Literature

A Short Analysis of Robert Browning’s ‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister’

‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister’ is one of Robert Browning’s most celebrated dramatic monologues: it first appeared in Browning’s 1842 collection Dramatic Lyrics. As ‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister’ is a relatively long poem, perhaps the best way to offer an analysis of the poem is by going through it, stanza by stanza, and analysing its meaning and features.

Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister

I

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!

Before we launch into the analysis, a quick note about the metre of the poem: ‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister’ is written in trochaic tetrameter, i.e. there are four trochees in each line (a trochee comprising two syllables: one stressed followed by one unstressed, e.g. ‘WHAT, your MYR-tle BUSH wants TRIM-ming’). Not every line adheres strictly to this pattern, but it’s the overall ground-plan for the poem. This gives the rhythm of the poem a forceful, direct feel, to echo the headlong anger of the monk who speaks.

The speaker of the poem, a monk who is speaking to us from the cloister or corridor of a Spanish monastery, launches into a tirade against one of his fellow monks at the monastery, Brother Lawrence. His hatred for Brother Lawrence is so great that, if hate alone (without acting on it) could kill, his hatred would kill his fellow monk. We can infer from the unnamed speaker’s words that Brother Lawrence is busy in the monastery garden, watering the flowers and trimming the myrtle bush; the monk who is the poem’s speaker is watching him from a window of the cloister, possibly overhead.

Immediately, as so often with Browning’s dramatic monologues, we as readers need to be in the critical, detached mode: we cannot afford to ‘side’ with the unnamed monk against Brother Lawrence, and should instead keep our critical distance from the man now ‘speaking’ to us. It’s worth noting that Brother Lawrence is busy at work in the garden, while this monk who has admitted to hating him – not a very Christian attitude, we should add – is merely mouthing off in the nearby cloister. Does Lawrence deserve his fellow monk’s censorious hate?

II

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 this second stanza, our initial suspicions are confirmed: the speaker who harbours such hate towards Brother Lawrence is apparently consumed by petty anger, and dislikes the way he has to listen to his fellow monk chattering on over dinner about the weather, and about the things he is growing in the garden. Once again, the anger seems out of proportion to the ‘crime’ or ‘sin’ Brother Lawrence has committed: being a bit of a bore at mealtimes. (Note: ‘Salve tibi’ means ‘hail to you’ or, if you like, ‘how’s it going?’)

III

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!)

In this stanza, the monk mocks the way Brother Lawrence has his own habits at mealtimes: e.g. he has his own plate, which he keeps on his own shelf in the refectory, and a brand-new spoon, as well as his own goblet. Yes, there may be something a little obsessive-compulsive about Brother Lawrence’s particularities, and having his things marked with his initial (‘L.’ for Lawrence, of course) suggests that he doesn’t wish to share them with others, but he hardly deserves to be angrily ridiculed in this way. He isn’t doing his fellow monk any harm, after all. (Besides, having your own goblet is simply the sign of a civilised person, in our view, especially in an age before Fairy washing-up liquid.)

In the final, parenthetical line, the speaker takes unusual relish and pleasure in the sight of Brother Lawrence’s lily snapping in the garden. He knows Brother Lawrence takes great pride in his flowers, so there’s a sense of bitter schadenfreude in his delight at the broken lily.

IV

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!)

Now, the monk considers Lawrence’s supposed attitudes towards the nuns of the nearby convent. When two of them, Dolores and Sanchicha, sit outside the convent and tell stories, the speaker says that Brother Lawrence leers at them lustfully (his ‘dead eye’ glowing hints at a possible secondary bawdy meaning, i.e. he’s aroused ‘downstairs’), much as a corsair from the Spanish coast (i.e. a privateer, or a sort of legal pirate) would when seeing an attractive woman.

However, by now we get the impression that the fault lies with the speaker more than it does with Brother Lawrence himself. In other words, the speaker of ‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister’ is projecting his own lusts onto his fellow monk. After all, how could he know that Brother Lawrence is aroused by the nuns if the other monk doesn’t ‘let it show’?

V

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!

Now we’re back to dinner: another thing that annoys the nameless speaker is that his fellow monk never crosses his knife and fork on his plate when he’s finished his meal. The speaker does, of course, as he’s a good Christian man, and does so to make the sign of the Cross in memory of Jesus (‘in Jesu’s praise’). He even observes the Holy Trinity (God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Ghost) by drinking his watered orange juice in three sips, whereas Brother Lawrence gulps his down in one go. (The reference to the ‘Arian’ concerns the Arian controversy, which rejects the idea of the Trinity. The Trinity is the belief that God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost are all one spirit, whereas Arianism rejects this idea and sees Jesus as separate from, and subordinate to, God.) So Brother Lawrence isn’t just annoying, particular, and lustful; he’s also a bad Christian (says the speaker).

VI

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!

