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Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister
A Poem by Robert Browning (1812-1889) 
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Publication Information
Setting
Characters
Tone, Point of View
Summary
Text and Notes
Themes
Rhyme
Meter
Flower Cultivation as Symbol
Framing the Portrait
Enjambment
Figures of Speech
Questions, Writing Tops
Browning Biography
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2010
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Type of Work

.......“Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” is a dramatic monologue, a poem that presents a moment in which the speaker (narrator) discusses a topic and, in so doing, reveals his feelings and state of mind to a listener or the reader. Only the narrator talks—hence the term monologue, meaning single (mono) discourse (logue). The main focus of a dramatic monologue is the personal information about the speaker, not his topic. A dramatic monologue is a type of character study. 
.......In the title, Browning refers to the poem as a soliloquy—a speech given by a character in a play while he is alone on a stage—probably because the word promotes euphony. “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” sounds better than "Dramatic Monologue of the Spanish Cloister." However, a dramatic monologue resembles a soliloquy in that the speaker presents his private thoughts.

Publication Information

.......“Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” first appeared in 1842 in Bells and Pomegranates, a collection of Browning's poems. 

Setting

.......The scene is set in a Roman Catholic cloister in Spain. A cloister is a monastery that limits or forbids admittance of laypersons. (Cloister can also refer to a covered walkway within the monastery walls. Such a walkway usually has columns and arches and surrounds a quadrangle in the form of a courtyard or garden.) 

Characters

The Speaker/Narrator: A hypocritical monk who derides a fellow monastic. 
Brother Lawrence: The object of the speaker's derision.
Brown Dolores, Sanchicha: Nuns who wash their hair in a tank of water outside a convent near the monastery.
Abbot: Head of the monastery.

Tone and Point of View

.......The tone of the poem is mocking, bitter, and hateful. The speaker presents his narrative in first-person point of view except for the third stanza, in which he uses first-person plural to accent his mockery.

Summary

.......When a monk in a Spanish monastery sees a fellow monastic tending his flowers, the observing monk (the speaker)—envious of the other monk's diligence—begins to criticize him under his breath and says, "If hate killed men, Brother Lawrence, / God's blood, would not mine kill you!"  In mocking language, the speaker then describes (out of earshot of the other monk) what Lawrence is doing and at the end of the first stanza says, "Hell dry you up with its flames!"
.......The speaker says that in the refectory (dining hall) he must sit next to Brother Lawrence and endure his conversation about the weather and the crops. Apparently, he is jealous that Lawrence is a good conversationalist. On one occasion, Lawrence inquires about the Latin name for parsley and the Greek name for "swine's snout" (dandelion), indicating that he is curious and willing to learn—both positive qualities that the speaker sneers at. But it is not only Brother Lawrence's table conversation that irks the speaker; it is also the care that Lawrence takes in cleaning and polishing his kitchen ware. The speaker seems to believe that such care is a sign that Lawrence thinks he is better than others.
.......Before leaving the dining hall, Lawrence never lays down his knife and fork in the shape of a cross "as I do . . . I the trinity illustrate," the speaker says with bloated pride. 
.......The speaker also imagines that Lawrence lustfully eyes two nuns from a convent who wash their hair in a tank of water on grounds nearby. But it is the speaker exhibits lust, for he  has a lewd French novel in his possession—a novel that he would like to use to corrupt Brother Lawrence. The speaker ends the poem when he goes off to prayer but at the same time curses Brother Lawrence.

Text

Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister
By Robert Browning

Gr-r-r—there go, my heart's abhorrence!1
   Water your damned flower-pots, do!
If hate killed men, Brother Lawrence,
   God's blood,2 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!..................................8

At the meal we sit together;
   Salve tibi!3 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,4 I doubt;
What's the Latin name for "parsley"?
   What's the Greek name for "swine's snout"?5.............16 

Whew! We'll have our6 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 chaps7
Marked with L. for our initial!
   (He-he! There his lily snaps!)......................................24

Saint, forsooth!8 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?9
   (That is, if he'd let it show!).........................................32

When he finishes refection,10
   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;11
   While he drains his at one gulp!..................................40

