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

Robert Browning


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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....

(The entire section is 895 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Hawlin, Stefan. Complete Critical Guide to Robert Browning. New York: Routledge, 2002. A good introductory reference for students. Includes a short biographical section, analysis of Browning’s early long poems, and criticism of the major later works.

Langbaum, Robert. “The Dramatic Monologue: Sympathy Versus Judgment.” In Robert Browning’s Poetry, edited by James F. Loucks. New York: Norton, 1979. Defines dramatic monologue, distinguishing it from narrow definitions that place emphasis on criteria for the form. Quotes from many of Browning’s dramatic monologues.

Roberts, Adam. Robert Browning Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1996. A short guide to Browning and his poetry. Includes a brief biography, explications of Browning’s major works, and an annotated bibliography.