Browning begins the "Second Series" of Dramatic Idyls his with an epigraphic poem that reads:

"You are sick, that's sure"—they say;
                "Sick of what?"—they disagree.
" ‘Tis the brain"—thinks Doctor A;
                " 'Tis the heart"—holds Doctor B;
"The liver—my life I'd lay!"
                "The lungs!" "The lights!"
                                        Ah me!
So ignorant of man's whole
Of bodily organs plain to see—
So sage and certain, frank and free,
About what's under lock and key—
Man's soul! 1

Whether or not this poem is intended to offer an avenue into all the poems which follow in the series, it does lead, at least indirectly, into "Doctor—," the first stanza steering us into what Browning seems to have started out with: satire on medical practice; and the second point-ing to the final theme of the poem. Doctors A and B, and Doctors not identified by initial agree only that the "me" of the poem is ill. There, however, agreement stops, as each locates the source of the illness in a different organ: the brain, the heart, the liver, the lungs, and— curiously—the "lights" (a synonym for lungs). That the "me" of the poem is not merely the victim of their pooled ignorance is revealed in the redundancy of "lungs" and "lights," for in referring to the lungs of animals slaughtered for food, the word "lights" suggests the situation of the patient, that he, too, so to speak, will be slaughtered for "food," used up for the doctors' gain.

In the second stanza the speaker offers us his notions on what is amiss in the doctors as collectively they practice their inadequate medicine. Everything that's "under lock and key," to be sure, they can handle with sagacity and certainty—they can handle, namely, what is material, what can be contained, numbered perhaps, and protected as property. What they are ignorant of, though, is what Emily Dickinson once called the "Missing All." Picking and choosing individual organs as the source of illness, they fail to conceive of the overriding impor-tance of "man's whole/of bodily organs". . . "Man's soul." In Browning's day the medical problem was viewed as being as much theological as somatic. Later the problem would be conceived as being more psycho-logical than physical. In our day it is seen increasingly as holistic, rather than predominantly physiological and psychological. Let Browning's "soul" read, to update terms but not their meaning, "the whole person."

"Doctor—" tells a story, and not one that is principally of Browning's invention. In its main lines and in many of its particulars, it follows an old story, one possibly buried in the Jewish tradition, which in its full and original form has yet to be recovered. There are many European variants of that story, but two principal texts anticipate Browning's poem (which, of course, becomes both a third text and still another variant of the "lost" original, if any such original existed). It is always possible that Browning knew of these variants—a story of Machiavelli and a märchen published first by Ludwig Bechstein in Deutsches Märchenbuch (1844) and later by the Brothers Grimm.2 What interests Browning's readers, surely, is not what he took over from Machiavelli and the German fairy tale but what he added to the basic plot and what he left out, not to mention the style and manner which he chose for getting the story told. Here is a brief summary of the tale as Browning tells it.

On the one day allowed for "carping at God's rule," Satan complains that although he is Death and therefore should be the strongest power on earth, there are many below who proclaim that "Hell has no might to match what earth can show:/ Death is the strongest-born of Hell, and yet/ Stronger than Death is a Bad Wife."3 Satan is then ordered to "descend to earth in shape of mortal, marry," and in that way test the saying of men. Satan does as he is told. In due time he has a son, for whom upon his achieving manhood there must be found an occupation. After running through several possibilities, Satan settles upon the profession of medicine. His son's only qualification for the practice of medicine will be his ability to see his otherwise invisible father when he stands at the patient’s bedside. If Satan stands at the head of the bed, the patient is doomed to die, and the doctor can so predict. If, however, he stands at the foot, no matter how grave things appear to be, the patient will survive. Armed with infallibility, Doctor— soon achieves major reputation. Inevitably, he is one day called to treat the Emperor. On this occasion Satan insists on standing at the head of the bed, thereby signifying that, regardless of appearances, the Emperor must die. In desperation the Emperor pleads with his doctor, promising him various rewards, culminating in the offer of his daughter’s hand in marriage. The doctor is moved to try to “cure” the Emperor, but neither direct pleading to his father nor the trick of switching the bed around serves to change the situation. Finally, the doctor remembers the proverb, and aloud he calls for a famous talisman, Jacob’s Ladder, even as in sotto voce he summons his mother. When she, Satan’s wife, arrives, her husband goes right through the roof. The Emperor is saved, the Doctor has beaten the devil, and the daughter’s hand is offered in reward. Mindful of man’s proverb regarding bad wives and death, however, the Doctor prudently turns down his reward.

