Simian, Amphibian, and Able: Reevaluating Browning's Caliban.
'Will sprawl, now that the heat of day is best Flat 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 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 physical form and the representation of his habitat engage a larger framework at play--one that embodies Browning's conceptions of poetic fulfillment and disappointment, ability and disability, imaginative power and corporeal strength. By paying attention to the positive aspects of Caliban's bodily presence, positioning, and power, I perform what I call a physical close reading to rescue Caliban from the most reviled of Browning's outcast dramatic monologists. This reading emphasizes Caliban's creativity, flexibility, and virtuosity, not simply through his verbal and imaginative power but from a corporeal perspective as well.
Caliban is generally viewed as a creature whose rhetorical pyrotechnics are fantastically impressive precisely because his physical condition is so wretched in comparison. In the readings that follow, I argue that Browning affirms Caliban's imaginative power not in spite of his corporeal mobility but hand in hand with his bodily movements, limited as they may be. By recasting his monstrosity and framing it apart from traditionally "ableist" perspectives, we can realize that Caliban's physical form is empowering in its own way. In fact, his harmony and synchronicity with the flora and fauna around him prove him to be a figure more in touch with his island and his surroundings, lending him a power and agency that emerge within a new formalist, disability, and ecocritical perspective. I accomplish such a reenvisioning of Caliban in several ways: first by anatomizing Caliban's corporeal experience in a close reading attentive to his bodily positioning and movements; and second, by restoring Browning's and Shakespeare's proper contextualization of Caliban not as a simian creature but as an amphibian one. Following this, I complement my analysis of "Caliban" by revisiting a shorter Browning lyric, "Amphibian," and subjecting it to similar analyses that focus on physicality over literary symbolism. Reading "Caliban upon Setebos" alongside "Amphibian" allows us to recognize shared patterns and priorities between Browning's dramatic monologue and lyric, placing the figures of Caliban and Browning, the poet-speaker, on surprisingly equal footing.
An Able Body and Its Affordances
Jason Rudy has remarked on "the astonishing physicality of Victorian poetics," and Browning's "Caliban upon Setebos" is a stunning example of how even a character of compromised mobility can maximize his corporeal potential. (9) It is here where conceptual distinctions in disability studies become useful in our reevaluation of Caliban's physical state. Disability studies marks the important distinction between two often-conflated terms: impairment and disability. While impairment is "the physical fact of lacking an arm or a leg," disability is "the social process that turns an impairment into a negative by creating barriers to access." (10) Thus, according to the British or social model, the notion of disability can be understood to be entirely contextual and contingent on one's environment. For instance, a person confined to a wheelchair is considered disabled in most public spaces, while an able-bodied mother with a stroller is not, even if both are equally unable to easily traverse a flight of stairs. However, a simple accommodation, the best example here being a ramp, allows both the person unable to walk and the mother to move independently, rendering them perfectly "able" within a universally designed space. In the chapter "The End of Identity Politics and the Beginning of Dismodernism," Lennard Davis advocates a recognition of our own inclusion in a generally shared state of dismodernism, in which "the ideal is not a hypostatization of the normal (that is, dominant) subject, but aims to create a new category based on the partial, incomplete subject whose realization is not autonomy and independence but dependency and interdependence.... The dismodernist subject is in fact disabled, only completed by technology and by interventions" (p. 241). (11) As Davis illustrates, the United States' population of aging baby boomers makes painfully clear that nearly every segment of our population can be considered disabled if not provided with the proper bodily care and medical adjustments, including eyeglasses, hearing aids, wheelchairs, and ramps. In fact, the Supreme Court's 1998 ruling to consider infertility as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act indicates that our entire population of aging women will eventually be deemed disabled.
Before the arrival of Prospero and other humans, Caliban is in no way disabled; other than his fear of rain, which renders him poorly adapted for stormy days on the island, he is an able body amid the Galapagos-like range of jays, beetles, newts, serpents, cuttlefish, sloths, and quails. Neither is Caliban's body impaired, objectively speaking; though he remains in one place for most of the poem, he can carry firewood back and forth and complete chores as needed. He suffers from no physical deficiency in the sense that his body functions well according to his species, and he no doubt mentally exceeds the capabilities of the other species on his island. However, the Victorian contexts of natural theology and Darwinism have imposed a discourse of unfitness on Caliban, casting him as a "thing of darkness," "natural man," "wild man," and "savage believer," suited only to be Prospero's slave. These characterizations of Caliban align at some level with each of the five disability conditions enumerated by the disability scholar Joseph Straus: deformity, mobility impairment, madness, idiocy, and autism. (12) Thus, particularly through the disabilities "type" of the wild man or natural man, one might consider Caliban at first glance as a disabled figure through his contextualizations in both Shakespeare's play and Browning's poem. (13)
The question of Caliban's artistic and linguistic ability or disability, success or failure, is undoubtedly rooted in our perception of his form and the reality of his physical situation. Caroline Levine's Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network calls for a broadening of new formalism to include patterns of sociopolitical experience as subjects worthy of literary study. Borrowing from design theory, Levine uses the term "affordance" to explain "the potential uses or actions latent in materials and designs." Simply enough, "A fork affords stabbing and scooping. A doorknob affords not only hardness and durability, but also turning, pushing, and pulling." However, forms may also have untapped uses and functions: "Designed things may also have unexpected affordances generated by imaginative users: we may hang signs or clothes on a doorknob, for example, or use a fork to pry open a lid, and so expand the intended affordances of an object." (14) Levine's emphasis on the potentiality of forms and structures blends well with Davis's ideas of dismodernism; together, these approaches encourage us to focus not on the lack or deformity in the figure of Caliban but on his unrecognized ability and potential instead. "Rather than asking what artists intend or even what forms do, we can ask instead what potentialities lie latent--though not always obvious--in aesthetic and social arrangements" (Levine, p. 6).
In the following readings, without denying Caliban's "materiality" and the truth of his bodily state, I demonstrate that this creature, in fact, is very able--not just through his astonishing power of speech, which nearly all of Browning's speakers share, but by using his bodily presence as well. Indeed, most of Browning's dramatic monologists speak from a physically static standpoint. The Duke of Ferrara mandates orders, standing before a curtained painting. The Bishop from Saint Praxed's Church pontificates from his deathbed. Caliban, on the other hand, engages corporeally with the lush scenery around him. His shorter limbs and un-water-resistant hide provide unexpected affordances, namely, a closer intimacy to his natural environment and a greater attunement to the cruelty of his overwatching gods. In a surprising reversal of our expectations, it is Caliban who seems to transcend stasis, using his physical form to predict and almost prophesy the future, effecting change.
But this is not to overstate the case, and I do not intend to argue that Caliban's body enjoys the affordances that Miranda's body, Prospero's wizardry, or Ariel's fluid, flying form might. Levine reminds us to recognize the capacities and limitations of materials: "Wood affords hard, durable structures. It does not afford fluid streams or spongy softness.... With affordances then, we can begin to grasp the constraints on form that are imposed by materiality itself. One cannot make a poem out of soup or a panopticon out of wool. In this sense, form and materiality are inextricable, and materiality is determinant" (p. 9). As ableist readers, our valorization of human figures such as the mighty Prospero and the angelic, airborne Ariel make us blind to Caliban's mobility. Through a physical close reading, paying attention to the corporeality and choreography of Caliban throughout the poem, we can home in on an analysis of the poem that emphasizes his ability to shape and move his environment, rather than simply lay supine and be acted on. I argue that this poem, when read through a disability studies and new formalist lens, showcases a powerful, linguistic thought experiment that is hinged on the realistic experience of physical limitation from beginning to end. (15)
"Caliban upon Setebos": A Physical Close Reading
"Caliban upon Setebos" is a nightmarish monologue in which every visionary projection is closely tied to earthly and corporeal consequences. The poem begins with Caliban sprawled out on the ground:
Flat on his belly in the pit's much mire, With elbows wide, fists clenched to prop his chin. And, while he kicks both feet in the cool slush. (11. 2-4)
Some critics read this positioning as a reflection of Caliban's lowly moral nature, his animalism and depravity. Armstrong recognizes parallels to the image of the prone Satan, chained belly down in Paradise Lost (p. 657). Also noteworthy, however, is Browning's allegiance to Caliban's piscine origin, which underscores the direct link between one's physical situation and visionary imagination. Splashing in cool slush to escape the day's heat, Caliban's mind-set is that of a fish in water, flapping away and lying belly down. Twenty-five lines later, Caliban conjures his first visual image and simile regarding Setebos, his god, with the analogy of the famous cold-water fish that swims into warm tropical regions. His visionary creation parallels his bodily positioning. Similarly, Caliban's following thought experiment of molding a bird from clay offers another example of imaginary creation predicated by his physical situation. Fifty lines later, Caliban lays not belly down but belly up, looking up at the sky, in order to think up his famous bird image: "Last, throw me on my back i' the seeded thyme, / And wanton wishing I were born a bird" (11. 73-74). Aided by the hallucinatory help of alcohol, "when froth rises bladdery" (1. 71), Caliban's imaginative moments all derive from his bodily state and his field of vision. Lying in a puddle leads Caliban to imagine fish, and gazing at the sky leads him to create birds. Even his depiction of drunkenness finds its source from the experience of his habitat. His bacchanalian line, "Drink up all, / Quick, quick, till maggots scamper through my brain" (11. 71-72), is a subtle reworking of his opening corporeal situation, in which he "feels about his spine small eft-things course, / Run in and out each arm, and make him laugh" (11. 5-6). What first happens to the body is then felt in the mind yet still in terms of bodily imagery, featuring tickling, physical amusement, and scurrying movement, where "maggots scamper" just as "eft-things course."
