Robert Browning: Poems Summary and Analysis

"Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister"

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Summary

The poem "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister" is written in nine stanzas and is narrated by an unnamed Spanish monk who watches in hatred and envy as Brother Lawrence waters plants. The entire poem is spoken by the monk to himself.

The first stanza opens with the speaker's intense hatred of Brother Lawrence, who the speaker insists would perish "if hate killed men." Brother Lawrence is watering plants, which the speaker mocks snidely and harshly.

In the second stanza, the speaker thinks of how when the monks have dinner together, Brother Lawrence engages in pleasantries, "wise talk of the kind of weather," and how such activity angers him. The third stanza follows with the speaker taking the Brother's voice, snidely mocking what he perceives as Brother Lawrence's love of good food and unwillingness to eat anything sub-par. He snaps out of Brother Lawrence's voice as he sees the latter break a flower he is watering, which the speaker mocks to himself.

In the fourth stanza, the speaker thinks about how Brother Lawrence is coveting two women who sit nearby talking. The speaker is certain of his enemy's lust, even if the latter won't "let it show."

The fifth stanza again finds the speaker imagining dinner time. He chastises (to himself) Brother Lawrence for not placing his fork and knife in the shape of a cross or drinking his juice in three gulps to represent the Trinity, both actions the speaker believes pay glory to Christ and which Brother Lawrence refuses to do.

In the sixth stanza, the speaker imagines a conversation with Brother Lawrence, who is pruning melons that will provide a dessert for the monks. The speaker imagines asking about the flowers, which Brother Lawrence presumably confesses are not doing well, and then the speaker reveals that he's been sabotaging their progress.

In the seventh stanza, the speaker moves to darker territory as he realizes that a "text in Galatians" explains how a sinner will sin progressively more and be damned for it. The speaker concocts a plan to "trip him" into sin right before he dies, so that Brother Lawrence will then be sent to hell. In the eighth stanza, the speaker considers using his French novel, which presumably is full of lewd content, to entice Brother Lawrence into impure thoughts that will ruin his enemy's piety and prepare him for damnation.

The final stanza has the speaker considering even selling his own soul to Satan for the pleasure of thereby damning Brother Lawrence. As his fantasy escalates, the vesper bells ring and the speaker angrily ceases his hateful imaginings to report for prayer.

Analysis

One should approach this poem, which was published between 1842 and 1845 as part of Browning's Bells and Pomegranates series, as a humorous piece. Certainly, it's full of both dramatic irony and comments on serious themes like most of Browning's dramatic monologues, but the speaker's emotions and mode of address are so heightened that it's obviously meant to amuse as much as inform.

The basic premise of the poem is suffused with dramatic irony. The speaker, anonymous outside his vows as a monk, despises Brother Lawrence from some unspecified envy, though he rationalizes his envy under the guise of piety. The many sins he accuses Brother Lawrence of committing provide the speaker with justification for his hatred, but the truth is that the speaker is unknowingly guilty of each of them himself, whereas Brother Lawrence is only guilty of them in the speaker's imaginination. Consider the examples: the second stanza accuses Lawrence of pride in his conversation, whereas the speaker is himself proud enough to want another man dead and damned for some transgression. In the fourth stanza, the speaker angers himself over Brother Lawrence's lust for the two nearby women, but the truth is that it is only the speaker who notices the girls. What's more, he admits to himself that Brother Lawrence does not "show" his lust, suggesting it is only the speaker's lust that fuels the attack. In the fifth stanza, he accuses Brother Lawrence of failing to show proper piety through ridiculous gestures like crossing his fork and knife in the shape of a cross or drinking in three gulps to imitate the Trinity. Even when he thinks of the presumably lewd French novel as a way to ensnare Brother Lawrence, he ironically reveals his own knowledge of the book. If knowing the book makes one impious and he hates Brother Lawrence for being impious, there is an irony that the speaker is too blinded by hate to recognize. It is abundantly clear to the reader that the speaker knows only the outward shapes of Christianity, whereas the true meanings of the religion – charity, love, and forgiveness – are absent from his character.

So absent are they that the speaker is willing not only to damn Brother Lawrence to an eternity in hell, but also to damn himself. The turn that the poem takes in the seventh stanza, when the speaker begins to consider hell as an option, moves the poem into a starker comment on hypocrisy. Implicitly, it reveals the thin line between religious piety and hellish damnation. Because both operate in extreme realms, it is easy to make the jump. The speaker is so convinced of his own piety that he considers damnation an appropriate punishment for he who fails in it. As with most of Browning's characters, what comes across most of all is the human complications of psychology, whereas institutions like religion are thin disguises of these more ordinary emotions.

The poem is also a masterful use of voice, which helps the dramatic irony land so strongly. While the meter, iambic tetrameter, does not necessarily contribute to the poem's meaning, it does give Browning a great form in which to create a wonderful, multifaceted address. First, while this poem is grouped as one of Browning's dramatic monologues, it is not technically a monologue but instead a soliloquy, a speech where the speaker shares his inner thoughts. The form allows the monk to take on many voices in the same way Browning is crafting his voice. In the second stanza, he mocks Brother Lawrence's dinner-time comments, in the third stanza he takes on Lawrence's voice to suggest his love of material objects, and in the sixth he imagines a conversation with him. Herein is a commentary on the malleability of human psychology and our ability for rationalization. By taking on Brother Lawrence's voice, the speaker is able to justify his otherwise-ungrounded hatred, even while the more he rationalizes, the more we as readers are confronted with the dramatic irony that the speaker lacks any objective justification. There's a voice even within the voice Browning crafts, all of which suggests how deeply our psychology can work in order to defend our subjective truths.

Overall, even though the poem is best viewed as a comedy in its presentation, the subject is the depths of the ego. Certainly, Browning does not mean to suggest that all priests are as deeply hypocritical as this speaker, or that we are all so wicked, but he does suggest through this masterful sketch how adept any individual can be at justifying his own subjective truth, and how the complications of our psychology often work against us by allowing us such license to rationalize our otherwise-ungrounded feelings and actions.