The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Robert Browning’s “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” in nine stanzas of seventy-two lines, 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 cannot stand the way that the monk spends refection talking about the weather and his beloved plants, the way he eats and drinks hardily 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.”

Thus the speaker contemplates how most effectively to destroy the soul of the hated brother. Perhaps he could trap him in one of the twenty-nine sins listed in a passage in Galatians just as he was at the point of death and send him off to Hell, or turn down the most lurid page of all in his pornographic novel and slip it in among the garden tools. That certainly would cause the despised brother to grovel in the hands of “Belial,” the devil.

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