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Short poem

Robert Browning (1812-1889)

Caliban upon Setebos
Or, Natural Theology in the Island

"Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such a one as thyself."
          (David, Psalms 50.21)

              1['Will sprawl, now that the heat of day is best,
              2Flat on his belly in the pit's much mire,
              3With elbows wide, fists clenched to prop his chin.
              4And, while he kicks both feet in the cool slush,
              5And feels about his spine small eft-things course,
              6Run in and out each arm, and make him laugh:
              7And while above his head a pompion-plant,
              8Coating the cave-top as a brow its eye,
              9Creeps down to touch and tickle hair and beard,
            10And now a flower drops with a bee inside,
            11And now a fruit to snap at, catch and crunch,--
            12He looks out o'er yon sea which sunbeams cross
            13And recross till they weave a spider-web
            14(Meshes of fire, some great fish breaks at times)
            15And talks to his own self, howe'er he please,
            16Touching that other, whom his dam called God.
            17Because to talk about Him, vexes--ha,
            18Could He but know! and time to vex is now,
            19When talk is safer than in winter-time.
            20Moreover Prosper and Miranda sleep
            21In confidence he drudges at their task,
            22And it is good to cheat the pair, and gibe,
            23Letting the rank tongue blossom into speech.]

            24Setebos, Setebos, and Setebos!
            25'Thinketh, He dwelleth i' the cold o' the moon.

            26'Thinketh He made it, with the sun to match,
            27But not the stars; the stars came otherwise;
            28Only made clouds, winds, meteors, such as that:
            29Also this isle, what lives and grows thereon,
            30And snaky sea which rounds and ends the same.

            31'Thinketh, it came of being ill at ease:
            32He hated that He cannot change His cold,
            33Nor cure its ache. 'Hath spied an icy fish
            34That longed to 'scape the rock-stream where she lived,
            35And thaw herself within the lukewarm brine
            36O' the lazy sea her stream thrusts far amid,
            37A crystal spike 'twixt two warm walls of wave;
            38Only, she ever sickened, found repulse
            39At the other kind of water, not her life,
            40(Green-dense and dim-delicious, bred o' the sun)
            41Flounced back from bliss she was not born to breathe,
            42And in her old bounds buried her despair,
            43Hating and loving warmth alike: so He.

            44'Thinketh, He made thereat the sun, this isle,
            45Trees and the fowls here, beast and creeping thing.
            46Yon otter, sleek-wet, black, lithe as a leech;
            47Yon auk, one fire-eye in a ball of foam,
            48That floats and feeds; a certain badger brown
            49He hath watched hunt with that slant white-wedge eye
            50By moonlight; and the pie with the long tongue
            51That pricks deep into oak warts for a worm,
            52And says a plain word when she finds her prize,
            53But will not eat the ants; the ants themselves
            54That build a wall of seeds and settled stalks
            55About their hole--He made all these and more,
            56Made all we see, and us, in spite: how else?
            57He could not, Himself, make a second self
            58To be His mate; as well have made Himself:
            59He would not make what He mislikes or slights,
            60An eyesore to Him, or not worth His pains:
            61But did, in envy, listlessness or sport,
            62Make what Himself would fain, in a manner, be--
            63Weaker in most points, stronger in a few,
            64Worthy, and yet mere playthings all the while,
            65Things He admires and mocks too,--that is it.
            66Because, so brave, so better though they be,
            67It nothing skills if He begin to plague.
            68Look, now, I melt a gourd-fruit into mash,
            69Add honeycomb and pods, I have perceived,
            70Which bite like finches when they bill and kiss,--
            71Then, when froth rises bladdery, drink up all,
            72Quick, quick, till maggots scamper through my brain;
            73Last, throw me on my back i' the seeded thyme,
            74And wanton, wishing I were born a bird.
            75Put case, unable to be what I wish,
            76I yet could make a live bird out of clay:
            77Would not I take clay, pinch my Caliban
            78Able to fly?--for, there, see, he hath wings,
            79And great comb like the hoopoe's to admire,
            80And there, a sting to do his foes offence,
            81There, and I will that he begin to live,
            82Fly to yon rock-top, nip me off the horns
            83Of grigs high up that make the merry din,
            84Saucy through their veined wings, and mind me not.
            85In which feat, if his leg snapped, brittle clay,
            86And he lay stupid-like,--why, I should laugh;
            87And if he, spying me, should fall to weep,
            88Beseech me to be good, repair his wrong,
            89Bid his poor leg smart less or grow again,--
            90Well, as the chance were, this might take or else
            91Not take my fancy: I might hear his cry,
            92And give the mankin three sound legs for one,
            93Or pluck the other off, leave him like an egg
            94And lessoned he was mine and merely clay.
            95Were this no pleasure, lying in the thyme,
            96Drinking the mash, with brain become alive,
            97Making and marring clay at will? So He.