But Caliban's indebtedness to the corporeal might not just be evidence of his lowliness, as much as an admirable understanding of the inseparability between the visionary and the visual that Browning works to establish. Caliban's presentation of his own speech invites such a reading:
He looks out o'er yon sea which sunbeams cross And recross till they weave a spider-web (Meshes of fire, some great fish breaks at times) And talks to his own self, howe'er he please, Touching that other, whom his dam called God. Because to talk about Him, vexes--ha, Could He but know! and time to vex is now. (11. 12-18)
Caliban begins by gazing out into the sea and sky. The goal of his dramatic monologue, of "talk[ing] to his own self," is in effect to achieve a dialogue, talking to God. In his greater project of verbal eloquence and conceptual, creative thinking, Caliban attempts to fulfill the role of the prophetic poet. Yet this psychological feat of mental wrestling or intellectual "vexing" is described poignantly with the simple, understated verb of "touching." Reaching out toward God with all one's consciousness and rational capacity is the essential act of touching, yearning for nearness and contact in the most plain and physical terms. Caliban's monologue presents an effort of striving toward this touch, to overcome a literalized distance of separation. This mutuality of the physical and the spiritual lends a genuine groundedness to Caliban's greater aspirations of union and dialogue. We are moved to find that Caliban, who prioritizes corporeal touch and bodily comfort, can allude to "touching" Setebos, eliciting the emotional sense of affecting God through sympathetic and emotive reception. It is at these moments that we feel Caliban's power in harnessing the majesty of the base and the sublime, the physical and the imaginative.
Caliban's attempt to touch God, while simultaneously early and ethereal, also carries with it a sense of playfulness and jest. Merely five lines earlier, this motion of reaching and "touching" is introduced through the personification of his surrounding natural imagery, of creeping, touching, and tickling. As always, Caliban's attempts to play the prophet--to act as a creator, poet, or conjurer of images--reflect the bond to his earthly habitat. "And while above his head a pompion-plant, / Coating the cave-top as a brow its eye, / Creeps down to touch and tickle hair and beard" (11. 7-9). This breathtaking passage debuts the anthropomorphism that Caliban heavily employs throughout his monologue. While Harold Bloom cites the desolation of Caliban's isolation as an outcast in Shakespeare's The Tempest, Browning replaces this setting of stranded remoteness with a habitat that is teeming with natural life. In Browning, Caliban's island is not deserted, but rather rife with animal movement and lush with vegetation; we see scurrying lizards, flowers, pumpkin plants, fruits, bees, badgers, fish, ants, magpies, seabirds, blue jays, finches, hoopoes, quails, crabs, crickets, and grasshoppers. Clearly this setting of the island's natural fecundity has overtones of Darwin's Galapagos Islands and his cataloging of various species, but the presence of such overgrown natural life also mirrors the aesthetic of the grotesque, in which decorations and floral details produce a sense of overwhelming encroachment and crawling excess. (16) Indeed, Caliban's illustrations of this ever-encroaching nature express the eerie, unsettling violation of personal space. Caliban
feels about his spine small eft-things course, Run in and out each arm, and make him laugh: And while above his head a pompion-plant, Coating the cave-top as a brow its eye, Creeps down to touch and tickle hair and beard, And now a flower drops with a bee inside, And now a fruit to snap at, catch and crunch,--(11. 5-11)
The very trope of personification is fundamentally playful, vivifying a landscape that is otherwise bereft of dialogue or human action with voices and movement. Through this poetic device, Caliban basks in the ultimate, life-giving force of the poet, playing God himself by creating a veritable pantheon of memorable creatures with which to populate his habitat. Yet this playfulness in personification threatens to spill over into the grotesque: plants can become monstrous in their unnatural, avaricious rapacity, while birds can become vindictive by assuming jealous humans emotions. As such, the preceding passage appears both delightfully whimsical, as a testament to the novelty of Caliban's dynamic expression, and also frightening. We discover eyes and eyebrows where we would least expect and feel molested and discomforted by eerie verbs such as "creep" and "tickle." Such description of natural imagery, layered thick with human activity, recalls the aesthetic of the grotesque and its bombardment of overwrought decoration, piled layer upon layer. As in the detailed spires of Gothic cathedrals, etchings and design seem profuse and endless, providing a sense of overcrowding and busyness. Browning actualizes this effect through the heavy use of alliteration, in words such as "pompion-plant"; "coating," "cave-top," "creeps"; and "touch and tickle."
The delivery of Caliban's observations also bombard us in an unrelenting flow, as he unceasingly piles on layers of description: "And while above his head ... And now a flower ... And now a fruit ..." This depicts a nature that is healthy, lively, and thriving but with fecundity so great as to almost be suffocating, enclosing in on us in a threatening way. The heavy-handed presence of alliterative decoration and detail is further augmented by the presence of compound phrases, where two words do the work for which one would suffice, such as "pompion-plant," "cave-top" "touch and tickle," "hair and beard." These tautologies unnecessarily present both the general case (plant) and the specific (pompion) each time. "Tickle" is more descriptive than "touch"; "beard" is more specific than "hair." (17) In Caliban's overladen verbal expression, he exemplifies aspects of the rough and primitive as well as the meticulous and ornate.
For all Caliban's supposed baseness, he is able to effect this ornamental layering on small and large scales, from the level of the word to the sentence and beyond. Even the landscape of Caliban's vista is one of woven layers, piling metaphor upon metaphor:
He looks out o'er yon sea which sunbeams cross And recross till they weave a spider-web (Meshes of fire, some great fish breaks at times) And talks to his own self, howe'er he please, Touching that other, whom his dam called God. (11. 12-16)
Here, the sunbeams not only cross but "recross" again. Furthermore, the sunrays are metaphorized not once but three times. This figure of layering is simultaneously presented as sunbeams, a spiderweb, and meshes of fire. The intrusion of the great fish relocates the imagery from settings of sky, land, fire, and water. To describe a single image, four images and environments are simultaneously invoked, producing a heavy-handed excess of metaphor and the sensual bombardment of the reader. Caliban's hyperactive poetic imagination is constantly re-creating life and recasting habitats.
In Caliban's creation of god figures, he mirrors this technique of overlapping in his conception of not one god but two. For even above Setebos, there rules the "Quiet." This double authority ushers Caliban into the idolatry and paganism of worshiping multiple deities. Furthermore, the aesthetic of excessive layering can be seen as Caliban anthropomorphizes and allegorizes at the level of three different scales. While we saw earlier the way Caliban avidly anthropomorphizes elements of the island's natural landscape, his greater, overarching example of anthropomorphism is his manifestation of god as a humanoid figure named Setebos. Above these two layers, his allegory of the "Quiet" presents a figure that does not embody a human form but allegorizes a state of being. (18) Reaching farther back in time toward the originary moment, Caliban seems to hark back to a beginning point before language and the bustle of populated natural life, when silence and a single entity ruled the landscape. Still another god-like figure who rules over Caliban is Prospero, his master, enslaver, and bestower of language. Constantly crossing and recrossing, layering metaphor upon metaphor, or allegory upon anthropomorphisms, Caliban seems graced by the ability to physicalize his conceptualizations of the world around him. His crossings and recrossings and their endless proliferation of lively creation represent the collisions of forms that Caroline Levine draws attention to in Forms.
