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Two interpolated speeches in Robert Browning's A Death in the Desert.

ROBERT 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 modem, 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 part of 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).

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 Tubingen 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 Jesus 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 apostle's declaration in lines 129-133 that after his death there will be no one left who "Saw with his eyes and handled with his hands / That which was from the first, the Word of Life" (ll. 131-132) alludes directly to the opening verse of the First Epistle, conveying something of the strangeness and intensity of his direct physical experience of ultimate truth.

The use of extensive, more or less discursive argument in A Death in the Desert is anticipated in the long blank-verse poems Bishop Blougram's Apology and "Cleon" in the earlier collection Men and Women (1855). In Bishop Blougram's Apology the Bishop's brilliantly resourceful but curiously self-concealing speech of apparent self-justification ("For Blougram, he believed, say, half he spoke. / The other portion, as he shaped it thus / For argumentatory purposes, / He felt his foe was foolish to dispute" [ll. 980-983], the impersonal narrator observes in the concluding passage) is delivered with a constant, strenuous sense of opposition: Blougram anticipates what he imagines are the likely objections of his unfortunate, silent interlocutor Gigadibs and others, even occasionally presenting such objections in the form of direct-speech quotations placed in quotation marks. In A Death in the Desert St. John's speech includes, and is largely structured around, numerous interpolated speeches in different voices (also placed in quotation marks). Some of these speeches are very short, consisting of brief, sudden interjections or questions of half a line or two lines, but others are considerably longer; the two longest (with which this article is particularly concerned), the speech of the imaginary skeptic in lines 370-421, and the final speech of the representative "man" in lines 514-539, are densely argumentative. On several occasions St. John "quotes" himself, most remarkably in lines 459-463, in the discussion of the cessation of miracles in the apostolic period: the apostle gives dramatic expression to what he confirms as the historical fact of the cessation of miracles by "quoting" himself twice over, first in his younger, miracle-working days--"I cried once, 'That ye may believe in Christ, / Behold this blind man shall receive his sight!'" (ll. 459-460)--and secondly in the present (what he might say now), when his miracle-working powers have deserted him, as part of the general cessation. The second speech, typically, takes the form of a question, uneasily addressed to a nameless "shrewd" observer--one of several imaginary skeptical figures whom St. John summons up in his speech--whose aggressive and probably disingenuous challenge to the apostle, urging him to repeat his miracle in order to win his (the observer's) faith, oddly takes up most of the question, where it appears in italics: "I cry now, 'Urgest thou, for I am shrewd / And smile at stories how John's word could cure--/ Repeat that miracle and take my faith?'" (ll. 461-463). One interpolated speech is enclosed in another. Something similar occurs in lines 534-536, in the speech of the representative "man," where italics are again used.

Many of the interpolated speeches are written in the person of generalized groups, such as the "Antichrists" with their relentlessly aggressive questions in lines 160-162, "'Am I not Jasper as thyself art John? / Nay, young, whereas through age thou mayest forget: / Wherefore, explain, or how shall we believe?,'" or in the persons of the doubt-filled representatives of future generations, whose disturbing questions, imagined by John, express a recognizably modern longing for historical certainty--"'Was John at all, and did he say he saw? / Assure us, ere we ask what he might see!'" (ll. 196-197)--lines that are repeated later (ll. 335-336), also placed emphatically at the end of the verse paragraph. The interpolated speeches frequently take the form of questions or, in the case of the longer speeches, consist largely of series of questions--hostile, doubtful, skeptical, and at the same time restless, disturbing, and unsettling. This is, indeed, a poem full of questions, with St. John asking many questions in his own voice. In the longer speeches, those of the skeptic and the representative "man," and St. John's attempts to answer them--in both cases, as we shall see, indirectly and conspicuously not on their own terms--one can see something of Browning's intention of answering the voices of contemporary doubt. "Quick, for time presses, tell the whole mind out, / And let us ask and answer and be saved!," John exclaims in lines 366-367, addressing himself, concentrating his efforts, and at the same time indicating how he intends to proceed. His words at the end of the speech, "Such is the burthen of the latest time. / I have survived to hear it with my ears, / Answer it with my lips: does this suffice?" (ll. 634-636), suggest hesitancy and uncertainty as to the adequacy of his answers to the overwhelming spiritual difficulties of his time. The "burthen of the latest time," echoing the earlier question, "Is this indeed a burthen for late days" (l.337), is the burden of debilitating doubt; the suggestion of lateness and finality contrasts oddly with the affirmation of progressive revelation in the long climactic paragraph of lines 571-633.

