‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister’ was published in Browning’s collection Dramatic Lyrics in 1842. The speaker, as is made clear throughout the first few stanzas, is a monk. Readers are never given a name, but from context clues, it’s clear that he’s Spanish. This is a clever and memorable poem that asks the reader to consider their own morality and if, through their hate or irritation with others, they are compromising it. The language is quite complex in parts, with jumbled syntax and several examples of archaism.
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In the first lines of ‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister’ Browning’s speaker, a Spanish monk, angrily looks at Brother Lawrence. He can’t shake the man from his mind and becomes obsessed with the Brother’s supposed hypocrisy. The man is, in his mind, completely immoral. His hate overwhelms him.
As the poem progresses and the speaker moves through the various tasks that are assigned to him, he admits that he’d be willing to sell his soul to Satan in order to get rid of Brother Lawrence. This is a striking admission and one which shows the true hypocrisy at the heart of this story. It’s not Lawrence who is betraying his vows but the speaker who is allowing hate to flourish in his heart.
Throughout ‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister’ Browning engages with themes that include religion, sex, and varying degrees of morality. Religion is perhaps the most obvious of the themes in ‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister’. It should also be noted that without a strict religious setting, then the speaker’s words would not have the impact they have. It is only because the speaker is supposed to be a very religious, thoughtful, and godly man that his hypocrisy comes through so clearly.
Sex, along with hate and hypocrisy are secondary themes that are up as the speaker goes through the various reasons he hates Brother Lawrence. He continually claims that the brother is doing un-godly things when in fact the speaker is. Browning skilfully creates a soliloquy in which it is slowly revealed that the speaker is the corrupt one, not the subject of his rage.
‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister’ by Robert Browning, as the title suggests, takes the form of a soliloquy. This is a type of poem in which a character speaks out loud to themselves, and to the audience. It is a way of sharing a character’s thoughts clearly and fluidly.
Browning chose to make use of trochaic tetrameter to structure the lines of the poem. This means that every line, with a few little exceptions, contains four sets of two beats. The first of these is stressed and the second is unstressed. The rhyme scheme is structured consistently and evenly. The lines rhyme in a pattern of ABABCDCD, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza.
Browning makes use of several literary devices in ‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister’. These include but are not limited to examples of allusions, alliteration, and caesurae. The latter is seen through a break in a line, created with punctuation. For example, line five of the second stanza. It reads: “Not a plenteous cork crop: scarcely”. Or, readers can also look to line one of the fourth stanza. It reads: “Saint, forsooth! While Brown Dolores”.
Alliteration is seen through the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “Sort” and “season” in stanza two and “district damnations” in stanza seven. There are also several examples if allusion in this poem. For example, the Latin at the end of the poem alludes to Vespers, or evening prayers. Another good example is the reference to Manicheanism in the seventh stanza.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
Gr-r-r–there go, my heart’s abhorrence!
Water your damned flower-pots, do!
If hate killed men, Brother Lawrence,
God’s blood, would not mine kill you!
What? your myrtle-bush wants trimming?
Oh, that rose has prior claims–
Needs its leaden vase filled brimming?
Hell dry you up with its flames!
‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister’ opens with the impassioned and hateful words of Browning’s speaker, a Spanish monk. This monk, who never tells the reader his name, is looking down at one of his fellow brothers, Lawrence. This monk is out in the gardens trimming the “myrtle-bush” and working away diligently. Meanwhile, the speaker is expressing his overwhelming hatred of this man.
At this point, the speaker does not reveal to the reader why he feels the way he does. But, he does admit that his hate is so strong it would kill Lawrence if that was possible. The last line of this stanza is a curse, asking that hell “dry” Brother Lawrence up in its “flames”. Readers should consider from the start of the poem why the speaker might feel the way he does if its justified, and what it means for a “man of God” to feel hate like this.
At the meal we sit together;
Salve tibi! I must hear
Wise talk of the kind of weather,
Sort of season, time of year:
Not a plenteous cork crop: scarcely
Dare we hope oak-galls, I doubt;
What’s the Latin name for “parsley”?
What’s the Greek name for “swine’s snout”?
In the second stanza of ‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister’ the speaker thinks about all the times that he’s been bored by Lawrence’s speech at dinners. He hates to hear him talk about the “weather,” the “sort of season” and the plants that he’s growing in the garden. Immediately, there is an interesting juxtaposition between the hate that the speaker is expressing and the supposed crime that Lawrence committed. Is he really worthy of so much hate?
Whew! We’ll have our platter burnished,
Laid with care on our own shelf!
With a fire-new spoon we’re furnished,
And a goblet for ourself,
Rinsed like something sacrificial
Ere ’tis fit to touch our chaps–
Marked with L. for our initial!
(He-he! There his lily snaps!)
The speaker is still looking down at Brother Lawrence working in the garden, but his thoughts turn to the brother’s peculiarities around dinner time. Lawrence has his own plate, a “fire-new” or brand new spoon, and a goblet that he keeps for himself. These simple desire on the brother’s part are not outrageous, but they seem that way to the speaker. Again, readers should measure this behavior against the hate that the speaker is expressing. Which one is more of a sin?