But the running joke of Caliban's thought experiment is that amid all this proliferation, he fails to create something separate from himself: it is clear that Caliban's depiction of a cruel Setebos is merely a reflection of his own cruel self. In this heretical act of creating God in half-man's image, Caliban has collapsed his scaffolds of metaphor into one of simple identity: the Quiet is Setebos is Caliban. Hence, the epigraph that Browning provides is an authoritative correction of that misformulation, a scolding of the wicked from Psalms 50:21: "Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such a one as thyself." This fundamental mistake of creation, lapsing into likeness and mimicry, is exemplified in Caliban's constant use of extended analogy.
Mimicry and Aping: Not Simian but Amphibian
This assessment of Caliban as a failed artist deems him as a creature that can only mimic or ape at true creation, unable to truly create something original or new. Caliban's simian associations portray him as a monkey figure defined by all that it lacks, everything that the evolved homo sapiens is not. Indeed, a simple reading of Browning's poem is to consider Caliban as a kind of disabled monster who triumphs through verbal and pyrotechnics despite his physical abjection. But I insist that it is also all too reductive to attribute all the impressive poetical and structural turns of the character to Robert Browning, the brilliant poet, shining through the satirical character of his bumbling ape. As I will show, this sharp distinction between the speaker in a dramatic monologue (strictly separate from the poet figure) and the lyric speaker (conflated with the poet himself) should be called into question, for to Browning, they are one and the same, blended together.
In his chapter "Grotesque Renaissance" in The Stones of Venice, John Ruskin remarks on the difficulty of blending the degraded with the sublime, the cruel with the tender, the distorted with the natural. (19) While the "noble grotesque" can mingle opposites to achieve a regal effect, the "base grotesque" fails to do so, creating something lamentably monstrous and worthy of scorn. For the defining flaw of a monster is its inability to mingle and combine two natures in a productive way. This idea of Caliban as a grotesque monster has captivated the minds of many visual artists, such as William Hogarth and Henry Fuseli. (20) Critics who read Browning's poem against the historical contexts of emerging Darwinism and William Paley's "natural theology" tend to recognize Caliban as the supposed "missing link" between humans and our evolutionary ancestors. This has brought about caricatures of Caliban as an "ape man" or "wild man," whose image can be swayed to represent either the sophisticated savage or a detestable devil, the Jungian "shadow" and death itself. (21)
But although eighteenth-century painters and Victorian readers have appended the novelty of simian features onto the character of Caliban, in Shakespeare's original Tempest, and as Browning faithfully depicts in the muddy, damp setting of his poem, Caliban is not part ape but part fish. (22) His sorrowful fate stems from his unconvincing nature as any one, true creature. Trinculo asks in The Tempest, "What have we here? A man or a fish? Dead or alive?" (23) Caliban suffers because, like all monsters, his hybridity is a curse that renders him unfamiliar and unclassifiable. Possessing the physical features of a fish (fins for arms) only impedes his ability to do work and carry firewood. As John W. Draper further points out, Caliban still fears the water and hides underneath his gabardine cloak when it begins to rain. (24) As a crossover creature, he can thrive neither at sea nor on land. Being half piscine and half humanoid has no adaptive advantages for Caliban; rather, his corporeal state outcasts him to social displacement and isolation. Thus, Caliban's utter fear of the storm shows his fear of punishment and of Prospero's wrath. Underlying these constructs of authority and slavery is his primary instinct for survival and physical well-being. (25)
In Browning's rendering of Shakespeare's creature, Caliban's corporeal injustices play out on various levels. His anatomical fusion of two natures, man and fish, does not help him to strive or survive in two habitats but rather renders him homeless, not even fit for one. The biological unfitness that Caliban suffers plays out in his singularity as the sole member of his species. He has no companionship or identification with other species of his kind; nor can he reproduce. This physical fact of difference lies at the heart of his isolation and ostracism. Hence, his appalling attempt at raping Miranda to people the island with "little Calibans" becomes the reason for his punitive servitude under Prospero. Prospero and readers alike cannot fathom that Caliban might triumph against his monstrous, sterile nature and establish himself as a fit, reproducing organism.
As a solitary life form without companionship among God's creatures, Caliban becomes a natural and easy prey to communal scorn. But the bitter irony of Caliban's plight makes him the fool or monster of the play, when in fact he is the only true native of the island. (26) While Prospero and the shipwrecked royals invade the island, they marginalize Caliban, take over his land, and redefine him as an anomaly of that environment. This has given rise to many colonialist readings, in which Browning's speaker figures as an eloquent native delivering an impassioned speech of revolt against imperial captors, addressing a God who is his slave master, and serving human slave masters who may have a connection to God. (27) But it also reminds us that in addition to robbing Caliban of his habitat, the intruding Europeans also violently impose their ableist worldviews, holding Caliban to a standard of mobility and expectations of human form that we, as readers, unwittingly share. (28) Sterility, limited movement of the limbs, and an aggressive sexual appetite all correspond to stereotypes of the autistic, idiotic, or wild man types in historical representations of disabilities. An ablest reader evaluates the world along a hierarchy of forms, ranking bodies according to a spectrum of mobility, beauty, and closeness to an ideal human type. Caliban's various configurations throughout literature and art as half man, fish-like or ape-like, have each lent him an air of monstrosity and debility rather than one of completeness and perfection, in the dismodernist sense.
The antithesis of the monster, and its positive counterpart, is the amphibian. It traverses habitats and succeeds in mastering two worlds. For Browning, the figure of the amphibian represents achieving beyond one's lot in nature, for mastering the impossible, for striving. While monsters incur antipathy and revulsion, amphibians evoke admiration. As humans, we emulate the amphibian, always hoping to breathe underwater or live on the moon. Thus, our persisting question can be posed in various ways: How do Caliban and Browning mingle sympathy and satire, the amphibian and the monstrous, the disabled and the able? Interrupting the extended close reading of "Caliban upon Setebos," I now turn to a very different poem that shares much of the vertical imagery found in the dramatic monologue. I shift the traditional discourse of disability by inverting this focus of physical limitation and applying it to a poem that opens up fruitfully by entertaining considerations of ability/disability, Browning's lyric "Amphibian."
"Amphibian" Success and Poetic Union
"Amphibian" is a poem that Browning composed after the passing of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1861. (29) It is a poem that highlights striving by demonstrating the upward, ambitious grasp toward a "good moment" of union between the speaker and his departed wife. To overcome the separation between the dead and living, manifested as the vertical distance between heaven and earth, sky and ground, Browning poses the potential solution of substitution. He can effectively place himself within his wife's habitat of heaven by achieving an equal feeling of buoyancy in the sea: "why, just / Unable to fly, one swims!" (11. 47-48). Yet such an amphibious tactic expressed with such flippancy does not escape its monstrous counterparts quite so easily; as with most binaries, the fantasy of adaptability and survival in two habitats portends fearful danger as well. Browning captures both this celebration and caution in his exclamatory opening stanza:
The fancy I had today, Fancy which turned a fear! I swam far out in the bay, Since waves laughed warm and clear. (11. 1-4)
Here, fear and fancy unexpectedly coexist, intensified by the threat and surprise of underlying change. The startling transformation of "Fancy" into "fear" seems to herald the personification of waves that ensues two lines later. As a counterpoint to the playful abab rhyme and the relaxed, singsong trimeter of the verse, the possibility of shadowy, grotesque monstrosity lurks beneath. Fancy might suddenly morph, from plain "fancy" to "Fancy" (capitalized, allegorized, vivified) to "fear," while the gleeful waves might evoke a threatening, maniacal laughter from which a lone swimmer has no recourse. The jarring disjuncture between the rhymes "fear" and "clear" presents latent discord under the guise of harmony. This is not simply a comforting children's ballad of pure "noon-disport" but a serious, adult story of striving.
