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

Robert Browning

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 497 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.