Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
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.
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
of the Spanish Cloister” first appeared in 1842 in Bells and Pomegranates,
a collection of Browning's poems.
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
A hypocritical monk who derides a fellow monastic.
The object of the speaker's derision.
Sanchicha: Nuns who wash their hair in a tank of water outside a
convent near the monastery.
Abbot: Head of the
and Point of View
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister
By Robert Browning
go, my heart's abhorrence!1
damned flower-pots, do!
If hate killed men, Brother
not mine kill you!
What? your myrtle-bush wants
Oh, that rose
has prior claims—
Needs its leaden vase filled
Hell dry you
up with its flames!..................................8
At the meal we sit together;
tibi!3 I must
Wise talk of the kind of
Sort of season,
time of year:
Not a plenteous cork crop:
Dare we hope
What's the Latin name for
Greek name for "swine's snout"?5.............16
have our6 platter
Laid with care
on our own shelf!
With a fire-new spoon we're
And a goblet
Rinsed like something sacrificial
Ere 'tis fit
to touch our chaps—7
Marked with L. for our initial!
his lily snaps!)......................................24
While Brown Dolores
the Convent bank
With Sanchicha, telling
in the tank,
Blue-black, lustrous, thick
—Can't I see
his dead eye glow,
Bright as 'twere a Barbary
(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
I the Trinity illustrate,
sips the Arian frustrate;11
While he drains
his at one gulp!..................................40
Oh, those melons! if he's
We're to have
a feast; so nice!
One goes to the Abbot's12
All of us get
each a slice.
How go on your flowers?
Not one fruit-sort
can you spy?
Strange!—And I, too, at
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
If I trip him just a-dying,
Sure of heaven
as sure can be,
Spin him round and send
Off to hell,
Or, my scrofulous15
On grey paper
with blunt type!
Simply glance at it, you
Hand and foot
If I double
down its pages18
At the woeful
When he gathers his greengages,19
Ope a sieve
and slip it in't?..........................................64
Or, there's Satan!—one
one's soul to him,20
Such a flaw in the indenture21
As he'd miss
till, past retrieve,
lay that rose-acacia
We're so proud
of! Hy, Zy, Hine...
'St, there's Vespers!23
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.
blood: Oath, curse. In full, by God's blood. These words profanely
call upon God to affirm the speaker's hatred for Brother Lawrence.
tibi: Latin for Hail to you.
Tumors on oak trees. Oak galls contain tannic acid, which can be used to
tan leather, make ink, prepare certain medicines, and dye fabrics.
. . . our: The use of the first-person plural in this stanza helps
to convey the speaker's mocking tone.
corsair: Pirate (corsair) from the Barbary Coast (coast of North Africa,
running from Egypt to the Atlantic Ocean).
Food and drink; meal, lunch.
. . . 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.
Priest who heads a monastery (also called an abbey).
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.
Manichaean, a follower of Manichaeism. Manichaeians believed God and Satan
were equally matched in a war of good against evil.
Degenerate, dirty; corrupt.
Fallen angel or Satan himself; wickedness.
. . . pages: Turn down page corners to make them bookmarks.
Large green plums.
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.
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).
Group prayers in the evening that give praise and thanksgiving to God.
gratia: Latin for Full of grace.
Virgo: Latin for Hail, Virgin (Hail, Mary).
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.
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.
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.
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
also uses occasional internal rhyme in the poem, as in the following lines.
Dare we hope
I doubt (line 14)
With a fire-new
spoon we're furnished (line 19)
fit to touch our chaps (line 22)
meter in the poem is trochaic tetrameter,
as in the following line 5:
Sometimes, however, a line lacks
a complete final foot. Line 6 is an example.
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
Keep them close-nipped on
the sly! (lines 46-48)
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.
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
Notice that scarcely belongs
with the words that follow it, not with the words that precede it. Consequently,
no pause occurs after it.
Dare we hope
are examples of figures of speech in the poem. (For definitions of figures
of speech, click here.)
forsooth (line 25)
and fork he never lays
The speaker does
not realize what the readers know: that he is a hateful hypocrite.
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.
Hand and foot in Belial's
Comparison of sin to
the physical act of groveling
Gr-r-r (lines 1
in the tank,
Questions and Writing Topics
Blue-black, lustrous, thick
Comparison of human hair
to the hair of a horse
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.