Caliban, by William A. Quayle
Your great poet is eminently sane. Not that this is the conception
current concerning him—the reverse being the common idea—that a poet
is a being afflicted with some strange and unclassified rabies. He is
supposed to be possessed, like the Norwegian Berserker, whose frenzy
amounted to volcanic tumult. The genesis of misconceptions, however,
is worth one's while to study; for in a majority of cases there is in
the misconception a sufficient flavoring of truth to make the erroneous
notion pass as true. At bottom, the human soul loves truth, nor
willingly believes or receives a lie. Our intellectual sin is
synecdoche, the putting a part truth for a whole truth. Generalization
is dangerous intellectual exercise. Our premise is insufficient, and
our conclusion is self-sufficient, like some strutting scion of a
decayed house. Trace the origin of this idea of a poet's non-sanity.
He was not ordinary, as other men, but was extraordinary, and as such
belonged to the upper rather than the lower world; for we must be
convinced how wholly the ancients kept the super-earthly in mind in
their logical processes—an attitude wise and in consonance with the
wisest of this world's thinking. Heaven must not be left out of our
computations, just as the sun must not be omitted in writing the
history of a rose or a spike of golden-rod. In harmony with this
exalted origin of the poet went the notion that he was under an
afflatus. A breath from behind the world blew in his face; nay, more,
a breath from behind the world blew noble ideas into his soul, and he
spake as one inspired of the gods. This conception of a poet is high
and worthy; nothing gross grimes it with common dust. Yet from so
noble a thought—because the thought was partial—grew the gross
misconception of the poet as beyond law, as not amenable to social and
moral customs, as one who might transgress the moral code with
impunity, and stand unreproved, even blameless. He was thought to be
his own law—a man whose course should no more be reproved or hindered
than the winds. The poet's supremacy brought us to a wrong conclusion.
The philosopher we assumed to be balanced, the poet to be unbalanced.
Shelley, and Poe, and Heine, and Byron, and Burns elucidate this
erroneous hypothesis of the poet. We pass lightly their misrule of
themselves with a tacit assumption of their genius having shaken and
shocked their moral faculties as in some giant perturbation.
I now recur to the initial suggestion, that the great poet is sane.
The poet is yet a man, and man is more than poet. Manhood is the regal
fact to which all else must subordinate itself. Nothing must be
allowed to disfranchise manhood; and he who manumits the poet from
social and ethical bonds is not logical, nor penetrative into the dark
mystery of soul, nor is he the poet's friend. Nor is he a friend who
assumes that the poet, because a poet, moves in eccentric paths rather
than in concentric circles. Hold with all tenacity to the poet's
sanity. He is superior, and lives where the eagles fly and stars run
their far and splendid courses; but he is still man, though man grown
tall and sublime. To the truth of this view of the great poet bear
witness Aeschylus, and Dante, and Spenser, and Shakespeare, and
Tennyson, and Browning, in naming whom we are lighting on high summits,
as clouds do, and leaving the main range of mountains untouched.
Shakespeare is absolutely sane. Not Blondin, crossing Niagara on a
thread for a pathway, was so absolute in his balance as Shakespeare.
He saw all the world. Nor is this all; for there are those who see an
entire world, but see it distorted as an anamorphism. There is a
cartoon world, where everybody is apprehended as taking on other shapes
than his own, and is valued in proportion as he is susceptible of
caricature. But plate-glass is better for looking through than is a
prism. What men need is eyes which are neither far-sighted nor
near-sighted, but right-sighted. Shakespeare was that. There is no
hint of exaggeration in his characters. They are people we have met on
journeys, and some of whom we have known intimately. To be a poet it
is not necessary to be a madman—a doctrine wholesome and encouraging.
I lay down, then, as one of the canons for testing a poet's greatness,
this, "Is he sane?" and purpose applying the canon to Robert Browning,
giving results of such application rather than the modus operandi of
such results. I assert that he bears the test. No saner man than
Browning ever walked this world's streets. He was entirely human in
his love of life for its own sake, in his love of nature and friends
and wife and child. His voice, in both speech and laughter, had a ring
and joyousness such as reminded us of Charles Dickens in his youth.