The skeptic's speech in lines 370-421 draws, as many contemporary readers must have recognized, on two important nineteenth-century sources, Ludwig Feuerbach's Das Wesen des Christenthums, first published in 1841, with a second, expanded edition appearing in 1843 (Marian Evans' translation, The Essence of Christianity, which the poet may have read, appeared in 1854), and Herbert Spencer's First Principles, published in June 1862 (8) (Browning's use of First Principles may indicate a relatively late date of composition). The attempt to combine two quite different lines of argument--Feuerbach's radically subjectivist conception of Christ as a projection of human love, and Spencer's account of the gradual progression from the mythological interpretation of natural phenomena to the conception of impersonal natural law--is certainly audacious. The skeptic's arguments, with their carefully calculated concessions--"well, we must love, / And what we love most, power and love in one, / Let us acknowledge on the record here, / Accepting these in Christ" (ll. 373-376)--and frequent, deliberately disconcerting questions--"must Christ then be? / Has He been? Did not we ourselves make Him?" (ll. 376-377)--represent a distinctively modern intellectual habit, superficially persuasive but insidiously dangerous in spiritual terms. The skeptic is introduced with startling suddenness in line 369 ("One listens quietly, nor scoffs but pleads"); though we are told that he "listens quietly" to St. John's Gospel, he dismisses it in his opening lines as "a tale of things done ages since" (l. 370). "Wonders," he remarks, "that would prove doctrine, go for nought" (l. 372): Christ's miracles can no longer be believed, and as a result provide no support for Christian doctrine. Where does this leave us? "Remains the doctrine, love" (l. 373), the skeptic concedes--no doubt aiming his remark specifically at St. John. In the lines that follow, which invoke the familiar Browning coupling of "love" and "power," the balancing, almost but not quite antithetical divine attributes, he asserts--or rather implies through a series of questions--that our conception of Christ as embodying these attributes is nothing more than an imaginative construction: "Did not we ourselves make Him?" (l. 377). The skeptic goes on to consider love; our view of Christ as embodying human love is simply a projection:
 First of the love, then; we acknowledge Christ--
 A proof we comprehend His love, a proof
 We had such love already in ourselves,
 Knew first what else we should not recognize.
 'T is mere projection from man's inmost mind,
 And, what he loves, thus falls reflected back,
 Becomes accounted somewhat out of him;
 He throws it up in air, it drops down earth's,
 With shape, name, story added, man's old way.
 How prove you Christ came otherwise at least?
 (ll. 379-388)

Another insistent question: how can one prove that Christ has any reality beyond the universal human tendency to emotional projection, objectification, and myth-creation? In these lines Browning is clearly drawing on Feuerbach's arguments, though at the same time taking them to their disturbingly negative logical conclusion. The notion of projection or objectification is Feuerbach's: for example, in chapter 2, "Das Wesen der Religion im Allgemeinen," of Das Wesen des Christenthums, he declares:
 Der Mensch--diess ist das Geheimniss der Religion--vergegenstandlicht
 sein Wesen und macht dann wieder sich zum
 Object dieses vergegenstaindlichten, in ein Subject verwandelten
 Wesens; er denkt sich, ist sich Object, aber als Object eines
 Objects, eines andem Wesens.... In der religiosen Systole stosst der
 Mensch sein eignes Wesen von sich aus, er verstosst, verwirst sich
 selbst; in der religiosen Diastole nimmt er das verstossne Wesen
 wieder in sein Herz auf. (9)

Marian Evans' translation of these two unquestionably obscure statements, with their troublesome but crucially important verbs, is relevant here:
 Man--this is the mystery of religion--projects his being into
 objectivity, and then again makes himself an object to this projected
 image of himself thus converted into a subject; he thinks of himself,
 is an object to himself, but as the object of an object, of another
 being than himself.... In the religious systole man propels his own
 nature from himself, he throws himself outward; in the religious
 diastole he receives the rejected nature into his heart again. (10)

