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Robert Browning, “The Strange Medical Experience of Karshish”

Robert Browning (1812-1889) is the second in our installment of Christmas poems or poems about the Incarnation.[1]  Browning is famous for his very romantic marriage in which he secretly wed the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) and carried her off to Italy far away from her domineering father,  As a poet, he is especially admired for his dramatic monologues in which a person who is not the poet speaks about a vitally important moment in their life.

“The Strange Medical Experience of Karshish,” is one of Browning’s dramatic monologues.[2]  It purports to be a letter from the Arab physician to his friend and fellow physician Abib.  Karshish has stopped for the night in Bethany before heading to Jerusalem during the time of the Jewish Revolt.  There in Bethany he encounters an old man who seems crazed because he views the world from such a strange and topsy-turvy perspective.

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—

‘T is one!  Then take it on the other side,

Speak of some trifling fact—he will gaze rapt

With stupor at its very littleness,

(Far as I see) as if in that indeed

He caught prodigious import, whole results;

The man is the aged Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.  His “crazed” perspective comes from this experience. “Heaven opened to a soul while yet on earth,/Earth forced on a soul’s use while seeing heaven:”  Karshish is captivated by Lazarus’s person and his story of resurrection, but his doubts return towards the end of the letter, and he attributes his credulity to weariness from his long journey.

Yet Browning is not through with us. Lazarus’s spell causes Karshish to question his questioning in lines that still move me with the awe inspiring wonder of the Incarnation

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,

And thou must love me who have died for thee!”

The madman saith He said so; it is strange.

Strange it is and wonderful.  Let us not diminish the gospel of the All-Great by making him over into some pale imitation of himself of our own creation.  Rather this Christmas let us reflect on the majestic transcendence of the biblical God and so be captivated by the wonder of Christmas in which we celebrate the God who took on flesh and dwelt among us.

Next up Lucy Shaw.

[1] The first was Ben Jonson’s “I Sing the Birth Was Born Tonight.”  Check in the category of Christmas poems for the entire selection as it develops.

[2] For the full text of the poem, go to


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