An elaborate gloss with a smattering of argument near the end.
Robert Browning is lauded for his penetrating dramatic monologues, character-driven verses that vitiate our affectations, plumb the yawning chasms of our self-delusion, and expose our insecurity to the glare of daylight. “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” Browning’s virulent revelation of a monk’s hypocrisy, reaffirms the perennial wisdom of Jerome, that “the charges we bring against others often come home to ourselves; we inveigh against faults which are as much ours as theirs; and so our eloquence ends by telling against ourselves” (597). Even as Brother Lawrence unwittingly bears the nameless monk’s accusations of moral turpitude, aberrant heresy, and licentious debauchery, Browning exercises deftness in drawing the reader’s attention away from his own fault, the realization of which is — in my opinion — the subliminal motive of the poem.
The reader is inclined to inveigh against the faults of the speaker, thereby reinforcing a condemnatory extrospection, despite Browning’s almost playful, subtle prodding toward introspective self-awareness. A progressively indignant tone, fevered pace, spasmodic syntax, and sophomoric diction rapidly bankrupts the speakerâ€™s integrity revealing his self-righteous dissimulation, while, a fanciful use of those same poetic forms fuel the reader’s sympathy by imaginatively suggesting the irrational jealousy to which most of us at least occasionally succumb and how warrantless is our own moral indignation.
Setting the tone with an almost childishly onomatopoeic “G-r-r-r,” Browning immediately divests the speaker of rational judgment by declaring the passing Brother Lawrence, “my heart’s abhorrence,” suggesting the onset of an emotional tantrum (1). The tetrametric lines induce a hurried, maddened pace consistent with this, while the alternation between iambs and trochees facilitate a variety of tonal accentuations that effect a sense of the speaker’s slipping in and out of near hysteria. This hysterical indignation is immediately evident in the speaker’s mocking of Lawrence’s otherwise innocuous gardening, which as an avowed religious allusively indicates his diligence to the calm, rhythmic, and dutiful cultivation of the soul.
The references to gardening are replete throughout, from specific plants ± a myrtle-bush, a rose in a “leaden vase,” cork, oak galls, parsley, a lily, figwort, greengages, and the metaphorical “blasted rose-acacia” to the conditions, processes, and tools of husbandry (7, 69). There is a great deal of resentment boiling up in the speaker, who cannot abide the simple, but rewarding work of Lawrence. That the speaker finds fault in gardening is the first indication of his cant, for as a monk he should take issue neither with manual labor in general nor with gardening in particular, an humble attention to that which promises beauty and sustenance, “for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (King James Version, Gal. 6.7).
The speaker would be aware of the symbolic role that gardening and planting have in scripture. His sanctimonious theological references are enough to demonstrate his theological knowledge, even if he deliberately corrupts their meaning or strips them to their shallowest expression. The religious tones are quite damning, especially since the poem begins with with the vain invocation of “God’s bloo” and the immediate consignment of Brother Lawrence to death and damnation (4). After which, when Lawrence and the speaker sit in refection, the speaker is pharisaically disgusted by Lawrence’s lax table manners and vulgar conversation. He speaks of lowly, earthly matters like crop yields and the weather, rather than the lofty, celestial considerations appropriate to monks who, as the speaker shows, must incorporate the transcendence of divinity into even the most menial gesture.
In laying his knife and fork cross-wise and sipping his drink thrice, superficially signifying the crucifixion and the trinity, the speaker unjustly denounces Lawrence, who nevertheless, while lacking these affectations, is the more sincere of the two. The reference to Galatians in line 49 is all the more interesting for there being no such passage in Galatians. There are no “twenty-nine distinct damnations” listed there, which implies that the speaker is a willful eisegetic, reading his own preconceptions and prejudices into the scriptural texts, that is, proof-texting his way to righteousness (50). His malice is made manifest when he considers catching Lawrence in one of these “distinct damnations” and tripping him up, that he might suffer a fatal fall and die unabsolved of his sin. The conclusory descent into unhinged contempt occurs when the speaker, an oath-bound religious monk, invokes the devil’s assistance,
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…
(64–67, Malbone 218)
This marks the crossing of a dangerous threshold in the speaker’s hatred for Lawrence, as he is willing to consider risking his own soul to undo his mild, flower-tending brother. He must be aware of the paradox, that making a deal with Satan — despite creating a loophole that would save his soul — is itself a mortal sin (Malbone 220).
More telling than the sanctimony and self-righteousness of the speaker are the subtle revelations of his own actual sin, overtly sexual sins in particular. Even as he accuses Lawrence of voyeurism, spying on the naked nuns Dolores and Sanchicha as they bathe, it is clear from the colorful description of their tresses, â€œblue-black, lustrous, thick like horsehairs,â€ that it is the speaker who is the voyeur (29). “Deadeye”and “Barbary corsair,” are both nautical allusions (30–31). The first refers to an element of a ship’s rigging, a round disk usually with three-holes arranged so as to look like a wide-eyed face with a lolling open mouth. The second referring to the ruthless, avaricious, pillaging, lecherous character of pirates. It is not unimaginable that the speaker is projecting his own appetites and mien on the unsuspecting Lawrence. The speaker’s personal sexual deviancies — at least by period monastic standards — are furthermore alluded to when he considers slipping his own “scrofulous French novel / On grey paper with blunt type” into Lawrence’s sieve while he collects greengages (57–58).