In this poem, the philosophy of amphibianism is employed in two ways. First, the speaker survives on both land and water. Next, the speaker calls for a collapsing of habitats that is far more biologically implausible, traversing both water and sky. (This imaginative impetus is something that both the speaker of "Amphibian" and Caliban share.) This latter case of attempted amphibianism requires a leap of faith, imagination, or fancy. By soliciting us to take this poetic leap, Browning hopes that the speaker's imaginative flexibility will in turn lend him physical versatility. This second instance of amphibianism contains an element of simultaneity. Swimming and flying effectively become one and the same action, unified in Browning's ultimate claim of convergence. This version of amphibian substitution is at its heart the very trope of metaphor itself. It enacts conflation and replacement, bridging distinct habitats such as sea and sky by simply equating them.
This metaphorizing impetus implies a disavowal of the simile, a form that offers weaker comparison through mere likeness and similitude. Discontent with the proximity offered in a statement of simile such as "Swimming is like flying" or "A bird is as good as a fish," Browning's speaker demands much more than nearness; he wants union. In this poem, metaphor trumps the simile, favoring statements of overlap such as "Swimming is flying" and "A bird is a fish." The idealized "good moment" becomes, then, the moment within a poem when such a metaphor is uttered and upheld.
Emancipate through passion And thought, with sea for sky, We substitute, in a fashion, For heaven--poetry. (11. 53-56)
Substitution, metaphor, and poetry itself offer freedom from corporeality and enable the speaker to transcend any separation from his wife. Hope, love, and reunion, all enabled by the optimistic device of the metaphor, engender union and triumph over physical obstacle.
However, the good moment does indeed end, and Browning soon depicts this disintegration of illusory metaphor. Closer inspection of the poem's ending reveals that the "Amphibian" does not indicate an optimistic avowal of union at all; instead, the physical unreality of the flying-swimming metaphor takes over. As readers swept up in the "good moment" and power of metaphor, we are distracted from the glaring errors in those simple statements, "Swimming is flying" and "A bird is a fish." We are too enamored of the speaker's visionary genius, recognizing the creative, prophetic features identified of the "subjective poet" in Browning's Essay on Shelley. (30) Ultimately, the speaker's vision is brought back down from the clouds in the final stanzas, as he recognizes his poetry as mere illusion and impossibility. Here, he takes on the sobering perspective of an objective or visual poet who reports the world as he sees it.
Whatever they are, we seem: Imagine the thing they know; All deeds they do, we dream; Can heaven be else but so? ............... Land the solid and safe-- To welcome again (confess!) When, high and dry, we chafe The body, and don the dress. (11. 61-65, 69-72)
It becomes painfully clear that the physical truths in the world determine and limit our habitats. To humans, only land is solid and safe; we admittedly seek refuge on land ("confess!") when "we tire or dread the surge" (1. 68). We are in fact left "high and dry" in any habitat that is not land. The speaker's earlier, romantic language of union and identification now expresses difference and incongruity; he cannot share experiences with his wife but instead undergoes a baser version of them. Interestingly, heavenly life is marked by substance and earthly action (they know, are, and do), while the speaker's world is marked by intangible ethereality (we imagine, seem, and dream). This knowledge yields a perspective in which heaven is manifest not as a visionary, mystical realm of disembodied higher conceptions but as a space grounded in the physical realities of the human body and life on earth.
Does she look, pity, wonder At one who mimics flight, Swims--heaven above, sea under, Yet always earth in sight? (11. 73-76)
The poem ends with an emphasis on the visual and actual, on what can clearly be seen in plain "sight." The dead beloved's field of vision is far-ranging and accurate: she "looks" across the full range of view, recognizing "heaven above, sea under," and the earth, which stands irrefutably lodged between the two. In practical, visual terms, the physical obstruction of earth is an inevitable presence that cannot be eradicated. Separation between heaven and sea is a tangible, undeniable construct, just as being safe on solid land is admittedly a great relief; it is actually in the sea or flying in the air that a human being would be left "high and dry," not on land. Here, Browning's visionary flight is debunked as mere mimicry, a harsh reality that denies amphibian success and announces the failure of metaphor as union. This stinging realization of mimicry deflates any heroic attainment of "the good moment" and sadly demotes metaphor to a relationship even lower than simile. Swimming is not like flying; it imitates it, invoking connotations of incapability and unoriginality.
The speaker's somber epiphany, falling from the visionary to the visual, is facilitated by both the physical impossibility of such a union and the perspective of a higher, overwatching figure. The turn at the end of the poem is insisted on by a realistic, objective vision of the speaker's wife, a figure perched up in heaven that presumably watches without the ability to hear Browning's words. Unable to hear or read Browning's metaphor, she can only make a visual assessment of his endeavors; and though she might pity Browning and look down from above, she is not an omniscient or Godly figure. In this poem, Elizabeth Barrett Browning seems coldly pragmatic, incapable of interpreting symbolism or metaphor through images. Browning's physical realities limit him from approaching her, and this materiality of his form outweighs any imaginative potential on his part. At the same time, however, it is important to keep in mind that this portrait of Barrett Browning is told from Robert Browning's perspective. Thus, the imagined interjection of Barrett Browning's vision is not a moment of surveillance from above but one of self-consciousness. The speaker seems awfully aware that his actions play out a pantomime show for his wife, and his curious conception of her as an onlooker and not an eavesdropper relegates him to markedly unpoetic territory. By the end of "Amphibian," the poet, or attempting metaphor maker, is disabused of any lofty aspirations of the subjective poet and brought back down to the human, physical level of the objective and visual image, to his form, its limitations, and its (dis)abilities. This reinforces Lennard Davis's notion of dismodernism, in which even an able-bodied figure such as the poet-speaker Robert Browning is rendered objectively disabled within a given context.
"Caliban" Revisited: Metaphor, Simile, Sky, and Sea
To return to "Caliban upon Setebos" and consider the ending of this difficult poem, we can see how reading this dramatic monologue alongside the lyric "Amphibian" yields fruitful comparisons. Caliban began his monologue envisioning sky and sea, conjuring up fish and bird, and his speech act is an effort of striving to touch a higher being, to overcome a distance of separation on both horizontal and vertical scales. In both poems, limitation of physical form finds bearing on one's ability or disability to transcend ideological realities through poetic creation: affordances are auspicious, but materiality is a sobering fact and limitation. In both poems, the plight of the mock-artist and his disappointment in the failure of poetic consummation are figured in terms of physical inability and impairment. Meanwhile, poetic success is expressed through amphibian and imaginative yearnings. Just as Browning does with the lyric speaker of "Amphibian," he allows Caliban to experiment with the concepts of metaphor and simile.
