RSS Feed

A Report from the Field

0

April 27, 2011 by Steven Worden

By Steven Worden

He was a major force in British literature, influencing T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.   But today most people might recall Robert Browning mainly as Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “handsome and dashing young” husband and subject of her poem, “How Do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.”  And even though their courtship was immortalized in the play, “The Barretts of Wimpole Street,” later to be made into two movie versions, and a TV series, Robert Browning, himself, won renown as a master of the poetic form known as the dramatic monologue.   In this style, the narrator seems to be thinking out loud, only to psychologically reveal himself, perhaps by muttering in an aside.

One of the better known examples of Robert Browning’s art is “An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish.”  The poem, perhaps a little too long for sensibilities shriveled by sound-bites and TV pacing, actually is a supposed scientist’s research report.  Karshish, a physician abroad in Jerusalem, perhaps on a sabbatical, is reporting back to his Arab teacher the results of his field research on the various natural flora and fauna that he has observed:  a particular spider, local remedies, various local ailments, fights with bandits, and oh, yes: there was this curious chap by the name of Lazarus.

Karshish seems to be both skeptical and fascinated by Lazarus: dead three days and brought back to life.  Of course, Karshish assures his professor, he has not been taken in.  He knows it was just a trick or maybe Lazarus was in a trance, but a “Nazarene physician” apparently “bade him rise and he did rise.”  Karshish apologizes to his mentor for even mentioning this case and, given the uncertainty of this letter even getting back to his mentor, it probably doesn’t matter, but still  . . .

The scientist seems most intrigued by Lazarus’s lack of interest in talking to Karshish about his experience. Something else is odd: “this grown man eyes the world now like a child.”  His perspective seems all off:  ”The man is witless of the size, the sum, the value in proportion of all things.”  Karshish attempts to shake Lazarus up by asking if he did not know that the prodigious Roman army was on the march, “To stamp out like a little spark thy town, thy tribe, thy crazy tale and thee at once?”

Lazarus merely looked at him and took no more notice of it than the clanking of gourds on a mule walking by on the street.  And further,

Should his child sicken unto death,–why, look
For scarce abatement of his cheerfulness . . .
While a word, gesture, glance, from that same child
At play or in the school or laid asleep,
Will startle him to an agony of fear.

He spoke little to other people about his experience.  Nor did he attempt to persuade people of “the doctrines of his sect” nor “make proselytes as madmen thirst to do.”  He simply regarded everyone and everything with a fond affection and impatiently curbed his indignation at “carelessness and ignorance,” and reassured himself by repeating “Be it as God pleased.”

At this point, Karshish imagines what his mentor was thinking:  “Why did you not interview this supposed Nazarene sage?”  After all, that would be good fieldwork.  But, alas, Karshish explains, the great healer had been put to death some years earlier, accused of being a rebel and a wizard who had set up some strange rule and creed.
Karshish now concedes his hesitancy to even repeat to his mentor the lies that surround this healer.  After all, Lazarus is probably a madman, but these stories were even more fantastic: that the healer actually was the

Creator and sustainer of the world,
That came and dwelt in flesh on ‘t awhile!

Then Karshish, apparently overwhelmed at this point, apologizes for dwelling on such “trivia,” and tries to regain his footing as a natural scientist.  He reports on a blue flower that he had noticed by a pond, some odd geological formations, and the strange size of the moon in the desert.  Eventually, he pleads that he is worn out from his travels in this foreign land and attempts to conclude his report with a formal and elaborate farewell, only to unexpectedly blurt out,

The very God! think, Abib; dost thou think?
So, the All-Great, were the All-Loving too–
So, through the thunder comes a human voice
Saying, “O heart I made, a heart beats here!

He was a major force in British literature, influencing T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.   But today most people might recall Robert Browning mainly as Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “handsome and dashing young” husband and subject of her poem, “How Do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.”  And even though their courtship was immortalized in the play, “The Barretts of Wimpole Street,” later to be made into two movie versions, and a TV series, Robert Browning, himself, won renown as a master of the poetic form known as the dramatic monologue.   In this style, the narrator seems to be thinking out loud, only to psychologically reveal himself, perhaps by muttering in an aside.One of the better known examples of Robert Browning’s art is “An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish.”  The poem, perhaps a little too long for sensibilities shriveled by sound-bites and TV pacing, actually is a supposed scientist’s research report.  Karshish, a physician abroad in Jerusalem, perhaps on a sabbatical, is reporting back to his Arab teacher the results of his field research on the various natural flora and fauna that he has observed:  a particular spider, local remedies, various local ailments, fights with bandits, and oh, yes: there was this curious chap by the name of Lazarus.  Karshish seems to be both skeptical and fascinated by Lazarus: dead three days and brought back to life.  Of course, Karshish assures his professor, he has not been taken in.  He knows it was just a trick or maybe Lazarus was in a trance, but a “Nazarene physician” apparently “bade him rise and he did rise.”  Karshish apologizes to his mentor for even mentioning this case and, given the uncertainty of this letter even getting back to his mentor, it probably doesn’t matter, but still  . . .The scientist seems most intrigued by Lazarus’s lack of interest in talking to Karshish about his experience. Something else is odd: “this grown man eyes the world now like a child.”  His perspective seems all off:  ”The man is witless of the size, the sum, the value in proportion of all things.”  Karshish attempts to shake Lazarus up by asking if he did not know that the prodigious Roman army was on the march, “To stamp out like a little spark thy town, thy tribe, thy crazy tale and thee at once?”Lazarus merely looked at him and took no more notice of it than the clanking of gourds on a mule walking by on the street.  And further,Should his child sicken unto death,–why, look For scarce abatement of his cheerfulness . . .While a word, gesture, glance, from that same child At play or in the school or laid asleep, Will startle him to an agony of fear.He spoke little to other people about his experience.  Nor did he attempt to persuade people of “the doctrines of his sect” nor “make proselytes as madmen thirst to do.”  He simply regarded everyone and everything with a fond affection and impatiently curbed his indignation at “carelessness and ignorance,” and reassured himself by repeating “Be it as God pleased.”At this point, Karshish imagines what his mentor was thinking:  “Why did you not interview this supposed Nazarene sage?”  After all, that would be good fieldwork.  But, alas, Karshish explains, the great healer had been put to death some years earlier, accused of being a rebel and a wizard who had set up some strange rule and creed.  Karshish now concedes his hesitancy to even repeat to his mentor the lies that surround this healer.  After all, Lazarus is probably a madman, but these stories were even more fantastic: that the healer actually was the Creator and sustainer of the world, That came and dwelt in flesh on ‘t awhile!Then Karshish, apparently overwhelmed at this point, apologizes for dwelling on such “trivia,” and tries to regain his footing as a natural scientist.  He reports on a blue flower that he had noticed by a pond, some odd geological formations, and the strange size of the moon in the desert.  Eventually, he pleads that he is worn out from his travels in this foreign land and attempts to conclude his report with a formal and elaborate farewell, only to unexpectedly blurt out,The very God! think, Abib; dost thou think? So, the All-Great, were the All-Loving too– So, through the thunder comes a human voice Saying, “O heart I made, a heart beats here!

Steven Worden

PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Arkansas

More Posts

Share

0 comments »

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>