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  • "'Thinketh":Browning and Other Minds
  • Aaron Worth (bio)

Robert Browning's 1864 dramatic monologue "Caliban upon Setebos" has two distinctive features which many readers have, in the century and a half since its publication, found particularly noteworthy. The first is its detailed depiction of Caliban's attempts to render intelligible to himself the mind of the deity he fears—in essence, the unfolding of the poem's titular scenario. The second is its recording of his curious habit of shuttling between first- and third- person grammatical forms in reference to his own thoughts and behavior. Each of these aspects of the poem has engendered at least a minor critical literature in its own right: in his 1963 essay "Caliban's Mind," for example, John Howard explored the relationship between Browning's speaker's "construc[tion of] his Deity" and his "savage" incapacity for abstract thought, while as early as 1951 E.K. Brown, in a short piece entitled, straight-forwardly enough, "The First Person in 'Caliban upon Setebos,'" believed he had provided the definitive answer to the interpretive puzzle presented by his chosen subject.1

I would like to suggest that there is a way to view both of these cognitive phenomena exhibited by Browning's speaker (for as such do I mean to consider them) as two sides of the same coin—a move, I hasten to add, that is not offered merely as a sop to some Ockhamite deity of interpretive parsimony (by explicating, as it were, two hermeneutic birds with one stone) but, rather, because doing so, I believe, helps to illuminate what I see as a core thematic concern of the poem: namely, the conceptual "invention" of consciousness, as a property of both selves and others. As its title and epigraph—"Thou though-test that I was altogether such a one as thyself"—might be taken to indicate, Browning's poem is largely concerned with depicting Caliban's attempts to construct a "theory of mind"2—primarily for the purpose of understanding the thought processes (and likely behavior) of the fearsome divinity he seeks to appease, and secondarily to conceptualize the workings of other minds invoked within the poem: that of the more remote deity he calls "The Quiet," as well as a number of lesser, mostly bestial, minds (he is also, it may be worth noting here, given to nuministic or animistic attributions of intentionality to the inanimate world). The stakes for Caliban in his mindreading endeavor are significant, the powerful Setebos being "Placable if His mind and ways [End Page 127] were guessed,"3 and his chief cognitive tool for engaging in this guesswork, for generating a model of the god's consciousness, is analogy, as he imagines Setebos as a version of himself, extrapolating from his own embodied experience (wherein lies, of course, the poem's well-known critique of anthropomorphic "natural theologies").

Strikingly, however, at the same time that Caliban is working to construct models of other minds, he seems to be having trouble nailing down the conceptual forms proper to his own consciousness. Browning's speaker habitually describes his own activities—which are largely cognitive in nature—using pronouns (present or implied) and verb forms properly reserved for the representation of alterity. In effect, through the use of such forms as "'Conceiveth," "'Supposeth," "'Believeth," and the constantly repeated, almost litany-like, "'Thinketh," he presents the unfolding of his own consciousness as though recording the thought of another. While characteristically, and sometimes confusingly, referring to both himself and others as "He," however, Caliban does leaven the record of his consciousness with a sprinkling of first-person forms, switching between the two with lightning quickness ("As it likes me each time, I do: so He. / Well then, 'supposeth He is good i' the main...") (ll. 108-109). When E.K. Brown noted this odd vacillation over half a century ago, he suggested that most readers tended either to ignore this striking feature of the poem or mistake its true import, which he himself understood to inhere in Caliban's fitful attempts to deceive a deity he was certain could read his mind. Fearful of the possibility of Setebos's telepathic surveillance, Caliban thus...


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pp. 127-146
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