In "Caliban upon Setebos," our primitive monologist lays out what Armstrong identifies as the "seven theses" that constitute the complete vision of his God. Each one of these ends with a similar construction indicating likeness: "So He." The peculiarity of Caliban's syntax, which lends his similes a primitive or bestial-sounding flavor, is in part due to the order of his sentence constructions. A simple, standard simile presents its tenor first, then compares it to a newly conjured vehicle: "God is like a cold-water fish that seeks warmer waters for change." Within this structure, the main subject of exploration (or target) takes precedence, occurring first in the sequence, while a newly conjured object of approximate likeness (or source) comes second, as a point of comparison. For Caliban, however, his target and object of investigation always comes last. He begins his thought not with an idea of God but with what he observes around him. The result is the formation of passages in which God appears trailing after an elaborate sequence of imagery, thrust in at the end as a recurrent afterthought. But rather than construe this vehicle-tenor formulation as backward, one might recognize this sequence in a much more sophisticated and poetic form, one familiar from Homer and Milton. In Caliban's construction of what is effectively an epic simile, his observations of natural life dominate over ten lines of description, with the tenor squeezed into the space of the final word:
'Hath spied an icy fish That longed to 'scape the rock-stream where she lived, And thaw herself within the lukewarm brine O' the lazy sea her stream thrusts far amid, A crystal spike 'twixt two warm walls of wave; Only, she ever sickened, found repulse At the other kind of water, not her life, (Green-dense and dim-delicious, bred o' the sun) Flounced back from bliss she was not born to breathe, And in her old bounds buried her despair, Hating and loving warmth alike: so He. (11. 33-43)
This eleven-line unit indicates an imaginative world teeming with natural activity and life. What is more, this use of epic simile places Caliban among a pantheon of epic poets, the only difference from Homer's constructions being that here, the second half, following the arrival of the tenor, is quickly cut off without any further elaboration: "so He." These epic formulations cast Caliban in a particularly heroic light. (31)
But the sudden cadence at the arrival of God's mention also indicates Caliban's creative limitation: that his prolific, linguistic flow, best when fueled by his surrounding natural habitat, is cut short when he is faced with the abstract conceptualization of God. As a monologist or speech maker, his inspiration is rooted in physical realities. Following the plot embedded within this long simile, we are presented with a complete story of thwarted amphibianism and the inability to thrive equally in two habitats. This concise, animalistic bildungsroman makes it difficult for any auditor of Caliban's speech to believe that each "thesis" corresponds to any conception of Setebos per se; instead, Caliban seems to get carried away in his captivating descriptions and subplots of natural life, only to equate this afterward with what Setebos speculatively "must" be like. Caliban's similes stem from observations, beginning with what he "hath spied"; Setebos is created from what Caliban sees, not what he invents. As Kenneth MacLean has observed, Caliban's unprogressive thought is "rigidly causal and at the same time perversely uncreative" (p. 9). If Caliban is unsuccessful on the conceptual level at fathoming God as a separate entity, he contents himself with creativity at the literal level. In this digressive simile, he employs his signature of profuse alliteration with phrases such as "twixt two warm walls of wave," "back from bliss she was not born to breathe ... bounds buried," and "spike ... she ... sickened." As usual, they reveal the pleasure he derives from physical utterance, from jests and play of the tongue. In creating compound units such as "green-dense and dim-delicious," Caliban displays his delight in the formation of new things, yoking two words together to produce something new. Creation is purely a physical enterprise for a creature like Caliban, and any chance of "touching" God must come from the physical utterance of speech itself.
The recurring endings of Caliban's various similes rely on a strict grammar of mandate and equation: "So He." This construction, most often accompanied by a colon, echoes the commanding tone of the Bible, instilling a demand for obedience and obviating explanation. These two words imitate God's speech and seem to betray Caliban's speech as imitation or ventriloquism. As posited by Julie Crawford in her reading of Paradise Lost, book 3, the presence of a colon indicates the authorial voice of God, while the Son communicates primarily through semicolons, revealing his role as the mediator and intercessor between man and God. (12) Crawford puns on God's "sovereign sentence"; He determines when lines begin or end; His words dictate absolute definition; He determines punishments and judgments with the authority of the colon. Caliban borrows this construction of the sovereign sentence, creating a god in his own image, while simultaneously usurping the language of a Judeo-Christian God. Each successive example of Caliban's creativity and poetical description ends identically, seven times in total, with divine mimicry at the grammatical level. As in "Amphibian," metaphor shows true fulfillment of a poetic ideal (A = B, the tenor is simultaneously both A and B), while simile shows mere likeness or mimicry, always lacking perfection (A is like but not quite B).
The first two of Caliban's theses echo the amphibian yearnings of Browning that we saw in the poem "Amphibian." The first tells the story of a fish, while the second tells of a bird, or "little Caliban," that he molds from clay. In these fictions, Caliban compromises each creature's fitness to survive in its habitat. The freshwater fish, though hoping to enjoy warm waters, finds itself unadaptable or unfit, just like the speaker in "Amphibian." The "icy fish" not only thrives in cold waters but takes on the characteristics of ice; it no longer seems alive when described as "a crystal spike 'twixt two warm walls of wave." (33) The fish becomes an icicle itself, represented as a sharp weapon suggesting cold and violence. It takes on an unexpected affordance, form, and materiality through Caliban's imagination; it transcends disability through transformation. Next, Caliban's image of the bird begins endearingly as a moment of engendering his own offspring but quickly takes a turn toward violence and cruelty as well. If the bird loses a leg by accident, Caliban will not repair it but make a monster of it instead; as punishment for crying, Caliban will give it three legs or none at all.
Last, throw me on my back i' the seeded thyme, And wanton, wishing I were born a bird. Put case, unable to be what I wish, I yet could make a live bird out of clay: Would not I take clay, pinch my Caliban Able to fly?--for, there, see, he hath wings, And great comb like the hoopoe's to admire, And there, a sting to do his foes offence, There, and I will that he begin to live, ........................ In which feat, if his leg snapped, brittle clay. And he lay stupid-like,--why, I should laugh; And if he spying me, should fall to weep, Beseech me to be good, repair his wrong, Bid his poor leg smart less or grow again,-- Well, as the chance were, this might take or else Not take my fancy: I might hear his cry, And give the mankind three sound legs for one, Or pluck the other off, leave him like an egg, And lessoned he was mine and merely clay. Were this no pleasure, lying in the thyme, Drinking the mash, with brain become alive, Making and marring clay at will? So He. (11. 73-97)
It becomes clear that Caliban's delight in physical formation becomes inseparable from his delight in destruction. This maker's original creativity of "wanton wishing" soon becomes wanton violence. His fanciful imagination becomes mere fancy and whim. Speaking apathetically with cruel enjambment, Caliban will do whatever he wishes: "this might take or else / Not take my fancy." Even his signature alliteration of jest and play shows utter disregard: Caliban moves from "pleasure," basking in the internal rhyme of "lying" and "thyme," to a total lack of differentiation between "making and marring."
That Caliban would confuse making with marring clay demonstrates the fine line between physical crafting and distorting. We might view this third leg either as an excrescence or deformity or as an extra asset or with its own added affordances. Here, creation and punishment, excess and lack, are muddled in a mode of thinking in which, like disability, the meaning or value of this extra leg is completely contextual and can alter at a moment's notice. Caliban's verbs of creation are fraught with both violence and playfulness. He will "pinch" his baby Caliban able to fly, with the strange sense that inflicting pain will improve its skills of flight rather than impede them. Meanwhile, he will "pluck off' the bird's legs, just as he plucks the feathers of the poor screeching blue jay. Plucking and pinching work in several ways; they contain within them both the playful impetus that "teasing" and "vexing" have, while insinuating also undertones of violence. They also invoke the work of an artist, forming and crafting an aesthetic object with tools of precision, as a sculptor pinches details onto his or her work or meticulously plucks off unwanted ornamentation. Overall, however, Caliban's uneasy muddling of making art and giving life results in unprogressive, unevolutionary change: he creates a bird, only to injure it, deform its shape, and render it an egg, the primitive, originary shape of a bird.
But even as a cruel maker, Caliban does not hold total authority, and though he adopts the grammar and entitlement of the sovereign sentence, he is far from omnipotent. For all the suffering and havoc he can wreak on other creatures, Caliban is aware of his own vulnerability. The opening of Caliban's speech and his entire display of verbal freedom are predicated on his physical well-being, ensured by good weather and the fact that he can escape the gaze of others. He begins speaking, "now that the heat of day is best," carefully choosing to speak only during the daytime, on a sunny summer's day, when he knows Setebos will not punish him with the harsh ice storms of winter or the bitter cold of nighttime (1. 27):
Because to talk about Him, vexes--ha, Could he but know! and time to vex is now, When talk is safer than in winter-time. Moreover Prosper and Miranda sleep In confidence he drudges at their task, And it is good to cheat the pair, and gibe, Letting the rank tongue blossom into speech. Setebos, Setebos, and Setebos! 'Thinketh, He dwelleth i' the cold o' the moon. (11. 17-25)
Our God-fearing and rain-fearing Caliban lives under an oppressive sense of surveillance, where not only Setebos, Prospero, and Miranda but even the bird he creates may "spy" on him. It is notable that Caliban does not think the clay bird will "see" him but "spy" him, just as Setebos might "catch" him, the Quiet might "catch" Setebos, or Caliban must "cheat the pair" of Prospero and Miranda. The sense of shame, guilt, and furtive wrongdoing fraught in Caliban's speech situates himself in a panoptical world, where any authority of creation in his role-playing of God is paradoxically undermined. Every new creature that Caliban describes or invents is not an underling at his service but another pair of eyes to monitor and judge him. Indeed, Caliban's natural setting is one that is verdant and thriving but full of discord. We realize that there is no privacy to be had, when even the blowing of air through a reed instrument (a depraved Aeolian harp) sounds like the painful screech of a battered blue jay and signals to the little birds that despise her to fly over and rejoice (11. 117-121).
