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  • Robert Browning's Decoding of Natural Theology in “Caliban upon Setebos”
  • Stuart Peterfreund (bio)

In his letter of June 27, 1864, to Julia Wedgwood, Robert Browningreports on the following encounter:

Last night I was talking with a friend who read aloud a passage from Dr. Newman's Apology in which he says that "he is as convinced of the existence of God"—an individual, not an external force merely—"as of his own existence:" I believe he deceives himself and that no sane man has ever had, with mathematical exactness, equal conviction on those two points—though the approximation to equality may be in any degree short of that: and looking at the practical effects of belief, I should expect that it would be so: I can see nothing that comes from absolute contact, so to speak, between man and God, but everything in all variety from the greater or less distance between the two. When anyone tells me that he has such a conviction, I look at a beggar who holds the philosopher's stone according to his profession. Do you see the bearing of all this as I seem to see it? How, remaining beggars—or poor, at least—we may at once look for the love of those to whom we give our mite, though we throw it into the darkness where they only may be: fortunately the experiment on our faith is never a very long one. 1

The letter is interesting as an intervention in the nineteenth-century debate over the relation between ontology, objective knowledge, and religious belief. Browning is keenly aware of the not very subtle anthropomorphism that underwrites the postulation of a personate deity whose attributes as an individual are both knowable and known, not to mention the solipsism of such a postulation. Browning here seems aware of how arguments such as Newman's can be appropriated, taken out of context, and used on incursions into the scientific sphere to justify the enterprise of natural theology, even if Newman's argument for the existence of God is not being used for that purpose in the passage under discussion.2 No later than The Usefulness of Natural Philosophy, [End Page 317] the first volume of which appeared in 1663, Robert Boyle argues that "the knowledge of the works of God proportions our admiration of them, they participating and disclosing so much of the inexhausted perfections of their author, that the further we contemplate them, the more footsteps and impressions we discover of the perfections of their Creator, and our utmost science can but give us a juster veneration of his omniscience."3

The sentiments of Browning's contemporary Robert Chambers are, if anything closer to Newman's than Boyle's are. In his Explanations: A Sequel to "Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation" (1846), Chambers, like Newman, expresses his conviction of the existence of God and states further the belief that his understanding of the very nature of his own existence offers an insight into the nature of God. "But yet the faith may not be shaken, that that which has been endowed with the power of godlike thought, and allowed to come into communion with its Eternal Author, cannot be truly lost. The vital flame which proceeded from him at first returns to him in our perfected form at last, bearing with it all good and lovely things, and making of all the far-extending Past but one intense Present, glorious and everlasting."4

Browning's Caliban argues along lines not very different from those ascribed to Newman and those mobilized by Boyle and Chambers, if only to show the limits and ultimate irony of any attempt to express such convictions. According to Clyde de L. Ryals, "in 'Caliban upon Setebos' Browning deals with the Higher Critics' thesis that God is created in the image of man and with the natural theologians' claim that the character of God can be derived from the evidences of nature."5 But if Browning will implicitly have none of the argument from design from the monstrous and self-satirizing speaker of "Caliban upon Setebos," of which the subtitle is "Natural Theology in the Island," he...