Poet's Pick April 9

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Averill Curdy's Poetry Month Pick, April 9, 2014

"An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician"
by Robert Browning (1812–1889)

Karshish, the picker-up of learning's crumbs,
The not-incurious in God's handiwork
(This man's-flesh he hath admirably made,
Blown like a bubble, kneaded like a paste,
To coop up and keep down on earth a space
That puff of vapour from his mouth, man's soul)
—To Abib, all-sagacious in our art,
Breeder in me of what poor skill I boast,
Like me inquisitive how pricks and cracks
Befall the flesh through too much stress and strain,
Whereby the wily vapour fain would slip
Back and rejoin its source before the term,—
And aptest in contrivance (under God)
To baffle it by deftly stopping such:—
The vagrant Scholar to his Sage at home
Sends greeting (health and knowledge, fame with peace)
Three samples of true snakestone—rarer still,
One of the other sort, the melon-shaped,
(But fitter, pounded fine, for charms than drugs)
And writeth now the twenty-second time.

My journeyings were brought to Jericho;
Thus I resume. Who studious in our art
Shall count a little labour unrepaid?
I have shed sweat enough, left flesh and bone
On many a flinty furlong of this land.
Also, the country-side is all on fire
With rumours of a marching hitherward:
Some say Vespasian cometh, some, his son.
A black lynx snarled and pricked a tufted ear;
Lust of my blood inflamed his yellow balls:
I cried and threw my staff and he was gone.
Twice have the robbers stripped and beaten me,
And once a town declared me for a spy;
But at the end, I reach Jerusalem,
Since this poor covert where I pass the night,
This Bethany, lies scarce the distance thence
A man with plague-sores at the third degree
Runs till he drops down dead. Thou laughest here!
'Sooth, it elates me, thus reposed and safe,
To void the stuffing of my travel-scrip
And share with thee whatever Jewry yields
A viscid choler is observable
In tertians, I was nearly bold to say;
And falling-sickness hath a happier cure
Than our school wots of: there's a spider here
Weaves no web, watches on the ledge of tombs,
Sprinkled with mottles on an ash-grey back;
Take five and drop them . . . but who knows his mind,
The Syrian runagate I trust this to?
His service payeth me a sublimate
Blown up his nose to help the ailing eye.
Best wait: I reach Jerusalem at morn,
There set in order my experiences,
Gather what most deserves, and give thee all—
Or I might add, Judea's gum-tragacanth
Scales off in purer flakes, shines clearer-grained,
Cracks 'twixt the pestle and the porphyry,
In fine exceeds our produce. Scalp-disease
Confounds me, crossing so with leprosy—
Thou hadst admired one sort I gained at Zoar—
But zeal outruns discretion. Here I end.

Yet stay: my Syrian blinketh gratefully,
Protesteth his devotion is my price—
Suppose I write what harms not, though he steal?
I half resolve to tell thee, yet I blush,
What set me off a-writing first of all.
An itch I had, a sting to write, a tang!
For, be it this town's barrenness—or else
The Man had something in the look of him—
His case has struck me far more than 'tis worth.
So, pardon if—(lest presently I lose
In the great press of novelty at hand
The care and pains this somehow stole from me)
I bid thee take the thing while fresh in mind,
Almost in sight—for, wilt thou have the truth?
The very man is gone from me but now,
Whose ailment is the subject of discourse.
Thus then, and let thy better wit help all!

