“Solomon and Balkis” (Jocoseria – 1883)

Solomon King of the Jews and the Queen of Sheba, Balkis,
Talk on the ivory throne, and we well may conjecture their talk is
Solely of things sublime: why else has she sought Mount Zion,
Climbed the six golden steps, and sat betwixt lion and lion?

She proves him with hard questions: before she has reached the middle
He smiling supplies the end, straight solves them riddle by riddle;
Until, dead-beaten at last, there is left no spirit in her,
And thus would she close the game whereof she was first beginner:

"O wisest thou of the wise, world's marvel and well-nigh monster,
One crabbed question more to construe or vulgo conster!
Who are those, of all mankind, a monarch of perfect wisdom
Should open to, when they knock at spheteron do that's his dome?"

The King makes tart reply: "Whom else but the wise his equals
Should he welcome with heart and voice? since, king though he be, such weak walls
Of circumstance power and pomp divide souls each from other
That whoso proves kingly in craft I needs must acknowledge my brother.

"Come poet, come painter, come sculptor, come builder whatever his condition,
Is he prime in his art? We are peers! My insight has pierced the partition
And hails for the poem, the picture, the statue, the building my fellow!
Gold's gold though dim in the dust: court-polish soon turns it yellow.

"But tell me in turn, O thou to thy weakling sex superior,
That for knowledge hast travelled so far yet seemest no whit the wearier, —
Who are those, of all mankind, a queen like thyself, consummate
In wisdom, should call to her side with an affable 'Up hither, come, mate!' "

"The Good are my mates — how else? Why doubt it?" the Queen upbridled:
"Sure even above the Wise, or in travel my eyes have idled, —
I see the Good stand plain: be they rich, poor, shrewd or simple,
If Good they only are. . . . Permit me to drop my wimple!"

And, in that bashful jerk of her body, she peace, thou scoffer! —
Jostled the King's right-hand stretched courteously help to proffer,
And so disclosed a portent: all unaware the Prince eyed
The Ring which bore the Name turned outside now from inside!

The truth-compelling Name! and at once "I greet the Wise — Oh,
Certainly welcome such to my court with this proviso:
The building must be my temple, my person stand forth the statue,
The picture my portrait prove, and the poem my praise you cat, you!"

But Solomon nonplussed? Nay! "Be truthful in turn!" so bade he:
"See the Name, obey its hest!" And at once subjoins the lady
— "Provided the Good are the young, men strong and tall and proper,
Such servants I straightway enlist, which means . . . " but the blushes stop her.

"Ah, Soul," the Monarch sighed, "that wouldst soar yet ever crawlest,
How comes it thou canst discern the greatest yet choose the smallest,
Unless because heaven is far, where wings find fit expansion,
While creeping on all-fours suits, suffices the earthly mansion?

"Aspire to the Best! But which? There are Bests and Bests so many,
With a habitat each for each, earth's Best as much Best as any!
On Lebanon roots the cedar soil lofty, yet stony and sandy —
While hyssop, of worth in its way, on the wall grows low but handy.

"Above may the Soul spread wing, spurn body and sense beneath her;
Below she must condescend to plodding unbuoyed by æther.
In heaven I yearn for knowledge, account all else inanity;
On earth I confess an itch for the praise of fools that's Vanity.

"It is nought, it will go, it can never presume above to trouble me;
But here, why, it toys and tickles and teases, howe'er I redouble me
In a doggedest of endeavours to play the indifferent. Therefore,
Suppose we resume discourse? Thou hast travelled thus far: but wherefore?

"Solely for Solomon's sake, to see whom earth styles Sagest?"
Through her blushes laughed the Queen. "For the sake of a Sage? The gay jest!
On high, be communion with Mind there, Body concerns not Balkis:
Down here, do I make too bold? Sage Solomon, one fool's small kiss!"

A delightfully playful and little known poem shows the softer, sweeter side of Browning’s humor. Cooke says that the conversation between King Solomon and Queen Balkis “contains an amount of humor such as does not appear in the Talmudic or other legends.” Browning’s imagination, of course, allowed him to see humor in even the driest of legends. Based on Arabian legends, Queen Balkis of Sheba (the legendary Queen of Sheba) was invited to visit King Solomon’s palace. According to the legends, she “was quite the equal to King Solomon in the answering of riddles.” In this poem, Browning humorously aligns these two wise sages together in kind of a wisest of the wisest riddle contest. He prefaces this royal tournament by explaining: “We may conjecture their talk is/Solely of things sublime . . .” The narrator offers insights into their “sublime” and lofty discussion with Queen Balkis posing riddles which theologians, philosophers and poets have wrestled with since there were such professions.

Queen Balkis begins by asking King Solomon whom he considers to be his equal or peer. Solomon replies: “‘Whom else but the wise his equals . . .” He invites all the wise ones: “‘Come poet, come painter, come sculptor, come builder . . . / All hails – for the poem, the picture, the statue, the building . . .” Then King Solomon asks Queen Balkis the same question (first addressing her, humorously, as the “weakling sex superior”) and she replies that “the Good” are “even above the Wise,” and “I see the Good stand plain: be they rich, poor, shrewd or simple . . .” Following these words, the Queen drops her wimple (because it rhymes with simple?) and the King, in the hustle to retrieve it, hands it to the Queen with his right hand outstretched – palm up – whereby his ring is exposed “turned outside now from inside!” The inside part of the ring that can only be seen palm-side, not the part that the world can see. Inscribed on the ring is “the Name,” “the truth-compelling Name.” The “Ineffable Name” written on the ring may be the word “Truth,” or some other, but, I would argue, taken from the context of the poem, more than likely, the name written on the ring bears Solomon’s name. Pearsall writes that the sudden exposing of this “Name” on the ring “causes the wisest man in the world to admit that his motivation is vanity rather than love of wisdom, and causes Balkis, Queen of Shiba, to admit (laughing and kissing him) that she has come on her famous visit not to hear his wisdom but to experience his lovemaking.” According to the legend, King Solomon did, in fact, possess a ring that granted him special powers including the ability to communicate with animals. 