His appreciation of life was intense and immense. This world and all
worlds reported to him as if he were an officer to whom they all, as
subalterns, must report. The pendulum in the clock on a lady's
mantel-shelf is not more natural than the pendulum swung in a cathedral
tower, though the swing of the one is a slight and the swing of the
other a great arc. Browning is a pendulum whose vibrations touch the
horizons. He does business with fabulous capital and on a huge scale,
and thinks, sees, serves, and loves after a colossal fashion, but is as
natural in his large life as a lesser man is in his meager life.
"Caliban upon Setebos" is a hint of the man's immense movement of soul
and his serene rationality.
Browning will be preacher; and as preachers do—and do wisely—he takes
a text from the Scriptures, finding in a psalm a sentence embodying the
thought he purposes elaborating, as a bud contains the flower. The
Bible may safely be asserted to be the richest treasure-house of
suggestive thought ever discovered to the soul. In my conviction, not
a theme treated in the domain of investigation and reason whose
chapters may not be headed from the Book Divine. In his "Cleon,"
Browning has taken his text from the words of Paul; in "Caliban upon
Setebos," his text is found in Asaph's psalm, and the words are, "Thou
thoughtest that I was altogether such a one as thyself." A word will
set a great brain on fire, as if the word were a torch and the brain a
pine-forest, and to thoughtful minds it must be deeply interesting to
know that this study in psychology, which stands distinctly alone in
English literature and in universal literature, was suggested by a
phrase from the Book of God.
To begin with, Caliban is one of Shakespeare's finest conceptions in
creative art. Caliban is as certain in our thoughts as Ferdinand,
Miranda, or Prospero. He is become, by Shakespeare's grace, a person
among us who can not be ignored. Study his biography in "The Tempest,"
and find how masterly the chief dramatist was in rendering visible
those forms lying in the shadow-land of psychology. As Dowden has
suggested, doubtless Caliban's name is a poet's spelling, or anagram,
of "cannibal;" and, beyond question, Setebos is a character in
demonology, taken from the record of the chronicler of Magellan's
voyages, who pictures the Patagonians, when taken captive, as roaring,
and "calling on their chief devil, Setebos." So far the historical
setting of Caliban and Sycorax and Setebos. In character, Caliban and
Jack Falstaff are related by ties closer than those of blood. Both are
bestial, operating in different departments of society; but in the
knight, as in the slave, only animal instincts dominate. Lust is
tyrant. Animality destroys all manhood, and lowers to the slush and
ooze of degradation every one given over to its control. A man
degraded to the gross level of a beast because he prefers the animal to
the spiritual—this is Caliban. His mind is atrophied, in part,
because lust sins against reason. Caliban is Prospero's slave, but he
is lust's slave more—a slavery grinding and ignominious as servitude
to Prospero can be. Prospero must always, in the widest sense, lord it
over Caliban, with his diminished understanding and aggravated
appetites, who vegetates rather than lives. His days are narrow as the
days of browsing sheep and cattle; but his soul knows the lecherous
intent, the petty hate, the cankerous envy, the evil discontents,
indigenous only to the soul of man. Plainly, Caliban is man, not
beast; for his proclivities, while bestial, are still human. In a
beast is a certain dignity, in that action is instinctive, irrevocable,
and so far necessary. Caliban is not so. He might be other than he
is. He is depraved, but yet a man, as Satan was an angel, though
fallen. The most profligate man has earmarks of manhood on him that no
beast can duplicate. And Caliban (on whom Prospero exhausts his
vocabulary of epithets) attempting rape on Miranda; scowling in
ill-concealing hate in service; playing truant in his task when from
under his master's eyes; traitor to Prospero, and, as a co-conspirator
with villains like himself, planning his hurt; a compound of spleen,
malignancy, and murderous intent; irritated under conditions; failing
to seize moral and manly positions with such ascendency as grows out of
them, yet full of bitter hate toward him who wears the supremacy won by
moral worth and mastery,—really, Caliban seems not so foreign to our
knowledge after all. Such is Shakespeare's Caliban.
