So what did Brother Lawrence do that was so bad?

“Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” by Robert Browning.

The narrator really has it in for Brother Lawrence. That much is clear.

Some of the lines are a bit puzzling, though.

For example:

“I the Trinity illustrate,
Drinking water-colored pulp
In three sips the Arian frustrate
While he drains his at one gulp.”

(OK, the narrator says that he is “holier” than Brother Lawrence because he drinks his juice in three sips–but what’s this about the “Arian frustrate?”)

“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 heavens as sure can be,
Spin him round and send him flying,
Off to Hell, a Manichee.”

(What in Galatians is he talking about? And is he talking about catching Brother Lawrence as he is dying, and using one of those to send him to Hell. And what’s the relevance of “a Manichee?”)

“Or my scrofulous French novel,
On grey paper with blunt type!
Simply glance at it, you grovel
Hand and foot in Belial’s gripe.
If I double down it’s pages
At the woeful sixteenth print,
When he gathers his greengages,
Ope a sieve and slip it in’t?”

(This sounds as though the narrator has an erotic book that he wants to stealthily slide over to Brother Lawrence, but is there any relevance to “grey paper,” “blunt type,” and “sixteenth print?”

“Or there’s Satan–one might venture
Pledge one’s soul to him, but leave
Such a flaw in the indenture
As he’d miss, till past retrieve,
Blasted lay that rose-acacia
We’re so proud of! Hy, Zy, Hine. . .
'St there’s Vespers. Plena Gratia
Ave, Virgo.
Gr-r-r–you swine!”

(So wants to get Brother Lawrence to pledge his soul to the Devil.)

And as in the subject, what’s wrong with Brother Lawrence that the narrator is so upset about?

I’m not sure about all your questions, but I think the description of the French novel illustrates that it is a cheap book that has been poorly printed. I always interpreted the 15th print as being a particular “favorite” of the narrator.

The reason for “Manichee” seems to be that Br. Lawrence is supposed to be caught at a moment when he is “sure” of salvation. The Manichees were known for their certainty that they were right.

I don’t think we know specifically what Br. Lawrence did. I think the joke is that this is just one of those petty feuds that go on whenever people are thrown together a lot, coupled with how much time the narrator has obviously spent thinking up horrible punishments for petty irritations.

Arianism was an early Christian heresy. I believe Arians denied the Holy Trinity, i.e. they denied God was separated into three beings.
Manicheaism was another heresy. Among its tenets was creative powers for Satan, I think. You might want to check with someone who knows more than I do about theology, Thor’s Hammer, which is about 99 percent of the population.
I think there is a certain text in Galations in which St. Paul details many sins that lead to damnation.
I would also suggest that the reading of the last stanza you posted suggests that the speaker intends to sell his soul to the devil so he can get the power to destroy poor brother Lawrence, but leave some sort of escape clause so he can escape damnation.
I remember reading this poem in English Literature, but I don’t remember either the prof or the text telling who Brother Lawrence is. Obviously, he is someone who has thoroughly P.O.'ed the speaker.

The Coyote gnaws …
but he does not swallow.

I think, not to belabor the obvious, that the thing Brother Lawrence has done that so enrages our narrator, presumed to be another monk, is to live a life of humble, and pious character. The irony of jealous hatred bubbling over in the heart of this monk is pretty much in accord with Browning’s love of identifying the hypocrisy of religious and social leaders.


RELIGION, n. A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.
**Ambrose Bierce **(1842-1914?)