Browning's lines on Christ as a human "projection" might also be compared with Feuerbach's arguments in chapter 27, "Der Widerspruch von Glaube und Liebe." Christ, Feuerbach asserts, is the personified image of humanity's love of itself, a love that is both defining and unifying:
 Christus ist die Liebe der Menschheit zu sich selbst als ein
 Bild--der entwickelten Natur der Religion zufolge--oder als eine
 Person-eine Person, die aber--versteht sich als religioses
 Object--nur die Bedeutung eines Bildes hat, nur eine ideale
 ist.... Die Liebe ist aber, wie gesagt, nichts andres als die
 Beth/itigung, die Realisation der Einheit der Gattung durch die
 Gesinnung.... Also ist Chrisms als das Bewusstsein der Liebe das
 Bewusstsein der Gattung. Alle follen wir eins in Christus sein.
 (p. 400)

Again, Evans' translation is relevant:
 Christ is the love of mankind to itself embodied in an image--in
 accordance with the nature of religion as we have developed it---or
 contemplated as a person, but a person who (we mean, of course, as
 a religious object) has only the significance of an image, who is
 only ideal.... But love, as has been said, is nothing else than the
 active proof, the realization of the unity of the race, through the
 medium of the moral disposition.... Thus Christ, as the
 consciousness of love, is the consciousness of the species. We are
 all one in Christ. (p. 266)

Christ as the ideal representation of man's self-defining love: Browning's skeptic has little difficulty in taking Feuerbach's argument to its uncomfortable logical conclusion. Christ is nothing more than a reassuring "projection," undoubtedly answering deep emotional needs, making us feel good about ourselves, but ultimately an example of a familiar kind of collective delusion.

The skeptic turns to the question of power: "Next try the power" (l. 389)--the incisive, impatient, perhaps slightly aggressive brevity of phrasing echoing the matter-of-factness of "First of the love, then" (l. 379). Is our conception of God's active power in the physical universe, associated as it is with notions of divine will, simply another instance of man's compulsive "projection" of his own nature? To illustrate this he introduces the example of man's changing explanations of the sun's motion:
 Our sires declared a charioteer's yoked steeds
 Brought the sun up the east and down the west,
 Which only of itself now rises, sets,
 As if a hand impelled it and a will,--
 Thus they long thought, they who had will and hands:
 But the new question's whisper is distinct,
 Wherefore must all force needs be like ourselves?
 We have the hands, the will; what made and drives
 The sun is force, is law, is named, not known,
 While will and love we do know. (ll. 392-401)

"But the new question's whisper is distinct": the notion of a divine agency with recognizably human attributes, including will and love, is at this moment quietly giving way to a new, essentially impersonal conception of force and natural law. These densely concentrated lines have a specific source in a passage in First Principles, Part I, Chapter 5, "The Reconciliation" (a typically ambitious heading). Spencer is discussing the relation between scientific advancement and religious belief:
 While this process seems to those who effect, and those who undergo
 it, an anti-religious one, it is really the reverse. Instead of the
 specific comprehensible agency before assigned, there is substituted
 a less specific and less comprehensible agency; and though this,
 standing in opposition to the previous one, cannot at first call
 forth the same feeling, yet, as being less comprehensible, it must
 eventually call forth this feeling more fully. Take an instance. Of
 old the Sun was regarded as the chariot of a god, drawn by horses.
 How far the idea thus grossly expressed, was idealized, we need not
 inquire. It suffices to remark that this accounting for the apparent
 motion of the Sun by an agency like certain visible terrestrial
 agencies, reduced a daily wonder to the level of the commonest
 intellect. When, many centuries after, Kepler discovered that the
 planets moved round the Sun in ellipses and described equal areas in
 equal times, he concluded that in each planet there must exist a
 spirit to guide its movements. Here we see that with the progress
 of Science, there had disappeared the idea of a gross mechanical
 traction, such as was first assigned in the case of the Sun; but
 that while for this there was substituted an indefinite and
 less-easily conceivable force, it was still thought needful to
 assume a special personal agent as a cause of the regular
 irregularity of motion. When, finally, it was proved that these
 planetary revolutions with all their variations and disturbances,
 conformed to one universal law--when the presiding spirits which
 Kepler conceived were set aside, and the force of gravitation put
 in their place; the change was really the abolition of an
 unimaginable agency, and the substitution of an unimaginable one.
 For though the/aw of gravitation is within our mental grasp, it is
 impossible to realize in thought the force of gravitation. (11)