'Tis but a case of mania—subinduced
By epilepsy, at the turning-point
Of trance prolonged unduly some three days:
When, by the exhibition of some drug
Or spell, exorcization, stroke of art
Unknown to me and which 'twere well to know,
The evil thing out-breaking all at once
Left the man whole and sound of body indeed,—
But, flinging (so to speak) life's gates too wide,
Making a clear house of it too suddenly,
The first conceit that entered might inscribe
Whatever it was minded on the wall
So plainly at that vantage, as it were,
(First come, first served) that nothing subsequent
Attaineth to erase those fancy-scrawls
The just-returned and new-established soul
Hath gotten now so thoroughly by heart
That henceforth she will read or these or none.
And first—the man's own firm conviction rests
That he was dead (in fact they buried him)
—That he was dead and then restored to life
By a Nazarene physician of his tribe:
—'Sayeth, the same bade "Rise," and he did rise.
"Such cases are diurnal," thou wilt cry.
Not so this figment!—not, that such a fume,
Instead of giving way to time and health,
Should eat itself into the life of life,
As saffron tingeth flesh, blood, bones and all!
For see, how he takes up the after-life.
The man—it is one Lazarus a Jew,
Sanguine, proportioned, fifty years of age,
The body's habit wholly laudable,
As much, indeed, beyond the common health
As he were made and put aside to show.
Think, could we penetrate by any drug
And bathe the wearied soul and worried flesh,
And bring it clear and fair, by three days' sleep!
Whence has the man the balm that brightens all?
This grown man eyes the world now like a child.
Some elders of his tribe, I should premise,
Led in their friend, obedient as a sheep,
To bear my inquisition. While they spoke,
Now sharply, now with sorrow,—told the case,—
He listened not except I spoke to him,
But folded his two hands and let them talk,
Watching the flies that buzzed: and yet no fool.
And that's a sample how his years must go.
Look, if a beggar, in fixed middle-life,
Should find a treasure,—can he use the same
With straitened habits and with tastes starved small,
And take at once to his impoverished brain
The sudden element that changes things,
That sets the undreamed-of rapture at his hand
And puts the cheap old joy in the scorned dust?
Is he not such an one as moves to mirth—
Warily parsimonious, when no need,
Wasteful as drunkenness at undue times?
All prudent counsel as to what befits
The golden mean, is lost on such an one
The man's fantastic will is the man's law.
So here—we call the treasure knowledge, say,
Increased beyond the fleshly faculty—
Heaven opened to a soul while yet on earth,
Earth forced on a soul's use while seeing heaven:
The man is witless of the size, the sum,
The value in proportion of all things,
Or whether it be little or be much.
Discourse to him of prodigious armaments
Assembled to besiege his city now,
And of the passing of a mule with gourds—
'Tis one! Then take it on the other side,
Speak of some trifling fact—he will gaze rapt
With stupor at its very littleness,
(Far as I see) as if in that indeed
He caught prodigious import, whole results;
And so will turn to us the bystanders
In ever the same stupor (note this point)
That we too see not with his opened eyes.
Wonder and doubt come wrongly into play,
Preposterously, at cross purposes.
Should his child sicken unto death,—why, look
For scarce abatement of his cheerfulness,
Or pretermission of the daily craft!
While a word, gesture, glance, from that same child
At play or in the school or laid asleep,
Will startle him to an agony of fear,
Exasperation, just as like. Demand
The reason why—"tis but a word," object—
"A gesture"—he regards thee as our lord
Who lived there in the pyramid alone
Looked at us (dost thou mind?) when, being young,
We both would unadvisedly recite
Some charm's beginning, from that book of his,
Able to bid the sun throb wide and burst
All into stars, as suns grown old are wont.
Thou and the child have each a veil alike
Thrown o'er your heads, from under which ye both
Stretch your blind hands and trifle with a match
Over a mine of Greek fire, did ye know!
He holds on firmly to some thread of life—
(It is the life to lead perforcedly)
Which runs across some vast distracting orb
Of glory on either side that meagre thread,
Which, conscious of, he must not enter yet—
The spiritual life around the earthly life:
The law of that is known to him as this,
His heart and brain move there, his feet stay here.
So is the man perplext with impulses
Sudden to start off crosswise, not straight on,
Proclaiming what is right and wrong across,
And not along, this black thread through the blaze—
"It should be" baulked by "here it cannot be."
And oft the man's soul springs into his face
As if he saw again and heard again
His sage that bade him "Rise" and he did rise.
Something, a word, a tick of the blood within
Admonishes: then back he sinks at once
To ashes, who was very fire before,
In sedulous recurrence to his trade
Whereby he earneth him the daily bread;
And studiously the humbler for that pride,
Professedly the faultier that he knows
God's secret, while he holds the thread of life.
Indeed the especial marking of the man
Is prone submission to the heavenly will—
Seeing it, what it is, and why it is.
'Sayeth, he will wait patient to the last
For that same death which must restore his being
To equilibrium, body loosening soul
Divorced even now by premature full growth:
He will live, nay, it pleaseth him to live
So long as God please, and just how God please.
He even seeketh not to please God more
(Which meaneth, otherwise) than as God please.
Hence, I perceive not he affects to preach
The doctrine of his sect whate'er it be,
Make proselytes as madmen thirst to do:
How can he give his neighbour the real ground,
His own conviction? Ardent as he is—
Call his great truth a lie, why, still the old
"Be it as God please" reassureth him.
I probed the sore as thy disciple should:
"How, beast," said I, "this stolid carelessness
Sufficeth thee, when Rome is on her march
To stamp out like a little spark thy town,
Thy tribe, thy crazy tale and thee at once?"
He merely looked with his large eyes on me.
The man is apathetic, you deduce?
Contrariwise, he loves both old and young,
Able and weak, affects the very brutes
And birds—how say I? flowers of the field—
As a wise workman recognizes tools
In a master's workshop, loving what they make.
Thus is the man as harmless as a lamb:
Only impatient, let him do his best,
At ignorance and carelessness and sin—
An indignation which is promptly curbed:
As when in certain travels I have feigned
To be an ignoramus in our art
According to some preconceived design,
And happed to hear the land's practitioners,
Steeped in conceit sublimed by ignorance,
Prattle fantastically on disease,
Its cause and cure—and I must hold my peace!