Him Browning lets us hear in a monologue. Whoever sets man or woman
talking for us does us a service. To be a good listener is to be
astute. When anybody talks in our hearing, we become readers of pages
in his soul. He thinks himself talking about things; while we, if
wise, know he is giving glimpses of individual memorabilia. Caliban is
talking. He is talking to himself. He does not know anybody is
listening; therefore will there be in him nothing theatrical, but his
words will be sincere. He plays no part now, but speaks his soul.
Browning is nothing if not bold. He attempts things audacious as the
voyages of Ulysses. Nothing he has attempted impresses me as more
bold, if so bold, as this exploit of entering into the consciousness of
a besotted spirit, and stirring that spirit to frame a system of
theology. Nansen's tramp along the uncharted deserts of the Polar
winter was not more brilliant in inception and execution. Caliban is a
theorist in natural theology. He is building a theological system as
certainly as Augustine or Calvin or Spinoza did. This poem presents
that satire which constitutes Browning's humor. Conceive that he here
satirizes those omniscient rationalists who demolish, at a touch, all
supernatural systems of theology, and proceed to construct purely
natural systems in their place as devoid of vitality and inspiration as
dead tree-trunks are of vital saps. So conceive this dramatic
monologue, and the baleful humor appears, and is captivating in its
biting sarcasm and unanswerable argument. Caliban is, in his own
opinion, omniscient. He trusts himself absolutely. He is as
infallible as the Positivists, and as full of information as the
Agnostics, absurd as such an attitude on their part must appear; for,
as Romanes has shown in his "Thoughts on Religion," the Agnostic must
simply assert his inability to know, and must not dogmatize as to what
is or is not. So soon as he does, he has ceased to be a philosophic
Agnostic. Caliban's theology, though grotesque, is not a whit more so
than much which soberly passes in our day for "advanced thinking" and
Some things are apparent in Caliban. He is a man, not a beast, in that
no beast has any commerce with the thought of God. Man is declared
man, not so much by thinking or by thinking's instrument—language—as
by his moral nature. Man prays; and prayer is the imprimatur of man's
manhood. Camels kneel for the reception of their burdens, but never
kneel to God. Only man has a shrine and an altar. Such things, we are
told, are signs of an infantile state of civilization and superstition;
but they may be boldly affirmed to be, in fact, infallible signs of the
divinity of the human soul. Caliban is thinking of his god, brutal,
devilish; yet he thinks of a god, and that is a possibility as far
above the brute as stars are above the meadow-lands. He has a
divinity. He is dogmatist, as ignorance is bound to be. He knows; and
distrust of himself or his conclusions is as foreign to him as to the
rationalists of our century and decade. Caliban makes a god. The
attempt would be humorous were it not pathetic. If his conclusions are
absurd, they are what might be anticipated when man engages in the task
of god-making. "Caliban upon Setebos" is the reductio ad absurdum of
the attempt of man to create God. God rises not from man to the
firmament, but falls from the firmament to man. God does not ascend as
the vapor, but descends as the light. This is the wide meaning of this
uncanny poem. It is the sanity of the leading poet of the nineteenth
century, and the greatest poet since Shakespeare, who saw clearly the
inanity of so-called scientific conclusions and godless theories of the
evolution of mankind. Mankind can not create God. God creates
mankind. All the man-made gods are fashioned after the similitude of
Caliban's Setebos. They are grotesque, carnal, devilish. Paganism was
but an installment of Caliban's theory. God was a bigger man or woman,
with aggravated human characteristics, as witness Jove and Venus and
Hercules and Mars. Greek mythology is a commentary on Caliban's
monologue. For man to evolve a god who shall be non-human, actually
divine in character and conduct, is historically impossible. No man
could create Christ. The attempt to account for religion by evolution
is a piece of sorry sarcasm. Man has limitations. Here is one. By
evolution you can not explain language, much less religion. Such is
the lesson of "Caliban upon Setebos." Shakespeare created a brutalized
man, a dull human slave, whom Prospero drove as he would have driven a
vicious steed. This only, Shakespeare performed. Browning proposed to
give this man to thought, to surrender him to the widest theme the mind
has knowledge of—to let him reason on God. How colossal the
conception! Not a man of our century would have cherished such a
conception but Robert Browning. The design was unique, needful,
valuable, stimulative. The originality, audacity, and brilliancy of
the attempt are always a tonic to my brain and spiritual nature. With
good reason has this poem been termed "extraordinary;" and that thinker
and critic, James Mudge, has named it "the finest illustration of
grotesque art in the language."
