Intimations of Incarnation
The Apologetic Vision of Robert Browning
by Louis A. Markos
Though many Christian readers are aware that Robert Browning was a master of the dramatic monologue form, few realize that the great Victorian poet was also a believer who incorporated into his most mature poems a uniquely Christian ethos and vision that can be illuminating and helpful to Christians of our own day.
In many of his later monologues, Browning presents us with a self-absorbed, slightly warped speaker who, in the process of unburdening his soul, either recalls or receives a redemptive vision. This vision offers him the potential for some form of salvation (theological, emotional, or aesthetic), but in the end, he fails to act on it, and his life goes on as before. Among the works that fit this dramatic pattern are “Fra Lippo Lippi,” “Andrea del Sarto,” “Caliban upon Setebos,” and “Bishop Blougram’s Apology.”
There are, however, three poems in the Browning canon in which this pattern reaches its zenith: poems whose speakers each experience a visionary moment that is at once redemptive and prophetic. The speakers are widely diverse (an Arab physician, a Greek philosopher, and a Jewish shepherd), yet their visions are strikingly similar.
In each monologue, the speaker, in the process of laying bare his doubts, his struggles, and his dreams, conceives a radical possibility: What if the God of the universe is a God of love who has taken human form and dwelt among us? That is to say, each speaker receives nothing less than an intimation of the Incarnation of Christ.
In tracing the mental and spiritual process by which each speaker arrives at his intimation, I hope to demonstrate that Browning’s poetry embodies a strong (and timeless) answer to two critiques of Christianity that beset our day: the modernist’s argument that Christ cannot be the only way to salvation because many people are prevented by their cultural conditioning or psychological make-up from receiving the gospel; and the postmodernist’s insistence that morality and theological doctrine are relative and that the claims of Christianity change their meaning (or non-meaning) from culture to culture and individual to individual.
Against these critiques, the three poems discussed below illustrate how all men of all ages and upbringings have the ability to catch a glimpse of the central truth of Christianity: the Incarnation.
A Meeting with Lazarus
“ An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician,” set in Palestine in A.D. 66, takes the form of a letter, one of many Karshish has been writing to his teacher and mentor, Abib, to tell him of his progress as he travels throughout the Middle East. A self-described “picker-up of learning’s crumbs,” Karshish has set himself the task of learning and recording the full medical secrets of the Middle East. His journey, though difficult and dangerous, has thus far been successful.
However, while resting in the town of Bethany just outside of Jerusalem, he encounters an anomaly that disturbs him.
The anomaly is none other than Lazarus, now 50 years old, who claims “That he was dead and then restored to life / By a Nazarene physician of his tribe.” Though Karshish quickly dismisses the idea that Lazarus’s resuscitation was miraculous, he is sorely perplexed by this unique patient: “The Man had something in the look of him,” he writes to Abib, “His case has struck me far more than ,tis worth.” For several hours, Karshish studies Lazarus closely, but finds that his case stubbornly refuses to fit itself into any of his received medical wisdom.
He observes that “This grown man eyes the world now like a child,” and then tries to capture the essence of Lazarus’s strangeness with an analogy. Consider, he suggests, what would happen if a middle-aged beggar “With straitened habits and with tastes starved small” were suddenly to find a treasure: Would he not at first be ignorant as to how to use his new-found wealth? Would not his judgments become so confused that he would be “Warily parsimonious, when no need, / Wasteful as drunkenness at undue times”? In the same way, Lazarus seems to have come into possession of something beyond his scope. As a result,
And yet, adds Karshish with wonder, “he loves both old and young, / Able and weak, affects the very brutes / And birds.”
Lazarus’s true desire is for heaven, yet he is perfectly patient, submissive to the will of God. He will remain on earth as long as God wills it and no more. He is, in short, a man on the threshold, a creature living in two worlds: “His heart and brain move there [heaven], his feet stay here [earth].”