This is a revealing double entendre, for scrofulous both has the modern meaning of “pornographic” — although this was a novel meaning in Browning’s day — and also refers more directly to a well-known plant genus scrophularia. For Browning, the specific association with scrophularia nodosa, also known as “figwort,” would suggest that Lawrence was a sodomite. For figwort was used to treat piles, the clusters of which were said to look like “figs,” and which were popularly believed to be the result of homosexual anal intercourse. Furthermore, the “woeful sixteenth print,” while deliberately vague, might suggest a pornographic depiction, on the sixteenth illustrated plate, of a homosexual act. That the speaker possesses a so-called “scrofulous” novel, presumably depicting and describing homosexual acts, suggests that the accusations leveled against Lawrence are in fact the guilt-ridden predilections of the speaker (Gwara and Nelson 30).
Alas, if the speaker’s pharisaical hypocrisy were the last and final word, this poem could hardly be considered profound. His false pietism is writ large from the first line through the last and even a shallow, cursory scan reveals the malicious jealousy and dissimulation of the speaker. It is my opinion, however, that this surface meaning, while certainly possessing subtleties, consciously obscures the most valuable message in the poem, the reader’s own hypocritical inclinations. Browning is setting us up, he wants us to dissect the self-evidently wicked and whited sepulcher that is the speaker and expose his sinfulness to distract us from the psychological scalpel with which he intends to bare our egos. Finespun and inconspicuous cues redirect the reader’s finger back at the himself, a self-judgment of his own rash judgment. The former analysis shows only that when “we inveigh against faults which are as much ours as theirs … our eloquence ends by telling against ourselves.”
The first indication that judgment of speaker is rash is the timeframe. Much of the poem refers to refection, bouncing back from other scenes always to the table, ending finally with a call to vespers — prayer made at sunset in the monastic tradition. The timeframe of the speaker’s vicious litany of complaint therefore seems to transpire during one evening meal, the other interspersed settings being products of his imagination. I might argue from the churlish nonverbal sounds, the choppy syntax, and the frenetic tempo, that these are the speaker’s swift and fleeting stream-of-consciousness — taking place over a matter of minutes as the meal concludes. In Roman Catholic moral theology, mortal sin is properly understood as that which is materially grave, intentionally acted, with full and sufficient reflection. There is no indication then that this is the typical disposition and comportment of the speaker, his malice may very well be the malice of the moment. We can reimagine Lawrence as a coarse, simpleminded brother with dirt under his nails and whose conversation is tedious and banal.
The speaker may not even hate Lawrence, but he — as is quite common with all of us — begins to imagine offenses that would make Lawrence’s otherwise blasé presence more interesting and even tolerable. The speaker’s hatred is almost so petty that it could not be more than a passing fancy, the cruel imaginings of boredom. Lawrence becomes the momentary subject of the speaker’s internal catharsis, just as we so often think irrational and malicious thoughts without ever really intending them to influence our actions and certainly without fully and sufficiently reflecting upon their veracity. The image conjured is of the venial sin of an unjust but unspoken thought, a cascade of increasingly inane ideas bursting into our consciousness like white-waters breaking in a phantasmagorical deluge abruptly dammed when our attention is diverted away by the real, tangible, outside world. Browning’s poem could almost be construed as the reader’s mental effort to calumniate the innocuous behavior of the speaker in the same way that the speaker is calumniating the innocuous behavior of Lawrence.
In its conclusion, we are suddenly awoken to the sound of the vesper’s bell, “Hy, Zy, Hine,” and we growl at the now faint vestiges of our former malcontented thoughts, uttering a final anticlimactic epithet, “swine.” Then we return to our normal, unassuming, inoffensive interaction with our fellows and the tasks to which we set ourselves. The paradox of Jerome’s adage is that to inveigh against an inveighment of fault is itself a fault. Judgment is a vicious cycle that identifies fault in another without acknowledging the very fault of judgment. We can criticize the material gravity of an action, but we cannot judge the intentionality or impulsivity of the actor. Our assessment of the speaker is as baseless as the speaker’s assessment of Brother Lawrence, and for that revelation we should be glad and perhaps a little less zealous in our knee-jerk effort to destroy the character of another, their assumed thought, misapprehended word, or solitary deed — especially when they are the sheer product of our own imagination.
Browning, Robert. “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister.” 1842. An Introduction to Poetry. By X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 13th ed. Boston: Longman, 2010. 403-05. Print.
Gwara, Scott, and John Nelson. “Botanical Taxonomy and Buggery in Browning’s ‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister.’” American Notes and Queries 10.4 (1997): 30. Literature Resource Center. Web. 22 Jan. 2014.
Jerome, St. “To Rusticus.” Ed. Philip Schaff. Trans. The Hon. W.H. Freemantle, M.A. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 6. 597. Print. II.
Malbone, Raymond Gates. “That Blasted Rose-acacia: A Note on Browning’s ‘Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister.’” Victorian Poetry 4.3 (1996): 218-21. JSTOR. Web. 22 Jan. 2014.