Throughout the poem, “Fra Lippo Lippi" Browning seems to be engaging in a dialogue with the Church regarding celibacy—both in the artistic and sexual sense. The feelings of the poem’s narrator can easily be seen as Browning’s own critique and while the main theme concerns art, the strict sense in which the church views artistic pursuits and products is similar to the way it requires priests to live celibate lives. While the church’s main argument is that art should be presented as something “higher" than the base representation of the human form, this denies the essential humanity of the subject, God’s people. Along these same lines, the way the church frowns upon sexual, lustful activity on the part of its clergy by demanding celibacy is exactly the same request as for the artist. Both demands of the church, artistic and sexual are idealized conceptions of how humans should be represented and both, according to the narrator of the poem, are entirely unrealistic and misguided. Through this poem, Browning is arguing against mandatory celibacy for priests and is suggesting, through the story and artistic struggle of Fra Lippo Lippi, that the demands of the church go against human nature. We are all, to use Browning’s word, “beasts" thus prone to the same desires that the church wishes to “rub out".
The narrator of the poem by Browning, “Fra Lippo Lippi" argues that his life in cloister has been unnatural and restraining and bemoans the lack of life he is allowed to experience (although he obviously breaks the rules). The mandatory celibacy is made even more absurd when the Fra point out, “You should not take a fellow eight years old/ And make him swear to never kiss the girls" (224-25). Earlier in the poem, he speaks of this in terms of other boys that had been brought into cloister by openly saying with great meaning, “Trash, such as these poor devils of Medici/ Have given their hearts to—all at eight years old" (100-101). He seems to see this celibacy as a terrible waste of youth and life—both of which he values above all else. He seeks to represent truth through art, despite the fact that everything in his life is geared towards a completely celibate existence—both in art, sexuality, and life. The story of his life can be summed up in the simple phrase on line 221, “Rub all out!’ Well, well, there’s my life in short." He has been told to extinguish the art and the humanity, thus the keen sexual desire that longs to be free.
Browning, through the character of Fra Lippo Lippi, creates meaning of the poem by suggesting that the unreal expectations thrust upon him by the church authority go against all that is natural in human beings. Just as his artwork seeks to preserve the central nature of the human form, his mindset and lustful appetites are part of this preservation of unrealistic ideals of celibacy. In mocking the demands put upon by the church, the narrator relates these demands: “Your business is not to catch men with show, / with homage to the perishable clay, / But life them over it, ignore it all, / Make them forget there’s such a thing as flesh" (179-182). The church’s desire for unrealistic representation extends from art to the idea that celibacy should be adhered to and they wish to make parishioners and clergy alike wipe out ideas of the sinful flesh.
Ultimately, the whole of the poem is a criticism on mandatory celibacy, which is told through the metaphor of art. If art, like sexual desire, cannot be expressed, then it would seem that religion is somehow a lie, that there is always something lurking under the surface. The narrator points out not only the hypocrisy of these celibacy rules, but the inherent flaws that exist within them, namely, that humans are creatures of the flesh.