(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!
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.' . 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  - 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.  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.  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: " Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness,  idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, 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.