Study Guide

Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister Introduction

By Robert Browning

Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister Introduction

Robert Browning is most famous for writing dramatic monologues like "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister." But what, you ask, is a dramatic monologue, anyway? We're so glad you asked! It's an experimental, hybrid poetic form that combines elements of drama and the theater with more traditional, lyric poetry. Browning's dramatic monologues often tell fun, eerie stories. The title of the volume in which "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister" was first published in 1842 reflects the hybridity (mixed quality) of Browning's poems: it was called Dramatic Lyrics.

The important thing to remember about Browning's dramatic monologues like "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister" is that the speaker of the poem is never Browning himself. (Which is a good thing. Trust us.) It's a fictional person (or, occasionally, a historical figure like the Duke in "My Last Duchess"), like a character in a play or in a Lady Gaga music video. And like the speakers of most of Browning's monologues, the speaker of the "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister" is definitely psychologically unstable.

Browning was an experimental in several different ways: he played with poetic forms by combining different types of poetry, and he explored the psychology of all kinds of different people in his dramatic monologues, allowing them slowly to expose their psychological instability through their own speech rather than through the descriptions of a narrator. If you've read some Edgar Allan Poe stories or poems, such as "The Tell-Tale Heart" or "The Raven," you're probably familiar with this technique.

Browning was an experimental poet, writing during a period when readers preferred more traditional poetry. During his lifetime, his wife, the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, was much more successful. (You probably know her from her poem "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.") Now he is remembered as one of the greatest poets of the Victorian period (the time during the reign of Queen Victoria in Britain, from 1837-1901). But at the time, no one was interested in reading poems in unfamiliar forms whose speakers were at best jerks and at worst psychotic murderers.

The speaker of "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister" probably isn't a murderous psychopath, like the speaker of "Porphyria's Lover" (though you never really know with Robert Browning), but he's still not someone you'd want to invite over for a cup of tea: he's a monk describing his jealous hatred of a fellow monk named Brother Lawrence.

What is Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister About and Why Should I Care?

On a superficial level, it's easy to enjoy reading "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister" because, hey, who hasn't felt a twinge of jealousy toward a classmate or teammate who always seems to know the answer and who never does anything wrong? They can be the nicest kids in the world, but that mean, nasty corner of you still kind of hates them, right?

But when you read this poem closely, the speaker's hypocrisy becomes more apparent. It's not simply jealousy. He's describing the supposed faults of his rival, Brother Lawrence (who seems blissfully unaware of how much the speaker hates him), but after a while you realize that the speaker has some serious rage issues. His jealousy seems based on nothing more than his own insecurity and moral hypocrisy.

Wait, does that mean we should take a closer look at ourselves when we feel jealous of that goody-two-shoes classmate? Hmm….

Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister Resources

Websites

The Victorian Web
This website is a useful resource for anyone studying the Victorian period. This particular link takes you straight to the page on Robert Browning.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Robert Browning's wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, was also a poet, and they influenced each other's work profoundly. Any student of Robert Browning should try to familiarize him or herself with Elizabeth Barrett's life and work, too. This is a link to a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, with additional links to some of her poems.

Audio

Two Readings of "Spanish Cloister"
This website has links to two different readings (on the right-hand side), so you can compare different ways you can read the poem. These are great readings – very dramatic!

Another Reading
This link takes you to an mp3 of the poem read aloud by Professor Steve Arata of the University of Virginia. It's a good reading, but he's not so great growling convincingly.

Early Recording of Browning
This isn't a recording of "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister"; it's of a different poem – "How They Brought the Good News From Ghent to Aix." But it's read by Robert Browning himself, on an early Edison phonograph, a precursor to the analog tape recorder. Neat! And he forgets the words of his own poem partway through, which is pretty hilarious.

Images

The Spanish Cloister
Having trouble visualizing what a cloister in a monastery actually looks like? Check out this aerial photograph of a real cloister.

Another Cloister
Here's another image of a cloister. This one is of the covered walkway around the cloister, with a view of the garden to one side and the refectory, or dining hall, on the other.

Typical Layout of a Monastery
This image shows you the typical layout of a medieval monastery, with the cloister at the center, surrounded by four buildings: the church, the refectory (dining hall), the dormitory, and the library/writing room. That's all a person needs, right?

Robert Browning Portrait
Here's a portrait of Robert Browning as a young man. Those Victorians sure knew how to do the dramatic facial hair.

Critical Essays

"Further Thoughts on Browning's Spanish Cloister" by Richard Wear
This is a short essay on the speaker's religious hypocrisy, with some useful analysis of the different kinds of heresies referenced and the mysterious Line 70 ("Hy, Zy, Hine"). You will need a subscription to JSTOR through your school or library to access the full article – or else ask a librarian for help getting a copy.

"The Blasted Rose-Acacia: A Note on the Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister"
Here's a short essay about the metaphor of the rose-acacia in the final stanza. You will need a subscription to JSTOR through your school or library to access the full article – or else ask a librarian for help getting a copy.

"Rage in 'Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister' and 'Locksley Hall'"
Here's an essay on the function of rage in "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister" and "Locksley Hall," a poem by Browning's contemporary, the Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson.

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