A Disturbing Mystery
The mystery of Lazarus’s cure and his peculiar way of relating to the world puzzle the scientific mind of Karshish, but a second, greater mystery disturbs him far more. Lazarus has told him something strange indeed about the man who cured him: that he was “but God himself,” who “was born and lived, / Taught, healed the sick, broke bread at his own house, / Then died.”
Lazarus’s astounding claim that the Nazarene physician was God in human flesh amazes Karshish, not least because it violates his view of the relationship between body and soul. Indeed, while acknowledging the flesh to have been “admirably made” by God, he believes its purpose is “To coop up and keep down on earth a space / That puff of vapour from his [God’s] mouth, man’s soul.” The body is but a container for the soul, even a prison; between the two there is no integral relationship, nothing to suggest a real intimacy between physical and spiritual.
This belief prevents Karshish from accepting the possibility that deity could reside in human flesh. Indeed, the very thought of it embarrasses him, and he attempts to dismiss it as a “trivial” matter, asks Abib’s pardon for having dwelt on it so long, and changes the subject back to science.
Yet he cannot rid himself of the thought, and, even after he has formally bid Abib farewell, he bursts out in a postscript:
The thrilling thought that the Incarnation might be true momentarily lifts Karshish out of the empirical limitations with which he has bound himself, but in the end he concludes noncommittally, “The madman saith He said so: it is strange!”
Karshish resembles the skeptic of today. Not only does he view religion and the claims of religion as mere psychological curiosities, but he also suffers from a gnostic inability to reconcile spirit and flesh, soul and body. And yet, despite his “scientific” presuppositions, despite his vast, cosmopolitan learning, despite his sophisticated disparagement of the flesh, he is still able to glimpse and be moved by the doctrine, promise, and challenge of the Incarnation, even if he rejects it.
The Artist’s Intimation
The second poem, “Cleon,” set in the first century A.D., is also written in the form of a letter, from the poet Cleon to his patron-king, Protus. Like Karshish, Cleon is a pagan and a rationalist who (though he scatters his letter with vivid metaphors that betray an active imagination) trusts more to his head than his heart.
He is writing to thank Protus for his generous gifts and to respond to four questions the king has asked him. Near death, Protus has begun to think about fame, fortune, and immortality. He has chosen Cleon as his sounding board because the poet has achieved a great reputation as both a philosopher and an artist.
Indeed, Protus’s first question is to inquire into the exact nature of Cleon’s work. Cleon responds that he has excelled in all areas of learning, from poetry to philosophy to music: “In brief, all arts are mine.” While he admits that no single work of his is as great as those of Homer or Plato or Euripides or Phidias, he claims to have surpassed them in the breadth of his accomplishments; and if he lacks the simplicity and purity of Homer, he has gained instead a more complex, refined, self-conscious artistry.
A sort of Hellenic Renaissance man, Cleon has cultivated in himself a synthesis of all that has gone before, and (like many Victorians of Browning’s age) has come to privilege progress over unity, genteel culture over rude grandeur, the formal and the systematic over the natural and the spontaneous. He is convinced that man must ever move forward in search of perfection.
And yet, he confesses, there was a time in his youth when he had wondered if the answer to man’s deepest longings might not lie somewhere else:
In his youthful fancy, Cleon had glimpsed two vital truths: first, that the only alternative to ceaseless searching is wholeness and integrity; second, that if such perfection were possible, it could only be substantiated by divine intervention. Ignorant of events that have recently occurred in Palestine yet driven by his own inner yearnings, the pagan Cleon arrives at a stunning proposition: that if only the divine were to stoop to the human, to speak our language in the most radical sense, we could be assured of the presence of the divine in our being.
But, alas, though he yearns for such assurance, he quickly and utterly rejects his imagining as merely a myth and a pipe dream, and places his faith instead in art, progress, and the growth of civilization.
He then addresses Protus’s second question: Does he face death with more ease on account of the great successes he has had in life? Cleon replies that man’s happiness and uniqueness rest solely on his consciousness, on his ability to step back and view himself from without. This it is that sets man above the beast and allows him to progress.
