Analysis of Robert Browning’s Andrea del Sarto

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.

 

Andrea del Sarto/Wikimedia

According to tradition, Browning wrote “Andrea del Sarto”—perhaps his single greatest monologue—as a response to his friend John Kenyon’s request for a copy of Andrea del Sarto’s self-portrait with his wife Lucrezia. Leery of copy costs in Florence, Browning sent his own “Andrea del Sarto” instead, and the poem can be viewed as an elaboration of the painting. Also in the background of the poem is Browning’s debt to Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, which includes a sketch of Andrea’s personal and artistic career. From Vasari Browning derived the idea of Andrea’s reputation for technical perfection reflected in the poem’s subtitle, “The Faultless Painter.”

Though the poem’s foremost focus is the issue of aesthetic failure, it begins with details surrounding a different kind of failure—the ruined romance between Andrea and Lucrezia. The poem represents a momentary suspension of the problems that characterize the relationship: its first line cuts a “quarrel” short and its last gives Lucrezia the go-ahead to meet her lover. Andrea asks Lucrezia to “bear with [him] for once,” implying that her doing so would represent an exception to her normal habits. Significantly, Andrea predicates his ability to work—to paint—on Lucrezia’s obliging his wish to sit hand-in-hand “by the window” with him “as married people use/Quietly, quietly the evening through.”

This link between artistic inspiration and romance develops into one of the poem’s primary themes. If Lucrezia had “but brought a mind” strong in proportion to her good looks, Andrea wistfully reasons, they “might have risen to Rafael” together. In Andrea’s view, his own part in producing masterpieces is to supply the artistic skill; it is for Lucrezia to provide him with “soul” or passion. Toward the poem’s conclusion Andrea suggests that the important difference between himself and the other great artists of Renaissance Italy is his marriage: “they overcome/Because there’s still Lucrezia.”

Yet for all Andrea’s apparent interest in blaming Lucrezia for his shortcomings as an artist, he opposes to it a parallel explanation that rests on the idea of fate. Soon after he first makes the association between his career and his marriage, Andrea declares, “Love, we are in God’s hand,” which suggests that nothing could have changed what fate had in store for them. Bound by larger powers, Andrea is “fettered fast,” and would accept the lot fate has accorded him rather than struggle vainly against it. By this view, it is neither Lucrezia’s nor his own fault that Andrea has not reached greatness. But the speaker does not resolve the question by finally accepting any single account he considers. Instead, fate and failed romance coexist in a dialectic that continues throughout the poem, as Andrea tries to come to terms with the course his life has taken.

Amidst the uncertainties of figuring responsibility in the poem, the issue of Andrea’s skill stands utterly resolved. Passing from romance and fate to the topic of his own reputation, Andrea allows himself a moment of righteous pride in what he has managed to achieve in spite of the handicaps of an unfaithful spouse and an unfavorable “lot” in life. Producing flawless paintings is, for Andrea, “easy,” and he needs no “sketches first, no studies” to work from, but paints “perfectly” without preparation. But Andrea provides this account of his worth by way of acknowledging his limitations. “Well, less is more, Lucrezia,” he states matter-of-factly, meaning that other artists’ inferior technical endowments have not stood in the way of their grand ambitions.

Comparing himself to those artists that “reach many a time a heaven that’s shut to me,” Andrea indirectly reveals that his shortcomings are in fact willed, that his failure is, to an extent, selfimposed. Ignoring his rivals and his wife alike, Andrea claims to paint “from [himself] and to [himself].” Rather than striving to transcend personal limitations, Andrea accepts them, thus assuring himself that he will experience neither the pain of artistic failure nor the glory of genuine artistic success. He declares that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp”—that the best artists push themselves beyond what they think they can do. Andrea, however, prefers not to engage in such agonizing pursuits: “All is silver grey/Placid and perfect in my art: the worse!” In effect, Andrea trades the chance for greatness for the certainty of mediocrity, preferring the safety of low expectations to the risk of a rampant ambition.

