Robert Browning’s ‘The Confessional‘ is a dramatic monologue written in thirteen stanzas that tells a story of betrayal and naivety. The main protagonist is a woman attempting to save her and her lover’s souls from sin. The main antagonist is a priest who uses the woman’s blind faith to gather information about her lover to provide evidence to hang her lover.
The Confessional Robert BrowningI.It is a lie—their Priests, their Pope,Their Saints, their... all they fear or hopeAre lies, and lies—there! through my doorAnd ceiling, there! and walls and floor,There, lies, they lie—shall still be hurledTill spite of them I reach the world!II.You think Priests just and holy men!Before they put me in this denI was a human creature too,With flesh and blood like one of you,A girl that laughed in beauty’s prideLike lilies in your world outside.III.I had a lover—shame avaunt!This poor wrenched body, grim and gaunt,Was kissed all over till it burned,By lips the truest, love e’er turnedHis heart’s own tint: one night they kissedMy soul out in a burning mist.IV.So, next day when the accustomed trainOf things grew round my sense again,‘That is a sin,’ I said: and slowWith downcast eyes to church I go,And pass to the confession-chair,And tell the old mild father there.V.But when I falter Beltran’s name,‘Ha?’ quoth the father; ‘much I blame’The sin; yet wherefore idly grieve?‘Despair not—strenuously retrieve!’Nay, I will turn this love of thine‘To lawful love, almost divine;VI.’For he is young, and led astray,‘This Beltran, and he schemes, men say,’To change the laws of church and state'So, thine shall be an angel’s fate,‘Who, ere the thunder breaks, should roll’Its cloud away and save his soul.VII.‘For, when he lies upon thy breast,’Thou mayst demand and be possessed‘Of all his plans, and next day steal’To me, and all those plans reveal,‘That I and every priest, to purge’His soul, may fast and use the scourge.'VIII.That father’s beard was long and white,With love and truth his brow seemed bright;I went back, all on fire with joy,And, that same evening, bade the boyTell me, as lovers should, heart-free,Something to prove his love of me.IX.He told me what he would not tellFor hope of heaven or fear of hell;And I lay listening in such pride!And, soon as he had left my side,Tripped to the church by morning-lightTo save his soul in his despite.X.I told the father all his schemes,Who were his comrades, what their dreams;‘And now make haste,’ I said, ‘to pray’The one spot from his soul away;‘To-night he comes, but not the same’Will look!' At night he never came.XI.Nor next night: on the after-morn,I went forth with a strength new-born.The church was empty; something drewMy steps into the street; I knewIt led me to the market-place:Where, lo, on high, the father’s face!XII.That horrible black scaffold dressed,That stapled block... God sink the rest!That head strapped back, that blinding vest,Those knotted hands and naked breast,Till near one busy hangman pressed,And, on the neck these arms caressed...XIII.No part in aught they hope or fear!No heaven with them, no hell!—and here,No earth, not so much space as pensMy body in their worst of densBut shall bear God and man my cry,Lies—lies, again—and still, they lie!
Explore The Confessional
A story of tragedy, love, and betrayal, ‘The Confessional‘ by Robert Browning tells the story of two lovers and a holy man who betrays them.
The poem is about a woman who confesses her and her lover’s sins upon the request of a priest who says he will wash their sins away. But, the priest betrays the woman, instead hanging her lover and imprisoning her, never cleansing their souls.
Structure and Form
‘The Confessional‘ is thirteen stanzas long, each stanza following an AABBCC format, with six lines in each stanza. The poem is a dramatic monologue, a type that often does not consistently have a strict structure across all poets. But, Browning uses the AABBCC structure to keep a steady pacing throughout the poem, making it read much like a story.
Tone and Mood
The tone and mood of ‘The Confessional‘ by Robert Browning are essential to the poem’s pacing and readability. Firstly, the pacing is quickened with anger, anticipation, and tension felt throughout different moments of the piece. You see anger at the introduction and conclusion, you feel the suspense as the readers see the consequences of the woman’s actions unfold, and the reader feels the tension when the priest asks questions about her lover, with more information than he should know.
We then see the tone shifting throughout the piece, especially during the stanzas with the priest. While the reader can sense the woman trusts the priest, you also get the sense that the priest is lying to the woman and that she is being tricked in some way.