The picture of Caliban sprawling in the ooze, brute instincts regnant,
is complete and admirable. Stealing time from service to be truant
(seeing Prospero sleeps), he gives him over to pure animal enjoyment,
when, on a sudden, from the cavern where he lies,
"He looks out o'er yon sea which sunbeams cross
And recross till they weave a spider web,
Meshes of fire,
And talks to his own self howe'er he please,
Touching that other whom his dam called God;"
but talks of God, not as a promise of a better life, but purely of an
"Because to talk about Him vexes Prospero!
And it is good to cheat the pair [Miranda and
Prospero], and gibe,
Letting the rank tongue blossom into speech."
What a motive for thinking on the august God! He now addresses himself
to the conceiving of a divinity. He thrusts his mother's beliefs aside
rudely, as a beast does the flags that stand along its way in making
journey to the stream to slake its thirst. He is grossly
self-sufficient. He is boor and fool conjoined. Where wise men and
angels would move with reverent tread and forehead bent to earth, he
walks erect, unhumbled; nay, without a sense of worship. How could he
or another find God so? The mood of prayer is the mood of finding God.
Who seeks Him must seek with thought aflame with love. Caliban's
reasoning ambles like a drunkard staggering home from late debauch.
His grossness shames us. And yet were he only Caliban, and if he were
all alone, we could forget his maudlin speech—but he is more. He is a
voice of our own era. His babblings are not more crude and
irreverential than much that passes for profound thinking. Nay,
Caliban is our contemporaneous shame. He asserts (he does not
think—he asserts, settles questions with a word) that Setebos created
not all things—the world and sun—
"But not the stars; the stars came otherwise;"
and this goodly frame of ocean and of sky and earth came of Setebos.
"Being ill at ease,
He hated that he can not change his cold
Nor cure its ache."
His god is selfishness, operating on a huge scale. But more, he
"Made all we see and us in spite: how else?
But did in envy, listlessness, or sport
Make what himself would fain in a manner be—
Weaker in most points, stronger in a few,
Worthy, and yet mere playthings all the while."
Made them to plague, as Caliban would have done. And caprice is
Setebos's method. He does things wantonly. No noble master passion
flames in him. No goodness blesses him. Such a god Caliban makes, so
that it is odds whether Caliban make God or God make Caliban. Be sure,
a man-made god is like the man who made him. The sole explanation of
God, "who dwelleth in light which no man can approach unto," and who is
whiter than the light in which he dwells, is, he is not myth, man-made.
God made man, and revealed to him the Maker. Thus only do we explain
the surpassing picture the prophets and the Christ and the evangelists
have left us of the mighty God. Caliban will persist in the belief
that the visible system was created in Setebos's moment of being ill at
ease and in cruel sportiveness. Nature is a freak of a foul mind. But
Caliban's god is not solitary. How hideous were the Aztec gods! They
were pictured horrors. Montezuma's gods were Caliban's. Caliban's
Setebos was another Moloch of the Canaanites, or a Hindoo Krishna. And
the Greek and Norse gods were the infirm shadows of the men who dreamed
them. Who says, after familiarizing himself with the religions of the
world, that Caliban or his theology is myth? Setebos has no morals.
He has might. But this was Jupiter. Read "Prometheus Bound," and know
a Greek conception of Greek Zeus:
"Such shows nor right nor wrong in him,
Nor kind nor cruel: He is strong and Lord.
Am strong myself compared to yonder crabs
That march now from the mountain to the sea;
Let twenty pass and stone the twenty-first,
Loving not, hating not, just choosing so."
How hideous this god, decrepit in all save power! But for argument,
"He is good i' the main,
Placable if his mind and ways were guessed,
But rougher than his handiwork, be sure."
