- Simian, Amphibian, and Able: Reevaluating Browning’s Caliban
“Caliban upon Setebos; or, Natural Theology in the Island” from Browning’s 1864 Dramatis Personae features notoriously difficult language, its lines primal, curt, and agrammatical but also linguistically dense, rich, and lush. The poem begins with striking consonance and alliteration, the snarled utterances of wl sounds marking the opening two words:
’Will sprawl, now that the heat of day is bestFlat on his belly in the pit’s much mire,With elbows wide, fists clenched to prop his chin.1
“Heat” “best,” “flat” “belly,” “much mire,” and “clenched” “chin,”—all condensed within the span of three lines—fling forward from the abrupt and energetic double verbs that kick off the poem: “’Will sprawl.” This manner of speech goes on to vex readers for the next three hundred lines, not only due to its jarring syntax but because of the very creature speaking these lines. Caliban is primitive but sophisticated, bestial but human-like. Scholars continue to grapple with the difficulty, “density,” and “dysfluency” of Browning’s poetic language in general, but “Caliban upon Setebos,” a whirlwind monologue conjuring up images of God and Nature, doubly challenges our reception of this monstrous and intriguing creature.2
An initial encounter with “Caliban upon Setebos” immediately beckons a reader to decide whether the poem’s prevailing mode is one of satire or sympathy, whether Caliban’s speech act is ultimately successful or incomprehensible. As Terrell L. Tebbetts maps out in his article “The Question of Satire in ‘Caliban upon Setebos,’” critical discussion of the poem has fallen along two axes. Some critics find the poem “investigative, non-judgmental, and non-satiric,” while others identify a cruel, sardonic approach in Browning’s depiction of a bestial creature and its obvious mental failures.3 For Tebbetts, “we can hardly miss the implication: Caliban is a kind of mock-artist, even a [End Page 381] mock-poet. . . . As we have seen, the god he makes fails to have any being outside Caliban’s own ego” (p. 380).4 For Norton editors James Loucks and Andrew Stauffer, however, Browning “converts . . . Shakespeare’s Caliban, all appetite and fancy, . . . deficient in reason and therefore ineducable, . . . from an object of loathing to a rational creature who elicits sympathy by his groping toward transcendence of his limited sphere.”5 In Annmarie Drury’s 2015 book Translation as Transformation, she recognizes Caliban as “an experimental literary creator.”6 For Isobel Armstrong, “Caliban’s thought represents a momentous effort of intellect.”7 But how generous can readers of Caliban be? Are Caliban’s rough speech and his bumbling attempt at religious philosophizing merely laughable? Or might we admire this primitive creature in his genuine attempt to strive toward God and higher “human” thought?
Browning’s opening image of Caliban lying belly flat in the slushy mire with lizards crawling about his body elicits a mixed reaction of fascination and repulsion from any reader. This whimsy and horror has both enchanted and disgusted audiences. Indeed, many Victorian readers found the Caliban of Browning’s poem offensive, particularly those of the religious and antievolutionary bent. Their displeasure stemmed not so much from the fact that Caliban seems a monstrous object himself but that he plays the role of artist and creator, conjuring up the images of deities named Setebos and the Quiet and thus attempting to imitate both the poet figure and God himself.8 How then might a reader distinguish between the imaginative creations of Caliban and that of Browning? Close reading immediately makes evident that we cannot so simply deem Browning as a successful artist and Caliban a failed one.
I propose here a restorative reading of the figure of Caliban by bringing together two useful theoretical approaches to Browning’s poems, those of new formalism and disability studies. In particular, I draw on Caroline Levine’s discussion of affordances and Lennard Davis’s concept of dismodernism to showcase the ways in which Caliban’s...