The passage is related to Spencer's notion of the "Unknowable," the strangely paradoxical idea that through scientific progress "all accountable or natural facts are proved to be in their ultimate genesis unaccountable and supernatural" (p. 106): science, it might be said, defines its own theoretical limitations. Something of this idea is hinted at in lines 399-401 of the skeptic's speech: "what made and drives / The Sun is force, is law, is named, not known, / While will and love we do know." In turning from the humanized conception of the divine will and love we abandon the (apparently) known and humanly familiar in favor of an impersonal conception that can be identified but which lies beyond our imaginative grasp. It is worth noting that in these lines Spencer's crucial distinction between the "law" of gravitation and the unimaginable "force" is lost.

In the lines that follow the skeptic takes the notion of the "projection" of human attributes further. Signs of the divine will and love have been attested by eye-witnesses and affirmed in "books" (presumably scripture): stories of the sun rising or setting at odd times, or else (as recorded in Joshua 10. 12-13) standing still, as a sign of divine approval or disapproval, are further evidence of human credulity ("what do not men affirm?" [l. 405]). "Therefore," the skeptic asserts dismissively, "it was mere passion and mistake, / Or erring zeal for right, which changed the truth" (ll. 409-410). In the remarkable concluding lines of his speech (ll. 411-421) the skeptic describes the gradual historical movement away from humanized conceptions of the gods and God to the impersonal conception of natural law; it is a process of successive displacement. "Go back," he declares, "far, farther, to the birth of things; / Ever the will, the intelligence, the love, / Man's!--which he gives, supposing he but finds" (ll. 411-413). Human physical form, as well as human passions, were once attributed by men to their gods ("First, Jove's brow, Juno's eyes were swept away, / But Jove's wrath, Juno's pride continued long" [ll. 416-417]); the passionate gods in turn gave way to the humanized Christian God, embodying "will, power, and love," who is himself being displaced by the conception of impersonal natural law:
 As last, will, power, and love discarded these,
 So law in turn discards power, love, and will.
 What proveth God is otherwise at least?
 All else, projection from the mind of man!'
 (ll. 418-421)

The process has its own inevitability, the worthlessness of the rejected beliefs underlined by the half-repetition of "discarded" and "discards." The last two lines are closely parallel with the earlier lines on Christ (ll. 383, 388), the condensed brevity of phrasing in the question and final exclamation, each tightly contained within the line, reinforcing the aggressive insistence and dismissiveness of tone. The skeptic's appeal to the bleak inevitability of the historical process carries its own eager relish, the triumphant delight of the practiced intellectual reductionist. His conclusion is, indeed, practically atheistic: with power, love, and will stripped away, God is reduced to nothing more than impersonal natural law, his human attributes finally recognized as mere "projection." These concluding lines also reflect the influence of First Principles: in Part I, Chapter 5, for example, Spencer describes the progression away from crudely anthropomorphic conceptions of God:
 But though a bodily form and substance similar to that of man, has
 long ceased, among cultivated races, to be a literally-conceived
 attribute of the Ultimate Cause--though the grosser human desires
 have been also rejected as unfit elements of the conception--though
 there is some hesitation in ascribing even the higher human feelings,
 save in greatly idealized shapes; yet it is still thought not only
 proper, but also imperative, to ascribe the most abstract qualities
 of our nature. (pp. 109-110)

The notion of the gradual emergence of natural law is also Spencer's: for example, in Part II, Chapter 1, "The Data of Philosophy," he asserts that
 Familiarity with special uniformities, has generated the abstract
 conception of uniformity--the idea of Law; and this idea has been
 in successive generations slowly gaining fixity and clearness.
 (p. 142)

In the later part of the skeptic's speech Spencer's arguments (needless to say, taken selectively and much simplified), like Feuerbach's in the earlier part, are carried to their unintended logical conclusion. The historical process that the skeptic describes is one of progressive dehumanization, devastating in its implications. God is virtually done away with, discredited and discarded like other, earlier religious beliefs.

