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Subject and Themes in “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister”

Robert Browning makes use a nameless Spanish monk to interlace a web of hypocrisy and deceit in his poem “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister”. The monk conveys his owns opinions and those of his fellow monk Brother Lawrence, all through the whole poem. A closer examination of the poems reveals that these opinions are not actually in line with his thoughts concerning either himself or Brother Lawrence. The main subject of this poem is hatred, clearly articulated through the themes of moral hypocrisy, jealousy and pride and various poetic styles.

For proper comprehension of the poem, it is important that a synopsis is looked at. Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister develops the speaker’s character as a covetous monk, with outright hatred for Brother Lawrence simply because wants what belongs to his fellow monk. Brewer (1) points out that the speaker tries to offer reasons and explanations for his hate. Analysis of the second stanza establishes his efforts to paint Brother Lawrence as being prideful. In the third stanza, he paints Lawrence as having possessions past his means (for example his drinking goblet).

The trend is on and in the fourth stanza, the persona efforts to blame Brother Lawrence of having wicked opinions toward women, demonstrating his own ability for such thoughts. The list of accusations does not only end here but it is in the stanza that the character of the persona is revealed. It is evident that other than being a jealousy man, he is also evil as he decides to look for a means of condemning the soul of Brother Lawrence to hell. Consequently he plans to ploy Brother Lawrence into reading a French novel (implied as being sexual), condemning the Brother’s soul right away. This amusingly leaves the readers surprised how the speaker understands the French novel’s contents if he such a devout monk. Failing the novel trick, the speaker resolves that he could at all times sell his own soul to Satan to also condemn Lawrence’s soul. The poem ends here as the speaker’s attention is diverted by the call to Vespers.

Hypocrisy is observed within the persona throughout the poem. As already observed, he expresses untrue opinions concerning both himself and the Brother as observed through a closer texts’ examination. The speaker of the poem (the monk) tries to convince the reader of his being just, a moral man. One of the manners he employs to pass his message is through telling the reader of the special little things he does to demonstrate his faith. This is clearly observed in lines 33 through 41 set 4, for instance

"When he finishes reflection,
Knife and fork he never lays
Cross-wise, to my recollection
As I do, in Jesus praise.
I and Trinity illustrate,
Drinking watered orange-pulp-
In three sips the Arian frustrate;
While he drains his at one gulp!" (Browning)

Looking at the first sentence from the above section, the speaker makes his point clear to the reader by explaining how he keeps his knife and folks crosswise after eating, implying his remembrance of the Christ’s death on the cross. The second sentence refers to the “Arian doctrine which denied the Trinity” (Brewer, 1). Consequently, the monk shows how he believes in the Trinity and how he rejects the Arian doctrine through drinking the orange juice in three sips as opposed to gulping it once. Even though, this may look as minor actions, he uses them to demonstrate how better than Brother Lawrence he is. Being a monk, this goes against what the speaker is expected of and it does not only indicate his hypocritical behavior but hatred for the Brother (Brewer, 1).

Although these are the characteristics the speaker intends the reader to believe he exercises throughout his life, they are not the traits that reader observes in him. It is crystal clear that the speaker is not what he preaches. In the second sentence of the poem, the speaker personally reveals his own character, "If hate killed me, Brother Lawrence, / God's blood, Would not mine kill you!” Many individuals do not regard hate as a trait of a good person hence the speaker is not one, as he hypocritically claims. The speaker does not only hate the Brother Lawrence, he additionally goes to the extreme extend of hoping that the Brother would stumble and damn his soul.  His desires are clearly demonstrated in line 53,

"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?" (Browning)

It is very evident that the speaker is not as good as he claims to be. All he does is trying to deceive the reader.

Additionally, the speaker tries to censure Brother Lawrence’s character by stating that is a wicked, sinful man. One of the ways he tries to achieve his goal is spreading stories as to the inspiration for Brother Lawrence’s actions. This is dominantly demonstrated in the 4th stanza,

“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!)"

In this stanza, there is a reference to two nuns within the covenant close to the monastery. The women are actually carrying on a conversation while washing their hands. The speaker goes ahead to accuse the Brother of lusting after them. This is very ban an accusation, devoid of considering that the fact that the two are monks, avowed to chastity.  The speaker speaks of the “light in the eyes” of the Brother. However he goes ahead to state that “That is, if he'd let it show!” This indicates that there is no evidence in support of his accusation. All this is done but out of deceit and hate for the Brother.