One of Browning’s possible sources, Machiavelli’s “Novela del demonio che prese moglie,” which his modern editors retitle in English as “Belfagor: The Devil Who Married,” tells the story of a Satan (called Roderigo) who must marry a mortal and who, despite considerable riches, is brought to destitution by his wife’s extravagance and the poor investments he makes on behalf of the members of her family. Fleeing from his creditors Satan is befriended and protected by a farmer. In payment Satan strikes a bargain in which the famer (called Gianmatteo) will be able to exorcise demons (that is, Satan himself) for reward. Satan places a limit on how many times and with whom the farmer shall work his cure. But flush with success, the farmer tries once too often; and Satan decides to see him hanged. The farmer, however, has an ace up his sleeve.

When he gave the signal with his hat, all those assigned to making noise struck up on their sound-makers, and with noises that rose to the sky came toward the platform. At the noise Roderigo pricked up his ears; not knowing what it could be and feeling greatly astonished, in a complete daze he asked Gianmatteo what it was. Gianmatteo in great excitement replied: ‘Alas, my Roderigo! That is your wife who is coming to get you.’ It was wonderful to observe what change of spirit came on Roderigo when he heard the word wife spoken. It was so great that, not thinking whether it were possible or reasonable that she was there, without answering further, full of terror he fled, leaving the girl free. He preferred to return to Hell to give an accounting for his deeds rather than again with such great annoyance, anxiety and danger to put his neck under the marriage yoke. Thus Belfagor, returning to Hell, gave assurance about the ills that a wife can bring into a house. And Gianmatteo, who was shrewder than the devil, in complete happiness returned home. 4

Although there are similarities between Machiavelli's tale and Browning's poem, the differences suggest that it was not Browning's principal source. In Machiavelli's story it is a farmer who can bring about the exorcism of demons, while in Browning's poem it is a doctor who performs cures. In Machiavelli the farmer is merely Satan's acquaintance, while in Browning the doctor is his son. Machiavelli also spends a good deal of time describing Satan's miseries at the hands of his wife and her family; Browning says nothing about this. In Machiavelli the bed-turning trick is absent, and so is the promise of the daughter's hand.

A more probable candidate for the main source of Browning's poem is the märchen, "Godfather Death," first published by Beckstein and then by the Brothers Grimm. I shall not relate the narrative of this tale. Rather I shall point only to the ways in which it anticipates Browning's poem. The devil is fused with death. Satan is related to the doctor who can bring about wonderful cures, although in Browning he is the doc-tor's father, while in the märchen he is his godfather. The devil's signal to the doctor is his position at the patient's bedside, although there is a slight difference in the two narratives in that in the märchen the patient will die when Satan stands at the foot of the bed, in Browning the comparable position is the head of the bed. In both it is the King or Emperor who is afflicted and must be saved from devil-death. The trick of turning the bed is tried. In Browning it is unsuccessful. In the märchen it succeeds, with the further result that Satan, betrayed by his godson, forgives him this time but tells him the next time it will cost him his neck. And so it does. When the King's daughter falls ill and the trick of reversing the patient's body is again successfully carried out, Death seizes his godson and takes him to a cave below the earth where there are thousands and thousands of lit and extinguished candles standing for the lives and deaths of men. The physician asks to see his candle, which turns out to be "a little end . . . just threatening to go out." The godson begs for a new, large candle to be placed on the old one so that it will go on burning even as the old one comes to an end. Death behaves as if he will accede to his godson's wishes, but in placing a new candle on the old, he takes his revenge by "purposely" making a mistake in fixing it. The little piece falls over and goes out. The physician immediately falls to the ground, and is now—we are told—"in the hands of Death."5

There is in this account, significantly, no visitation from Satan's wife; indeed there is no mention whatsoever that he has an earthly spouse. It is the lack of this central motif that leads one to believe that there was, perhaps, a third source for Browning's poem: one that contained all the motives parceled out, first in Machiavelli's tale and the German märchen, and then in Browning's poem. But let us not limit what we can say about Browning's poem by such conjectures regarding an ur-source. Let us rather credit Browning with originality in those instances where his tale differs from the predecessors we have identified. And let us go further. Let us comment on the Browningesque qualities (or lack of them) in "Doctor—."