            98'Thinketh, such shows nor right nor wrong in Him,
            99Nor kind, nor cruel: He is strong and Lord.
          100'Am strong myself compared to yonder crabs
          101That march now from the mountain to the sea;
          102'Let twenty pass, and stone the twenty-first,
          103Loving not, hating not, just choosing so.
          104'Say, the first straggler that boasts purple spots
          105Shall join the file, one pincer twisted off;
          106'Say, this bruised fellow shall receive a worm,
          107And two worms he whose nippers end in red;
          108As it likes me each time, I do: so He.

          109Well then, 'supposeth He is good i' the main,
          110Placable if His mind and ways were guessed,
          111But rougher than His handiwork, be sure!
          112Oh, He hath made things worthier than Himself,
          113And envieth that, so helped, such things do more
          114Than He who made them! What consoles but this?
          115That they, unless through Him, do nought at all,
          116And must submit: what other use in things?
          117'Hath cut a pipe of pithless elder-joint
          118That, blown through, gives exact the scream o' the jay
          119When from her wing you twitch the feathers blue:
          120Sound this, and little birds that hate the jay
          121Flock within stone's throw, glad their foe is hurt:
          122Put case such pipe could prattle and boast forsooth
          123"I catch the birds, I am the crafty thing,
          124I make the cry my maker cannot make
          125With his great round mouth; he must blow through mine!'
          126Would not I smash it with my foot? So He.

          127But wherefore rough, why cold and ill at ease?
          128Aha, that is a question! Ask, for that,
          129What knows,--the something over Setebos
          130That made Him, or He, may be, found and fought,
          131Worsted, drove off and did to nothing, perchance.
          132There may be something quiet o'er His head,
          133Out of His reach, that feels nor joy nor grief,
          134Since both derive from weakness in some way.
          135I joy because the quails come; would not joy
          136Could I bring quails here when I have a mind:
          137This Quiet, all it hath a mind to, doth.
          138'Esteemeth stars the outposts of its couch,
          139But never spends much thought nor care that way.
          140It may look up, work up,--the worse for those
          141It works on! 'Careth but for Setebos
          142The many-handed as a cuttle-fish,
          143Who, making Himself feared through what He does,
          144Looks up, first, and perceives he cannot soar
          145To what is quiet and hath happy life;
          146Next looks down here, and out of very spite
          147Makes this a bauble-world to ape yon real,
          148These good things to match those as hips do grapes.
          149'Tis solace making baubles, ay, and sport.
          150Himself peeped late, eyed Prosper at his books
          151Careless and lofty, lord now of the isle:
          152Vexed, 'stitched a book of broad leaves, arrow-shaped,
          153Wrote thereon, he knows what, prodigious words;
          154Has peeled a wand and called it by a name;
          155Weareth at whiles for an enchanter's robe
          156The eyed skin of a supple oncelot;
          157And hath an ounce sleeker than youngling mole,
          158A four-legged serpent he makes cower and couch,
          159Now snarl, now hold its breath and mind his eye,
          160And saith she is Miranda and my wife:
          161'Keeps for his Ariel a tall pouch-bill crane
          162He bids go wade for fish and straight disgorge;
          163Also a sea-beast, lumpish, which he snared,
          164Blinded the eyes of, and brought somewhat tame,
          165And split its toe-webs, and now pens the drudge
          166In a hole o' the rock and calls him Caliban;
          167A bitter heart that bides its time and bites.
          168'Plays thus at being Prosper in a way,
          169Taketh his mirth with make-believes: so He.
          170His dam held that the Quiet made all things
          171Which Setebos vexed only: 'holds not so.
          172Who made them weak, meant weakness He might vex.
          173Had He meant other, while His hand was in,
          174Why not make horny eyes no thorn could prick,
          175Or plate my scalp with bone against the snow,
          176Or overscale my flesh 'neath joint and joint
          177Like an orc's armour? Ay,--so spoil His sport!
          178He is the One now: only He doth all.

