A Poet to Make One Despair


A Poet to Make One Despair

Robert Browning is a poet to make one despair. Everything he writes seems nearly perfect and he sustains enormous lengths of poetry with the seeming carelessness of a master gymnast doing floor exercises. Every leap, every step, every roll, every move, choreographed and meaningful, yet done without breaking a sweat. That is not how poetry is, and particularly not when the poetry has such depths. With that tortured introduction, I present part of one of Browning's ruminations on theology. For the complete poem, check here

from "Caliban upon Setebos Or, Natural Theology in the Island"
Robert Browning

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

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

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

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

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

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on November 1, 2002 7:12 AM.

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