight and the stretch—
(Out of me, out of me! And wherefore out?
Had you enjoined them on me, given me soul,
We might have risen to Rafael, I and you!
Nay, Love, you did give all I asked, I think—
More than I merit, yes, by many times.
But had you—oh, with the same perfect brow,
And perfect eyes, and more than perfect mouth,
And the low voice my soul hears, as a bird
The fowler’s pipe, and follows to the snare —
Had you, with these the same, but brought a mind!
Some women do so. Had the mouth there urged
“God and the glory! never care for gain.
“The present by the future, what is that?
“Live for fame, side by side with Agnolo!
“Rafael is waiting: up to God, all three!”
I might have done it for you. So it seems:
Perhaps not. All is as God over-rules.
Beside, incentives come from the soul’s self;
The rest avail not. Why do I need you?
What wife had Rafael, or has Agnolo?
In this world, who can do a thing, will not;
And who would do it, cannot, I perceive:
Yet the will’s somewhat—somewhat, too, the power—
And thus we half-men struggle. At the end,
God, I conclude, compensates, punishes.
’Tis safer for me, if the award be strict,
That I am something underrated here,
Poor this long while, despised, to speak the truth.
I dared not, do you know, leave home all day,
For fear of chancing on the Paris lords.
The best is when they pass and look aside;
But they speak sometimes; I must bear it all.
Well may they speak! That Francis, that first time,
And that long festal year at Fontainebleau!
I surely then could sometimes leave the ground,
Put on the glory, Rafael’s daily wear,
In that humane great monarch’s golden look,—
One finger in his beard or twisted curl
Over his mouth’s good mark that made the smile,
One arm about my shoulder, round my neck,
The jingle of his gold chain in my ear,
I painting proudly with his breath on me,
All his court round him, seeing with his eyes,
Such frank French eyes, and such a fire of souls
Profuse, my hand kept plying by those hearts,—
And, best of all, this, this, this face beyond,
This in the background, waiting on my work,
To crown the issue with a last reward!
A good time, was it not, my kingly days?
And had you not grown restless... but I know—
’Tis done and past: ’twas right, my instinct said:
Too live the life grew, golden and not grey,
And I’m the weak-eyed bat no sun should tempt
Out of the grange whose four walls make his world.
How could it end in any other way?
You called me, and I came home to your heart.
The triumph was—to reach and stay there; since
I reached it ere the triumph, what is lost?
Let my hands frame your face in your hair’s gold,
You beautiful Lucrezia that are mine!
“Rafael did this, Andrea painted that;
“The Roman’s is the better when you pray,
“But still the other’s Virgin was his wife—”
Men will excuse me. I am glad to judge
Both pictures in your presence; clearer grows
My better fortune, I resolve to think.
For, do you know, Lucrezia, as God lives,
Said one day Agnolo, his very self,
To Rafael . . . I have known it all these years . . .
(When the young man was flaming out his thoughts
Upon a palace-wall for Rome to see,
Too lifted up in heart because of it)
“Friend, there’s a certain sorry little scrub
“Goes up and down our Florence, none cares how,
“Who, were he set to plan and execute
“As you are, pricked on by your popes and kings,
“Would bring the sweat into that brow of yours!”
To Rafael’s!—And indeed the arm is wrong.
I hardly dare . . . yet, only you to see,
Give the chalk here—quick, thus, the line should go!
Ay, but the soul! he’s Rafael! rub it out!
Still, all I care for, if he spoke the truth,
(What he? why, who but Michel Agnolo?
Do you forget already words like those?)
If really there was such a chance, so lost,—
Is, whether you’re—not grateful—but more pleased.
Well, let me think so. And you smile indeed!
This hour has been an hour! Another smile?
If you would sit thus by me every night
I should work better, do you comprehend?
I mean that I should earn more, give you more.
See, it is settled dusk now; there’s a star;
Morello’s gone, the watch-lights show the wall,
The cue-owls speak the name we call them by.