As we see in this opening speech, Caliban's foray into poetry and philosophy depends on the fact that Prospero and Miranda are sleeping and that Setebos too is otherwise preoccupied and cannot hear his speech or wreak the proper penalty. Caliban understands the potential of being listened in on and fears bodily punishment if found out. This heightened consciousness, his awareness of physical consequences from the wrath of others, lends him the attentiveness of a seasoned stage actor, fit to perform in a play like The Tempest. Not only does he heed temporal restraints of the seasons and weather, hoping to end his speech before being cut off by the storm of an angry God or Prospero, but he also adopts in his speech the structure and organization of a conscientious thespian and playwright. An introduction from lines 1 to 23 is demarcated by the brackets, in which Caliban must whisper and gather up the fortitude to imagine his God. This opening section sets the scene and defines his project, providing the backdrop of a lush natural setting and alerting us that the characters of Prospero and Miranda are offstage, sleeping. The creative body of the poem begins with line 24 then, when Caliban seems to rise up erect from his prone position of wallowing in the mud and histrionically heralds his soliloquy with the rousing line, "Setebos, Setebos, and Setebos!" Finally, after working through his "seven theses" of philosophy and logic, Caliban senses that danger is approaching and that his stage time is coming to an end. Lines 284 to 295 provide yet another bracketed section that concludes his dramatic speech, where Caliban signals for himself to draw the curtain in a timely fashion: "[What, what? A curtain o'er the world at once!" (1. 284). For all his base instincts and primitive images of violence, Caliban does not get carried away in spiritual ascendance; instead, the fear of physical punishment and angry authority keeps his eye on the clock. His sense of planning and timing offers the poem more structure than we are accustomed to in a dramatic monologue. Caliban's fear of others grants his monologue the form of a Shakespearean drama, complete with prologue, play, and epilogue. (34)
Caliban's consistent awareness of being watched and overheard, a distinctive addition to his poetic character, is manifested in his use of the third person "he." (35) As Loucks and Stauffer annotate in the Norton edition of the poem, the abrupt opening line that begins the poem indicates "that he (Caliban) will sprawl, since Caliban usually refers to himself in the third person. The brackets [at the start of key sections] indicate that Caliban is pondering silently or perhaps whispering" (p. 293). In general, the apostrophe in "'Will sprawl" indicates a substitution of the pronoun "he," which Caliban uses to refer to himself. For many readers, this lack of language to express the self as "I" confirms Caliban's lowly nature, comparing his underdeveloped self-consciousness to that of a child (Brown, p. 394). Such grammatical abnormalities and the ambiguous use of pronouns align him with traditional regimes of representation for disabled subjects, including those of madness, idiocy, or autism. Tropes of idiocy include the wild child or natural man, who is brutish and primitive; the eugenic idiot, who is childlike but sexually dangerous; and the autistic subject, whose speech is defined by his or her repetition, aloneness, and sameness of expression. (36) Yet Caliban's use of pronouns may be more complex and subtle than generally considered. E. K. Brown suggests in Modern Language Notes that the lowercase "he," referring to Caliban, is strictly distinct from the capitalized "He," which refers to Setebos (p. 392). Moreover, the many lines beginning with apostrophe, "'Thinketh ...' Say ... 'Hath," describe Caliban thinking and saying things himself while also inviting the auditor to think along the same lines. This creates a joint effort of spontaneous wonderment and investigation.
Caliban will often switch into the first person to heighten the drama and impart moments of heightened awareness. Brown maps out the passages in which Caliban converts to the first person, when he speaks of Miranda as "my wife" and exposes his fears "about something that he very intimately cares about, physical happiness" (p. 394). These passages display an increased boldness on Caliban's part, unfolding a drama "in which there is a slow rise towards thinking oneself as great as one's god and a sudden fall to groveling as a slave before that god" (p. 395). Use of the first-person "I" here indicates a confident recognition of the self, while falling back to the third-person mode of "he" shows Caliban's subservience to the God he has created. With regard to linguistic ability, Caliban's utterances may not meet the standards of a traditional grammar assessment. But all his confutations and obfuscations of personal pronouns belie the complicated sense of social relations and self-awareness that Caliban works his way through, as Browning did in "Amphibian."
Responding to Levine's call to pay closer attention to the collisions of forms, of "forms encountering other forms," I have chosen to juxtapose "Caliban upon Setebos," a dramatic monologue, with one of Browning's most personal lyrics, "Amphibian," reading the poems not against each other but in conjunction. Both poems share the same shapes, patterns, and principles, namely, the idea of fulfilling a metaphoric ideal, disappointment in its failure, disability or inability to reach that "good moment," and most of all, the hope of transcending physical challenges, especially across horizontal and vertical spaces. Although the advantage of a dramatic monologue is that it allows the poet to adopt a separate persona and depart from the unified identity of the speaker-poet, the parallels that appear in "Caliban" and "Amphibian" reinforce the commonalities along a spectrum that formally links the dramatic monologue and lyric. Herbert Tucker recognizes the fallacy of the lyric-dramatic monologue binary when he evaluates the rise of the Victorian dramatic monologue not as a turn away from the Romantic, lyrical "I" but rather as an extremification of it: "Browning's first monologists are, in brief, egotistical monomaniacs; as such, they represent in overblown caricature precisely the unconstrained lyrical 'I' whose private (and therefore sincere) utterances" Browning's readers were trained to read. (37) Levine reminds us that the forms and genres we distinguish "overlap and intersect"; they are fuzzy and messy (p. 4). What spaces do Browning's monologists inhabit, and what spaces might they share with his lyric speakers? Here, they share sky and sea, land and water, simile and metaphor. "Caliban" and "Amphibian" share at heart the same physical manifestations of poetic expression and striving.
Levine's notion of the portability of forms across contexts is amphibian in its very nature. Moreover, her appeal to read for social form and to insist on its political implications applies meaningfully here in several ways. The collision between disability studies and new formalism is itself a productive one, democratizing through equal comparison figures as dissimilar as Caliban and Robert Browning, or Setebos and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. At first, assessing Caliban's limited mobility and nonnormative speech patterns, one might conceive of Caliban as a disabled, monstrous creature, while viewing Browning as a supple, successful poet figure. Lennard Davis's dismodernism encourages us to break down these distinctions, recognizing the disability of the lyric speaker in "Amphibian" and the limitations he shares with Caliban in achieving poetic fulfillment.
Furthermore, when we think about the social forms and communities created within Browning's poems, we might reconsider how we assess the cast of characters from his major collections: Dramatic Lyrics (1842), Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845), Men and Women (1855), and Dramatis Personae (1864). We tend to cluster Caliban with other villains, outcasts, and monsters, treating the more infamous of Browning's monologists as villains wholly separate from those who earn our compassion and identification. As readers, we are more than eager to offer our sympathy to the lyric speaker of "Amphibian," poignantly exposed at his most vulnerable moment, dreaming upward of union with his overwatching wife. We might pause to consider, in our present-day world, with what readiness of sympathy or judgment we might approach characters from Browning's more infamous dramatic monologues: prisoners, former criminals, patients with mental illness, or persons with disabilities. Historically, we have approached these individuals and groups with mockery or scorn, expressly because they are presented to us within the space of a prison ward or in "madhouse cells." Dismodernism urges us to be self-conscious and critical of such assumptions based solely on constructs and formal presentation.
Similarly, the wide range of voices presented in these two Browning poems invites a reconsideration of how we vindicate particular forms of language over others, often upholding technical excellence over basic expression. The critical discord surrounding Caliban's speech resonates with ongoing ideological wars in English and composition departments across the country: an ELL (English-language learner) student's inability to master grammar does not render him or her incapable of higher thought; at the same time, nonstandard spelling and pronunciation place college students at a disadvantage in strict professional settings and may manifest themselves as a kind of disability, widening the achievement gap. Thus, a sympathetic reading of "Caliban upon Setebos" encourages an empathetic consideration of the poetic "other" and the accommodations we might extend to them more broadly, both in literature and in our world.
