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Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister -- Robert Browning

       
(Poem #635) Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister
 GR-R-R--there go, my heart's abhorrence!
   Water your damned flower-pots, do!
 If hate killed men, Brother Lawrence,
   God's blood, would not mine kill you!
 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!

 At the meal we sit together;
   _Salve tibi_! I must hear
 Wise talk of the kind of weather,
   Sort of season, time of year:
 "Not a plenteous cork-crop: scarcely
   Dare we hope oak-galls, I doubt:
 What's the Latin name for parsley?"
   What's the Greek name for swine's snout?

 Whew! We'll have our platter burnished,
   Laid with care on our own shelf!
 With a fire-new spoon we're furnished,
   And a goblet for ourself,
 Rinsed like something sacrificial
   Ere 'tis fit to touch our chaps--
 Marked with L. for our initial!
   (He-he! There his lily snaps!)

 _Saint_, forsooth! While Brown Dolores
   Squats outside the Convent bank
 With Sanchicha, telling stories,
   Steeping tresses in the tank,
 Blue-black, lustrous, thick like horsehairs,
   ---Can't I see his dead eye glow,
 Bright as 'twere a Barbary corsair's?
   (That is, if he'd let it show!)

 When he finishes refection,
   Knife and fork he never lays
 Cross-wise, to my recollection,
   As I do, 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!

 Oh, those melons! if he's able
   We're to have a feast; so nice!
 One goes to the Abbot's table,
   All of us get each a slice.
 How go on your flowers? None double?
   Not one fruit-sort can you spy?
 Strange!--And I, too, at such trouble,
   Keep them close-nipped on the sly!

 There's a great text in Galatians,
   Once you trip on it, entails
 Twenty-nine distinct damnations,
   One sure, if another fails;
 If I trip him just a-dying,
   Sure of heaven as sure can be,
 Spin him round and send him flying
   Off to hell, a Manichee?

 Or, my scrofulous French novel
   On gray paper with blunt type!
 Simply glance at it, you grovel
   Hand and foot in Belial's gripe;
 If I double down the pages
   At the woeful sixteenth print,
 When he gathers his greengages,
   Ope a sieve and slip it in't?

 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,
 Blasted lay that rose-acacia
   We're so proud of! Hy, Zy, Hine ...
 'St, there's Vespers! _Plena gratia
   Ave, Virgo_! Gr-r-r--you swine!
-- Robert Browning
This is my favourite of Browning's dramatic monologues, and has been so ever
since I first read a snatch of it -
    "There's a great text in Galatians,
       Once you trip on it, entails
     Twenty-nine distinct damnations,
       One sure, if another fails;"
in Kipling's brilliant school story, 'Stalky & co.' [1]. I read the rest of
the poem much later, and I must say it has more than lived up to the promise
of that first excerpt.

Browning's monologues are never easy, though, and today's is no exception. A
major part of the difficulty (and one that has been commented on before on
the Minstrels; see Poem #526) is that his speakers are far removed from the
heroic 'I' who bestrides the world of the earlier Romantics - indeed, more
often than not they're villains of the first order. This makes it necessary
to peel away several layers of self-justification and empty rhetoric
(combined with the occasional overt glorying in wickedness) in order to
arrive at the 'truth' of the situation, i.e., the poet's own view of the
matter.

In today's poem, for example, the speaker is a monk, working in the garden
of a monastery (the Spanish cloister of the title); in his (silent)
monologue, all the pent-up frustrations and petty jealousies arising from
years of confinement in the company of the hated Brother Lawrence boil forth
in righteous indignation. But (and the irony here is delicious) the
speaker's many arguments serve merely to convict himself of the crimes he
lays at Lawrence's doorstep. For instance: his description of brown Dolores
and her lustrous, blue-black tresses reflects, not Lawrence's roving eye,
but his own; his rebuke of Lawrence's 'impious' table manners illustrates
the tawdry nature of his own faith; his wild accusations of heresy ought to
draw the Inquisitor's attention, not to Lawrence, but to himself. The
malicious cataloguing of vices goes on; the reductio ad absurdum is reached
when the speaker plans to corrupt the good Lawrence by tempting him with his
own copy of a salacious French novel - and then has the gall to accuse the
latter of the sin of Lust!