Come from the window, love,—come in, at last,
Inside the melancholy little house
We built to be so gay with. God is just.
King Francis may forgive me: oft at nights
When I look up from painting, eyes tired out,
The walls become illumined, brick from brick
Distinct, instead of mortar, fierce bright gold,
That gold of his I did cement them with!
Let us but love each other. Must you go?
That Cousin here again? he waits outside?
Must see you—you, and not with me? Those loans?
More gaming debts to pay? you smiled for that?
Well, let smiles buy me! have you more to spend?
While hand and eye and something of a heart
Are left me, work’s my ware, and what’s it worth?
I’ll pay my fancy. Only let me sit
The grey remainder of the evening out,
Idle, you call it, and muse perfectly
How I could paint, were I but back in France,
One picture, just one more—the Virgin’s face,
Not yours this time! I want you at my side
To hear them—that is, Michel Agnolo—
Judge all I do and tell you of its worth.
Will you? To-morrow, satisfy your friend.
I take the subjects for his corridor,
Finish the portrait out of hand—there, there,
And throw him in another thing or two
If he demurs; the whole should prove enough
To pay for this same Cousin’s freak. Beside,
What’s better and what’s all I care about,
Get you the thirteen scudi for the ruff!
Love, does that please you? Ah, but what does he,
The Cousin! what does he to please you more?
I am grown peaceful as old age to-night.
I regret little, I would change still less.
Since there my past life lies, why alter it?
The very wrong to Francis!—it is true
I took his coin, was tempted and complied,
And built this house and sinned, and all is said.
My father and my mother died of want.
Well, had I riches of my own? you see
How one gets rich! Let each one bear his lot.
They were born poor, lived poor, and poor they died:
And I have laboured somewhat in my time
And not been paid profusely. Some good son
Paint my two hundred pictures—let him try!
No doubt, there’s something strikes a balance. Yes,
You loved me quite enough. it seems to-night.
This must suffice me here. What would one have?
In heaven, perhaps, new chances, one more chance—
Four great walls in the New Jerusalem,
Meted on each side by the angel’s reed,
For Leonard, Rafael, Agnolo and me
To cover—the three first without a wife,
While I have mine! So—still they overcome
Because there’s still Lucrezia,—as I choose.
Again the Cousin’s whistle! Go, my Love.
This poem represents yet another of Browning’s dramatic monologues spoken in the voice of an historical Renaissance painter. Andrea del Sarto, like Fra Lippo Lippi, lived and worked in Florence, albeit a little later than Lippo, and was later appointed court painter by Francis, the King of France. Under the nagging influence of his wife Lucrezia, to whom he speaks in this poem, he left the French court for Italy but promised to return; he took with him some money that Francis had given him to purchase Italian artworks for the court, and also the money advanced to him for his own commissioned paintings. However, he spent all of the money on a house for himself and his wife in Italy and never returned to France. This poem finds Andrea in the house he has bought with the stolen money, as he thinks back on his career and laments that his worldly concerns have kept him from fulfilling his promise as an artist. As he and Lucrezia sit at their window, he talks to her of his relative successes and failures: although Michelangelo (here, Michel Agnolo) and Raphael (Rafael) enjoyed higher inspiration and better patronage—and lacked nagging wives—he is the better craftsman, and he points out to her the problems with the Great Masters’ work. But while Andrea succeeds technically where they do not (thus his title “The Faultless Painter”), their work ultimately triumphs for its emotional and spiritual power. Andrea now finds himself in the twilight of his career and his marriage: Lucrezia’s “Cousin”—probably her lover—keeps whistling for her to come; she apparently either owes the man gambling debts or has promised to cover his own. The fond, weary Andrea gives her some money, promises to sell paintings to pay off her debts, and sends her away to her “Cousin,” while he remains to sit quietly and dream of painting in Heaven.
“Andrea del Sarto” unrolls in pentameter blank verse, mostly iambic. It is a quiet poem, the musings of a defeated man. Both in language and in form it is modest and calm. Yet it also manages to mimic natural speech quite effectively, with little interjections and asides.