To conclude, I would like to suggest that "Caliban upon Setebos," in its formal structure, is a hybrid poem that embraces the notion of deformity or excrescence, especially considering the poem's ending:
If he caught me here, O'erheard this speech, and asked "What chucklest at?" ........................... [What, what? A curtain o'er the world at once! ........................ There scuds His raven that has told Him all! ........................ It was fool's play; this prattling! Ha! ... His thunder follows! Fool to gibe at Him! Lo! 'Lieth flat and loveth Setebos! (11. 269-292)
In "Amphibian," the speaker-poet Browning realizes his sobering physicality only at the end of the dream, ending his fantasy in almost a moment of retrospection or regret. Here, Caliban too realizes this is the end of his own monologue, bracing himself for Setebos's intervention by avowing his regret and fear. A move parallel to Browning's disavowal of the metaphor in "Amphibian," this heightened self-consciousness provides the self-canceling momentum that brings both poems to a halt. Caliban's inability to create an overwatching "Other," then, is not simply failure but a reaffirmation of the self-vigilance that is practiced by the speaker of "Amphibian." Due to this recognition of his poetic time line and the poem's conclusive structure, "Caliban upon Setebos" is not, then, a strict dramatic monologue but rather some amphibian version of it, something more akin to the lyric. A true dramatic monologist cuts off his speech in the midst of his "good moment," unable to entertain the notion that it might ever come to an end.
The "good moment" thus becomes a gold standard for arrival and achievement in the poetry of Robert Browning, symbolizing metaphoric union, poetic success, amphibious crossings, and the intimacy of love shared between two individuals. Daniel Karlin, in "Browning's Poetry of Intimacy," has shown how the relation between lovers in Browning's poems "passionately excludes other kinds of relation, seeing them as intrusion or threat." (38) In poems such as "By the Fire-Side," "Love among the Ruins," and "Two in the Campagna," exclusion and isolation are a necessary component to achieving true union between the couples. Though certainly no love lyric, "Caliban upon Setebos" shares with these poems the potentiality of achieving, withholding, or controlling the arrival of the good moment, in both poetic fulfillment and personal connection.
Straddling the fine line between failure and success, of obtaining or falling short of that good moment, thus marks the messy and fuzzy overlapping and intersections between the forms of dramatic monologue, lyric, dramatic romances and lyrics, and everything in between. Tucker notes that "[there] is a different order of catastrophe from what we find in even the most desolate lyric poems. Lyric speakers as often as not begin and end in a bad place, but as they find ways to bail out of circumstances, or reconceive them, or else just lament them, such speakers fortify both their own self-confidence and the reader's sympathetic confidence in the integrity of the self who speaks. It is this latter confidence that the modern dramatic monologue was first designed to shake" (p. 126). Thus, it can be said that in a typical dramatic monologue, the egotistical speaker fails to reach the third section of the Romantic lyric's tripartite form, the moment of self-evaluation and conclusion. It is this last section that is transcendent; through this final mode of reflection or regret, a lesson is learned and the speaker relinquishes the "good moment," a sacrifice that we see both Caliban and the Browning of "Amphibian" make. Only through a departure from--or distortion of--the dramatic monologue form can this tertiary step of progress be accommodated. Like the bird with three legs, "Caliban upon Setebos" is a poem with an additional excrescence, seemingly monstrous but truly amphibian in its ability to function in the mode of both dramatic monologue and lyric. In this sense, that third leg offers valuable affordances despite its deformity.
Special thanks are due to Luis Machuca and Erik Gray for kindling my interests in disability studies and Browning studies, respectively. I am also grateful to the anonymous reviewer at Victorian Poetry for sharpening my readings of select passages.
(1) Robert Browning, "Caliban upon Setebos; or, Natural Theology in the Island," in Robert Browning: The Poems, ed. John Pettigrew, 2 vols. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1981), 1:805-811, 11. 1-3. Hereafter cited parenthetically by line number.
(2) Ewan Jones discusses stuttering and the "nature and effect of dysfluency" in Browning's Sordello, while Joshua Taft emphasizes Browning's "willful embrace of difficulty" and his use of language as a "dense network of denotations," especially compared to the dramatic monologues of Augusta Weber. Ewan Jones, '"Let the Rank Tongue Blossom': Browning's Stuttering," VP 53, no. 2 (2015): 103-132; Joshua Taft, "Skepticism and the Dramatic Monologue: Webster against Browning," VP 53, no. 4 (2015): 401-421.
(3) Terrell L. Tebbetts, "The Question of Satire in 'Caliban upon Setebos,'" VP 22, no. 4 (1984): 368.
(4) Kenneth MacLean agrees: Caliban "is most intentionally to Browning a parody (the form without the content, the mind without the values) of man as a religious believer when belief is reduced to death dealing.... This characterization is of course more than a parody of primitive man; it entails a profound criticism of anthropomorphically believing humanity as Browning and as we have known it." Kenneth MacLean, "Wild Man and Savage Believer: Caliban in Shakespeare and Browning," VP 25, no. 1 (1987): 9.
(5) James F. Loucks and Andrew M. Stauffer, eds., Robert Browning's Poetry (New York: Norton, 2007), 293. Ashton Nichols also concurs: "If the 'lowliest' self-conscious creature can elaborate his conception of a deity on these terms, what subtlety the 'highest' self-conscious creature should be able to achieve? We are meant to admire Caliban." Ashton Nichols, '"Will Sprawl' in the 'Ugly Actual': The Positive Grotesque in Browning," VP 21, no. 2 (1983): 168.
(6) For Drury, Browning indulges in the genre of "pseudotranslation" when he reproduces Caliban's speech, serving as a poet-translator of Caliban. Annmarie Drury, Translation as Transformation in Victorian Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2015), p. 104.
(7) Isobel Armstrong, "Browning's 'Caliban' and Primitive Language," in Loucks and Stauffer, Robert Browning's Poetry, p. 652.
(8) For Rene Girard, Shakespeare's Caliban is a monster first and foremost because he practices idolatry, worshiping Trinculo as a God because he gives him liquor. Rene Girard, "They'll Take Suggestion as a Cat Laps Milk: Self-Satire in The Tempest," in A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1991), pp. 344-346, quoted in "Critical Extracts," Caliban, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1994), 87. In a Victorian context, Caliban's depiction of Setebos in Browning's poem places readers in danger of similar idolatry; readers must be careful not to easily read Setebos as God, or else they risk worshiping Caliban himself in all his degradation.
(9) Jason R. Rudy, Electric Meters: Victorian Physiological Poetics (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 2009), p. 2.
(10) Lennard J. Davis, "The End of Identity Politics and the Beginning of Dismodernism: On Disability as an Unstable Category," in The Disability Studies Reader, 2nd ed., ed. Lennard J. Davis (New York: Routledge, 2006), p. 232.
(11) Davis advocates a new ethics of the dismodernist body, deemphasizing care of the body, care for the body, and care about the body (p. 239).
(12) Deformity evokes pity and horror; mobility impairment is rooted in the trope of "the halt and the lame"; idiocy is typified in the figures of the Holy Fool, Wild Child / Natural Man, and the Eugenic Idiot, who is childlike but sexually dangerous, whereas autism is associated with repetition, aloneness, and sameness. These repetitions can be seen at the beginnings of each stanza in Caliban's utterances, "'Thinketh" and "'Saith." Joseph N. Straus, "Musical Modernism and the Representation of Disability," keynote speech, Graduate Center, City University of New York, New York, NY, March 31, 2017.
(13) Caliban is listed in the 1623 First Folio's "List of Actors" as "a savage and deformed slave."
(14) Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 2015), p. 6.
(15) Though I do not go so far as Suzanne Bailey, who argues that Browning himself suffered from ADHD disorder or experienced some similar cognitive dysfunction, I maintain that "Caliban upon Setebos" promotes a sympathetic understanding of disability. Suzanne Bailey, Cognitive Style and Perceptual Difference in Browning's Poetry (London: Routledge, 2010).
(16) "A kind of decorative painting or sculpture, consisting of representations of portions of human and animal forms, fantastically combined and interwoven with foliage and flowers." OED Online, s.v. "Grotesque," Oxford Univ. Press, accessed June 10, 2017, www.oed.com.
