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“Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister.” On this Date in 1812 Robert Browning was Born.

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May 7, 2017

monastery2

On this date in 1812 Robert Browning was born in London. He died in 1889. In commemoration, how about we read one of his most popular poems, “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister.” The poem’s first appearance in print was in Bells and Pomgranates, number 3, under the title “ Camp and Cloister” and in book form in 1842 in Dramatic Lyrics. In both early appearances “Soliloquy in the Spanish Cloister” as we have it today was paired with the “Incident of the French Camp” under the title “Camp and Cloister.” In Browning’s later distributions of his poems it remained one of the Dramatic Lyrics.

“Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” in 72 lines, 9 stanzas, consists of the under-the-breath mutterings of a cloistered monk as he observes with hatred Brother Lawrence watering his myrtle-bushes in the convent garden. Everything about Brother Lawrence irritates the speaker deeply. He can’t stand the way that the monk spends refection talking about the weather and his beloved plants, the way he eats and drinks heartily while the speaker is always careful to demonstrate his own piety by laying his knife and fork crosswise and by drinking his watered orange pulp in three sips to represent the trinity.

He imagines how Brother Lawrence must lust deeply, if only he would show it, after brown Dolores who often sits outside the convent wall combing her long, black, lustrous hair. Even as the speaker observes Brother Lawrence trimming his flowers, he takes great pleasure when one snaps, and he gleefully admits keeping the plants “close-nipped on the sly.”

So he contemplates how most effectively to destroy the soul of the hated brother. Perhaps he could trap him in one of the 29 sins listed in a passage in Galatians just as he is at the point of death and send him off to hell. Or perhaps turn down the most lurid page of all in his own pornographic novel and slip it in among the garden tools. That certainly would cause the despised brother to grovel in the hands of Belial.

He even fantasizes selling his soul to the devil (but being sure to leave a loophole in the contract). But just then the vesper bells ring calling the brothers to prayer. The poem closes as the speaker curses Brother Lawrence before they have to enter into prayers together.

So, here’s the poem:

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!
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?
III
Whew! We’ll have our platter burnished,
Laid with care on our own sheld!
With a fire-new spoon we’re furnished,
And a goblet for oneself,
Rinsed like something sacrificial
Ere ’tis fit to touch our chaps—
Marked with L. for our initial!
(He-he! There his lily snaps!)
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!)
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.
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!
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?
VIII
Or my scrofulous French novel
On gray 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?
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!

 

Forms and Devices

Browning’s appeal has often come from the dramatic presentation of inner psychological character, frequently of figures out of the mainstream of normal experience. In “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” Browning uses the technique of soliloquy taken from the stage. Whereas the speaker actually voices his thoughts, unlike in dramatic monologues, nobody in the poem hears him. As a result of this technique, the poem achieves immediacy—everything happens within the timeframe of the actual reading of the poem just as it would if this soliloquy were spoken on stage.

Furthermore, the dramatic nature of the form allows Browning to avoid stilted poetic diction and instead to demonstrate the quite forceful language of the speaker in a variety of forms:

If hate killed men, Brother Lawrence,

God’s blood, would not mine kill you!

It allows Browning to show us a speaker who sometimes voices his own opinions, sometimes quotes from the Bible, mocks, or parodies Brother Lawrence’s hated affectations. At times we may even sympathize with the speaker in his disdain for the boring Brother Lawrence In short, the dramatic nature of this poem allows the full display of the speaker’s ambiguous personality.

Remarkably, while the poem sounds so dramatically real, Browning reveals his true virtuosity through the poetic forms he uses. Each stanza consists of 8 variously trochaic and iambic tetrameter lines. Tetrameter often is used for fast movement in a poem, as in stanzas 7 and 8, but speed and natural speech cadences also are achieved by the use of irregular rhymes and frequent double rhymes, for example in the last lines of the poem in which every line ends with a double rhyme:

Blasted lay that rose-acacia

We’re so proud of! Hy, Zy,Hine.

‘St, there’s Vespers! Plena gratia

Ave, Virgo! Gr-r-r—you swine!

The phrase “Hy, Zy,Hine” represents the ringing of the vesper bells but also are the beginning of the final curse on Brother Lawrence.

 

Themes and Meanings

“Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” ostensibly deals with the lives of only two monks, but Browning intends to give us a glimpse into the whole monastic system while unintentionally revealing his own protestant prejudices against asceticism. No historic basis serves as a source for the poem; instead, Browning treats the cloister as a breeding ground for extremely narrow-minded thinking and gross jealousy of all that does not satisfy powerful egos. Here we have a poem that gives the sour-natured attitude of mind of a monk jealous of a brother whom he hates merely because of his genial nature and goodness. Of course, Brother Lawrence does come off seeming like a terrible bore, and perhaps his dullness lends to the humorous counterpoint of the speaker’s lust for physical enjoyment in life. In Stanza 1 Brother Lawrence’s simple caring for his garden galls the speaker utterly:

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!

The speaker further despises Brother Lawrence for his simple interest in spiritual life, and his neglect of those petty superstitious forms the observance of which the ill-natured monk congratulates himself.

When he finishes refection,

Knife and fork he never lays

Cross-wise, to my recollection,

As I do, 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.

 

We delight in this at times humorous portrait of the monk, even though we disapprove of his attitude, but we enjoy his shocking exuberance, his demonic intensity, his zest for earthly pleasure. But, when everything is finally considered, “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” is Browning’s brilliant analysis of emotional hatred such as too close and too long association might develop in an uncharitable person.

 

I have taken my material for today’s post from notes to an essay I published many years ago for Salem Press.

 

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Paul Varner

 

 

 

 

 

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