Both tone and mood, therefore, affect a large portion of how the poem is read and interpreted. If you did not pick up on these aspects, you would not have had the same reaction to the piece as others did.
It is a lie—their Priests, their Pope,
Their Saints, their … all they fear or hope
Are lies, and lies—there! through my door
And ceiling, there! and walls and floor,
There, lies, they lie—shall still be hurled
Till spite of them I reach the world!
In stanza one of ‘The Confessional,’ we begin the story with a woman distraught and angered by the church. She says they are liars. She points out all the most notable aspects of the church, including its priests, pope, and saints, as well as their buildings. It’s unknown to the reader why the woman is upset at the church this early in the poem. But, in the last line, it is mentioned that she is possibly locked up, as “I reach the world” infers she is unable to get her words to the outside listeners, and “Till spite of them” implies that the church is the one who locked her up. For what we do not yet know.
You think Priests just and holy men!
Before they put me in this den
I was a human creature too,
With flesh and blood like one of you,
A girl that laughed in beauty’s pride
Like lilies in your world outside.
The speaker now tries to pull your opinion in her favor. For example, She says you thought priests were just and holy? So did I, but now I am locked up by them. She then describes herself to the reader. First, she states her humanity, then her overwhelming beauty, comparing herself to a lily. It’s important to note that a lily is chosen, as it is a beautiful flower but also very gentle and breakable, unlike a rose which is often used to represent beauty but with the toughness of thorns.
I had a lover—shame avaunt!
This poor wrenched body, grim and gaunt,
Was kissed all over till it burned,
By lips the truest, love e’er turned
His heart’s own tint: one night they kissed
My soul out in a burning mist.
The woman tells her tale of why the church had locked her up and why she was so upset with them. However, she had a lover, and they had a night of sexual pleasure. She says it was passionate, and she uses beautiful language to describe the details. The first line is essential, as the word “had” implies she no longer has this lover for a reason we do not know.
So, next day when the accustomed train
Of things grew round my sense again,
“That is a sin,” I said: and slow
With downcast eyes to church I go,
And pass to the confession-chair,
And tell the old mild father there.
The next day the woman wakes up and feels guilty for having sex out of wedlock, as it is a sin in her mind. So she decides to go to church, to confessional, to rid herself of this burden, and confess to the father what she has done. Confession often has its special section of the church, where individuals may privately tell their sins to the priests, and the priests help wash away their sins.
But when I falter Beltran’s name,
`Ha?’ quoth the father; `much I blame
`The sin; yet wherefore idly grieve?
`Despair not—strenuously retrieve!
`Nay, I will turn this love of thine
`To lawful love, almost divine;
The woman reveals the name of her lover, Beltran. When she says his name, the priest recognizes it but does not tell the woman why. He thinks he can save both their souls, and if she follows his orders, she can be with her love, and neither of them would have sins to burden them. While we do not see the woman’s reaction to such news yet, we can infer she is excited, as previously she mentions her love for Beltran and guilt at her sins. An option that would solve her problems would make her listen to the priest.
`For he is young, and led astray,
`This Beltran, and he schemes, men say,
`To change the laws of church and state
`So, thine shall be an angel’s fate,
`Who, ere the thunder breaks, should roll
`Its cloud away and save his soul.
The priest tells the woman that her lover is young and doesn’t know the sins he is committing. He says he does things that the church does not like or condone. The priest then says that the woman will have an “angles fate” and that her destiny is to save her lover’s soul. The woman does not wonder why the priest knows so much about her lover and does not question him.
`For, when he lies upon thy breast,
`Thou mayst demand and be possessed
`Of all his plans, and next day steal
`To me, and all those plans reveal,
`That I and every priest, to purge
`His soul, may fast and use the scourge.”
The priest says the woman must go to her lover and ask for information about all his plans and schemes. Then she must come back the next day and tell the priest about the plans so that this priest and all others can purge the thoughts from the lover and cleanse his soul from sin. At this point in the poem, the readers may be picking up on the fact that the priest seems to know too much about the lover, but the woman does not.
