Victorian Poetry 41.3 (2003) 333-347
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Two Interpolated Speeches in Robert Browning's A Death in the Desert
AOBERT BROWNING'S A DEATH IN THE DESERT, WHICH FIRST APPEARED IN THE collection Dramatis Personae, published in May 1864, is a poem of exceptional interest, intimately related to the intellectual life of its time. The date of composition is uncertain. Relatively long at 687 lines, the blank-verse poem consists largely of the spiritual last testament of the dying St. John, the evangelist and last surviving apostle. St. John's speech, intellectually dense and often extremely concentrated, almost elliptical in expression—together with introductory and concluding narrative passages in the person of the narrator-witness (who is probably, though not certainly, Pamphylax)—is presented as the contents of an ancient Greek parchment manuscript: the elaborate framing device is introduced in the opening parenthetical interpolation (ll. 1-12), enclosed in square brackets, in the person of the manuscript's early Christian owner. In A Death in the Desert Browning engages urgently, though always implicitly, with modern questions of religious belief and doubt—as contemporary readers and reviewers immediately recognized. The poem needs to be read in the context of the profound crisis of religious belief of the early 1860s, in which both the Essays and Reviews controversy 1 and the deeply disturbing intellectual influence of modern, mainly German, Biblical criticism played an important part. Browning attempts to "take on"—the phrasal verb, with its suggestion of energetic combativeness, seems peculiarly apt—and answer the various insistent, questioning voices of modern doubt and skepticism, including the Biblical critics, by reaffirming the inner spiritual truth of Christianity, the primacy of the individual spiritual life actively lived, and the essential "acknowledgment of God in Christ" (l. 474). 2 In the later partof his speech, with surprising severity, the apostle admonishes his followers of the terrible spiritual death that is the inevitable consequence of the intellectual rejection of God and God's love, a theme later picked up by the impersonal narrator in the last half-line of the concluding parenthetical interpolation, "But 't was Cerinthus that is lost" (l. 687). [End Page 333]
Much remains to be said about the intellectual background of A Death in the Desert, 3 particularly the religious and theological controversies with which Browning very deliberately engages: an obvious example is the extended discussion (ll. 443-473) in St. John's speech of miracles and the question of the cessation of miracles during the apostolic period, which needs to be seen clearly in relation to the vigorous contemporary debate on miracles, given new urgency by Baden Powell's essay "On the Study of the Evidences of Christianity" in Essays and Reviews. 4 Several specific influences have been insufficiently recognized or not at all. Browning's extremely bold choice of St. John as speaker was doubtless influenced by the fact that the Biblical critic David Friedrich Strauss, as well as several of his Tübingen contemporaries (notably the historical critic Ferdinand Christian Baur) 5 had attempted to disprove the apostolic authorship and authenticity of St. John's Gospel; Ernest Renan, whose Vie de Jésus appeared in June 1863 (Browning read the highly controversial book, with some distaste and bewilderment, in the following November), 6 strongly suggests that the Gospel is a deliberate fraud, though characteristically his position has about it a degree of evasive ambivalence. 7 The First Epistle of St. John, traditionally supposed to have been written by the apostle in extreme old age, provided a suggestive partial model, with its urgent warnings to believers about the "antichrists" who deny Christ's "truth." In A Death in the Desert "love" and "truth," both words that carry a special spiritual force in the Johannine writings—the First Epistle, indeed, largely turns on these two difficult concepts—are used with striking frequency and allusive deliberateness. The typically Johannine conception of the Incarnation, spiritual truth paradoxically assuming physical and compellingly human form in the historical Christ, is of central importance in the poem. The...