Even the speaker does all this to portray Brother Lawrence as a hypocrite, in real sense; the poem clarifies the fact that he is not one. This is evident in the seventh stanza

“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?" (Browning)

It is very clear that the speaker is trying to make Brother Lawrence stumble when talks of “tripping him as he is dying” to ensure he goes to hell. The speaker seeks the Bible’s intervention to get sources for means to trip Brother Lawrence, committed that he will finally get something to make Brother Lawrence falter. This stanza raises a number of questions regarding the contention of the speaker that the Brother is a hypocrite. First of all, why does the speaker want to cause Brother Lawrence to stumble if he is a sinful hypocrite? He would go to hell devoid of the speaker’s assistance.  The second concern is in the line, "If I trip him just a-dying, / Sure of heaven as sure can be,” which tend to mean the speaker considers that Brother Lawrence is en route for  heave but for something to cause him stumble is done. These two clear arguments from the text present a strong case for the opinion the speaker does not actually suppose that Brother Lawrence is a hypocrite; however he is trying to ruin Brother Lawrence’s reputation.

Brewer (1) asserts that Robert Browning employs a number of poetic techniques to develop the theme of the poem. For instance, he dominantly employs irony to bring out the theme of immoral hypocrisy. Being a monk, it is expected that speaker acts Godly but, this is the image he tries to show the reader, in line 33 through to 41 he attempts to explain how he remembers Christ’s death by, “"When he finishes reflection,/ Knife and fork he never lays, /Cross-wise, to my recollection.” However he is not any close to righteous because of all the negative accusations he put on Brother Lawrence.

Irony runs through the whole poem from stanza to stanza. The speaker plans to do something that will cause Brother Lawrence head to hell, yet we clearly understand that he is the one who deserves hell. This is evident in line 53, which shows the way he wants to make the Brother’s soul stumble, even though he claims to be good.

"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?" (Browning)

All along the speaker tries to portray Brother Lawrence as bad man while attempting to tell the reader that he is good. From the poem is however evident that the Brother is a very good man and the speaker jealous of him, and actually the bad one (Brewer, 3).  All the speaker’s petty jealousies and built-up frustrations from years of confinement in the hated Brother Lawrence’s company boil into view in righteous indignation. Irony comes out here very clearly as numerous arguments of the speaker serve only to convict himself of the wrongs he lays at Brother Lawrence’s doorstep.  

Another poetic style used in this poem is rhyme. There is vivid use of an ABABCDCD scheme not only bring out the jealousy nature but most importantly the hypocrisy of the speaker (a monk), attempting to berate another, Brother Lawrence. It is very evident beginning even from stanza 1, lines 2-2, “If hate killed men, Brother Lawrence/ God's blood, would not mine kill you!” Hence the motives of the monk are recognized early on, basically to ruin this apparently immoral wrongdoer of a monk.  The speaker persists to comment on the obvious differences between him and the Brother in daily routine, trying to convince the reader of his patent moral superiority (Brewer, 2).

To sum up the whole discussion, Robert Browning in his poem “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” brings out hatred, clearly articulated through the themes of moral hypocrisy, jealousy and pride and various poetic styles. The speaker evidently considers himself a good man, very proud of himself. However he does not demonstrate the traits that would make the reader have similar judgment. Similarly, the speaker would make the reader believe that Brother Lawrence is an immoral hypocrite”.  Finally though from the conclusion drawn it is evident that Brother Lawrence is a very good man, who respects God. It would appear that the speaker is jealous of Brother Lawrence’s way of life. Consequently, he tries to rip Brother Lawrence down as he tries to raise his image up due to his pride.

There is also an effective use of poetic styles/techniques to clearly bring out the themes in the poem. Browning uses techniques such as irony and rhyme to demonstrate the immoral hypocrisy, jealousy and pride as observed in the speaker’s efforts to stumble Brother Lawrence.

Works Cited

Browning, Robert. Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister. Nov. 8, 2010. Web. 1945. 

Brewer, Shawn. Analysis of Robert Browning's “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” Nov. 8, 2010. Web. May 15, 2007.

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