An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician

Original Text: 
Robert Browning, Men and Women, 2 vols. (1855). Rev. 1863.
2The not-incurious in God's handiwork
3(This man's-flesh he hath admirably made,
4Blown like a bubble, kneaded like a paste,
5To coop up and keep down on earth a space
6That puff of vapour from his mouth, man's soul)
7--To Abib, all-sagacious in our art,
8Breeder in me of what poor skill I boast,
9Like me inquisitive how pricks and cracks
10Befall the flesh through too much stress and strain,
11Whereby the wily vapour fain would slip
12Back and rejoin its source before the term,--
13And aptest in contrivance (under God)
14To baffle it by deftly stopping such:--
15The vagrant Scholar to his Sage at home
16Sends greeting (health and knowledge, fame with peace)
17Three samples of true snakestone--rarer still,
18One of the other sort, the melon-shaped,
19(But fitter, pounded fine, for charms than drugs)
21My journeyings were brought to Jericho;
22Thus I resume. Who studious in our art
23Shall count a little labour unrepaid?
24I have shed sweat enough, left flesh and bone
25On many a flinty furlong of this land.
26Also, the country-side is all on fire
27With rumours of a marching hitherward:
29A black lynx snarled and pricked a tufted ear;
30Lust of my blood inflamed his yellow balls:
31I cried and threw my staff and he was gone.
32Twice have the robbers stripped and beaten me,
33And once a town declared me for a spy;
34But at the end, I reach Jerusalem,
35Since this poor covert where I pass the night,
37A man with plague-sores at the third degree
38Runs till he drops down dead. Thou laughest here!
39'Sooth, it elates me, thus reposed and safe,
40To void the stuffing of my travel-scrip
41And share with thee whatever Jewry yields
44And falling-sickness hath a happier cure
45Than our school wots of: there's a spider here
46Weaves no web, watches on the ledge of tombs,
47Sprinkled with mottles on an ash-grey back;
48Take five and drop them . . . but who knows his mind,
49The Syrian runagate I trust this to?
51Blown up his nose to help the ailing eye.
52Best wait: I reach Jerusalem at morn,
53There set in order my experiences,
54Gather what most deserves, and give thee all--
56Scales off in purer flakes, shines clearer-grained,
59Confounds me, crossing so with leprosy--
60Thou hadst admired one sort I gained at Zoar--
61But zeal outruns discretion. Here I end.
62Yet stay: my Syrian blinketh gratefully,
63Protesteth his devotion is my price--
64Suppose I write what harms not, though he steal?
65I half resolve to tell thee, yet I blush,
66What set me off a-writing first of all.
67An itch I had, a sting to write, a tang!
68For, be it this town's barrenness--or else
69The Man had something in the look of him--
70His case has struck me far more than 'tis worth.
71So, pardon if--(lest presently I lose
72In the great press of novelty at hand
73The care and pains this somehow stole from me)
74I bid thee take the thing while fresh in mind,
75Almost in sight--for, wilt thou have the truth?
76The very man is gone from me but now,
77Whose ailment is the subject of discourse.
78Thus then, and let thy better wit help all!
79'Tis but a case of mania--subinduced
80By epilepsy, at the turning-point
81Of trance prolonged unduly some three days:
83Or spell, exorcization, stroke of art
84Unknown to me and which 'twere well to know,
85The evil thing out-breaking all at once
86Left the man whole and sound of body indeed,--
87But, flinging (so to speak) life's gates too wide,
88Making a clear house of it too suddenly,
90Whatever it was minded on the wall
91So plainly at that vantage, as it were,
92(First come, first served) that nothing subsequent
93Attaineth to erase those fancy-scrawls
94The just-returned and new-established soul
95Hath gotten now so thoroughly by heart
97And first--the man's own firm conviction rests
98That he was dead (in fact they buried him)
99--That he was dead and then restored to life
101--'Sayeth, the same bade "Rise," and he did rise.
102"Such cases are diurnal," thou wilt cry.
104Instead of giving way to time and health,
105Should eat itself into the life of life,
107For see, how he takes up the after-life.
108The man--it is one Lazarus a Jew,
111As much, indeed, beyond the common health
112As he were made and put aside to show.
113Think, could we penetrate by any drug
114And bathe the wearied soul and worried flesh,
115And bring it clear and fair, by three days' sleep!
116Whence has the man the balm that brightens all?
117This grown man eyes the world now like a child.
118Some elders of his tribe, I should premise,
119Led in their friend, obedient as a sheep,
120To bear my inquisition. While they spoke,
121Now sharply, now with sorrow,--told the case,--
122He listened not except I spoke to him,
123But folded his two hands and let them talk,
124Watching the flies that buzzed: and yet no fool.
125And that's a sample how his years must go.
126Look, if a beggar, in fixed middle-life,
127Should find a treasure,--can he use the same
128With straitened habits and with tastes starved small,
129And take at once to his impoverished brain
130The sudden element that changes things,
131That sets the undreamed-of rapture at his hand
132And puts the cheap old joy in the scorned dust?
133Is he not such an one as moves to mirth--
134Warily parsimonious, when no need,
135Wasteful as drunkenness at undue times?
