The Way We Live Now and "Fra Lippo Lippi" entertain similar ideas about the role of art and the artist in society. Both refuse to idealize human existence by avoiding harsh truths. In addition, Browning's painter believes that the artist can enable us to find beauty and deep meaning in ordinary things:

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;
God uses us to help each other so,
Lending our minds out. (ll. 300-307)

Lippo has lived a hard life in a harsh world, honing his senses and exploring his interpretations of the world. He considers expressing his true experience of reality to be a matter of simply honesty: "You tell too many lies and hurt yourself" (l. 260). Unlike the so-called "true painters, great and old," he does not choose to idealize and embellish all that he paints, nor does he restrict himself to religious subject matter. Lippo deems searching for coherence and visual pleasure in the world his duty and his passion: "This world's no blot for us,/Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good:/To find its meaning is my meat and drink" (ll. 313-315). Is it not for Trollope?

Browning's poem combines its serious ideas about art and society with humor and sarcasm. Like Trollope's novel, "Fra Lippo Lippi" mixes poignancy with satire in its attempts to deal with Realism. Both works comment upon the blasphemy and corruption of human society, suggesting that artists might detect and denounce it better than anyone else. Lippi speaks of religious hypocrisy, while Trollope characterizes his Bishop Elmham with "a simplicity that was singularly minded with his religious cunning" (58). The two works exhibit a remarkable number of parallels.

Trollope, like Lippi, writes with precision and detail about society. He represents characters and situations absolutely, if not bluntly. His novel depends, in fact, on his ability to describe and characterize acutely. He translates that which he sees, with a considerable degree of cynicism, onto paper. He makes us believe that we might actually encounter one of his so well-developed characters walking down the street, that is, if we lived in Victorian England. His verbal illustrations remain convincingly thorough and evocative; perhaps those of his most despicable characters best reveal his knack for conveying feeling, personality, and scathing satire in literary realism. Consider his comments on Melmotte the candidate:

There was one man who thoroughly believed that the thing at the present moment most essentially necessary to England's glory was the return of Mr. Melmotte for Westminster. This man was undoubtedly a very ignorant man. He knew nothing of any one political question which had vexed England for the last half century, nothing whatever of the political history which had made England what it was at the beginning of that half century....He had probably never read a book in his life. He knew nothing of the working of parliament, nothing of nationality, had no preference whatever for one form of government over another, never having given his mind a moment's trouble on the subject...But yet he was fully confident that England did demand and ought to demand that Mr. Melmotte should be returned for Westminster. This man was Mr. Melmotte himself. (II, 34)

These ideas about art, realism, and interpretation call to mind the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of 1849 and its belief in "truth to nature." Started by William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and John Everett Millais, the PRB studied art and poetry informally, valuing most highly a "realistic style with elaborate symbolism." The PRB attempted to "transform hard-edged realism by combining it with typological symbolism." They encouraged a "precise almost photographic representation of even humble object." This accuracy of description, or mimesis, relates directly to the literary and artistic ventures of Trollope and Lippo.

Robert Browning

Last modified 2000