First a remark or two about the overall structure of the poem and its mode, as defined by Browning. The poem is narrated in the first person, by an unnamed "me," who in a poem of 259 lines speaks in his or her voice the first four words of the poem, three words in line 256, and the whole—nine words—of line 259, the last line. The rest of the poem, quoted by the principal narrator, is in the voice of a Rabbi, who also goes unnamed. Within the latter's narration various characters are in turn quoted, such as Satan, his son the Doctor, and a Prince. Now this nesting of a narration within another narration calls into question whether, by Browning's own definition, this poem can be called a dramatic idyl. As the poet once explained, "An idyl... is a succinct little story complete in itself. . . . These of mine are called 'Dramatic' because the story is told by some actor in it, not by the poet himself."6

It can be allowed, of course, that the enveloping narrator is not the poet, and it is obvious that the poem tells a "little story complete in itself." But neither the enveloping narrator nor the Rabbi is an actor in this story about Satan and his earthly son. The Rabbi does function as the principal narrator, choosing the elements that shape the tale, commenting on the action as well as reflexively on his own role as narrator. (“How Satan entered on his pilgrimage,/ Conformed himself to earthy ordinance,/ Wived and played husband well from youth to age/ Intrepidly—I leave untold, advance/ Through many a married year until I reach/ A day when.”) But the enveloping narrator serves only as the vessel for the Rabbi’s narration, with the single exception that at the end he is addressed by the Rabbi, who admonishes him mildly:

                                        “You think absurd
This tale?”… “True, our Talmud
Boasts sundry such: yet—have our elders erred
In thinking there’s some water there, not all mud?”

If we are to take the Rabbi’s statement seriously—that there’s “water there, not all mud”—we must question those judgments by Browning’s readers, following William Clyde DeVane, that “the story as Browning tells it is a mere jeu d’esprit; the jest is too poor and manner of treatment is not light enough for the poem to be thoroughly pleasurable.” One wonders, incidentally, just how the criterion of “light” treatment would apply to other poems by Browning, say “My Last Duchess” or The Ring and the Book.

The heart of Browning's "Doctor—" is the relationship of Satan and his son, the father and the doctor. Hence there is nothing about Satan's life with his earthly wife, save the mention that he married her, that they had a son, and that her deus ex machina appearance in the Emperor's sickroom brings the doctor his triumph over Satan and death. Indeed, the major action of the poem begins with the father's need to find a trade for his son at maturity:

                                        I needs must teach
My son a trade: but trade, such son to suit,
Needs seeking after. He a man of war?
Too cowardly! A lawyer wins repute—
Having to toil and moil, though—both which are
Beyond this sluggard. There's Divinity:
No, that's my own bread-winner—that be far
From my poor offspring! Physic? Ha, we'll try
If this be practicable. Where's my wit?
Asleep?—since, now I come to think. . . . Ay, ay! v Hither, my son! Exactly have I hitv On a profession for thee, Medicus—
Behold, thou art appointed!

