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

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

(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.

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 entire section is 1,010 words.)