(17) All this ornamentative description of a simple "cave-top" harks back to the etymology of the term "grotesque," which was named for the extraordinarily embellished designs found in excavated grottoes of sixteenth-century Italy. "Grotto-esque" artwork was "a kinde of rugged vnpolished painters worke, anticke worke," or "artwork appropriate to caves or grotta." OED Online, s.v. "Grotesque."
(18) W. David Shaw considers the vocative direct address often found in dramatic monologues to be a substitution for the apostrophe found in Romantic odes and lyrics. Thus, Caliban's vocative exclamation "Setebos, Setebos and Setebos!" would become an example of lyric apostrophe, were he to address his higher God, "Quiet, Quiet and Quiet!" W. David Shaw, "Lyric Displacement in the Victorian Monologue: Naturalizing the Vocative," Nineteenth-Century Literature 52, no. 3 (1997): 302-325.
(19) John Ruskin, "Grotesque Renaissance" from The Stones of Venice, Vol. 3 in The Works of John Ruskin, ed. ET. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, 49 vols. (London: George Allen, 1904), 11:135-198. See especially pp. 151-179.
(20) See William Hogarth, Scene from Shakespeare's The Tempest (1735), and Henry Fuseli, The Enchanted Island before the Cell of Prospero--Prospero, Miranda, Caliban and Ariel (1797). Interestingly enough, these depictions of Caliban represent him as a surprisingly fit and physically able figure.
(21) Kenneth MacLean's "Wild Man and Savage Believer: Caliban in Shakespeare and Browning" addresses the racial implications of the Caliban figure in the cultural context of Browning's time.
(22) Stuart Peterfreund cites John Howard, Michael Timko, and their articles from the 1960s. Stuart Peterfreund, "Robert Browning's Decoding of Natural Theology in 'Caliban upon Setebos,'" VP 43, no. 3 (2005): 329.
(23) William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. Stephen Orgel (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1994), 2.2.25-26.
(24) John W. Draper, "Monster Caliban," in Bloom, Caliban, p. 90.
(25) Caliban's ability as a survivor is predicated on his form. Levine writes that "one of forms' affordances [is] the capacity to endure across time and space" (p. 1).
(26) As Harold Bloom appraises, Caliban "is in the tradition of Shakespeare's displaced spirits, of figures who seem to have wandered in from the wrong play: Shylock, Barnardine, Lear's Fool, Malvolio. Yet to associate Caliban with displacement is a peculiar irony; only he, in the play, is where he belongs." Harold Bloom, introduction to Bloom, Caliban, 2.
(27) See Jonathan Loesberg, "Darwin, Natural Theology, and Slavery: A Justification of Browning's Caliban," ELH 75, no. 4 (2008): 871-897.
(28) In addition to being socially and geographically displaced, Caliban suffers from a sense of temporal estrangement as well. Stuart Peterfreund deems Caliban "clearly a relic of the lower orders, whether those orders are construed as biological or social manifestations. As such a missing link, Caliban is a vestige of the natural history of creation" (p. 319). Isobel Armstrong also remarks upon the ambiguity of Caliban's presence on an evolutionary or historical time line: "If Caliban is originary man, Prospero is his product. He is part of a progressive linear sequence in which Caliban, whose experience coexists with but is logically prior to his, actually has greater potential.... Prospero has ascended from Caliban, perhaps, but his violence suggests the possibility of 'degeneracy.' If, therefore, Caliban is degenerate, then on a linear scale Prospero has 'produced' Caliban (and Setebos), degrading them" (p. 657). Caliban is either a defective being, one that has failed to evolve at the same rate as his contemporaries such as Prospero and Trinculo; or he has somehow been frozen in time and harks from a further past. He is an aberration in time, either a mistake in evolution or a fossil figure. In each case, this confusion of "progress" with "degradation" reflects the conflict of his creative potential: he is either generative and "originary," an artist that can successfully imagine and create the figure of God, or degenerative, one that can only mangle or destroy a sacred image. In his investigative speech aspiring toward God, Caliban must push himself forward to achieve what may be developmentally beyond his present mental capabilities, while simultaneously reaching backward, toward the time of his originator.
(29) The poem "Amphibian" serves as the prologue to Fifine at the Fair, which was published in 1872. References to Robert Browning's "Amphibian" are drawn from Robert Browning: The Poems, 2:5-8.
(30) Robert Browning, "Essay on Shelley," ed. Donald Smalley, in The Complete Works of Robert Browning, ed. Roma A. King et al., 17 vols. (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1981), 5: 135-151.
(31) I thank the anonymous reviewer at Victorian Poetry for clarifying my reading of this passage.
(32) Julie Crawford, "Milton in Context," lecture on Paradise Lost, Columbia University, New York, NY, March 23, 2009.
(33) Loucks and Stauffer's notes cite the crystal spike as a blast of cold water; but the spike may be the fish itself.
(34) Considering Browning's motley cast of characters in his 1842 Dramatic Lyrics, his most grotesque assortment of characters of all, Caliban is far less depraved and more socially insightful. Johannes Agricola demonstrates the utmost egotism, thoroughly heedless of the fact that God might hear his self-aggrandizing claims to martyrdom. Presented as a "meditation," Johannes Agricola's speech throughout this poem is a mocking antithesis of prayer; rather than speaking directly to God in solitude, Johannes Agricola offers a speech only for himself, presuming that God cannot hear him. A soliloquy without the threat of dialogue, "Johannes Agricola in Meditation" is a poem of purely words and drama, with no action or physical consequences (pp. 378-380). Porphyria's lover, however, is similar to Caliban in his acknowledgment of a God listening on; this murderous speaker even dares to challenge God through direct address (pp. 380-381). Yet this speaker's awareness of surveillance only enters at the very last line of the poem, while his hostile line indicates a very lack of surveillance or at least renders God mute. Like Caliban, Porphyria's lover experiments with the third person ("when no voice replied" 1. 15). They also share a sense of pathetic fallacy ("The sullen wind ... tore the elm-tops down for spite, / And did its worst to vex the lake" 11. 2-4). Though Prophyria's lover does not fear the wrath of an anthropomorphized God in the way that Caliban fears Setebos, he employs anthropomorphism in the same creative and destructive way that Caliban does: "As a shut but that holds a bee, / I warily oped her eyes" (11. 42-43). Later, "Only this time, my shoulder bore / Her head, which droops upon it still: / The smiling rosy little head" (11. 49-52). The speaker takes away life, only to inspire it again through personified description of cruel nature. Robert Browning, Dramatic Lyrics, in Robert Browning: The Poems, ed. John Pettigrew, 2 vols. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1981), 1: 345-392.
(35) For Aaron Worth, Caliban's use of the third person is "a symptom of a consciousness that is still developing, with the speaker experimenting with the still-fluid conceptualization of his own mind, even as he wrestles with the conceptualization of minds 'outside' of itself." Aaron Worth, "'Thinketh': Browning and Other Minds," VP 50, no. 2 (2012): 127-146. This is in contrast to E. K. Brown's take on "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 employed the third person in hopes of deceiving the god, concealing the origins of his own subversive or disloyal thoughts by attributing them to another." E. K. Brown, "The First Person in 'Caliban upon Setebos,'" Modern Language Notes 66, no. 6 (1951): 392-395.
(36) Straus. Ruskin's definition of an artist of the base grotesque parallels the discriminatory language used against persons with disabilities: "He can feel and understand nothing, and mocks at all things with the laughter of the idiot and the cretin." Interestingly, however, Ruskin's definitions of the "noble grotesque" also echo the rhetoric historically used to describe "idiots" and "madmen": noble grotesque artists rely on fear and jest, terror and playfulness, as well as the fundamentals of animality, visual deformity, and physical discomfort. John Ruskin, "Grotesque Renaissance," in The Genius of John Ruskin, ed. John D. Rosenberg (New York: George Braziller, 1963), p. 208.
(37) Herbert F. Tucker Jr., "From Monomania to Monologue: 'St. Simeon Stylites' and the Rise of the Victorian Dramatic Monologue," VP 22, no. 2 (1984): 123.
(38) Daniel Karlin, "Browning's Poetry of Intimacy," Essays in Criticism 39, no. 1 (1989): 47.
Caption: Henry Fuseli, The Enchanted Island before the Cell of Prospero--Prospero, Miranda, Caliban and Ariel (1797), from Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery (www.metmuseum.org /art/collection/search/365591)