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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 speaker’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, “blue-black, lus­trous, thick like horsehairs,” 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.