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Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister

Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister


by Robert Browning

Religious Dogma, Heresy, and Satan

Symbol Analysis

The speaker of this poem is obsessed with religious dogma. He insists on obeying the letter of the law (the literal text) rather than the spirit of it (the intention behind the dogma). He obeys all the nitty-gritty, visible aspects of religious law and calls Brother Lawrence to task for being more relaxed about such things. He accuses others (those who don't follow the prescribed, accepted teachings of the Catholic Church) of being heretics. According to Catholic teachings of the Middle Ages, when this poem is probably set, anyone following heretical teachings was in league with Satan, who is Public Enemy Number One in the Christian tradition.

  • Lines 33-36: The speaker is always careful to lay his knife and fork down in the shape of a cross, to symbolize Jesus' crucifixion.
  • Lines 37-40: The speaker, unlike Brother Lawrence, always drinks his orange juice in three sips, to symbolize the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (meaning the three aspects of God: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).
  • Lines 49-51: Critics and readers have argued about these lines a lot. What text is he talking about? Most interpreters agree that it's totally made up. Sure, there's a book of the Christian New Testament called Galatians, but there isn't a passage in that book that describes "29 distinct damnations." The speaker's assertion that you have to "trip on" the verse also suggests that he made it up.
  • Lines 55-56: Here's another reference to a heretical group of early Christians. Manichees were an early Christian sect that believed that the universe was in a constant struggle between the spiritual world of Good and the material, physical world of Evil. It's not clear why the speaker thinks he'd be able to make Brother Lawrence into a Manichee, and thus condemn him to hell, but it's possible he's just using "Manichee" as a shorthand, generic way of describing heretics and non-believers generally.
  • Lines 59-60: The speaker has moved beyond heresies and is now threatening Brother Lawrence with a demon. Belial is a minor demon in the Judeo-Christian tradition, subordinate to Lucifer (a.k.a. Satan), but still a pretty evil guy.
  • Lines 65-70: The speaker has now moved beyond minor demons and arrived at Satan himself! This could be an allusion to the legend of Faust, a brilliant scholar who makes a pact with Satan, trading his soul in exchange for limitless knowledge and pleasure. Faust was hoping for a nonstop scholar party, but of course Satan ends up getting the better of him. So the speaker's hope to get the better of Satan in an agreement is supposed to be read as idiotically prideful.

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