          179'Saith, He may like, perchance, what profits Him.
          180Ay, himself loves what does him good; but why?
          181'Gets good no otherwise. This blinded beast
          182Loves whoso places flesh-meat on his nose,
          183But, had he eyes, would want no help, but hate
          184Or love, just as it liked him: He hath eyes.
          185Also it pleaseth Setebos to work,
          186Use all His hands, and exercise much craft,
          187By no means for the love of what is worked.
          188'Tasteth, himself, no finer good i' the world
          189When all goes right, in this safe summer-time,
          190And he wants little, hungers, aches not much,
          191Than trying what to do with wit and strength.
          192'Falls to make something: 'piled yon pile of turfs,
          193And squared and stuck there squares of soft white chalk,
          194And, with a fish-tooth, scratched a moon on each,
          195And set up endwise certain spikes of tree,
          196And crowned the whole with a sloth's skull a-top,
          197Found dead i' the woods, too hard for one to kill.
          198No use at all i' the work, for work's sole sake;
          199'Shall some day knock it down again: so He.

          200'Saith He is terrible: watch His feats in proof!
          201One hurricane will spoil six good months' hope.
          202He hath a spite against me, that I know,
          203Just as He favours Prosper, who knows why?
          204So it is, all the same, as well I find.
          205'Wove wattles half the winter, fenced them firm
          206With stone and stake to stop she-tortoises
          207Crawling to lay their eggs here: well, one wave,
          208Feeling the foot of Him upon its neck,
          209Gaped as a snake does, lolled out its large tongue,
          210And licked the whole labour flat: so much for spite.
          211'Saw a ball flame down late (yonder it lies)
          212Where, half an hour before, I slept i' the shade:
          213Often they scatter sparkles: there is force!
          214'Dug up a newt He may have envied once
          215And turned to stone, shut up Inside a stone.
          216Please Him and hinder this?--What Prosper does?
          217Aha, if He would tell me how! Not He!
          218There is the sport: discover how or die!
          219All need not die, for of the things o' the isle
          220Some flee afar, some dive, some run up trees;
          221Those at His mercy,--why, they please Him most
          222When . . . when . . . well, never try the same way twice!
          223Repeat what act has pleased, He may grow wroth.
          224You must not know His ways, and play Him off,
          225Sure of the issue. 'Doth the like himself:
          226'Spareth a squirrel that it nothing fears
          227But steals the nut from underneath my thumb,
          228And when I threat, bites stoutly in defence:
          229'Spareth an urchin that contrariwise,
          230Curls up into a ball, pretending death
          231For fright at my approach: the two ways please.
          232But what would move my choler more than this,
          233That either creature counted on its life
          234To-morrow and next day and all days to come,
          235Saying, forsooth, in the inmost of its heart,
          236"Because he did so yesterday with me,
          237And otherwise with such another brute,
          238So must he do henceforth and always."--Ay?
          239Would teach the reasoning couple what "must" means!
          240'Doth as he likes, or wherefore Lord? So He.

          241'Conceiveth all things will continue thus,
          242And we shall have to live in fear of Him
          243So long as He lives, keeps His strength: no change,
          244If He have done His best, make no new world
          245To please Him more, so leave off watching this,--
          246If He surprise not even the Quiet's self
          247Some strange day,--or, suppose, grow into it
          248As grubs grow butterflies: else, here are we,
          249And there is He, and nowhere help at all.

