"An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician"

by Robert Browning

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 895

Nineteenth century English poet Robert Browning is best known as a master of the dramatic monologue, a poetic form that includes a specific speaker and an identifiable audience. Browning’s monologues frequently use dramatic irony, a situation in which a reader of a poem understands something about the speaker, through his own words, that the speaker does not know himself.

“An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician,” written in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter), is in the form of a letter written by Karshish, an Arab physician traveling in the area of Jerusalem and gathering medical knowledge sometime between 67 and 69 c.e., a generation after the death of Jesus Christ. The intended recipient of this letter is Abib, also a physician, a mentor to Karshish. The letter tells the story of Karshish’s encounter with Lazarus, the man whom Jesus raised from death, a miracle related in John 11:1-44. Karshish’s epistle contains elements common to travel letters: a greeting, random bits of news of his travels, allusions to current events and geography, and observations relevant to the his medical interests. Most of the letter recounts Karshish’s meeting with Lazarus and speculates on the veracity of Lazarus’s story.

The poem contains seven stanzas. In the first stanza (lines 1-20), Karshish greets his mentor Abib respectfully as “his Sage” and refers to himself merely as a “vagrant Scholar.” In the first stanza, Karshish acknowledges God as the creator; however, readers can only guess at the religious beliefs of Karshish, the Arab. Pre-Islamic Arabs believed in a variety of pantheistic deities.

In the second stanza (lines 21-61), Karshish mentions the impending arrival of Vespasian, a Roman general in Nero’s employ, dating the letter at approximately 67-69 c.e. He recounts the physical hardships he has suffered traveling on foot in rough country: attacks by animals, assaults by robbers, and accusations of being a spy among the natives. He mentions recent destinations, Bethany and Jerusalem, locating his travels in and around Palestine.

In stanza 3 (lines 62-78), Karshish broaches his main reason for writing: the strange case of Lazarus. In an instance of dramatic irony, Karshish states that the case probably is not worth writing about, though simple curiosity compels Karshish to recount the story. Readers will recognize Lazarus as the man raised miraculously from the dead by Jesus.

Stanza 4 (lines 79-242) tells of Karshish’s encounter with Lazarus. Karshish initially applies a medical analysis to Lazarus’s story, believing Lazarus had suffered a type of mania or epilepsy. Karshish is puzzled, however, by the cure applied by Jesus, whom Karshish mistakenly identifies—in an instance of dramatic irony—as a “Nazarene physician.” Karshish’s scientific bias confounds him: He wants to explain Lazarus’s “illness” and “recovery” in medical terms. Lazarus’s case, however, lies outside the realm of science and touches on the mystical.

Lazarus does not describe his own death experience, but he is profoundly affected by it; having seen what is on the other side of this life, he is sanguine about everything. As the beneficiary of divine experience, nothing bothers him. For example, when Karshish asks him if he is worried about the impending invasion of the Romans, Lazarus is untroubled. Karshish finds it difficult to believe Lazarus’s story but can find no other explanation for his serenity. Finally, allowing for the possibility of the miracle, Karshish admits, “His heart and brain move there [the divine afterworld], his feet stay here [earth].”

Moreover, Lazarus is no evangelist, which puzzles Karshish. If Lazarus has glimpsed the afterlife, Karshish’s logic would demand he become an evangelist for Christianity, but Lazarus does not. The only discernible action resulting from his experience is to love everyone and everything: “old and young,/ Able and weak, . . . the very brutes/ And birds . . . flowers of the field.” Lazarus’s experience has changed him profoundly, but the only way he communicates the meaning of it is by his example of cheerful hope and love toward all.

In stanza 5 (lines 243-282), Karshish tells Abib that he inquired about Jesus, the man who “healed” Lazarus, but learned he was executed as a religious rebel at least three decades ago. Throughout the poem, Karshish wavers between doubting Lazarus’s story and allowing for its veracity. Finally, however, he says that the proof of Lazarus’s madness is that he claims Jesus is God himself, who came into this world in the form of a man. Karshish can hardly bear to write such nonsense in his letter to Abib, and he abruptly dismisses it as such.

In stanza 6 (lines 283-303), Karshish apologizes to Abib for taking up his time with such a preposterous story, again adding that the story is probably not worth recounting after all. In another instance of dramatic irony, Karshish dismisses the story as rubbish, most likely even as it captures his imagination. Indeed, he cannot let it go.

In the final stanza (lines 304-312) he asks Abib to consider the improbable notion of an “All-Loving God” who, according to Lazarus, not only created us with hearts to love one another and our Creator but also sent us the Son of God, who died for our salvation. The poem ends in uncertainty. Even as his imagination is enlarged by the idea of an All-Loving God, Karshish claims again that Lazarus must be a madman.

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