The professions satirized are not the law or the military, but “Divinity” and “Physic,” especially the latter, for, as Stan says, “Doctor once dubbed—what ignorance shall baulk/ Thy march triumphant? Diagnose the gout/ As cholic, and prescribe it cheese for chalk—/ No matter! All’s one: cure shall come about/ And win thee wealth—fees paid with such a roar/ Of thanks and praise alike from lord and lout/ As never stunned man’s ears on earth before.” The son’s skepticism as to how this can be so, Satan answers with the curious notion that “Truth will corrupt thee, soon thou doubt’st no more!” And so it happens. The Doctor becomes a great success, predicting life whenever Satan stands at the foot of a patient’s bed and death whenever he stands at the head. Now in all of this the Doctor behaves as an instrument of Satan, the son acts merely and obediently as an extension of his father. Indeed, as we have been told, he is “of his father’s countenance/ The very image, like him too in speech/ As well as thought and deed.” In short, he has been created in the image of his creator. The test comes when the Prince falls ill and summons the Doctor, expecting from him a cure. But Satan sits at the head of the bed, and the Doctor must pronounce his illness as terminal. The monarch promises the Doctor “wealth,” “honours,” the division of his “empire,” his “only daughter” with a dowry of gold. The Doctor is swayed and he begs Satan to relent. He implores him, a “firstborn” addressing his sire, but he receives as answer the exclamation, “Fool, I must have my prey!” The Doctor thinks of the trick of turning the bed around, but the “Antic,” with “one brisk leap,” makes it back to the pillow. With this, the Doctor makes one last plea, in a mockery of the respectful and diffident relationship of the Creator’s creatures to the Creator.

                                        Shame
Upon thy flinty heart! Do I implore
This trifling favour in the idle name
Of mercy to the moribund? I plead
The cause of all thou dost affect: my aim
Befits my author! Why would I succeed?
Simply that by success I may promote
The growth of thy petty virtues—pride and greed.

In short, it is for the greater glory of the father—argues the son—that he should in this case forego his "snake's meat." The son then repudiates the father, the human being repudiates Satan, the creature repudiates his Creator:

. . . Keep thy favours!—curse thee! I devote
Henceforth my service to the other side.

And at this moment, for the first time he addresses as Sire not the Prince of Darkness, but the earthly Prince who seeks his aid. He is no longer the child of the devil.

Hearing the rattle in the monarch's throat, he hits on one final ruse. Sending someone for "the mystic Jacob's-Staff," he insists, out of Satan's earshot, that it be brought by his mother, the devil's wife.

                                 Out the lackey dashed
Zealous upon the errand. Craft and trick
Are meat and drink to Satan: and he grinned
—How else?—at an excuse so politic
For failure: scarce would Jacob's-Staff rescind Fate's firm decree!

No sooner does the Doctor's mother, Satan's "Wife the Bad," enter the room than Satan, with "One word, too gross to soil . . . lips with," springs through the ceiling, leaving only a "sulphury scent." The proverb that "Stronger than Death is a Bad Wife" is proven true, so true, in fact, that the Doctor refuses his fee, the Prince's only daughter and her dowry. And Satan, cut to human size, proves out to be nothing more than a husband and a bad parent.

Browning tells the tale of Satan and his son in such a way that it recalls all those Faustian narratives, but with the important difference that in Browning's poem the bargain is imposed upon the mortal, not negotiated by him, and that the fruits of the deal itself are not primarily for the mortal's benefit, but Satan's. Moreover because the son has made no contract, he is free to rebel against Satan. And he does so, successfully. Recall that in the German märchen Satan tricks the phy-sician to his death. The different ending in Browning's poem attests to the man's break with Satan and his other world. It is an act of individuation and an assertion of humanistic independence. Indeed, picking up the theme of the epigraphic poem quoted at the beginning of this paper, "Doctor—" can be seen as a comedic poem about the making, and emergence, of a soul. And although the poem is timeless in the sense that none of its events can be placed historically, its historic relevance can be roughly placed as the Renaissance, around 1500, the time of Niccolo Machiavelli. For it was at that time that man took on the task of shaping his own life, taking the task away from higher powers. As Saul Bellow writes in Humboldt's Gift, "There came a time (Early Modern) when, apparently life lost the ability to arrange itself. It had to be arranged. Intellectuals took this as their job. From, say, Machiavelli's time to our own this arranging has been the one great gorgeous tantaliz-ing misleading disastrous project."6

All this, I would suggest, is strongly implicit in Browning's version of the tale of the Doctor's victory over Death. And it is something like this, I suspect, that in this secular parable constitutes the water that clears with the settling of mud.


Victorian Overview R. Browning

Last modified 28 November 2011