Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister
by Robert Browning
Flowers and Plants
The speaker's rival and nemesis, Brother Lawrence, is an avid gardener, and the poem takes place in the cloister, or the open garden area at the center of the monastery. The speaker works in his complaints about Brother Lawrence around remarks about his flowers. In poetry, flowers are generally associated with beauty and innocence, but the speaker wants us to believe that Brother Lawrence is actually a corrupt, hypocritical monk. But the series of references to flowers just help underline that it's actually the speaker, who wants to "blast" the "rose-acacia," who is corrupt (69).
- Line 2: The first reference to flowers has the speaker telling someone – we don't yet know whom – to "water [his] damned flower-pots." Why curse the flower-pots? Could this be hyperbole, or poetic exaggeration? What's wrong with watering flowerpots? Watering flowers seems like the least offensive thing to do, ever. Already, we're led to suspect that the speaker's rage might not be totally justifiable.
- Line 5: "Trimming" can be seen as a metaphor for the ideal "monkish" behavior – it's repressive and holds back growth and life.
- Lines 6-7: Then Brother Lawrence stops the trimming to refill the vase of a flowerpot. This could be read as a metaphor, loosely, for sex. Roses are often associated with sex and beauty, and the speaker notes that Brother Lawrence stops his repressive "trimming" in order to refill a vase of beautiful roses.
- Line 14: The speaker hates how Brother Lawrence always talks about gardening at dinner. His example is about how Brother Lawrence talks about "oak-galls," which is a disease affecting oak trees. This is an appropriate example and a possible pun, since the speaker finds Brother Lawrence "galling."
- Line 16: "Swine's Snout" is actually a common name for the dandelion, although the speaker is making a double entendre, or pun, insulting Brother Lawrence by calling him a pig face ("swine"=pig). Part of the pun could also be that the speaker is insinuating that Brother Lawrence is an unwanted weed, like a dandelion, that needs to be eradicated.
- Line 24: The "lily" referenced here is a metaphor for innocence and purity. But the speaker is delighted ("he-he!") that the illusion of Brother Lawrence's innocence and purity is "snapped," or broken.
- Lines 47-48: The speaker admits that he sneakily "nips" the buds of Brother Lawrence's flowers. We often use the expression "to nip [something] in the bud," so this could be a metaphor for the speaker's efforts to thwart Brother Lawrence's efforts more generally.
- Line 63: The speaker uses alliteration in this line with the repetition of the "g" sound ("gathers his greengages"). Greengages, by the way, are a type of fruit related to the plum.
- Line 69: This is a line that many readers and critics have argued about: is the speaker talking about "blast[ing]," or killing, a literal "rose-acacia" that Brother Lawrence has planted, or is the "rose-acacia" supposed to stand in metonymically for Brother Lawrence himself? (Metonymy is when a writer uses something small to stand for something larger, like "the bottle" for drinking.) Some critics have even argued that the speaker has gotten himself so wrapped up in his angry passion that he loses track of the direction of his sentence partway through, and says "rose-acacia" because it's the first thing he sees. (He's still looking out into the cloister garden, so there are flowers galore). What do you think?