To understand this poem fully, you must be familiar with Shakespeare's play The Tempest, in which Caliban is a rough, half-human, savage beast, the offspring of the witch Sycorax. Prospero, the shipwrecked nobleman and magician who is lord of the island, has enslaved Caliban through his wizardry; Caliban harbors bestial designs on Prospero's adolescent daughter Miranda. Another fairly obvious key to the poem is the epigraph, which suggests the limits of Caliban's attempts to discover the nature of God by extrapolating from his own knowledge and behavior.
The bracketed passage at the beginning of the poem follows the proper pattern of observation of nature approved by Romantic poets, scientists, and natural theologians. What, if anything, is wrong with it? Is the problem in the assumptions of the aforenamed groups?
Setebos, according to Caliban, made the moon and the sun because he was ill at ease, because he could not change his cold. How is Caliban's theology faulty? Caliban goes on to talk of his own discontent, and how he might make a clay Caliban with wings, and had he the power to grant him life, would laugh at his troubles, plague him on purpose, or be overgenerous, for sport. What kind of god is Caliban describing?
A little less than halfway through the poem Caliban asks himself why Setebos might be ill at ease, and postulates "the something over Setebos/ That made Him, . . something quiet o'er His head,/ Out of His reach, that feels nor joy nor grief,/ Since both derive from weakness in some way." Does "The Quiet" sound strangely Buddha-like to you?
Caliban's dam apparently believes (ll. 170-8) that the Quiet made all things, which Setebos then marred; this is one way of explaining the presence of evil in the world. What does Caliban believe? In his mind, what is the relationship between the Quiet and Setebos?
How might Darwin's Origin of Species have influenced the lines, "There is the sport: discover how or die!/ All need not die, for of the things o' the isle,/ Some flee afar, some dive, some run up trees. . ." (ll 218-20)? What does the possible reference to Darwin suggest about Browning's aim in the poem?
What happens at the end of the poem? ("A curtain o'er the world at once! . . . The wind/ Shoulders the pillared dust, death's house o' the move,/ And fast invading fires begin!") What is Caliban's reaction to this hubbub?
I suspect that we are pretty unlikely to accept Caliban's ideas on theology. What then was it that Browning meant us to carry away from this poem? Is it simply an attack on natural religion?
Last modified 1988