The interpolated speech of the representative "man" in lines 514-539 needs to be placed in context. The four lines (ll. 474-477) earlier in the poem beginning "I say, the acknowledgment of God in Christ" represent perhaps the most important positive affirmation in St. John's speech: the apostle's assertion of the sufficiency of the individual "acknowledgment" is reminiscent of the strongly Johannine and incarnational theological writings of F. D. Maurice, which Browning almost certainly knew (line 474 alludes to 1 John 2.23, "he that acknowledgeth the Son hath the Father also"). In the severe questions that follow (ll. 478-480) St. John attacks the intellectual perversity of those--and there can be little doubt that Browning had the Biblical critics in mind--who attempt to "unprove this to re-prove the proved?" (l. 478), the double half-repetition, playing on different senses of "to prove," bringing out the futile circularity--seeking intellectual proof where only the proof of experience is possible, misunderstanding the essentially internal, spiritual nature of the "acknowledgment." Spiritual knowledge, which we all have, is to be put to use as a matter of urgency in the individual life: "Thou hast it; use it and forthwith, or die!" (l. 481). The abrupt and startling last words, emphatically placed at the end of the paragraph, introduce the theme of spiritual death. "For I say," St. John continues at the beginning of the next paragraph--the characteristic opening phrase (as in line 474) underlining his role as teacher--"this is death and the sole death, / When a man's loss comes to him from his gain, / Darkness from light, from knowledge ignorance, / And lack of love from love made manifest"(ll. 482-485): the strange perversity of man's spiritual choices is ultimately self-destructive. St. John returns to the theme of spiritual death in the emphatic concluding lines of this and the following paragraph (ll. 498-499, 512-514), and, as we shall see, the concluding lines of the long paragraph in which he attempts to answer the representative "man" (ll. 567-570). The brief interpolated questions and conclusions of the representative "man," who is introduced in line 489--"When man, appalled at nature, questioned first"--represent different stages of human knowledge or speculation. First there is the keen curiosity of the two parallel questions, placed in an indefinite historical past, "'What if there lurk a might behind this might?'" (l. 490), and, at the beginning of the following paragraph, '"What if there be love / Behind the will and might, as real as they?'" (ll. 500-501--questions that are answered by revelation, "the written word" (ll. 492, 503); then there is the more destructive, negative questioning of the modern critical intellect, placed significantly in the present. Again Browning draws directly on Feuerbach and Spencer. "'Since all is might,'" man asks, '"what use of will?'" (l. 494); "'Since such love is everywhere, / And since ourselves can love and would be loved, / We ourselves make the love, and Christ was not'" (ll. 505-507). Despite "owning his own love that proveth Christ," John observes, the "man" "Rejecteth Christ through very need of Him?" (ll. 510-511): with typical perversity, he turns away from what spiritually he needs most.

In the remarkable speech that takes up almost the entire paragraph in lines 514-539 the representative "man," addressing St. John directly (the paragraph begins with the introductory conditional clause "If he rejoin,"--the sentence continuing at the beginning of the next paragraph, "I answer," [l. 540]), speaks once more, but now much more elaborately, as the voice of the modern critical intellect, going as far as to question the fundamental character of St. John's Gospel, and particularly the apostle's futile attempt to convey "ultimate truth" (l. 517) through quasi-historical narrative. Like the skeptic's speech, the speech of the representative "man" is densely concentrated in expression, consisting largely of a rapid series of questions, directed at St. John himself (the imaginary adversary again takes on a life of his own). The speech is restless, deliberately unsettling, calculated to put any believer on the defensive. "'But this was all the while / A trick" (ll. 514-515), the "man" declares abruptly at the beginning. Behind the apostle's teaching lies a deception, a sleight of hand: "the fault," he asserts, "was, first of all, in thee, / Thy story of the places, names and dates, / Where, when and how the ultimate truth had rise, /--Thy prior truth, at last discovered none, / Whence now the second suffers detriment" (ll. 515-519). The attempt to convey "ultimate truth" through narrative, linking it to supposedly actual events, was contradictory from the start (the contemptuous reference to "Thy story" recalls the skeptic's "tale of things done ages since" [l. 370]); it is perhaps here that the deception lies. The attempt has in any case been invalidated by the discovery that the narrative has no historical basis ("Thy prior truth, at last discovered none" [l. 518]); as a consequence, the spiritual truth that the apostle seeks to convey is lost. What is the good of seeking to impart spiritual knowledge in a form that inevitably renders it inaccessible and elusive? Why adopt such a form, with its perplexing indirectness and implicitness, instead of conveying "truth absolute, uniform?" (l. 524) in an unequivocal way? "Why must I hit of this and miss of that" (l. 525), the "man" asks, the monosyllabic, colloquial directness of phrasing reinforcing the suggestion of impatience and frustration: attempting to understand such a narrative becomes a matter of almost random success and failure, absurdly dependent on personal aptitude and mental agility. The factual, historical questions that naturally arise in the reader's mind--"Was this once, was it not once?" (l. 528)--demand "prompt" answers (l. 527); the "plain truth" (l. 529) is what is needed, literal, explicit, unambivalent.