This poem has a most compelling premise—an artist’s comparison of his own work to that of the Great Masters. Andrea blames his disappointing career on his inability to match his unparalleled technical skills with appropriate subject matter: all the Virgins he paints look like his wife, and he has never had the time at court to allow his work to blossom. While Raphael and Michelangelo often err in their representations (while he speaks Andrea mentally “fixes” a figure’s arm in a scene by Raphael), the intentions and the spirit behind their work shine through so strongly that their work nonetheless surpasses his. This seems to contradict what Browning asserts in other poems about the unconnectedness of art on the one hand and morality or intention on the other. But perhaps we can explain this seeming contradiction by interpreting the Great Masters’ motivation as not so much any specific spiritual or moral purpose, but rather an all-consuming passion for their art. As Andrea notes, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo did not have wives: they lived for their work. For Andrea, painting is reduced to a means to make money; he has the avaricious Lucrezia to support. Between trying to pay her debts, buying her the things she wants, and keeping her attention, Andrea cannot afford to focus solely on his art. Is the creation of art incompatible with a “normal” life, a life of mundane duties and obligations?
It may be worth considering why Browning chooses to write about painters rather than poets in his discussions on art and the artist-figure. During the Renaissance era where Browning sets his verses, poetry would have had a somewhat limited audience: it would have been enjoyed by those who had both the extra money and time to spend on books, not to mention the necessary literacy (although much poetry would have been read aloud). Painting, on the other hand, was—and still is—a more public art form. Whether a painting hangs in a museum or on the wall of a church, it remains constantly accessible and on display to anyone who passes, regardless of his or her education. Moreover, particularly since most Renaissance art portrayed religious themes, painting had a specific didactic purpose and thus an explicit connection to moral and spiritual issues. This connection between art and morals is precisely what most interests Browning in much of his work—indeed, it much preoccupied Victorian society in general. Browning and his contemporaries asked, What can be forgiven morally in the name of aesthetic greatness? Does art have a moral responsibility? Because Renaissance painting was public and fairly representational, it highlights many of these issues; poetry is always indirect and symbolic, and usually private, and thus makes a harder test case than painting. Indeed, Andrea’s paintings in particular, which often depict religious scenes, get right at the heart of the art-morality question, especially given his works’ imbalance between technical skill and lofty intentions.
Andrea presents us with a different kind of character than we are used to seeing in Browning’s work. Unlike the Duke of “My Last Duchess,” Fra Lippo Lippi, or Porphyria’s Lover, Andrea expresses a resigned, melancholy outlook; his wife keeps him completely under her thumb. He lacks the hubris of these other characters, and thus to some extent seems to represent Browning’s insecurities. The reader should keep in mind that Browning did not enjoy public success until the late in his career, and at the time that Men and Women was published critics considered Browning’s wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the far greater poet. While by every indication their relationship thrived on mutual respect and support, it is nevertheless possible that Browning may have felt, as Andrea does, that domestic life and his wife’s presence weakened his art.
Like “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover” this poem “takes place” (is spoken) after the fact: Andrea has long since left Francis’s court, and the money he stole has long since disappeared into the house and Lucrezia’s wardrobe. While this monologue comes across as dramatic in nature, it does not dramatize anyone’s actions. Rather, it seeks to capture a mood and an attitude. In this way it has more in common with Tennyson’s dramatic monologues (such as “Ulysses”) than it does with other poems of Browning’s.
by Arnold_the_Frog, September 01, 2012
"Not best" should be "Nor beat".
I've seen this in Stephen King's citation of the poem at the end of _The Dark Tower_ too.
I read it, went into a mental tail-spin, and worked out what it ought to be just before I
gave up and looked it up (I was right).
... and "stupified" should be "stupefied".
Curious that the commentator doesn't reference Spenser, who is surely the godfather
in English of poems about knightly quests! Indeed, the reference to the Holy Grail
seems in the notes seems like a mere wi... Read more→
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