Skip to main content

“Fool to gibe at Him!”: A Creative Rendition of Browning’s “Caliban Upon Setebos”

by Robert Pasquini

Caliban upon Setebos

I chose this particular passage from Robert Browning’s “Caliban Upon Setebos” (1864) because it relates to my own research interests, the human pursuit of knowledge and the questioning of ideological boundaries in Victorian England. In the selected passage Caliban muses upon a fossilized newt, but my depiction includes additional imagery from the poem like the cave he frequents and crabs he stones, “loving not, hating not, just choosing so” (103). The conflation of imagery analogizes the emergent psychological condition of the mind common to some of Browning’s earlier works like “Porphyria’s Lover”; the vaporous edges of the illustrated vignette allow Caliban the freedom of expression to question natural theology on the island. Caliban probes the nature of his relationship with his God, Setebos, and as the poem progresses Caliban’s frustration grows since he cannot enact significant change in his world without repercussion. Browning’s monologue for Caliban is eloquent and deviates from the more traditional bestial representation of this character. The deep insight he exhibits justifies the depiction of a more humanoid form, although he is supposed to occupy a fringe existence between animal and human.

The textual element of the page is separate from the image in order to suggest the frame narrative Browning employs in his work. Before Caliban’s monologue, Browning writes that above Caliban’s head “a pompion-plant,/ Coating the cave-top as a brow to its eye, /Creeps down,” suggesting that a theme of observation or surveillance is prevalent in the text. Setebos watches Caliban while Caliban searches for Setebos (7-8). The decorative work around the text includes this pumpkin-like plant in the guise of two eyes watching Caliban since Setebos is all knowing. After all, as the frame narrator says, Caliban is “fool to gibe at Him!” (291). The crabs scuttling away from Caliban’s presence lead the readers’ gaze to the next page and activate their imaginative ability to fill in the white space surrounding the illustration like an ocean encircling land.

The biggest obstacle yet most enlightening challenge to overcome in the design process was the transfer of the illustration, decorative work, and text (in “Victorian LET” font) onto a single, printable page with maximum aesthetic effect. By continuously scanning and digitizing hand-traced work, the multiple images could be constructed separately and then combined in a word processing program. Modifications could then be applied with image-processing software such as the rounded edges of the vignette or erasure of pencil marks. This method and medium of design allows for high reproduction value as well as the ability to alter the design in the future without damaging the original artwork or beginning anew.