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 "new theology."

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 evil mind,

  "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, suppose

        "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.