136All prudent counsel as to what befits
137The golden mean, is lost on such an one
138The man's fantastic will is the man's law.
139So here--we call the treasure knowledge, say,
140Increased beyond the fleshly faculty--
141Heaven opened to a soul while yet on earth,
142Earth forced on a soul's use while seeing heaven:
143The man is witless of the size, the sum,
144The value in proportion of all things,
145Or whether it be little or be much.
147Assembled to besiege his city now,
148And of the passing of a mule with gourds--
149'Tis one! Then take it on the other side,
150Speak of some trifling fact--he will gaze rapt
151With stupor at its very littleness,
152(Far as I see) as if in that indeed
153He caught prodigious import, whole results;
154And so will turn to us the bystanders
155In ever the same stupor (note this point)
156That we too see not with his opened eyes.
157Wonder and doubt come wrongly into play,
158Preposterously, at cross purposes.
159Should his child sicken unto death,--why, look
160For scarce abatement of his cheerfulness,
161Or pretermission of the daily craft!
162While a word, gesture, glance, from that same child
163At play or in the school or laid asleep,
164Will startle him to an agony of fear,
165Exasperation, just as like. Demand
166The reason why--" `tis but a word," object--
167"A gesture"--he regards thee as our lord
168Who lived there in the pyramid alone
169Looked at us (dost thou mind?) when, being young,
170We both would unadvisedly recite
171Some charm's beginning, from that book of his,
172Able to bid the sun throb wide and burst
173All into stars, as suns grown old are wont.
174Thou and the child have each a veil alike
175Thrown o'er your heads, from under which ye both
176Stretch your blind hands and trifle with a match
178He holds on firmly to some thread of life--
179(It is the life to lead perforcedly)
180Which runs across some vast distracting orb
181Of glory on either side that meagre thread,
182Which, conscious of, he must not enter yet--
183The spiritual life around the earthly life:
185His heart and brain move there, his feet stay here.
186So is the man perplext with impulses
187Sudden to start off crosswise, not straight on,
188Proclaiming what is right and wrong across,
189And not along, this black thread through the blaze--
190"It should be" baulked by "here it cannot be."
191And oft the man's soul springs into his face
192As if he saw again and heard again
193His sage that bade him "Rise" and he did rise.
194Something, a word, a tick of the blood within
195Admonishes: then back he sinks at once
196To ashes, who was very fire before,
197In sedulous recurrence to his trade
198Whereby he earneth him the daily bread;
199And studiously the humbler for that pride,
200Professedly the faultier that he knows
201God's secret, while he holds the thread of life.
202Indeed the especial marking of the man
203Is prone submission to the heavenly will--
204Seeing it, what it is, and why it is.
205'Sayeth, he will wait patient to the last
206For that same death which must restore his being
207To equilibrium, body loosening soul
208Divorced even now by premature full growth:
209He will live, nay, it pleaseth him to live
210So long as God please, and just how God please.
211He even seeketh not to please God more
212(Which meaneth, otherwise) than as God please.
213Hence, I perceive not he affects to preach
214The doctrine of his sect whate'er it be,
215Make proselytes as madmen thirst to do:
216How can he give his neighbour the real ground,
217His own conviction? Ardent as he is--
218Call his great truth a lie, why, still the old
219"Be it as God please" reassureth him.
220I probed the sore as thy disciple should:
221"How, beast," said I, "this stolid carelessness
222Sufficeth thee, when Rome is on her march
223To stamp out like a little spark thy town,
224Thy tribe, thy crazy tale and thee at once?"
225He merely looked with his large eyes on me.
226The man is apathetic, you deduce?
227Contrariwise, he loves both old and young,
229And birds--how say I? flowers of the field--
230As a wise workman recognizes tools
231In a master's workshop, loving what they make.
232Thus is the man as harmless as a lamb:
233Only impatient, let him do his best,
234At ignorance and carelessness and sin--
235An indignation which is promptly curbed:
236As when in certain travels I have feigned
237To be an ignoramus in our art
238According to some preconceived design,
239And happed to hear the land's practitioners,
240Steeped in conceit sublimed by ignorance,
241Prattle fantastically on disease,
242Its cause and cure--and I must hold my peace!
243Thou wilt object--why have I not ere this
244Sought out the sage himself, the Nazarene
245Who wrought this cure, inquiring at the source,
246Conferring with the frankness that befits?
247Alas! it grieveth me, the learned leech
248Perished in a tumult many years ago,
249Accused,--our learning's fate,--of wizardry,
250Rebellion, to the setting up a rule
253(Prefiguring, as soon appeared, the loss
254To occult learning in our lord the sage
255Who lived there in the pyramid alone)
256Was wrought by the mad people--that's their wont!
257On vain recourse, as I conjecture it,
258To his tried virtue, for miraculous help--
259How could he stop the earthquake? That's their way!
260The other imputations must be lies:
261But take one, though I loathe to give it thee,
262In mere respect for any good man's fame.
263(And after all, our patient Lazarus
264Is stark mad; should we count on what he says?
266'Tis well to keep back nothing of a case.)
