Hatred in Robert Browning’s Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister

August 7, 2019 by Essay Writer

Poetry can often be described as “painting with words.” It is a poet’s attempt to give linguistic form to thoughts and emotions, to create vivid imagery with only a minimum of language, achieved by any number of creative methods. In the lyric poem “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” the poet Robert Browning uses a dramatic monologue to express emotion, such as intense rage and hatred, which is conveyed by the persona of a bitter and spiteful monk. By inventing a fictional character, which acts as the speaker in the lyric poem, and expressing that character’s hatred in a dramatic situation, Browning has created a sense of heightened emotion within the poem. An analysis of Browning’s “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” will enable readers to understand how the themes, context, form, and mechanics help to give the impression of violent hatred felt by that of the speaker.At first glance it seems that Browning’s main purpose in “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” is to present us with the picture of a jealous monk who does nothing but complain about a fellow monk by the name of Brother Lawrence. While the mutterings of an ill-tempted monk are in fact highly entertaining to read the reader later comes to discover that Browning’s true purpose is to show the reader that behind the face of spiritual righteousness lurks the heart of a corrupted and conceited man.Throughout the poem the speaker accuses Brother Lawrence of several sins, such as greed and lust, but later in the poem it becomes obvious to the reader, through the detailed examples of these particular sins, that it is the speaker who is guilty of greed and lust, and not Brother Lawrence. For example, in stanza 4 the speaker describes to us the scene of two local women who come daily to the fountain outside of the cloister to wash their hair. Here the speaker uses the phrases, “Steeping tresses in the tank / Blue-black, lustrous, thick like horsehairs” (27-28) to describe the scene at the fountain, and it is evident by the rich detail that it is the speaker, and not Brother Lawrence, who has been looking at the women. This assertion is further backed up by lines 30 and 31, where the speaker says, “Can’t I see his dead eye glow / Bright as ’twere a Barbary corsair’s?” This simile clearly tells us that the speaker is referring to the stir of passion that he himself has felt upon seeing the women at the fountain. What makes the speaker so interesting is that instead of admitting his own guilt the speaker instead projects his own lust for the women onto Brother Lawrence in the effort to make the innocent monk look blameworthy. Browning has allowed the speaker to unintentionally, through his attitude and malicious words, reveal to the reader his corrupt and evil personality.From the very first two lines of “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” the object of the speaker’s hatred is revealed. “Gr-r-r—there go, my heart’s abhorrence! / Water your damned flowerpots, do!” The speaker then goes on to list a series of accusations against Brother Lawrence, which range from the way the innocent monk tends to his garden to his enlightened table conversations. Never once does the speaker’s hatred towards Brother Lawrence diminish, but instead it increases with each disturbing remark, so much so that by the last stanza the speaker is willing to take the ultimate risk and sell his own soul to the devil in exchange for Brother Lawrence’s damnation. But what is amusing about this contract with the devil is that the speaker is careful to make an escape clause for himself. “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” (65-68). The irony in these lines is that if any one single soul should suffer from damnation it is the speaker’s soul. It is the speaker who lusts after the women at the fountain, and it is the speaker who is the owner of the “scrofulous French novel” (57), which he plans to tempt Brother Lawrence with by putting it among the monk’s possessions. Finally, the very fact that the speaker is the one who wishes to “trick” the devil implies that it is quite apparent that the speaker is the one who lacks morality, and not Brother Lawrence.Perhaps the most fascinating element about the speaker’s personality is the animal-like quality that he shows throughout the poem. He opens and closes the poem with a beast-like sounding “Gr-r-r”, which certainly makes us thinks of him as a wild animal. Another example of the speaker’s carnal nature is the setting of the poem. It is in the monastery garden where the speaker secretly watches Brother Lawrence, who is tending to his plants, much like the way a predator would watch its prey. He slinks around in the background, observing and criticizing his enemy, and then vents his hatred out of the earshot of Brother Lawrence. These types of actions present clear evidence that the speaker has a carnal nature, making the reader question the sanity of this bitter monk.Another method used in the poem that helps to emphasize the malice the speaker feels is the use of the end-stopped lines. Instead of letting his sentences continue uninterrupted into the next line, Browning uses punctuation marks, such as a question mark or an exclamation mark, to create a break in the speech of the speaker and the structure of the poem. Here is an example of how Browning uses the end-stopped lines in “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister”:”Oh, those melons? If he’s ableWe’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!” (41-48)Few people realize that the poem is not just structured in iambic tetrameter, but that each stanza is also structured as a list of complaints. Stanza by stanza the speaker begins to list each dislike he holds of Brother Lawrence, and in doing so tries to expose the monk’s immorality by listing each of the sins he has supposedly committed. This type of structure created by the speaker brings us to the conclusion that the speaker has long passed the point of being merely annoyed with Brother Lawrence, and that the rage he feels towards the innocent monk has been long endured.Despite all the grammatical structures that help the speaker to express his anger and frustration with Brother Lawrence, what sets this poem apart from Browning’s other works, and also helps to bring a humorous life into the narration of the poem, is the sarcasm used by the speaker. The use of sarcasm within the poem gives strong presence to the speaker’s ridicule of the poor monk, and also helps to express his utter disgust with Brother Lawrence, or perhaps his disgust with himself. One can’t help but smile when the speaker releases a bitter outburst, such as the phrase, “Whew! We’ll have our platter burnished, / Laid with care on our own shelf!” (18-19).Browning emphasizes the sarcastic tone of the speaker by using a great deal of punctuation, which strengthens the speaker’s heated tone and the humorous way in which he expresses these malicious words. When the narrator wishes to lash out at Brother Lawrence, Browning uses an exclamation mark. “God’s blood, would not mine kill you!” (4), or “Hell dry you up with its flames!” (8). When the speaker wants to criticize the object of his intense hatred Browning uses both a question mark and an exclamation mark to emphasize the emotion the speaker is feeling, and to also heighten the sarcasm in the poem. “What? Your myrtle-bush wants trimming? / Oh, that rose has prior claims / Needs its leaden vase filled brimming?” (5-8) or “How go 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!” (45-48).Browning’s “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” uses several poetic techniques to convey to its audience the rumblings and bitter outbursts of a corrupted monk, who is less holier than the man he despises. Written as a dramatic monologue, “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” is Browning’s attempt to bring the language of hatred to life by using a cynical persona as his speaker, sarcastic language, and punctuation to emphasize all these strong elements in the poem.

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