Questions of casuistry apart, the Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister also
showcases Browning's remarkable technical skills. His mastery of what I like
to call 'the speaking voice' is as effortless as it is absolute: today's
monologue is perfectly rhymed and perfectly metrical, yet it does not seem
the least bit stilted or unnatural. And as always, his poetry is imbued with
a wonderful richness of texture [2] - the simultaneous threads of gardening
and Church politics that are woven into the soliloquy put the speaker firmly
into context, both locally and within the warp and weft of history on a
larger scale.

I could go on and on about this poem, but I think that's enough for the day.
Enjoy!

thomas.

[1] The lines are quoted by 'that mad Irishman', McTurk. Stalky's memorable
response is, "Browning's an ass". McTurk replies by quoting from another
Browning monologue, 'Caliban upon Setebos':
    "Setebos, Setebos and Setebos
     Thinketh he liveth in the cold of the moon"
Sadly, the rest of the Caliban poem isn't quite as good as this (utterly
brilliant) couplet.

[2] This too has been commented on before on the Minstrels; see Poem #526 in
our archives.

[Notes]

As I mentioned in my commentary above, Browning uses a number of phrases and
expressions that confirm the monastic setting of the poem. Herewith, a brief
explication:

Salve tibi - Good health to thee.

Arian -  a follower of the doctrine of Arius, a presbyter of Alexandria in
the 4th century, who denied the divinity of Christ and hence (implicitly)
denied the Trinity. His opinions were embraced by large sections of
Christendom, and the dissensions by which the church was rent lasted for
nearly a century. (OED)

Manichee - An adherent of a religious system widely accepted from the third
to the fifth century, composed of Gnostic Christian, Mazdean and pagan
elements. The special feature of the system which the name chiefly suggests
to medern readers is the dualistic theorogy, according to which Satan was
represented as being co-eternal with God. (OED)

Belial - The spirit of evil personified; used from early times as a name for
the Devil or one of the fiends, and by Milton as the name of one of the
fallen angels. (OED)

Hy, Zy, Hine  - perhaps the beginning of a necromantic spell for summoning
Satan.

Vespers - The sixth of the Canonical hours of the breviary, said or
celebrated towards evening; evensong. (OED)

Plena gratia ave Virgo - Hail, Virgin, full of grace, a version of opening
lines of the Ave Maria, an invocation to the Virgin Mary.

Galatians - Paul's epistle to the Galatians, from the New Testament. The
passage that the speaker is referring to is probably this, from the fifth
chapter of the letter:
"[19] Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: Adultery,
fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, [20] idolatry, witchcraft, hatred,
variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, [21]envyings,
murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like."

[Links]

Both Martin and myself (not to mention several list subscribers, judging
from our guest poem submissions) happen to like Browning; as a result
there's a fair bit of his work in the Minstrels archive:

Home Thoughts From Abroad, Poem #65
My Last Duchess, Poem #104
The Lost Leader, Poem #130
Song, from Pippa Passes, Poem #133
The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Poem #242
My Star, Poem #352
The Patriot, Poem #364
Memorabilia, Poem #425
A Toccata of Galuppi's, Poem #526

Of these, only the second and the last can properly be called dramatic
monologues, though nearly all share some (if not all) of the qualities I
talked about in my commentary.

Click on [broken link] http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/index_poet to see a list
of all the poems in our archive, sorted by poet name. You might also want to
check out the works of Browning's wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning - their
love for each other produced some of the most celebrated romantic lyrics
ever written.

26 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Mamaliga said...

What fun to read, right from G R ...my heart's abhorence... I have not
memorized a poem in decades, but I might this one because it is so very
quotably a propos.

Thanks, as usual you guys are terrific, you angels of poetry, you little
cupids of poems, you cherubs of rhyme, you sweet so and so's.

Teresa Loy said...

Hi my name is Eric. I am writing a paper on Jealousy, Envy and Pride in the poems " Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister" by Robert Browning and "The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allan Poe. If you could be of any help please return as soon as you get a chance. I am having trouble puting together info for this paper. Thanks and God bless you for you time.
Eric

Tom O'Bedlam said...

I just recorded this poem on YouTube and gave a link to your page. If you have any problem with that, leave a message on the poem and I'll fix it,
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_YvBR97ICV8

Tom

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