Robert Browning’s Poetry

by: Robert Browning

“Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister”

Complete Text

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!
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?
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!)
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!)
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.
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!
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 as can be,
Spin him round and send him flying
   Off to hell, a Manichee?
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?
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!

Summary

This highly entertaining poem portrays the grumblings of a jealous monk who finds his pleasures more in the flesh than in the spirit. Presenting himself as the model of righteousness, the speaker condemns a fellow monk, Brother Lawrence, for his immorality; but we soon recognize that the faults he assigns to Lawrence are in fact his own. Unlike many of Browning’s monologues, this one has no real historical specificity: we have no clues as to when the speaker might have lived, and the Spanish cloister is simply an anonymous monastery.

Form

The poem comprises nine eight-line stanzas, each rhyming ABABCDCD. The lines fall roughly into tetrameter, although with some irregularities. Browning makes ample use of the conventions of spoken language, including nonverbal sounds (“Gr-r-r-”) and colloquial language (“Hell dry you up with its flames!”). Many of the later dramatic monologues dispense with rhyme altogether, but this poem retains it, perhaps to suggest the speaker’s self-righteousness and careful adherence to tradition and formal convention.

Because the speaker here is talking to himself, the poem is not technically a dramatic monologue as so many of Browning’s poems are; rather, it is, as its title suggests, a “soliloquy” (even though it is a freestanding poem, and not a speech from a play). Nevertheless it shares many of the features of the dramatic monologues: an interest in sketching out a character, an attention to aestheticizing detail, and an implied commentary on morality.

Commentary

“Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” explores moral hypocrisy. On the surface, the poem may seem to be a light historical piece, the utterings of a grumpy but interesting monk—however, it repeatedly approaches a tone similar to that used by the more strident of Victorian essayists and religious figures. Browning portrays this man’s interior commentary to show that behind righteousness often lurks self-righteousness and corruption. The speaker levels some rather malevolent curses at Brother Lawrence, accusing his fellow monk of gluttony and lechery, when it is obvious, based on the examples he gives, that it is the speaker himself who is guilty of these sins (for example, when describing the supposed focus of Lawrence’s lecherous attentions, the speaker indulges in fairly abundant detail; clearly he has been looking for himself.) Moreover, the speaker’s fantasies about trapping Lawrence into damnation suggest that Lawrence is in fact a good man who will receive salvation. Thus Browning implies that the most vehement moralists invent their own opposition in order to elevate themselves.

Perhaps most importantly, the speaker describes a bargain he would make with Satan to hurt Lawrence. The speaker claims he could make such a bargain that Satan would believe he was getting the speaker’s soul when in fact a loophole would let the speaker escape. The paradox here is that making any sort of bargain with the devil to the disadvantage of another, whether one tricks Satan in the end or not, must necessarily involve the loss of one’s soul: the very act of making such a treacherous bargain constitutes a mortal sin. No one could admire this speaker’s moral dissolution; yet he represents a merely thinly veiled version of people whose public characters are very much admired—the moralists and preachers of Browning’s day. Browning exposes such people’s hypocrisy and essential immorality.