That Andrea is not wholly without ambition, though, shows through his fond recollection of “that long festal year at Fountainbleau,” during which he enjoyed the patronage of King Francis I. By Vasari’s account, Andrea’s art flourished for the year he spent at Fountainbleau, but his time there was cut short as he acquiesced to Lucrezia’s demands to return to her in Florence. Andrea’s nostalgic remembrance of his “kingly days” is riven with evidence of a need for an audience sympathetic to his work. Andrea paints “proudly with [Francis’s] breath on” him, almost literally inspired by the attention. Too, Andrea credits Lucrezia for playing the part of his muse, “waiting on [his] work/To crown the issue with a last reward.” For a moment, Andrea is tempted again to find in Lucrezia’s infidelity—her having “grown restless”—reason for the diminution of his artistic aims. In keeping with Andrea’s typically dialectical movement between fate and romance, Andrea soon ceases speculating on Lucrezia’s role in determining his career to consider fate’s part in shaping it. What emerges in spite of his constantly shifting rationales is a sense of his passivity, whether he seems dependent on the goodness of Lucrezia and Francis, or emphatically subject to the dictates of fate.

Whatever methods Andrea uses to “excuse” his underachieving mentality, his obsession with gauging his renown had he arduously applied himself becomes more and more clear. Much of the poem is located in the conditional past: what would have happened for him if things had been different? Having failed to join the likes of Rafael and Michelangelo in the uppermost echelon of Renaissance artists, Andrea nevertheless cherishes a grand notion of the eminence he could have achieved under different circumstances. By way of illustration, he relates an anecdote in which Michelangelo tells Rafael of Andrea’s potential—how his abilities, applied with a proper dose of ambition, “would bring the sweat” onto Rafael’s brow.

The poem’s final hundred lines are fraught with the rhetoric of resolve, as Andrea repeatedly tries to come to grips with the partial fulfillment his career has brought him. Eager to persuade himself that life with Lucrezia is worth the sacrifice of his ambitions, Andrea “resolve[s] to think” that his fortunes have improved in the wake of leaving France for Florence. He strenuously reasons that the loss of “such a chance” for greatness will have been worthwhile if Lucrezia is herself “more pleased” with the situation as it stands. Testament to Andrea’s interest in rationalizing his failure, he later contemplates the immutability of the past: “I regret little, I would change still less./Since there my past life lies, why alter it?” The dialectic underlying the poem thus provides Andrea with a pair of ways to stave off the pain of a lost opportunity. Both Lucrezia’s ostensible happiness and the very fatality of the past help mitigate Andrea’s sense of a greatness needlessly foregone.

The afterlife, for Andrea, represents the promise of compensation, and he ends his monologue by imagining a renewed opportunity to compete with “Leonard, Rafael [and] Agnolo” that will take place in heaven. The “four great walls” on which the contest will be staged belong to a string of tableau images in the poem that includes the “window” that affords the view of Fiesole, the “convent-wall” Andrea notes as he gazes at the city, and the “frame” his hands make as he clasps Lucrezia’s face. The images center Andrea’s optimism, and like the “four great walls” set forth toward the end of the poem, they represent an alternative past, one in which Andrea enjoys a sympathetic public, financial security, a faithful wife, and a place among the great artists of the time.

It is precisely the habit of shifting from images of life as it was to images of life as it might have been that most fully describes the logic of “Andrea del Sarto.” To the very end Andrea remains perplexed by his past. Was it he who chose Lucrezia (as he says in the penultimate line of the poem) or fate that chose her for him? Could he have willed a triumph over circumstance or was his career always already out of his control? The poem represents a tremendously sophisticated portrait of a dialectical element in human psychology. Under the sway of his own dialectical temperment, various versions of the past vie and tangle with one another as Andrea tallies a lifetime of dubious gains and painful losses.

Further Reading
Bloom, Harold, ed. Robert Browning. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. Bloom, Harold, and Adrienne Munich, eds. Robert Browning: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1979. Chesterton, G. K. Robert Browning. London: Macmillan, 1903. Cook, Eleanor. Browning’s Lyrics: An Exploration. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974. Crowell, Norton B. The Convex Glass: The Mind of Robert Browning. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1968. De Vane, William Clyde, and Kenneth Leslie Knickerbocker, eds. New Letters. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950. De Vane, William Clyde. A Browning Handbook. New York: F. S. Crofts and Co., 1935. Drew, Philip. The Poetry of Robert Browning: A Critical Introduction. London: Methuen, 1970. Jack, Ian. Browning’s Major Poetry. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973. Jack, Ian, and Margaret Smith, eds. The Poetical Works of Robert Browning. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. Wagner-Lawlor, Jennifer A. “The Pragmatics of Silence, and the Figuration of the Reader in Browning’s Dramatic Monologues.” Victorian Poetry 35, no. 3 (1997): 287–302.
Source: Bloom, H., 2001. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House Publishers.



Categories: Literary Criticism, Literature, Poetry, Victorian Literature

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