Many critics of his age called Robert Browning more of a philosopher than a poet. The reason for the same is the nature of his poetry that discusses in detail about the moral questions that the humans of the Victorian Era were facing. Among his philosophical dramatic monologues, A Death in the Desert has been given a very special place.
A Death in the Desert Summary
A Death in the Desert is a dramatic monologue spoken by an unknown speaker. The poem begins with the speaker telling about an ancient document that has been written in Greek and was found in the sacred chest of Pamphylax. Soon, the speaker starts to read from the document.
The document begins with a scene inside a cave in the middle of a desert. A man is dying and there are certain followers of him who surround him. Outside the cave, a Persian man is standing as a guard. The people with the man are making attempts to help him regain his health, primarily feeding him with wine, but to no effect. Finally, a young boy stands and rushes outside.
He comes back with a book containing the Gospel of John. He reads a line from the text and the man immediately opens his eyes. The reader is told at this point that this man is Saint John himself. He starts addressing the people around him and his address comprises the further parts as well as the philosophy of the poem.
In the document, Pamphylax explains what John meant to say at that time. He starts by telling that according to him, the human being is made up of the interaction between body, mind and soul. A proper harmony between these components makes up for a complete human being.
Soon, he starts talking about the nature of truth explaining that he is the last man left who has experienced the word of truth, referring to the teachings of Jesus Christ. He says that he believed in those teachings and has decided to dedicate his life for spreading them when God asked him to write them in the book.
After he wrote the things that he knew, he says that people started to doubt the things that he had written. They kept on asking him when Jesus would return and because they could not find a compelling answer, they started to doubt if John had even met Christ.
Gradually, people also started to question if he was even present with Jesus at the time of the crucifixion. He was so exhausted with these doubters that he had to take shelter in this desert cave. But now that he was here, he took a moment to explain the truth about Christ and his life.
He starts by telling that people have started to doubt the existence of Christ because they have become more materialistic in nature. As a result, everyone seeks physical proof of the existence of Jesus and his miracles. However, he says, that the miracle of Jesus is not the material things that he produced or the people that he has healed. Instead, it is the path of faith that he has shown to people.
Finally, John admits that he was not present with Christ at the time of his crucifixion. But he also tells that the reason he lied about it is that claiming his presence would have helped him to present the truth n a better way to people. he claims that his intention was to make people feel the power of Christ and make them believe in his power. But due to the demand for physical proof that people want, he has been unable to do so.
He concludes his speech by saying that man is on a constant pursuit of knowledge. In this quest, he has started to rely on material proofs and has lost his faith in Gods. Even though man feels that he has become more knowledgeable, he is actually moving on a path of ignorance.
Finally, John dies and Pamphylax records the final words from him in this document, carrying the philosophy of John forward by following it. This takes the reader to the original speaker of the poem who tells that another name called Cerinthus added an addendum to this document stating that if Jesus does not return for another twelve years, people should consider themselves as a fragment of him and practice his ideologies, which would be almost the same thing.
A Death in the Desert Analysis
A Death in the Desert is a didactic poem that speaks about the true nature of divine powers. The poem presents no conflict and states a simple philosophy that people should have faith in their beliefs. Just like John learned this from Christ, Pamphylax learned it from John and the speaker is now learning it from him.