Oh, those melons! if he's able
   We're to have a feast; so nice!
One goes to the Abbot's12 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!.............................48

There's a great text in Galatians,13
   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?14...........................................56

Or, my scrofulous15 French novel
   On grey paper with blunt type!
Simply glance at it, you grovel
   Hand and foot in Belial's16 gripe;17
If I double down its pages18
   At the woeful sixteenth print,
When he gathers his greengages,19
   Ope a sieve and slip it in't?..........................................64

Or, there's Satan!—one might venture
   Pledge one's soul to him,20 yet leave
Such a flaw in the indenture21
   As he'd miss till, past retrieve,
Blasted22 lay that rose-acacia
   We're so proud of! Hy, Zy, Hine...
'St, there's Vespers!23 Plena gratia24
  Ave, Virgo!25 Gr-r-r—you swine!.....................................72
 

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Notes

1....Gr-r-r—there go, my heart's abhorrence: Read this line as if the speaker were giving a command: Gr-r-r—go there, my heart's abhorrence.
2....God's blood: Oath, curse. In full, by God's blood. These words profanely call upon God to affirm the speaker's hatred for Brother Lawrence.
3....Salve tibi: Latin for Hail to you
4....oak-galls: Tumors on oak trees. Oak galls contain tannic acid, which can be used to tan leather, make ink, prepare certain medicines, and dye fabrics.
5....swine's snout: Dandelion. 
6....We'll . . . our: The use of the first-person plural in this stanza helps to convey the speaker's mocking tone. 
7....chaps: Chops, jaws.
8....forsooth: Truly, indeed.
9....Barbary corsair: Pirate (corsair) from the Barbary Coast (coast of North Africa, running from Egypt to the Atlantic Ocean).
10..refection: Food and drink; meal, lunch.
11..In . . . frustrate: An Arian was a follower of Arius (AD 250-336), a priest in Alexandria, Egypt, who denied the divinity of Christ. The three sips by the narrator are his way of affirming Christ's divinity. The three sips symbolize the Trinity.
12..Abbot: Priest who heads a monastery (also called an abbey).
13..Galatians: Book of the New Testament presenting a letter of St. Paul (written between AD 48 and 55) to the Galatians, who occupied land near present-day Ankara, Turkey. This book does not contain the damnations referred to by the speaker. They are in the Book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 28, Verses 15-44.
14..Manichee: Manichaean, a follower of Manichaeism. Manichaeians believed God and Satan were equally matched in a war of good against evil.
15..scrofulous: Degenerate, dirty; corrupt.
16..Belial: Fallen angel or Satan himself; wickedness.
17..gripe: Grip.
18..double . . . pages: Turn down page corners to make them bookmarks.
19..greengages: Large green plums.
20..one might . . . him: Allusion to the Faust legend. According to the Faustbuch, published in 1587, Johann Georg Faust (1480-1540)—a magician,astrologer, and fortuneteller—traded his immortal soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and twenty-four years of pleasure. German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) wrote an epic tragic play based on this legend. English playwright Christopher Marlowe based a play, The Tragicall [Tragical] History of Dr. Faustus, on the legend. 
21..indenture: Written contract.
22. Blasted: The narrator wants the rose-acacia to become a victim of a blast. Under the fifth entry in Webster's New World Dictionary and Thesaurus, blast is defined as "an abrupt and damaging influence, esp. a plant blight" (Accent Software, Macmillan, Version 2.0, 1998).
23..Vespers: Group prayers in the evening that give praise and thanksgiving to God.
24..Plena gratia: Latin for Full of grace.
25..Ave, Virgo: Latin for Hail, Virgin (Hail, Mary).

Themes

Hypocrisy

.......The speaker is a self-centered, sanctimonious monk who jealously criticizes a fellow monastic. While the latter completes his tasks, the speaker depicts him as overly fastidious. He also mocks Brother Lawrence's conversation at the table and imagines that Lawrence lusts after the nuns. It is the speaker who exhibits lust, by his own admission, when he reads his "scrofulous French novel." He is the one who is full of faults, not Brother Lawrence.

