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

by Robert Browning

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 458

What is admirable about this poem from an artistic standpoint, as it is about most of Browning’s dramatic monologues, is that it makes the past come alive—in this case, the past of nearly two thousand years ago. The closest parallel to Browning’s unrhymed iambic pentameter in his dramatic monologues is to be found in Shakespeare’s historical dramas. Shakespeare was never greatly concerned about historical accuracy, however, and his historical plays are full of anachronisms and other glaring errors. Browning could not rival Shakespeare as a dramatist, but he excelled at being able to give the reader the feeling of having been swept backward in time.

Browning’s purpose in persuading the reader that the story of Lazarus was literally true was to persuade the reader of the truth of a religion founded on the belief that the Son of God had appeared on earth and had brought salvation to humankind. Browning lived at a time when scientific discoveries were undermining the authority of the Bible. For example, it had been estimated that the universe, instead of having been created some 6,000 years ago, as recorded in the Old Testament, was actually billions of years old. The most telling blow against established Western religion was to come in 1859 with the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which argued convincingly that life had existed on earth for billions of years and had been gradually evolving since its spontaneous generation in the form of single-celled organisms. Darwin later theorized that man himself was only an animal descended from apelike ancestors. Evidently, the story of Adam and Eve was only a myth. God did not create man; life originated in blind chemical reactions and gradually evolved into more complex forms until the genus Homo appeared around two or three million years ago.

Browning was always a staunch defender of Christianity. Some have called him a reactionary; others have called him an escapist. Much of his poetry can be viewed as symptomatic of a yearning for an earlier time when life was simpler and man’s belief in a divinely ordered universe was unthreatened by the dispassionate probing of science. Like many concerned thinkers of the Victorian era, Browning believed that civilization itself was in jeopardy, that the mass of men obeyed the Ten Commandments because they were afraid of being sent to hell. If their faith in a judgmental God were shattered, they might feel free to murder, steal, rape, and commit all the other sins forbidden by traditional Judeo-Christian religion. It could be argued that Browning’s forebodings were not entirely alarmist: The rise of immoral behavior and serious crime in the Western world has been paralleled by a dramatic decline in church attendance.

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