          250'Believeth with the life, the pain shall stop.
          251His dam held different, that after death
          252He both plagued enemies and feasted friends:
          253Idly! He doth His worst in this our life,
          254Giving just respite lest we die through pain,
          255Saving last pain for worst,--with which, an end.
          256Meanwhile, the best way to escape His ire
          257Is, not to seem too happy. 'Sees, himself,
          258Yonder two flies, with purple films and pink,
          259Bask on the pompion-bell above: kills both.
          260'Sees two black painful beetles roll their ball
          261On head and tail as if to save their lives:
          262Moves them the stick away they strive to clear.

          263Even so, 'would have Him misconceive, suppose
          264This Caliban strives hard and ails no less,
          265And always, above all else, envies Him;
          266Wherefore he mainly dances on dark nights,
          267Moans in the sun, gets under holes to laugh,
          268And never speaks his mind save housed as now:
          269Outside, 'groans, curses. If He caught me here,
          270O'erheard this speech, and asked "What chucklest at?"
          271'Would, to appease Him, cut a finger off,
          272Or of my three kid yearlings burn the best,
          273Or let the toothsome apples rot on tree,
          274Or push my tame beast for the orc to taste:
          275While myself lit a fire, and made a song
          276And sung it, "What I hate, be consecrate
          277To celebrate Thee and Thy state, no mate
          278For Thee; what see for envy in poor me?"
          279Hoping the while, since evils sometimes mend,
          280Warts rub away and sores are cured with slime,
          281That some strange day, will either the Quiet catch
          282And conquer Setebos, or likelier He
          283Decrepit may doze, doze, as good as die.

          284[What, what? A curtain o'er the world at once!
          285Crickets stop hissing: not a bird--or, yes,
          286There scuds His raven that has told Him all!
          287It was fool's play, this prattling! Ha! The wind
          288Shoulders the pillared dust, death's house o' the move,
          289And fast invading fires begin! White blaze--
          290A tree's head snaps--and there, there, there, there, there,
          291His thunder follows! Fool to gibe at Him!
          292Lo! 'Lieth flat and loveth Setebos!
          293'Maketh his teeth meet through his upper lip,
          294Will let those quails fly, will not eat this month
          295One little mess of whelks, so he may 'scape!]


1] The motto is from Psalms 1: 21. For the title character, see The Tempest, I, ii. The subtitle and the motto indicate much of Browning's intention in the poem. "Natural theology" is distinguished from (and here opposed to) "revealed theology"; natural theology being that system of thought about God which man arrives at through the unaided use of his natural reason. To the Victorian secularists, all theology was "natural theology"--that is, man-made. Their favourite theory was that all religion was a projection by man of his own qualities. This is the theory which the text chosen as motto condemns, and which Caliban's musings illustrate. Throughout he looks at his own characteristics, and then ascribes them to his god, Setebos: "So he." What is conspicuous in the poem is that there is no glimpse of what to Browning is true theology: the theology of a God of Love. This comes to man (as to David in Saul) by revelation. The highest conception Caliban can achieve by natural reason is of the Quiet--an indifferent, absentee, Epicurean God. His Setebos is merely a God of arbitrary and jealous power. It is also noteworthy that Browning includes in Caliban's theology not merely most of the doctrines of primitive religions, but also some elements associated with branches of Christianity, particularly the narrower kind of Calvinist sect. He is by implication rejecting these elements as part of his own definition of true Christianity in terms of a God of Love. The passages in brackets at the beginning and end of the poem represent Caliban's silent thoughts. The main part of the poem is spoken aloud, and presents his attempt at a system. He is very much the "natural" man, but Browning gives him not only a quick and vivid imagination, but a mind that follows the general systematic pattern of thought used by writers on natural religion. He starts with the relation of his god to the universe, and the problem of cosmology, and then moves systematically to consider his god's attributes, and to try to evolve rules for worship and service. Caliban throughout speaks of himself in the third person, usually without the pronoun. Browning indicates the omission of the pronoun by an apostrophe.

Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: Robert Browning, Dramatis Personae (London: Chapman and Hall, 1864). PR 4209 A1 1864 ROBA.
First publication date: 1864
RPO poem editor: F. E. L. Priestley
RP edition: 3RP 3.170.
Recent editing: 2:2001/12/13

Rhyme: unrhyming

Other poems by Robert Browning