That father’s beard was long and white,
With love and truth his brow seemed bright;
I went back, all on fire with joy,
And, that same evening, bade the boy
Tell me, as lovers should, heart-free,
Something to prove his love of me.
In stanza eight of ‘The Confessional,’ the woman says the priest has a long white beard, is most likely elderly, and that he radiated truth. This shows the woman’s blind trust in this holy figure, as she expects moral and just reasoning from such a man. She then, enthused at the thought of wiping away both her and her lover’s sins, goes back to him and asks him to prove his love to her by telling her things, so one else knows.
He told me what he would not tell
For hope of heaven or fear of hell;
And I lay listening in such pride!
And, soon as he had left my side,
Tripped to the church by morning-light
To save his soul in his despite.
The man tells the woman his plans and other schemes that no one else has been told. The woman listens carefully with pride in two ways. Proud of her love for being able to prove his love to her and trust her, and proud of herself for accomplishing a task that will cleanse their souls. She then goes to church as early as she can the following day, excited to tell the priest all she learned so she can save her lover from sin.
I told the father all his schemes,
Who were his comrades, what their dreams;
`And now make haste,’ I said, `to pray
`The one spot from his soul away;
`To-night he comes, but not the same
`Will look!’ At night he never came.
The woman tells the father the plans for her lover, his companions, and their multiple goals. The priest then says he must pray to wipe away her lover’s sins. Finally, he says that her lover will return to her tonight, but he will be a different man, changed, as now his sins are gone. But the woman waited, and her lover never returned to her that night.
Nor next night: on the after-morn,
I went forth with a strength new-born.
The church was empty; something drew
My steps into the street; I knew
It led me to the market-place:
Where, lo, on high, the father’s face!
She waited longer, and the man did not return the next night either. So the morning after the second night, she returned to the church to seek answers about why her lover did not return. But, when she arrives at the church, it is empty. The entire church was gone, devoid of all people. Then she gets a bad feeling and steps into the marketplace by some unknown compulsion. She sees the priest there but is shocked by his appearance.
That horrible black scaffold dressed,
That stapled block … God sink the rest!
That head strapped back, that blinding vest,
Those knotted hands and naked breast,
Till near one busy hangman pressed,
And, on the neck these arms caressed …
In stanza twelve of ‘The Confessional,’ the woman sees the priest standing next to a man about to get hung. The woman describes the priest and the man and, in her horror, realizes that the man about to be hanged is her lover and the priest has betrayed her trust. The priest deemed the man an enemy of the church, and instead of washing his sins away, they executed him publicly. The woman cannot process the moment, and you feel her shock at the realization of what is happening around her, that she had been tricked and had accidentally killed her lover.
No part in aught they hope or fear!
No heaven with them, no hell!—and here,
No earth, not so much space as pens
My body in their worst of dens
But shall bear God and man my cry,
Lies—lies, again—and still, they lie!
The poem brings us back to the present, where the woman is in an unknown prison. We do not see her capture nor the prison’s location, but her words can infer that the church imprisoned her. She yells out that they are liars, that they continue to lie, and that they cannot be trusted as holy men, for they do what is good for them, not what is the holy or just decisions she had been expecting when she initially walked into the church that original time.
The reader never finds the exact details of what the lover did or planned to do. However, it is noted that the priest seems to recognize the name when the woman says it, meaning he is somewhat well known, and the word schemes are used by both the woman and the priest, so it can be said that perhaps the man was planning some more devious goals. But, we cannot be sure, as it’s left purposefully vague, perhaps to cement the fact that the priest is the antagonist of this story.
The speaker is an unnamed woman who is telling her tale of imprisonment.
The woman had sex out of wedlock, which is considered a sin in the church.
No, the church was real. It was just that all people who were usually at the church were instead at the hanging of the lover. All those same holy people were at the execution. So when the speaker says the church was empty, she means physically, the building was still there.
Here are Three poems that you would like if you enjoyed this poem:
- ‘After Death’ by Christina Rossetti — This is written from the perspective of a dead individual and focuses on the themes of death and tragic love.
- ‘The Dying Christian to His Soul’ by Alexander Pope — This poem is addressed to a dying Christian person, not his body, but to his soul.
- After a Journey’ by Thomas Hardy — This poem focuses on the themes of regret and reconciliation.