Thou wilt object—why have I not ere this
Sought out the sage himself, the Nazarene
Who wrought this cure, inquiring at the source,
Conferring with the frankness that befits?
Alas! it grieveth me, the learned leech
Perished in a tumult many years ago,
Accused,—our learning's fate,—of wizardry,
Rebellion, to the setting up a rule
And creed prodigious as described to me.
His death, which happened when the earthquake fell
(Prefiguring, as soon appeared, the loss
To occult learning in our lord the sage
Who lived there in the pyramid alone)
Was wrought by the mad people—that's their wont!
On vain recourse, as I conjecture it,
To his tried virtue, for miraculous help—
How could he stop the earthquake? That's their way!
The other imputations must be lies:
But take one, though I loathe to give it thee,
In mere respect for any good man's fame.
(And after all, our patient Lazarus
Is stark mad; should we count on what he says?
Perhaps not: though in writing to a leech
'Tis well to keep back nothing of a case.)
This man so cured regards the curer, then
As—God forgive me! who but God himself,
Creator and sustainer of the world,
That came and dwelt in flesh on 't awhile!
—'Sayeth that such an one was born and lived,
Taught, healed the sick, broke bread at his own house,
Then died, with Lazarus by, for aught I know,
And yet was . . . what I said nor choose repeat,
And must have so avouched himself, in fact,
In hearing of this very Lazarus
Who saith—but why all this of what he saith?
Why write of trivial matters, things of price
Calling at every moment for remark?
I noticed on the margin of a pool
Blue-flowering borage, the Aleppo sort,
Aboundeth, very nitrous. It is strange!

Thy pardon for this long and tedious case,
Which, now that I review it, needs must seem
Unduly dwelt on, prolixly set forth!
Nor I myself discern in what is writ
Good cause for the peculiar interest
And awe indeed this man has touched me with.
Perhaps the journey's end, the weariness
Had wrought upon me first. I met him thus:
I crossed a ridge of short sharp broken hills
Like an old lion's cheek teeth. Out there came
A moon made like a face with certain spots
Multiform, manifold, and menacing:
Then a wind rose behind me. So we met
In this old sleepy town at unaware,
The man and I. I send thee what is writ.
Regard it as a chance, a matter risked
To this ambiguous Syrian—he may lose,
Or steal, or give it thee with equal good.
Jerusalem's repose shall make amends
For time this letter wastes, thy time and mine;
Till when, once more thy pardon and farewell!

The very God! think, Abib; dost thou think?
So, the All-Great, were the All-Loving too—
So, through the thunder comes a human voice
Saying, "O heart I made, a heart beats here!
Face, my hands fashioned, see it in myself!
Thou hast no power nor mayst conceive of mine,
But love I gave thee, with myself to love,
And thou must love me who have died for thee!"
The madman saith He said so: it is strange.

 

* Averill Curdy Comments:
Written in a time of intellectual and spiritual transformation, this prolix dramatic monologue is one of several poems Robert Browning set in the Arab world. It was published in 1855 when interest in the Near and Middle East was starting to ascend its long peak of enthusiasm, which produced translations, Orientalist paintings, works by Tennyson and Thackeray, among others, as well as travel narratives, featuring exotic personalities from Bedouins to dervishes. Less than a decade earlier, George Eliot had published her translation of David Straus’s controversial The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, which focused on Jesus as a historical figure. And within the same period Browning’s wife, the poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, was pursuing an interest in spiritualism, attending séances and corresponding with others of a like mind (while her husband’s skepticism of the whole phenomenon would result in the poem, “Mr. Sludge, ‘the Medium’”). These self-consciously modern spiritual seekers believed that people of a certain sensitivity could open the “spiritual telegraph” to communicate with the dead. All of these diverse influences color this quintessentially Victorian poem, which imagines the meeting between an itinerant Arab physician, Karshish, and Lazarus, decades into the latter’s “after life” following his resurrection from the dead. Browning uses this encounter to dramatize the tensions between materialist and visionary forms of authority.

