Bishop Blougram's Apology "The Grand Perhaps"

Robert Browning

"The Grand Perhaps"

Context: Bishop Blougram entertains at dinner a young writer who has questioned the bishop's faith and belief and the manner in which he lives. The bishop, who is modeled on Cardinal Wiseman, who reviewed the poem and found it very bad, begins the explanation of his life by saying that this dinner will be the writer's chief claim to fame in time to come, even though he insists that he despises the bishop for his luxurious manner of living and his lack of belief in the Catholic dogmas. The bishop contends that this feeling of the writer's is mere envy, and likens life to a long voyage on a ship: some of the passengers have well-equipped staterooms and others bare cells, but those who have the bare cells could, if they exerted themself, have comfortable quarters. The bishop admits that he cannot always believe in all the dogmas of the Church–any more than the writer can. Belief and disbelief come and go. But occasionally, when in a period of disbelief, the man experiences something that makes him tend towards belief; perhaps–the grand Perhaps–there is a truth in the dogmas. Browning here uses the term in a somewhat similar way to the manner Rabelais, according to Peter Anthony Motteux, who first translated Rabelais into English, is supposed to have used it. According to Motteux, Rabelais, when dying, said, "I am going away in search of a great perhaps."

How can we guard our unbelief,
Make it bear fruit to us?–the problem here.
Just when we are safest, there's a sunset-touch,
A fancy from a flower-bell, some one's death,
A chorus-ending from Euripides,–
And that's enough for fifty hopes and fears
As old and new at once as Nature's self,
To rap and knock and enter in our soul,
Take hands and dance, there, a fantastic ring,
Round the ancient idol, on his base again,–
The grand Perhaps! We look on helplessly.
There the old misgivings, crooked questions are–
This good God,–what He could do, if He would,
Would, if He could–then must have done long since:
If so, when, where, and how? some way must be,–
Once feel about, and soon or late you hit
Some sense, in which it might be, after all.
Why not, "The Way, the Truth, the Life"?