And yet it is also his curse. It does not lead him to higher, more celestial joys, but to a melancholy awareness of his own limitations. All our soul supplies us with is a desire for something that our body cannot attain for us:
Like the speaker of William Butler Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” Cleon’s soul, though “sick with desire” to soar, finds itself “fastened to a dying animal.”
Cleon compares himself (and all mankind) to the statue of a nymph on a fountain through whom a narrow waterspout runs. What, he asks, if the nymph were told that the water flowing through her comes from a mighty river? Would this information bring her joy? On the contrary, how does it help her
Why, Cleon cries out, why must we yearn for a thing we cannot have? Why are we given the capacity to perceive the divine when our bodies limit us to earthly joys? Why did Zeus make us this way? “Malice it is not. Is it carelessness? / Still, no. If care—where is the sign? I ask, / And get no answer . . .”, and so he nestles in his existential despair and his fashionable, Hellenic angst.
The Bitterness of Mortality
Approaching the heart of his concerns, Protus asks in his third question if Cleon believes that an artist, at least, can achieve a kind of immortality through creating masterworks. We expect Cleon to answer yes, but he only replies sadly that the power to create art is not the same as the power to live it. Because he can write of men acting well, “Is this as though I acted?” he asks, and because he can paint “the young Phoebus, am I therefore young?”
Indeed, Cleon adds, the very energy spent on painting the youth only robs him of his own. Looking out his window at a young and virile sailor and then glancing at the young, beautiful slave girl Protus gave him, he explains:
Thus does Cleon, the sophisticated Hellenic scholar, find himself envying slaves and illiterates; like the Solomon of Ecclesiastes, he discovers that all his wisdom has brought him only the knowledge of his own limitations and of the final futility of all wealth, learning, and fame. Worse yet, the coming years promise only to intensify his despair, for, as his tastes grow more and more refined and his soul more and more conscious of the higher joys it was made for, he will grow older and weaker, less and less able to experience the joy he seeks. Until that most dreaded of days,
A Chance Missed
The horror of it is almost too much for Cleon to bear; better he were a beast that never yearned, never desired, never fashioned works to celebrate a life he cannot attain. But then, despairing, he thinks:
Through his intense desire for unlimited joy, Cleon is led to imagine something akin to the Christian teaching of the Resurrection: the belief that not just our souls, but our bodies also, will one day be redeemed from the grave. “But no!”, he rejects the vision, for “Zeus has not yet revealed it; and alas, / He must have done so, were it possible.”
And this is sad, because it leads Cleon to throw away his chance to hear about Christ. For Protus’s fourth and final question concerns the whereabouts of none other than St. Paul, a question Cleon first ignores and then dismisses. What, he exclaims in the concluding lines of the poem, could an educated Greek possibly learn from a circumcised, barbarian Jew? How could this Paul possibly know secrets that he does not already know? Indeed, he even rebukes the king on this matter: “Thou wrongest our philosophy, O king, / In stooping to inquire of such an one, / As if his answer could impose at all!”
Cleon is thus even more prideful than those Athenian philosophers who at least listened to Paul for a while as he preached on the Areopagus (Acts 17), though they dismissed him when he mentioned the Resurrection. Indeed, that Browning had them in mind is clear from the epigraph he chose for this poem: “As certain also of your own poets have said” (17:28).
Cleon is just such a poet. But with his summary dismissal of Paul, he fails to receive even the comfort of Paul’s teaching that the truths of God were prefigured in poetry like his. Even worse, he misses out on the chance to receive the fullness of the truth his poems could only hint at.
Like Karshish, Cleon would be a readily recognizable figure in our own day, perhaps even more so than the Arab physician. Could we not transport him, whole and unchanged, into one of our large, secular research universities? Does he not embody perfectly that academic contradiction that allows a professor of literature or theology or philosophy to argue, simultaneously, that his age and ethos are superior to all that came before him and that, even so, the work he produces is finally transitory and meaningless?
And yet, still, as with Karshish, the message of the Incarnate Christ is able to reach him, to pierce through his layers of self-protection and his fashionable angst. Even to such as he is the gospel message accessible; it is only because of his conceit and prejudice that he fails to grasp it.