Browning’s choice of the epistle makes the pagan man of science an unwitting gospelist. It’s also the form used by many conventional travel narratives and Karshish’s letter to his mentor, Abib, shares features with that genre. Karshsih, who calls himself a “vagrant Scholar,” enumerates both the curiosities he’s found, as well as the perils he’s faced: political unrest, wild animals, robbers, and suspicions that he’s a spy. Yet it isn’t just the (anticipated) dangers of the road that imperil, but the implicit threat of the new, which risks transforming the traveller beyond recognition. Though Victorians indulged in travel on a wider scale—both in terms of the number traveling and the places they visited—than any previous age, the attitude was often the same as that expressed by Ben Jonson to William Roe two centuries earlier: “This is that Aeneas, pass’d through fire, / Through seas, stormes, tempests: and imbarqu’d for hell, / Came back untouched. This man hath travail’d well.” Travel may broaden the mind, but it should do so in a way that confirms English superiority, leaving the traveler essentially unchanged. It is precisely an experience with the radically and unpredictably new, however, that Karshish encounters. After 60 lines of embarrassed throat-clearing he raises the subject of Lazarus, who claims to have been dead for three days before another “healer,” like Karshish and Abib, a “Nazarene,” returned him to life.

Karshish and Abib are concerned with the material world of cause and effect, the body, rather than the soul, both “inquisitive how pricks and cracks / Befall the flesh through too much stress and strain, / Whereby the wily vapour fain would slip.” Like any corresponding member of the Royal Society, Karshish encloses several samples of snakestone, notes in passing a remedy for falling sickness using spiders, and takes a professional medical man’s interest in diagnosing Lazarus’s case, saying that it is “mania—subinduced / By epilepsy, at the turning point / Of trance prolonged unduly some three days.” All of this enacts the “curiosity” of both the man of science and the traveler, which keeps things at the proper distance and in perspective.

The Lazarus that Karshish meets is also a traveller, with the authority of an eyewitness who has returned from a journey no one else has survived. Karshish finds an old man of 50, yet of greater health and vitality than his age suggests is possible. The physician is so astonished, he writes, “Think we could penetrate by any drug / And bathe the wearied soul and worried flesh, / And bring it clear and fair, by three day’s sleep!” In fact, it is Karshish who suffers from a mysterious ailment: “An itch I had, a sting to write, a tang!” Lazarus violates every category of knowledge and claim to authority that Karshish possesses, opposing materialist curiosity with what might be called visionary understanding:

Heaven opened to a soul while yet on earth,
Earth forced on a soul’s use while seeing heaven.

In this chiasmus the soul is located at the center of the syntactic crossing, between the poles of heaven and earth, enacting the literal crossing of Lazarus’s soul between worlds. A supercharged, self-enclosed, self-feeding circuit, joining the two ends of the X on either side would create the symbol for infinity, or, rendered three-dimensionally, the X would be the twist of the Mobius strip, the structure that joins inner and outer into a single surface. Untouched by the quotidian concerns that preoccupy others, able to find meaning in the most trivial things, Lazarus doesn’t recognize the materialist’s “size, [or] sum, [or] value”; he’s lost all sense of proportion and himself is out of proportion with an overflow of being.

Lazarus’s lack of proportion causes Karshish to lose perspective, as the patient infects the doctor with his own child-like doubt and wonder. Although Karshish assures his mentor that “I probed the sore as thy disciple should,” he arrives at no solid or reassuring conclusion. Like a spiritualist medium whose hand is controlled by another agency, Karshish is compelled to return to the message of Lazarus in the last stanza, after seeming to close his letter. If he can’t fully believe Lazarus’s tale, neither can he dismiss the affect of Lazarus. The poem makes no argument in favor of one or the other. Though Browning was able to debunk one of his wife’s mediums—by grabbing the “face” floating before him and finding it the man’s bare foot—still, by suggesting that there is no instrument fine enough to measure the visionary experience, the poem seems also to suggest that reality is always greater than our wide and confident grasp of the world lets us believe. How far has Karshish traveled to meet in Lazarus, suspended between heaven and earth, this image of himself, suspended between belief and doubt?


About Averill Curdy:
Averill Curdy is the author of Song & Error (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2013). She is currently a Fulbright Senior Research Fellow in Istanbul.


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