In the last ten lines of the speech the representative "man" picks up an allusion that St. John makes earlier in his speech (ll. 279-293) to the myth of Prometheus, and more specifically Aeschylus' lost satyr play on the Prometheus theme. (12) In the earlier passage St. John contrasts the discovery of the secret of fire, supposedly the gift of Prometheus (who was one of the Titans), with Christ's "gift of truth" (l. 287). Once acquired, the secret of fire is never lost; spiritual truth, on the other hand, is not to be grasped at once, but needs to be constantly rediscovered, strenuously arrived at through individual experience ("man's probation" [1. 290]). The representative "man" makes a different point, drawing a parallel between the Prometheus myth and St. John's Gospel. Once more he puts forward a disturbing question:
 Is John's procedure just the heathen bard's?
 Put question of his famous play again
 How for the ephemerals' sake Jove's fire was filched,
 And carried in a cane and brought to earth:
 The fact is in the fable, cry the wise,
 Mortals obtained the boon, so much is fact,
 Though fire be spirit and produced on earth.
 As with the Titan's, so now with thy tale:
 Why breed in us perplexity, mistake,
 Nor tell the whole truth in the proper words?'
 (ll. 530-539)

The "ephemerals" of line 532 are, of course, human beings. (13) It is likely that Browning had in mind Strauss's "mythical" interpretation of the Gospels: is St. John's "procedure" in writing his Gospel essentially the same as Aeschylus' ("just" [l. 530] carries a slight derogatory suggestion: is this all it is, another exercise in myth-creation?)? The short italicized speech of "the wise"--one interpolated speech within another, like the italicized lines (461-463) in which the imaginary "shrewd" observer demands a miracle of St. John--is a reminder that the "fable" of Prometheus, however incredible in its own terms, nevertheless contains what is indubitably an historical "fact" ("Though fire be spirit and produced on earth" refers back to St. John's comparison between fire and spiritual truth: "produced" is used in the sense of "brought to view," almost "introduced"). John's "tale"--again, the deliberately derogatory word, as in line 370 at the beginning of the skeptic's speech--is comparable to Aeschylus' recreation of the Prometheus myth, perhaps pointing toward a spiritual event of some kind, even one with momentous implications for mankind, but incredible in its own terms. The speech concludes with another disconcerting question, underlining the obscurity and ambivalence of the Gospel narrative, which is apparently designed to produce "perplexity, mistake." If there is a truth to tell (which may be in doubt), why not tell it directly?

