Caliban Upon Setebos "A Bitter Heart, That Bides Its Time And Bites"
by Robert Browning

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"A Bitter Heart, That Bides Its Time And Bites"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: This poem, although subtitled "Natural Theology in the Island," is an attack upon such deterministic religious sects as Calvinism, which picture a God who saves or damns human beings, punishes or rewards them, wholly according to whim. The speaker of the poem is Caliban, the brutish monster-slave of Prospero in Shakespeare's Tempest. Caliban speculates upon his god, Setebos, who may be all-powerful or who may be under another god called the Quiet. Setebos is strong but devoid of any feelings of affection for the thing that he has created, man, although he may feel envy and spite. He is all alone in the cold, since to have made a mate would have been like making himself. Caliban says that Setebos is like what he himself would be if he could give life to creatures he might make of clay. He might make a bird that would break its leg; when the poor creature cried out in pain, Caliban might pluck off its remaining leg, or, on the other hand, he might give it two more legs. Whichever he did, he would feel pleasure at the display of his power. As a line of crabs marched past him, he might smash one now and then–or give one a special reward. And again the whimsical display of power would be pleasing. Setebos has made things that are better than he is, but they must submit to his power. Setebos, however, looks up to the Quiet and envies it; then he looks down and makes imitations of a world and creatures that he can never reach. It is as though he had captured a sea beast which he had penned, blinded and with the webs of its feet split, in a pool. The creature, powerless as it is, yet has bitterness in its mind and bites at its master.

And hath an ounce sleeker than youngling mole,
A four-legged serpent he makes cower and couch,
Now snarl, now hold its breath and mind his eye,
And saith she is Miranda and my wife:
'Keeps for his Ariel a tall pouch-bill crane
He bids go wade for fish and straight disgorge;
Also a sea-beast, lumpish, which he snared,
Blinded the eyes of, and brought somewhat tame,
And split its toe-webs, and now pens the drudge
In a hole o' the rock and calls him Caliban;
A bitter heart, that bides its time and bites,
'Plays thus at being Prosper in a way,
Taketh his mirth with make-believes: so He.