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Robert Browning

Caliban upon Setebos

Or, Natural Theology in the Island [1]

"Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such a one as thyself."

(David, Psalms 50.21)
['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.And, while he kicks both feet in the cool slush,And 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,-He looks out o'er yon sea which sunbeams crossAnd 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,When talk is safer than in winter-time.Moreover Prosper and Miranda sleepIn 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.
'Thinketh He made it, with the sun to match,But not the stars; the stars came otherwise;Only made clouds, winds, meteors, such as that:Also this isle, what lives and grows thereon,And snaky sea which rounds and ends the same.
'Thinketh, it came of being ill at ease:He hated that He cannot change His cold,Nor cure its ache. 'Hath spied an icy fishThat longed to 'scape the rock-stream where she lived,And thaw herself within the lukewarm brineO' the lazy sea her stream thrusts far amid,A crystal spike 'twixt two warm walls of wave;Only, she ever sickened, found repulseAt 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.
'Thinketh, He made thereat the sun, this isle,Trees and the fowls here, beast and creeping thing.Yon otter, sleek-wet, black, lithe as a leech;Yon auk, one fire-eye in a ball of foam,That floats and feeds; a certain badger brownHe hath watched hunt with that slant white-wedge eyeBy moonlight; and the pie with the long tongueThat pricks deep into oak warts for a worm,And says a plain word when she finds her prize,But will not eat the ants; the ants themselvesThat build a wall of seeds and settled stalksAbout their hole-He made all these and more,Made all we see, and us, in spite: how else?He could not, Himself, make a second selfTo be His mate; as well have made Himself:He would not make what He mislikes or slights,An eyesore to Him, or not worth His pains:But did, in envy, listlessness or sport,Make what Himself would fain, in a manner, be-Weaker in most points, stronger in a few,Worthy, and yet mere playthings all the while,Things He admires and mocks too,-that is it.Because, so brave, so better though they be,It nothing skills if He begin to plague.Look, now, I melt a gourd-fruit into mash,Add honeycomb and pods, I have perceived,Which bite like finches when they bill and kiss,-Then, when froth rises bladdery, drink up all,Quick, quick, till maggots scamper through my brain;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 CalibanAble 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,Fly to yon rock-top, nip me off the hornsOf grigs high up that make the merry din,Saucy through their veined wings, and mind me not.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 elseNot take my fancy: I might hear his cry,And give the mankin three sound legs for one,Or pluck the other off, leave him like an eggAnd 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.
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The motto is from Psalms 1: 21. For the title character, see The Tempest, I, ii. The subtitle and the motto indicate much of Browning's intention in the poem. "Natural theology" is distinguished from (and here opposed to) "revealed theology"; natural theology being that system of thought about God which man arrives at through the unaided use of his natural reason. To the Victorian secularists, all theology was "natural theology"–that is, man-made. Their favourite theory was that all religion was a projection by man of his own qualities. This is the theory which the text chosen as motto condemns, and which Caliban's musings illustrate. Throughout he looks at his own characteristics, and then ascribes them to his god, Setebos: "So he." What is conspicuous in the poem is that there is no glimpse of what to Browning is true theology: the theology of a God of Love. This comes to man (as to David in Saul) by revelation. The highest conception Caliban can achieve by natural reason is of the Quiet–an indifferent, absentee, Epicurean God. His Setebos is merely a God of arbitrary and jealous power. It is also noteworthy that Browning includes in Caliban's theology not merely most of the doctrines of primitive religions, but also some elements associated with branches of Christianity, particularly the narrower kind of Calvinist sect. He is by implication rejecting these elements as part of his own definition of true Christianity in terms of a God of Love. The passages in brackets at the beginning and end of the poem represent Caliban's silent thoughts. The main part of the poem is spoken aloud, and presents his attempt at a system. He is very much the "natural" man, but Browning gives him not only a quick and vivid imagination, but a mind that follows the general systematic pattern of thought used by writers on natural religion. He starts with the relation of his god to the universe, and the problem of cosmology, and then moves systematically to consider his god's attributes, and to try to evolve rules for worship and service. Caliban throughout speaks of himself in the third person, usually without the pronoun. Browning indicates the omission of the pronoun by an apostrophe.

     

 

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