Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” ostensibly deals with the lives of only two monks, but Browning intends to give 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. This poem 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. Brother Lawrence does come off like a terrible bore, however, 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 laysCross-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.
The reader must delight in this at-times humorous portrait of the monk, all the while disapproving of his attitude, but all the same enjoy his shocking exuberance, his demonic intensity, his zest for earthly pleasure. Yet when everything is finally considered, “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” is a serious analysis of emotional hatred that too close and too long association might develop in an uncharitable person.