Hatred

.......Those who live and eat with others in close confinement—such as monks, soldiers, prisoners, seamen, and so on—not infrequently become annoyed by the behavior and habits of others. In the case of a petty, mean-spirited person like the narrator, this annoyance can grow and develop into hatred. He even thinks of sabotaging the spiritual life of Brother Lawrence.
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End Rhyme

.......The rhyme scheme is ABABCDCD. In other words, in each stanza, the first line rhymes with the third, the second line with the fourth, the fifth with the seventh, and the sixth with the eighth. 
.......Browning uses both masculine and feminine rhyme. Masculine rhyme occurs when only the final syllable of a line rhymes with the final syllable of another line, as in lines 2 and 4 (do and you). Feminine rhyme occurs when the final two syllables of one line rhyme with the final two syllables of another line, as in lines 5 and 7 (trimming and brimming). 

Internal Rhyme

.......Browning also uses occasional internal rhyme in the poem, as in the following lines.

Dare we hope oak-galls, I doubt (line 14)
With a fire-new spoon we're furnished (line 19)
Ere 'tis fit to touch our chaps (line 22)
Meter

.......The meter in the poem is trochaic tetrameter, as in the following line 5:

........1.................2....../////......3.....................4
WHAT your..|..MYR tle..|..BUSH wants..|..TRIM ming?
Sometimes, however, a line lacks a complete final foot. Line 6 is an example.
.......1...............2......///......3.............4
OH, that..|..ROSE has..|..PRI or..|..CLAIMS
Flower Cultivation

.......Brother Lawrence's cultivation of flowers appears to symbolize his efforts to cultivate a holy life. The narrator ridicules his efforts and even nips the buds when no one is looking, as the following lines indicate. 

Not one fruit-sort can you spy?
Strange!—And I, too, at such trouble,
Keep them close-nipped on the sly! (lines 46-48)
Framing the Portrait

.......Browning begins and ends with the same growling "gr-r-r," framing the poem with the hatred the narrator feels. The work contains nine stanzas, each with eight lines painting a portrait of a man who despises another man. At the center of the poem, stanza 5, the narrator alludes to the crucifixion of Christ when he says he places his fork and spoon in the shape of a cross. This formation, he believes, attests to his piety. But the reader knows that it attests to his sanctimony. It is not Christ who is at the center of his life; it is own self-absorption. 

Enjambment

.......In his poetry, Browning occasionally uses enjambment, a literary device in which the sense of one line of verse is carried over to the next line without a pause. Here is an example:

Not a plenteous cork crop: scarcely
Dare we hope oak-galls,3 I doubt;
Notice that scarcely belongs with the words that follow it, not with the words that precede it. Consequently, no pause occurs after it. 

Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. (For definitions of figures of speech, click here.)

Alliteration

cork crop (line 13)
"swine's snout" (line 16)
Saint, forsooth (line 25)
Blue-black, lustrous, thick like horsehairs (line 29)
Knife and fork he never lays
gathers his greengages (line 63)
Irony, Dramatic
The speaker does not realize what the readers know: that he is a hateful hypocrite.
Irony, Verbal
Oh, those melons! if he's able
We're to have a feast; so nice! (lines 41-42)
The speaker is actually belittling Brother Lawrence for providing melons.
Metaphor
you grovel
Hand and foot in Belial's grip.
Comparison of sin to the physical act of groveling 
Onomatopoeia
Gr-r-r (lines 1 and 72)
Simile
Steeping tresses in the tank,
Blue-black, lustrous, thick like horsehairs,
Comparison of human hair to the hair of a horse
Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • Write a psychological profile of the narrator. To support your thesis, use library and Internet research as well as the text of the poem.
  • In an essay, Compare and contrast the narrator of "Soliloquy of a Spanish Cloister" with the narrator of another Browning poem, such as "Porphyria's Lover" or "My Last Duchess."
  • The narrator considers corrupting Brother Lawrence with a prurient novel and other means. Is his desire to tempt his fellow monk an indication that he really believes, deep down, that the Lawrence is a holy man? Explain your answer.  
  • Write an essay comparing and contrasting the narrator of "Porphyria's Lover" with the narrator of "My Last Duchess," another Browning poem. 

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