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An Epistle: Containing Strange Medical Experience Of Karshish,the Arab Physician Post by :PitCrew Category :Poems Author :Robert Browning Date :February 2011 Read :2740

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An Epistle: Containing Strange Medical Experience Of Karshish,the Arab Physician

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, 10
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 snake-stone--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. 20

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: 30
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 40
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-gray back;
Take five and drop them ... but who knows his mind,
The Syrian run-a-gate I trust this to?
His service payeth me a sublimate 50
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, Judaea'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-- 60
But zeal outruns discretion. Here I end.

Yet stay! my Syrian blinketh gratefully,
Protested his devotion is my price--
Suppose I write, what harms not, tho' 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. 70
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 80
Of trance prolonged unduly some three days
When, by the exhibition of some drug
Or spell, exorcisation, 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 90
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: 100
--'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, 110
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, 120
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, 130
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-- 140
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 150
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, 160
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 170
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 180
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 thro' the blaze--
"It should be" balked by "here it cannot be." 190
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 o' 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 200
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. 210
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: 220
"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 230
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 travel 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, 240
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 250
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: 260
But take one, tho' 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: tho' 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 it awhile. 270
--'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 280
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: 290
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. 300
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, 310
And thou must love me who have died for thee!"
The madman saith He said so; it is strange.


The Arabs were among the earliest in the cultivation of mathematical and medical science. This fact, together with their monotheism, makes Karshish an appropriate character for the experience of the poem.

1-14. An ancient and oriental idea of the soul and its relation to the body.

15. =Sage=. Abib, to whom the letter is sent.

17. =snake-stone=. A stone used to cure snake-bites.

19. =charms=. Note here and elsewhere the mixture of science and superstition.

21-33. The poet has given local color to the journey.

28. =Vespasian= was appointed general-in-chief against the insurgent Jews in 67 A.D., and began the great siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The date of the poem and the length of time since Lazarus's return to life may thus be estimated.

37-38. Note the vividness gained by making Karshish keep the physician's point of view.

44. =falling-sickness ... cure=. Epilepsy. Karshish is already admitting into his letter the story of Lazarus.

48. Not only spiders, but many other animals or parts of animals were formerly used as medicines.

64-65. Karshish, still half ashamed of his interest in the marvellous story he has to tell, first gives this as a pretext, and then, in the next lines confesses.

171 ff. Belief in magic survived in some degree among the educated until a century or two ago.

177. =Greek-fire=. A violently inflammable substance, supposed to have been a compound of naphtha, sulphur, and nitre, which was hurled against the enemy in battle. As it was first used in 673, in the siege of Constantinople, Browning is guilty of an unimportant anachronism.

252-255. A good touch, to make the earthquake mean to Karshish an omen of the gravest event within his ken.

268-269. Karshish, still unconvinced by the story of Lazarus, naturally regards it as irreverent.

304-311. This comes to Karshish as an afterthought, a corollary to the idea in the body of the poem.

How is the general style of the verse-letter maintained? What is Karshish's mission in Judea? How does he show his devotion to his art? Point out instances of local color. Are they in harmony with the main current of the poem, or do they detract from the interest in the story? Why does Karshish work up to his story so diffidently? Why has the incident taken such hold upon him? What do you conceive to be his character and worth as a man?

What of Lazarus? What change has been wrought in him? Is he in any way unfitted for this life? To what does Karshish compare him, with his sudden wealth of insight behind the veil of the next world? Which of the two men is better fitted for the condition in which he is placed? What religious significance does the story of Lazarus come to have to Karshish? What parallel ideas do you find in Rabbi Ben Ezra and in this poem? Compare George Eliot's story, _The Lifted Veil_.

(The end)
Robert Browning's poem: An Epistle: Containing The Strange Medical Experience Of Karshish, The Arab Phys

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