t first sight, Browning's 1864 poem is strange, even estranging. Why are there square brackets around the opening and closing passages? Who or what is Setebos? What is going on with the pronouns, and why does the speaker, Caliban from Shakespeare's late play "The Tempest", switch between the third and first person in talking about himself? Is Browning satirising evolutionary theory, biblical criticism, Calvinist doctrine – or even the critics of these troubling currents of thought?
The striking epigraph or motto is from Psalm 50: "Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such a one as thyself." God is rebuking his subjects. By the end of the poem, though, the thought is far more complex because the relationship between creator and creature has been subjected to a shuttling process, leaving in doubt even the priority between the two.
Caliban lives on an island, governed by the nobleman-enchanter Prospero and his daughter Miranda. But perhaps Caliban is the rightful heir to the island? The place may seem to be in the West Indies, but it has a universal quality, with creatures and vegetation drawn from diverse and incompatible habitats. Caliban is musing in the early afternoon, while Prospero and Miranda are having their naps. The storm which ends his speculations may – though Browning refused to confirm this – be the same storm as the one at the start of The Tempest.
Caliban initially talks of himself in the third person while sprawling on his stomach, his chin propped on his balled fists, and his feet splashing in murky water, with little newts tickling his back and arms and mimicking the circulation of his blood:
And feels about his spine small eft-things course,
Run in and out each arm, and make him laugh:
Browning, in bestowing on Caliban this distinctive rough yet immensely sophisticated language, will put into his mouth many more such two-term compounds as "eft-things." Soon, Caliban looks up to the sky. He initially uses the third person, perhaps in case he is overheard, and perhaps because he seems at times to view himself from the outside. He may be a part of the natural order but he has achieved some form of individuation, self-awareness and individual agency. He will switch to the first person when he is excited or indignant. Browning uses square brackets to show Caliban introducing as well as observing himself, and will use the same notation when Caliban takes his leave. It would be possible to produce a more complex explanation for the adoption and effect of these graphic signs. For instance, they set the spoken monologue and written text in play against each other.
Walter Bell Scott's painting of Shakespeare's Caliban. [Click on the image to enlarge it and for more information.]
Caliban isn't quite the Missing Link between man and apes. Browning probably composed the poem in 1859, and seems to have absorbed detail from Darwin's The Voyage of The Beagle, but not the concepts of The Origin of Species, still less of The Descent of Man, which was not published until 1872. Caliban hints that he is more sea monster than simian, claiming that Prospero has penned a lumpish sea-beast in a rock hole and calls him Caliban. The real Caliban spends most of his time doing pointless work for Prospero and Miranda. But now, having temporarily evaded their supervision, his speech has the tone of a resentful and mischievous Victorian teenage boy. What's more, he quickly gets tipsy on fermented vegetable juice, and experiences the sensation of maggots in the brain. Yet the alcohol also makes him more cleverly manipulative, to the point where you wonder whether he is going to get the upper hand, like the Slave in Hegel's dialectic of Master and Slave, or the slaves in Nietzsche's Christian revolt against the noble Ancients.
And who is Caliban's Master? In one sense Prospero, and yet we hear relatively little about him, or at least, not directly. Caliban has been told by his witch mother Sycorax who is now dead, about a god, Setebos, who lives in the moon:
Setebos, Setebos and Setebos!
'Thinketh, He dwelleth i' the cold o' the moon.
She said that Setebos did not make, but merely toyed with, the creatures of the island. Caliban disagrees. He identifies strongly with Setebos as creator, and he imagines emulating him, perhaps by making a bird and sending it off to snap up flies, and then replacing its broken leg with three legs. He also fears him. In a way, Setebos is also, in Caliban's mind, an extension of the temporarily absent Prospero. Setebos, Caliban believes, created everything but the stars. These were made by the Quiet, a mysterious and indifferent higher god who is the antithesis of the capricious, vindictive and noisily thunderous Setebos.