"And let us ask and answer and be saved!" (l. 367). St. John's attempts to answer the arguments of the imaginary skeptic and the representative "man" are at best indirect: certainly these skeptical voices are not answered on their own terms. In the paragraph (ll. 424-451) that follows the skeptic's speech, beginning "I say that man was made to grow, not stop," the idea of collective human growth is related to that of the progressive historical revelation of truth: the extended metaphor (ll. 435-443) of the marker-twigs in the garden, useful before the plants grow but later redundant, introduces the theme of miracles and their cessation in the early stages of the church. St. John tries to substitute his own view of historical progression for the skeptic's account of the successive displacement of belief. The representative "man's" urgent questions about St. John's Gospel and its capacity to convey spiritual truth are never answered or addressed. In the important and difficult passage (ll. 540-570) beginning, "I answer, Have ye yet to argue out / The very primal thesis, plainest law, /--Man is not God but hath God's end to serve" (ll. 540-542), St. John reverts to the "man's" reflections on God's might, will, and love. In trying to dispense with the human attributes of will and love, in reducing God to impersonal "might," "what he names now Nature's Law--" (l. 554), man is implicitly claiming ascendancy, as the only being in whom all three, in however feeble a form, "combine" (l. 558). This dangerous assumption of human ascendancy--the humanist illusion, perhaps, implicit in Spencer's dehumanized conception of "the Unknowable"--is a denial of God, involving man in an irresolvable spiritual contradiction, making life impossible in spiritual terms: "And thus the victory leads but to defeat, / The gain to loss, best rise to the worst fall, / His life becomes impossible, which is death" (ll. 568-570). The strange perversity of human spiritual choices, and the unimaginable spiritual risks that man takes in the intellectual rejection of God--turning away like the Biblical critics and other moderns from the simple "acknowledgment of God in Christ": these are among the profoundly serious concerns of this extraordinary poem.


(1) On the Essays and Reviews controversy see W. Owen Chadwick, The Victorian Church, An Ecclesiastical History of England, 2nd ed., 2 vols (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970), 2:75-90; Ieuan Ellis, Seven Against Christ: A Study of "Essays and Reviews," Studies in the History of Christian Thought (Leiden: Brill, 1980); Josef L. Altholz, Anatomy of a Controversy: The Debate over 'Essays and Reviews' 1860-1864 (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1994); and Bernard M. G. Reardon, Religious Thought in the Victorian Age: A Survey from Coleridge to Gore, 2nd ed. (London: Longman, 1995), pp. 237-245.

(2) In this article quotations from the poems of Dramatis Personae follow the text of the 1888-89 first impression of the Poetical Works; quotations from Men and Women follow that of the Oxford English Texts edition of the Poetical Works, vol. 5, ed. Ian Jack and Robert Inglesfield (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1995). In the case of A Death in the Desert running quotation marks, both single and double, at the beginning of lines have been omitted; those marking the opening and conclusion of speeches have, however, been retained.

(3) A still outstanding discussion of the intellectual background of A Death in the Desert and other poems (including the "Epilogue" to Dramatis Personae) is W. O. Raymond, "Browning and the Higher Criticism," first published in PMLA 44 (1929): 590621, and reprinted in Raymond's The Infinite Moment and Other Essays in Robert Browning (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1965), pp. 19-51. In "Browning's St. John: The Casuistry of the Higher Criticism," first published in VS 16 (1972): 205222, and reprinted in heavily revised form in Kubla Khan and 'The Fall of Jerusalem': The Mythological School in Biblical Criticism and Secular Literature 1770-1880 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1975), pp. 191-224, Elinor Shaffer argues that far from opposing the "higher criticism" Browning largely absorbed its essential "casuistry," and indeed constructed the poem around it. Shaffer takes her argument too far, though the article contains many useful insights.

(4) On the debate on miracles, see Bernard M.G. Reardon, Religious Thought in the Victorian Age.

(5) Baur discusses the authorship of St. John's Gospel, for example, in Das Christenthum und die Christliche Kirche der Drei Ersten Jahrhunderte (Tubingen, 1853), pp. 131-158, and Die Tubinger Schule und Ihre Stellung zur Gegenwart (Tubingen, 1859), pp. 162-163. Though they remained untranslated till the publication of The Church History of the First Three Centuries, trans. Allan Menzies, 2 vols. (London, 1878), Baur's theological writings were evidently quite widely read in England: see for example F. D. Maurice's "Note on Discourse I" in The Gospel of St. John: A Series of Discourses (Cambridge, 1857), pp. 469-475, in which he refers particularly to Baur's Kritische Untersuchungen uber die Kanonischen Evangelien. R. H. Hutton's important review-essay "Theories of Baur and Others on the Fourth Gospel" was published in the National Review 5 (1857): 82-127, and later reprinted as "The Historical Problems of the Fourth Gospel" in Hutton's Essays, Theological and Literary, 2 vols. (London, 1871), 1:144-223; Hutton defends the apostolic authorship and historicity of the Gospel. On Baur, see Peter C. Hodgson, The Formation of Historical Theology: A Study of Ferdinand Christian Baur (New York: Harper and Row, 1966).

