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

by Robert Browning
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 557

“An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician” is presented in the form of a letter from a garrulous physician to his mentor. Correspondence in the first century c.e. was an uncertain affair: Karshish is entrusting his letter to a Syrian vagabond who promises to deliver it in return for medical treatment.

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The document at first has the appearance of a mere historical curiosity, a scrap preserved by chance for nearly two thousand years. Then it becomes apparent that this eccentric “absent-minded professor” had accidentally encountered Lazarus, the man who had reportedly been brought back from the dead by Jesus of Nazareth, hailed by many Jews as their Messiah and executed like a criminal by crucifixion. Karshish’s unworldliness lends credibility to his report; he is too guileless to be able to invent such a story. Robert Browning has made his speaker an Arab, an outsider, so that he has no ulterior motive in helping to extend the reputation of Jesus as a prophet and miracle worker.

The story of Lazarus being raised from the dead is told most fully in the Gospel of Saint John in the New Testament. The biblical account does not tell what happened to Lazarus after he emerged from the tomb or how his experience of being dead for several days had changed him. These are questions on which many creative writers have speculated. In recent times, there has been considerable scientific and quasi-scientific interest in persons who have apparently died and then returned to life. Many such subjects have reported wonderful experiences. Browning uses his powerful imagination to try to imagine what it must have been like for Lazarus.

The reference to Vespasian and the later statement that Jesus died “many years ago” indicate that the date is approximately c.e. 66, when the Jewish revolt against Roman rule began. This would mean that Lazarus would have to be older than fifty, as Karshish states, although he could look younger. The Bible does not give Lazarus’s age, but does call him a man and not a boy at the time of his return from the dead, which occurred shortly before Jesus was crucified in approximately c.e. 30. Lazarus seems both wise and childlike. He presents the appearance of a man who has undergone such a profound experience that it has changed his whole view of life. Having experienced death, he realizes that mortality is just one stage of existence and that a much more marvelous stage awaits beyond the grave. He sees the cares and conflicts of mortal men as having no real importance. Karshish, who possesses some of the skepticism of a good scientist, tries to find a physical explanation for Lazarus’s apparent death, his subsequent revival, and the transformation in his character; however, the truth-seeking Arab physician cannot help but wonder if the stories of this man having been raised from the dead by the Son of God might actually be true.

Karshish then goes on to speculate about the implications of such an event. He wonders if it is possible that God could have assumed a human form and, even more important, if the God most people regarded as a vengeful and demanding deity could be capable of the same kind of love for humanity that human beings feel for one another.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497

Although this poem is presented as a letter, it is only a variant of the dramatic monologue, a form in which Browning created his greatest poems, including the well-known “My Last Duchess,” “Fra Lippo Lippi,” “Andrea del Sarto” (called “The Faultless Painter”), and “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church.” All these poems are a little difficult to understand at first reading because their speakers are addressing not the reader but a contemporary who understands their many hints and allusions. The poems are worth studying, however, because they are so well executed, because they make history come alive, and because they were so influential in the development of modern poetry.

As can be seen in “An Epistle of Karshish,” Browning achieves his effects by two principal means: his vivid depiction of human character, and the inclusion of specific concrete details that reveal the depth of his studies in history, art, and many other fields. Every aspiring creative writer needs to learn that concrete details always enhance verisimilitude: They make the poem, drama, short story, or novel more convincing and consequently more effective. Karshish’s references to such things as powdered snakestone show the primitive state of science in his time—suggesting by implication that the scientists of Browning’s own day, who were bringing traditional Christianity more and more into question, might be equally benighted though equally confident of their scientific methodology.

Browning had to struggle for many years to achieve the recognition he deserved. Critics claimed that his poems were not “poetic”: They were not euphonious and romantic like the poems of the popular Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who was named poet laureate in 1850. Many of the things the critics complained about can be seen in “An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician.” The lines do not rhyme. The poem is in iambic pentameter, but the rhythm is continually and perversely interrupted, so that the whole piece seems jerky and discordant. A line of more or less straight iambic pentameter, such as “The vagrant Scholar to his sage at home,” is rare. The poem is difficult to follow; it is full of cryptic remarks and obscure allusions.

These features are like those of modern poetry, but many modern poets have taken the further step of abandoning meter as well as rhyme. Browning’s elaborate use of a speaker or “dramatic persona” in many of his poems is another example of his modernist spirit. It gives the poems a multidimensional, relativistic quality that prefigures the Einsteinian view of the universe. Browning’s technical experimentation represents a more important contribution to the development of poetry than his conventional ideas about religion and morality. He had difficulty achieving recognition because he was ahead of his time. His influence as an artistic innovator can be seen in the works of many of his successors, including T. S. Eliot’s landmark modern poem The Waste Land (1922) and Ezra Pound’s highly influential Cantos (1917-1970).

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 115

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.

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