We now learn that the speaker is actively sabotaging Brother Lawrence’s growing efforts in the garden. He is trying to grow melons and other fruits so they can eat them at dinner, but he mocks his fellow monk’s lack of success in cultivating the fruits. We then learn, in the final two lines, that the speaker’s pettiness extends to interfering with Brother Lawrence’s garden, cutting back the fruits (‘close-nipped on the sly’) so they never grow.

VII

There’s a great text in Galatians,
Once you trip on it, entails
Twenty-nine distinct 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?

The monk now plots ways of ‘tripping up’ Brother Lawrence on points of theology, so that his fellow monk ends up ‘flying / Off to hell’ for being ‘a Manichee’ (Manicheanism was an early rival religion to Christianity; so the monk is saying that, in tripping up Brother Lawrence on a text from Galatians, a book of the Bible, Lawrence would condemn himself to hell for not being a true Christian). There’s a real vindictiveness to the speaker’s ambitions now: he’s so riled by this other monk that he is thinking of ways not only to undermine his fruit-growing but to ensure he spends eternity in hellfire. Not a very nice man, eh?

VIII

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?

This stanza is, of all the stanzas in ‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister’, the one in which the speaker most clearly exposes his hypocrisy. He thinks about putting a ‘scrofulous French novel’ (i.e. a corrupt and immoral piece of erotic literature – ‘scrofulous’ here is figurative, referring to moral disease rather than the physical ailment) which he owns in the way of Brother Lawrence, so as to corrupt his fellow monk by putting thoughts of sin and lechery into his mind. ‘Belial’, a term from the Hebrew Bible, is another name for the Devil here, so the speaker of the poem is thinking of ways to send his fellow monk to hell by encouraging him to think sinful thoughts. The irony, of course, is that the novel is his – he has already corrupted his owl soul, and now seeks to corrupt another. This confirms that the lechery he had earlier imputed to Brother Lawrence is, in fact, his own: it was him ogling at those nuns.

IX

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 gratiâ
Ave, Virgo! Gr-r- r – you swine!

Browning concludes ‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister’ with a gloriously angry outburst from our monk, who now confides that he is prepared to pledge his own soul to Satan if by doing so he could bring down the annoying Brother Lawrence. Indeed, his ambitions are even narrower than that: specifically, he’d be happy to see the rose-acacia plant which Brother Lawrence puts so much pride in be ‘blasted’ and destroyed. (‘We’re so proud of’ is mocking: he’s not proud of it at all, and the pride is all Brother Lawrence’s.) And then, suddenly, the monk’s musings are interrupted by the call to Vespers (evening prayers), and the Hail Mary (‘Plena gratiâ / Ave, Virgo’ means ‘Hail to the Virgin [Mary], full of grace’). ‘Hy, Zy, Hine’ is interpreted as the sound of the bell that is being rung to call monks to prayer. The final words of ‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister’ see the speaker of the poem cursing Brother Lawrence again as a ‘swine’, but following hot on the heels of the religious text (‘Ave Virgo’), his words are blasphemous and inappropriate.

‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister’ shows how a man’s mind can be driven half-mad with petty spite and resentment towards another person, whose behaviour does not warrant such an overblown reaction. The unsettling thing about many of Browning’s most successful dramatic monologues (‘My Last Duchess’ and ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ are the other two most celebrated examples) is how the speaker of each, in describing another (the Duke his young wife, and Porphyria his high-born lover), inadvertently reveals more about his own character than he realises. We are left with the uncomfortable feeling of being stuck in the company with someone who is psychotically obsessed with another and who seeks to destroy them (and does so, in the case of those other two poems). The poem is a triumph not least because Browning leaves a bitter taste in our mouths: we know as much about the unnamed speaker as we do about Brother Lawrence, and would not like to meet him in a cloister, much less a dark alley.

4 Comments

  1. I don’t think that Sanchicha and Dolores, the sunburned girls washing their long hair outside the convent, are nuns – they are more likely to be lay servants – or even ‘rescued’ girls in the care of the nuns. It is slightly worrying that the speaker knows their names – has he been doing rather more than looking? – talking to them? and are they safe with him. I would guess not…

    • Helen Senior

      I agree Tina, about the girls not being nuns. And i like your comment about the speaker knowing their names – it’s suspicious.
      He is projecting all his impure thoughts onto Brother Lawrence..

    • flatslipper

      Like many people, I would have looked at Browning’s poem and frowned and thought ‘ what on Earth is this all about ‘ . ‘ It’s not my bag ‘ , ‘ I don’t understand it ‘ , I’ve often heard. So much amazing literature is quickly cast aside. Today’s reading has given me a fresh perspective. I’m thinking , well the analysis is an interesting read in its own right. I like the use of modern phrases like ‘ mouthing off ‘. So, poem and analysis combined in the way that’s it’s done above is perfect for me. I’m 66 and retired and I realise my angle is different from a young student. It’s given me an insight into life in a monastery, and one man’s not so nice nature with a bit of Latin thrown in and terminology of monasterial implements, great !

      ….Neil

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