The last line of this stanza is in parenthesis and is about the scene playing out in the garden. The speaker laughs over a small tragedy in Lawrence’s life, his “lily snaps”. This is in reference to one of the brother’s flowers which breaks as he’s tending to it. The speaker takes a very unChristian-like pleasure in this.
Saint, forsooth! While Brown Dolores
Squats outside the Convent bank
With Sanchicha, telling stories,
Steeping tresses in the tank,
Blue-black, lustrous, thick like horsehairs,
–Can’t I see his dead eye glow,
Bright as ’twere a Barbary corsair’s?
(That is, if he’d let it show!)
In the fourth stanza of ‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,’ the speaker reveals more about his dislike of Brother Lawrence and at the same time more about himself. He looks at the brother sitting beside two nuns and projects his own lust onto the man. He thinks that the brother is looking lustily at the nuns as a “corsair,” or sailor, would. The speaker gives himself away in the last line when he says “if he’d let it show!” A reader should realize at this point that the speaker couldn’t possibly be seeing what he says he’s seeing as the monk doesn’t “let” his lust show. Instead, it’s very clear that the speaker is the one experiencing these emotions and he hates Brother Lawrence for not feeling the same way.
When he finishes refection,
Knife and fork he never lays
Cross-wise, to my recollection,
As do I, in Jesu’s praise.
I the Trinity illustrate,
Drinking watered orange pulp–
In three sips the Arian frustrate;
While he drains his at one gulp!
At about the half-way point of the poem, the speaker takes the reader back to dinner time. He thinks about how Brother Lawrence doesn’t cross his “knife and fork” on his plate after he finishes the meal. The speaker on the other hand always does this and sees this as one of the many reasons that he’s superior. It shows that he truly loves God. In an outlandish moment, the speaker says that he drinks his “watered orange pulp” in three gulps rather than one in order to observe the Holy Trinity.
Once again, its quite obvious that these habits do not make the speaker more holy than anyone else, especially in the face of all his anger.
Oh, those melons! if he’s able
We’re to have a feast; so nice!
One goes to the Abbot’s table,
All of us get each a slice.
How go on your flowers? None double?
Not one fruit-sort can you spy?
Strange!–And I, too, at such trouble,
Keep them close-nipped on the sly!
The speaker, who has steadily been showing himself to be a vindictive and hateful person, describes in this stanza how he’s been sabotaging Brother Lawrence’s garden. He’s been sneaking into the garden and cutting back the fruit so that they don’t grow. He asks a series of mean spirited rhetorical questions in this stanza that are supposed to be directed at Lawrence. He knows that the monk’s flowers aren’t “double” because he’s been messing with them.
There’s a great text in Galatians,
Once you trip on it, entails
Twenty-nine district damnations,
One sure, if another fails;
If I trip him just a-dying,
Sure of heaven as sure can be,
Spin him round and send him flying
Off to hell, a Manichee?
It’s not just his garden that the speaker is messing with. He’s also trying to figure out a way to mess up the monk in regards to religious texts that they’re all reading. If he can get Brother Lawrence to mess up Galatians then he’ll be able to condemn him to hell. He alludes to Manicheanism in the last line of this stanza. It was an early religion that was similar to Christianity, this adds to the suggestion that the monk is not truly Christian.
Or, my scrofulous French novel
On grey paper with blunt type!
Simply glance at it, you grovel
Hand and foot in Belial’s gripe;
If I double down its pages
At the woeful sixteenth print,
When he gathers his greengages,
Ope a sieve and slip it in’t?
In the second to last stanza of ‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,’ the speaker reveals another aspect of his morally corrupt personality. He has in his possession a “scrofulous” or erotic French novel. He thinks about putting it somewhere that the brother will come upon it. He hopes that by doing this he’ll truly get corrupted and end up going to Hell, in “Belial’s” (the devil’s) “gripe”. Its quite obvious in these lines that if anyone is going to Hell its the speaker. He’s the one with the novel and the one who’s actively trying to harm those he’s supposed to care about.
Or, there’s Satan!–one might venture
Pledge one’s soul to him, yet leave
Such a flaw in the indenture
As he’d miss till, past retrieve,
Blasted lay that rose-acacia
We’re so proud of! Hy, Zy, Hine…
‘St, there’s Vespers! Plena gratia
Ave, Virgo! Gr-r-r–you swine!
In the final stanza of ‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,’ the speaker concludes with another angry burst of emotion just like at the beginning of the poem. He thinks about turning to Satan and pledging his soul to him and then has the ability to destroy Brother Lawrence. But, even less than that, he’d like to see the “rose-acacia” plant that the brother cares so much about destroyed. The speaker is petty enough to consider damning himself to destroy a plant.
The end of the poem is interrupted by a series of Latin prayers signaling that its time for Vespers, or evening prayers. The bell rings, calling the monks to prayer. In the last line, he calls Brother Lawrence “swine” another great example of juxtaposition as words of prayer came right before this insult.
Robert Browning is known for his fairly long, memorable poems that investigate a specific point of view. Other good examples are ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’ and ‘My Last Duchess’. There are clear religious elects in ‘‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister’ but there are also elements of hate and jealousy. Some poems that make use of similar content include ‘Helen’ by Helen Doolittle. and Henry David Thoreau‘s ‘Indeed, Indeed I Cannot Tell’ which is about confusing emotions.