God’s Love Revealed
But let us turn now to one final monologue, “Saul,” whose speaker is the youthful David. Unlike nearly all of Browning’s longer monologues, which are written in blank verse, “Saul” makes use of rhyme and a complex, sometimes singsongy meter. Much of the poem consists of songs that David sings in an effort to soothe King Saul, who is suffering from an evil spirit that plagues him day and night (1 Sam. 16:14–23).
As the poem opens, the dark, titanic figure of Saul, in the grip of a trance, leans “drear and stark, blind and dumb” against the giant wooden pole that props up his tent. Having been summoned to try to restore the king to vigor through his music, David tries a variety of tunes: the song of the reaper, the funeral dirge, the marriage march, the war chant, and so forth.
As he plays, Saul groans and slowly begins to move. Encouraged, David begins to sing of “the wild joys of living”: “How good is man’s life, the mere living! how fit to employ / All the heart and the soul and the senses for ever in joy!” Saul groans again, and his chest heaves, but he remains in a trance. As in Ezekiel’s valley (37:1–14), the dry bones have reassembled, the skin has re-grown, but there is yet no breath of life. David must sing a greater song if he is to restore the king’s spirit, must wax not just poetic, but prophetic as well; and indeed, as he yearns for this higher song, it comes to him in a flash.
Despite its lyrical beauty, “Saul” is a long, slow read, whose visionary pay-off does not come until two-thirds of the way into the poem; but when it comes, it is well-worth the struggle and wait. In his moment of vision, David realizes that the God who thundered to Moses on Mount Sinai is not only the God of “thou shalt not,” but a God of love and mercy. Awed, he describes his vision:
As God’s spirit presses on his, all of David’s human wisdom shrivels and shrinks, and he peers directly into that infinite abyss which is God. And yet, even as he perceives the utter otherness of God, he grasps as well that God’s spirit is present everywhere: in the heavens, in nature, in man.
Still David is not satisfied, for he yearns to see and understand the fullness of God’s love: yearns to know, that is, how God’s love surpasses the great love he has for Saul. If David, a mere creature, so loves Saul, is so willing to go to any length to redeem him from his death-like trance, then surely God must be willing to do (and risk) even more? “Would I fain in my impotent yearning do all for this man, / And dare doubt he alone shall not help him, who yet alone can?”
David knows that the greatest thing in him is his sacrificial love, his desire to give all to restore Saul to life:
The Ultimate Vision
With this stunning realization, David, like Karshish and Cleon, receives the intimation that God must be willing to stoop, to come down, to enter our flesh in the most radical sense. But where Karshish and Cleon fail to accept this divine paradox, David embraces and celebrates it. He not only reasons that God would be willing to suffer for Saul, but, in a prophetic proclamation, asserts boldly that he will, someday.
And indeed, David’s grand vision ends not just with an intimation but with an actual prophecy of the Incarnation of the Messiah:
And so David, in his humility and unselfish love for King Saul, receives a vision that neither Karshish nor Cleon, with their smug elitism and condescending attitude toward those they view as unscientific or unenlightened, is granted, though it was fulfilled in their day and would have answered their deepest longings. But all three characters had an intimation of the marvelous truth: that it is both the prerogative and the glory of the omnipotent Creator to make himself “a little lower than the angels.”
And so, Browning seems to suggest through these poems, may we. That same Incarnate God whom Karshish, Cleon, and David glimpse is a God who is continually reaching out, continually descending, continually emptying himself in an outpouring of divine love. Anyone may have an intimation of redemption, and, with it, of the real and eternal possibility of regeneration.
Neither the materialistic vision of modernism nor the relativistic spirit of postmodernism can adequately explain the origin of such intimations, nor can they be dismissed as mere psychological curiosities or cultural constructions. They are as real in their force as are the human choices that enable us to embrace or reject them.
Those who embrace them, Robert Browning suggests, have the opportunity to be transformed, to touch the heart of a greater reality, a higher mode of being that, to paraphrase Cleon, is as different from our own as the dark, cold life of the worm is from the vibrant life of the butterfly.
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