Robert Browning's been haunting me all week. No mean feat for a guy who's been dead 120 years. But then, who better to haunt me than a dead poet.
I guess I could blame my high school English Lit teacher but she was such a gentle soul, mired as she was in a world of dead poets. To her credit, she did not believe making her students memorize poetry was the surest route to inspiring them to embrace the art; experience had taught her it was, in fact, the quickest way to make us hate it. For that alone, I thank her.
She was in love with love and was particularly in love with Robert Browning. Being unlovely of feature, she'd never married and spent much of her life lost in the world of romantic poets. Which explains why we spent what seemed like far too long dissecting Browning's "Andrea del Sarto."
"Andrea del Sarto" was one of Browning's longish monologues, its subjects his obsession with love, art, and battle between greatness and complacency.
Sarto was a masterful Renaissance painter married to a feckless and unfaithful younger woman, Lucrezia. Though skilled and in high demand, his career and works were surpassed and seemed dim compared to his contemporaries, Michelangelo, Raphael and da Vinci among them. But then, whose didn't?
Art historians point to his flawless technique but lack of the "divine fire of inspiration," whatever the heck that means. Sarto painted well and painted for grateful, rich patrons. His motivation, it was thought, was providing the luxuries of life for his beloved Lucrezia, not for the glory of God.
It was this complacency, this selling out if you will, that Browning had Sarto musing about while imploring his wife to love and fidelity one evening. In the course of his whining, Browning has him utter the words for which this poem is largely remembered.
"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?"
The thought embodied in "a man's reach should exceed his grasp" and the meaning thereof have been grist for countless theses and dissertations over the decades. It is presumed to encompass the noblest ambitions of mankind, to go where no man has gone before, etc.
Too often though, it is a phrase used to justify unsuccessful overreaching.
Ironically, another observation on the human condition contained in Browning's poem was largely overlooked until it became the rallying cry first of cutting-edge architects and then of the nascent environmental movement.
In jealously belittling other artists who couldn't match his perfection of technique yet inspired admiration in those who thought their work superior, Sarto says:
"I could count twenty such ...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,"