Caliban thinks Setebos is himself a creature, made by something he
calls "Quiet;" and what is this but the Gnostic notion of aeons and
their subordination to the great, hid God? No, this brief dramatic
lyric is far from being an imagination. Rather say it is a chapter
taken from the history of man's traffic in gods. Setebos is creative;
lacks moral qualities in that he may be evil or good; acts from spleen,
and by simple caprice; is loveless; to be feared, deceived, tricked, as
Caliban tricks Prospero,—so run the crude theological speculations of
this man. He gets no step nearer truth. He walks in circles. He is
shut in by common human limitations. Man can not dream about the sky
until he has seen a sky, nor can he dream out God till God has been
revealed. Caliban is no more helpless here than other men. His
failure in theology is a picture of the failure of all men. God must
show himself at Sinais and at Calvarys, at cross and grave and
resurrection and ascension; must pass from the disclosure of his being
the "I Am" to those climacteric moments of the world when he discovered
to us that he was the "I am Love" and the "I am the Resurrection and
the Life." God is
"Terrible: watch his feats in proof!
One hurricane will spoil six good months' hope,
He hath a spite against me, that I know,
Just as He favors Prospero; who knows why?
So it is all the same as well I find.
. . . So much for spite."
There is no after-life.
"He doth His worst in this our life,
Giving just respite lest we die through pain,
Saving last pain for worst—with which, an end.
Meanwhile, the best way to escape His ire
Is, not to seem too happy."
Poor Caliban, not to have known that in the summer of man's joy our God
grows glad! All he hopes is,
"Since evils sometimes mend,
Warts rub away and sores are cured with slime,
That some strange day, will either the Quiet catch
And conquer Setebos, or likelier he
Decrepit may doze, doze, as good as die."
This is tragic as few tragedies know how to be. Setebos is mean,
revengeful, fitful, spiteful, everything but good and noble; and his
votary will live to hope that he will either be conquered by a mightier
or will slumber forever!
So Caliban creates a god, a cosmogony, a theology; gets no thought of
goodness from God or for himself; gets no sign of reformation in
character; rises not a cubit above the ground where he constructs his
monologue; puts into God only what is in Caliban; has no faint hint of
love toward him from God, or from him toward God, when suddenly
"A curtain o'er the world at once!
Crickets stop hissing; not a bird—or, yes,
There scuds His raven that has told Him all!
It was fool's play, this prattling! Ha! The wind
Shoulders the pillared dust, death's house o' the move,
And fast invading fires begin! White blaze—
A tree's head snaps—and there, there, there, there, there,
His thunder follows! Fool to gibe at Him!
Lo! 'Lieth flat and loveth Setebos!"
And there, like a groveling serpent in the ooze, there lies Caliban,
abject in fear, with not a ray of love. Hopeless, loveless, see him
lie—a spectacle so sad as to make the ragged crags of ocean weep!
So pitiful a theology, yet no more pitiful than theologies created in
our own epoch. Men, not brutal but opinionated, assume to comprehend
all things, God included. They destroy and create theologies with the
flippant egotism of a French chevalier of the days of the Grand
Monarch. They settle matters with a "Thus it is, and thus it is not."
Would not those men do well to read the parable, "Caliban upon
Setebos?" Grant Allen and Huxley would be generously helped; for the
more they would lose in dogmatism, so much the more would they gain in
wisdom. And what is true of them is true of others of their
fraternity. This irony of Browning's is caustic, but very wholesome.
Barren as Caliban's theology is, certain contemporary theologies are
not less so. A day to suffer and enjoy—and then the night, long,
dark, dreamless, eternal!
How sane Browning was! What breadth of meaning is here disclosed!
What preacher of this century has preached a more inspired sermon than
"Caliban upon Setebos?" He saw the irrationality of rationalism. He
knew that knowledge of God came, as the new earth, "down from God out
of heaven." Men will do better to receive theologies from God than to
create them. A life we may live, having the Pattern "showed us in the
mount." Christ gives the lie to Caliban's estimate of Deity. Not
spite, nor misused might, nor caprice, nor life surcharged with either
indifference or spleen; but love and ministry and fertile thought and
wide devotion to others' good, an oblation of Himself—this is God, of
whom Caliban had no dream, and of whom the Christ was exegete.