Thus Setebos is, in a sense, a creature of Caliban's drink-heated imagination, even though he thinks Setebos has created him. In the poem the polarities are constantly shifting. The account Caliban gives of Setebos' behaviour owes much to his detailed observation of the island's flora and fauna. Setebos isn't much like the Christian God, and is closer to the sort of demiurge detected by the Epicureans and Gnostics. He's not omnipotent, and rather than blessing his creation he capriciously torments or spares it. Caliban himself is similarly wilful, saving beetles and killing flies because the former toil away while the latter are gaudily annoying. He arbitrarily kills or maims some crabs, while saving others, as they scuttle down to the sea. What neither Setebos nor Caliban can stand is boastful confidence in any creature. This will bring down their wrath. (Unfortunately for him, Caliban forgets that this disposition also applies to the speculation he is indulging in, with consequences we will come to.) Caliban thinks that some of Setebos' creatures are finer and more talented than their maker, yet they are also dependent on him for doing anything at all.
Again disagreeing with his mother, Caliban doesn't expect any afterlife, damnation or salvation:
'Believeth with the life, the pain shall stop.
His dam held different, that after death
He both plagued enemies and feasted friends:
Again, this is not the language of Christian theology. Caliban both worships and dreads Setebos, and hopes that eventually he will be conquered by the Quiet, or fall into a long decrepit doze. In the meantime, Setebos, like habit, guarantees the continuity of life on the island, and must be evaded or appeased, according to circumstance.
And then, at the end of an hour or so of this monologue, with, apparently, only himself as his audience, Caliban realises that Setebos has found him out:
There scuds His raven that has told Him all!
It was fool's play, this prattling! Ha! The wind
Shoulders the pillared dust, death's house o' the move,
And fast invading fires begin! White blaze —
A tree's head snaps- and there, there, there, there, there,
His thunder follows! Fool to gibe at Him!
The only thing Caliban can do is lie low and be ready to offer up to Setebos the quails and whelks he has been saving for himself.
I find the poem ironical rather than satirical. Even the motto can be read this way. Caliban isn't an ignorant, incompetent theologian who doesn't understand the need for revelation, or The New Testament. Rather, he's a wanton but devilishly clever boy, projecting his discomforts and frustrations onto all he observes, can conceive, and can "vex," or trouble. The monologue is soon over, so there isn't time for Caliban to undertake some great or groping spiritual pilgrimage. Yet something important is going on: we are witnessing a singular language and consciousness, and perhaps a potency capable of turning the tables and slaying gods. Or maybe Caliban will continue into and through Shakespeare's play, and at the end of it find some sort of grace. I can't believe that Browning censures or disapproves of this cruel but touching creature. Rather, he lovingly and imaginatively dramatises him, without disguising his faults and limitations. There is a tradition running from Walter Bagehot to the present which regards both the poem and Caliban as types of the grotesque, but, while there is something in this, I would also stress Browning's empathy for his speaker – an empathy which Caliban seldom shows to the other creatures of the island – and even his pride in both the poem and Caliban. For Browning, Caliban is more than a mere vehicle for critique of a Darwinian theory which Browning saw only as through a glass darkly at the time of composing the poem.
And through the poem Browning himself plays with, vexes, Caliban, and us, in the sympathetic mockery of his tough Camberwell intelligence and in the piling of quotation upon quotation, allusion upon allusion, from the many remembered volumes of his father's magical library. This is a poem about, and exemplifying, art as well as creation, writing as well as making. It's a fiction created out of an earlier, Shakespearean fiction, and a mimicking and impersonation of an unreal yet vivid creature who can never be known with certainty, coming as he does from an earlier and inexhaustible text.
Pettigrew, John, ed. Robert Browning: The Poems: Volume 1. London: Penguin Books, 1981.
Holmes, John. Darwin's Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution. Edinburgh University Press, 2013.
Ratcliffe, Sophie. On Sympathy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Created 21 January 2017