267This man so cured regards the curer, then
268As--God forgive me! who but God himself,
269Creator and sustainer of the world,
270That came and dwelt in flesh on 't awhile!
271--'Sayeth that such an one was born and lived,
272Taught, healed the sick, broke bread at his own house,
273Then died, with Lazarus by, for aught I know,
274And yet was . . . what I said nor choose repeat,
275And must have so avouched himself, in fact,
276In hearing of this very Lazarus
277Who saith--but why all this of what he saith?
278Why write of trivial matters, things of price
279Calling at every moment for remark?
280I noticed on the margin of a pool
281Blue-flowering borage, the Aleppo sort,
282Aboundeth, very nitrous. It is strange!
283Thy pardon for this long and tedious case,
284Which, now that I review it, needs must seem
285Unduly dwelt on, prolixly set forth!
286Nor I myself discern in what is writ
287Good cause for the peculiar interest
288And awe indeed this man has touched me with.
289Perhaps the journey's end, the weariness
290Had wrought upon me first. I met him thus:
291I crossed a ridge of short sharp broken hills
292Like an old lion's cheek teeth. Out there came
293A moon made like a face with certain spots
294Multiform, manifold, and menacing:
295Then a wind rose behind me. So we met
296In this old sleepy town at unaware,
297The man and I. I send thee what is writ.
298Regard it as a chance, a matter risked
299To this ambiguous Syrian--he may lose,
300Or steal, or give it thee with equal good.
301Jerusalem's repose shall make amends
302For time this letter wastes, thy time and mine;
303Till when, once more thy pardon and farewell!
305So, the All-Great, were the All-Loving too--
306So, through the thunder comes a human voice
307Saying, "O heart I made, a heart beats here!
308Face, my hands fashioned, see it in myself!
309Thou hast no power nor mayst conceive of mine,
310But love I gave thee, with myself to love,
311And thou must love me who have died for thee!"
312The madman saith He said so: it is strange.


1] Karshish, the Arab physician, and his friend Abib are the creatures of the poet's imagination; the time is some forty years after the raising of Lazarus (see note on line 28 below). For the story of Lazarus, see John 11: 1-44.
The meaning of Karshish's name in Arabic is paraphrased in "picker-up of learning's crumbs." Back to Line
20] Karshish numbers his regular letters to Abib to provide a check on their arrival. This letter is the twenty-second; in the twenty-first he had brought the account of his journeyings up to his arrival at Jericho. Back to Line
28] It was Titus who besieged and captured Jernsalem in A.D. 70; he was emperor, 79-81; Vespasian, his father, was emperor, 70-79 A.D. Back to Line
36] Bethany: "Bethany, the town of Mary and his sister Martha" (John 11: 1). Back to Line
42] choler: in its original sense, bile. Browning has Karshish think in terms of the old physiology of "humours." Karshish hopes that he may have found a way of diagnosing fever from the consistency of the blood when he phlebotomises the patient. Back to Line
43] tertians: fevers which recur every other day; i.e. on every third day in the inclusive Roman way of counting. Back to Line
50] sublimate: in old-fashioned chemistry, the name for compounds made by heating bodies to a vapour and then allowing this to condense. Back to Line
55] gum-tragacanth: a gum produced by certain thorny shrubs in Asia Minor and Persia. Back to Line
57] Porphyry: a sort of stone used for the manufacture of vases, etc.; here used by metonymy for the mortar made out of it. Back to Line
58] scalp-disease: undoubtedly alopicia (from which Chaucer's Pardoner suffered), which has a connection with leprosy. Back to Line
82] Exhibition is the old term for "administration" of a remedy. Back to Line
89] conceit: here used in the early sense of "idea, concept, fancy." Back to Line
96] The whole passage from line 79 is Karshish's attempt to find an explanation in terms of a mechanist psychology for the fixed idea in Lazarus' mind. Back to Line
100] Nazarene: Christ: see Matthew 2: 23. Back to Line
103] fume: used here as a derogatory term for Lazarus' idea that he has been restored to life. Back to Line
106] saffron: a drug derived from a plant of the same name (Crocus sativus), formerly much used both as a medicine and as a dye. Back to Line
109] sanguine: again part of the terminology of humours. The "sanguine" type was not, like the "melancholic," given to delusions and attacks of fancy--this makes Lazarus' case still more strange. Back to Line
110] laudable: another technical medical term here, suggesting perfect health. Back to Line
146] See lines 26-28 above and note. Back to Line
177] Greek fire: an explosive compound, the nearest approach to gunpowder known to the ancients. Back to Line
184] To Lazarus, who now sees with a knowledge far beyond the human, the spiritual or moral law is as clear and certain as the physical. Compare A Death in the Desert, 251-298. Back to Line
228] affects: in the sense of "shows affection for." Back to Line
251] Karshish uses "prodigious" here in a derogatory sense. Back to Line
252] when the earthquake fell. "And behold the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks were rent" (Matthew 27: 51). Back to Line
265] leech: old-fashioned word for physician. Back to Line
304] Compare the passage in Saul, 300-12. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
F. E. L. Priestley
RPO Edition: 
3RP 3.151.