(6) See Browning's letter to Isabella Blagden, November 19, 1863, in Dearest Isa: Robert Browning's Letters to Isabella Blagden, ed. Edward C. McAleer (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1951), p. 180.

(7) On St. John's Gospel, for example, Renan declares, "Mais c'est surtout la lecture de l'ouvrage qui est de nature a faire impression. L'auteur y parle toujours comme temoin oculaire; il veut se faire passer pour l'apotre Jean. Si donc cet ouvrage n'est pas reellement de l'apotre, il faut admettre une supercherie que l'auteur s'avouait a lui-meme. Or, quoique les idles du temps en fait de bonne foi litteraire differassent essentiellement des notres, on n'a pas d'exemple dans le monde apostolique d'un faux de ce genre" (Vie de Jesus [Paris, 1863], p. xxvii). On the question of Renan's influence on A Death in the Desert, see W. O. Raymond, The Infinite Moment, pp. 33-35, and Elinor Shaffer, "Browning's St. John." At a meeting of the Browning Society on February 25, 1887, Rev. John Llewelyn Davies, one of the Society's Vice-Presidents, declared (according to the report of the meeting) that "Browning wrote the poem long prior to the publication of Renan's work" (Browning Society Papers 2 [1888]: 185).

(8) On Feuerbach's influence on A Death in the Desert, see Philip Drew, The Poetry of Browning: A Critical Introduction (London: Methuen, 1970), pp. 214-218. Spencer's influence has apparently been overlooked by modern critics. An impressive contemporary review of First Principles is James Martineau (unsigned), "Science, Nescience and Faith," in National Review 15 (1862): 394-419; other reviews appeared in the Athenaeum 1823 (1862): 438b-440b; Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review, n.s. 22 (1862): 520-523; and British Quarterly Review 37 (1863): 84-121. J. S. Mill remarked of First Principles, "The book is a remarkable one in many respects & its wide reaching systematisation of so many heterogeneous elements is very imposing," but added some serious qualifications (letter to Alexander Bain, January 7, 1863, in The Later Letters of John Stuart Mill 1849-1873, ed, Francis E. Mineka and Dwight N. Lindley, 4 vols. [Toronto, 1972], 2:818); a few years later Mill observed that Spencer "is the rising philosophical name at the present & will probably stand very high ten years hence" (letter to George Grote, December 2, 1866, Later Letters, 3:1219). On First Principles, see J. D. Y. Peel, Herbert Spencer: The Evolution of a Sociologist (London: Heinemann, 1971), pp. 125-130.

(9) Ludwig Feuerbach, Das Wesen des Christenthums, 2nd ed. (Leipzig, 1843), pp. 44, 46.

(10) The Essence of Christianity, ed. Marian Evans (London, 1854), pp. 29, 30.

(11) Herbert Spencer, First Principles (London, 1862), pp. 102-103.

(12) The play is probably to be identified with Prometheus the Fire-kindler, of which a few fragments survive: one of these, doubtless Browning's source, is an isolated line quoted by Plutarch in "How to Profit by One's Enemies" 2, in which, according to Plutarch, Prometheus warns the satyr who, at his first sight of fire, wishes to kiss and embrace it.

(13) In Prometheus Bound, 1. 225, the Chorus refers to mankind as ephemeroi, literally "creatures living for a day," and it is undoubtedly to this line that Browning is alluding (the same substantive sense occurs in Aristophanes' Apology, 1. 127). According to both Hesiod and Aeschylus, Prometheus carried the stolen source of fire in a fennel stalk (Theogony, 11.565-569; Prometheus Bound, 11. 106-110).

ROBERT INGLESFIELD teaches at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is currently editing two volumes of the Oxford edition of Robert Browning's Poetical Works.
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Author:Inglesfield, Robert
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Date:Sep 22, 2003
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