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A Handbook to the Works of Browning (6th ed.)

The EPISTLE of Karshish is addressed to a certain Abib


The EPISTLE of Karshish is addressed to a certain Abib, the writer's master in the science of medicine. It is written from Bethany; and the "strange medical experience" of which it treats, is the _case_ of Lazarus, whom Karshish has seen there. Lazarus, as he relates, has been the subject of a prolonged epileptic trance, and his reason impaired by a too sudden awakening from it. He labours under the fixed idea that he was raised from the dead; and that the Nazarene physician at whose command he rose (and who has since perished in a popular tumult) was no other than God: who for love's sake had taken human form, and worked and died for men. Karshish regards the madness of this idea as beyond rational doubt: but he is perplexed and haunted by its consistency: by the manner in which this supposed vision of the Heavenly life has transformed, even inverted the man's judgment of earthly things. He combats the impression as best he can: recounts his scientific discoveries--the new plants, minerals, sicknesses, or cures to which his travels in Judea have introduced him; half apologizes for his digression from these more important matters; tries to excuse the hold which Lazarus has taken upon him by the circumstances in which they met; and breaks out at last in this agitated appeal to Abib and the truth:--

"The very God! think, Abib; dost thou think So, the All-Great, were the All-Loving too--

* * * * *

The madman saith He said so: it is strange." (vol. iv. p. 198.)

The solitary sage alluded to is of course imaginary. Like the doubtful messenger to whom the letter will be entrusted, he helps to mark the incidental character with which Karshish strives to invest his "experience."

"CALIBAN UPON SETEBOS" carries us into an opposite sphere of thought. It has for its text these words from Psalm 50: _Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself_: and is the picture of an acute but half savage mind, building up the Deity on its own pattern. Caliban is much exercised by the government of the world, and by the probable nature of its ruler; and he has niched an hour from his tasks, on a summer noon, when Prospero and Miranda are taking his diligence upon trust, to go and sprawl full length in the mud of some cave, and talk the problem out. The attitude is described, as his reflections are carried on, in his own words; but he speaks as children do, in the third person.

Caliban worships Setebos, god of the Patagonians, as did his mother before him; but her creed was the higher of the two, because it included what his does not: the idea of a future life. He differs from her also in a more original way. For she held that a greater power than Setebos had made the world, leaving Setebos merely to "vex" it; while he contends that whoever made the world and its weakness, did so for the pleasure of vexing it himself; and that this greater power, the "Quiet," if it really exists, is above pain or pleasure, and had no motive for such a proceeding.

Setebos is thus, according to Caliban, a secondary divinity. He may have been created by the Quiet, or may have driven it off the field; but in either case his position is the same. He is one step nearer to the human nature which he cannot assume. He lives in the moon, Caliban thinks, and dislikes its "cold," while he cannot escape from it. To relieve his discomfort, half in impatience half in sport, he has made human beings; thus giving himself the pleasure of seeing others do what he cannot, and of mocking them as his playthings at the same time.


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