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.
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 time frame 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 forceful language of the speaker in a variety of forms:
If hate killed men, Brother Lawrence, God’s blood, would not mine kill you!
This allows Browning to show the reader a speaker who sometimes voices his own opinions, sometimes quotes from the Bible, and sometimes mocks or parodies Brother Lawrence’s hated affectations. At times the reader 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 eight 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 are achieved also 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, HineSt, there’s Vespers! Plena gratiâ Ave, Virgo! Gr-r-r—you swine!
The phrase “Hy, Zy, Hine” represents the ringing of the vesper bells but also signals the beginning of the final curse on Brother Lawrence.