Having been caught out, King Solomon says: “you cat, you!” Now, King Solomon, speaking truthfully (since the Queen has seen the name engraved on the ring), reluctantly explains that yes, he welcomes the Wise as his peers and equals so long as the “wise” poet writes a poem giving him praise, the “wise” painter paints his portrait, the “wise” sculptor creates a statue of him and the “wise” builder constructs his temple. In this unexpected and humorous admission of the Great Wise King Solomon’s immense vanity, we see the blinding and hilarious vitality of the power of Truth. The King is forced to speak the Truth behind the truth, since the dropping of the wimple was merely a ruse by Queen Balkis to force the King to show her the “name” written on the inside of the ring. Then, King Solomon tells the Queen to do the same, that is, tell the real truth. This she does by saying: “Provided the Good are the young, men strong and tall and proper . . .” She blushes after this truthful confession of her unlimited lust; the “Good” are her peers provided they are good young men, "strong and tall and proper."

Both King Solomon and Queen Balkis have confessed their innermost Truths; the King’s flaw is his vanity and the Queen’s fault of character is her lust. King Solomon lets out a sigh and asks the rhetorical question (paraphrased): “Why must the human soul forever crawl when it should soar!” He adds that we should “Aspire to the Best!” but continues that statement with a riddle: “There are Bests and Bests so many,” which one is Best? He answers his own question with: “earth’s Best as much Best as any!” He explains that he “In heaven I yearn for knowledge,” but that, in reality, here “On earth I confess an itch for the praise of fools – that’s Vanity.” No matter how hard he “redoubles” his efforts to be “indifferent” to its power, “it toys and tickles and teases” him, regardless of the “doggedest of endeavors” to not be affected. He breaks from this confessional revelry and asks the Queen, rather bluntly, “Thou has traveled thus far: but wherefore?”  She laughs with a blush and says in heaven, “there, Body concerns not Balkis:/Down here,–/do I make too bold? Sage Solomon,– one fool’s small kiss!” Though she is not concerned with the body in heaven (there), she is very aware of the physical passions “Down here” on earth. (“Down here” may also refer to where her hands are placed on her lap.)

Should the reader, after completing the poem, return to the beginning where the narrator says: “we well may conjecture their talk is/Solely of things sublime,” we have an all new interpretation of the word “sublime.” At first, we may have interpreted it as “lofty,” “heaven-ward,” “inspirational,” or “transcending.” But on reflection, we are now interpreting the word with a softer, more intimate human definition including “passionate,” “delightful” and “secretive” allowing for natural human weaknesses – including the King’s vanity and the Queen’s lust.

Browning has delicately woven into the very fabric of this marvelous little poem an unparalleled and humorously quaint tale of two not-so-young people flirting with each other as if they were teenagers. The reader soon realizes that the ever-so wise and judicious King Solomon and Queen Balkis are not interested in trying to solve or understand life’s great mysteries under Browning’s pen; they do not discuss social, political, religious or theological things of weight as one would expect of these two great Monarchs. What they do converse about are their innermost secrets while flirting and toying and tickling and teasing each other as is the custom of all new young lovers.

The poem ends with (or perhaps really begins with) “one fool’s small kiss!” The next humorous poem ends the same way, but the kissing couple could not be more unlike King Solomon and Queen Balkis.

“Muckle-Mouth Meg” Robert Browning (Asolando – 1889)

FROWNED the Laird on the Lord: "So, red-handed I catch thee?
Death-doomed by our Law of the Border!
We've a gallows outside and a chief to dispatch thee:
Who trespasses--hangs: all's in order."

He met frown with smile, did the young English gallant:
Then the Laird's dame: "Nay, Husband, I beg!
He's comely: be merciful! Grace for the callant
--If he marries our Muckle-mouth Meg!"

"No mile-wide-mouthed monster of yours do I marry:
Grant rather the gallows!" laughed he.
"Foul fare kith and kin of you--why do you tarry?"
"To tame your fierce temper!" quoth she.

"Shove him quick in the Hole, shut him fast for a week:
Cold, darkness and hunger work wonders:
Who lion-like roars now, mouse-fashion will squeak,
And 'it rains' soon succeed to 'it thunders.'"

A week did he bide in the cold and the dark
--Not hunger: for duly at morning
In flitted a lass, and a voice like a lark
Chirped "Muckle-mouth Meg still ye're scorning?

"Go hang, but here's parritch to hearten ye first!"
Did Meg's muckle-mouth boast within some
Such music as yours, mine should match it or burst:
No frog-jaws! So tell folk, my Winsome!"

Soon week came to end, and, from Hole's door set wide,
Out he marched, and there waited the lassie:
"Yon gallows, or Muckle-mouth Meg for a bride!
Consider! Sky's blue and turf's grassy:

"Life's sweet: shall I say ye wed Muckle-mouth Meg?"
"Not I" quoth the stout heart: "too eerie
The mouth that can swallow a bubblyjock's egg:
Shall I let it munch mine? Never, Dearie!"

"Not Muckle-mouth Meg? Wow, the obstinate man!
Perhaps he would rather wed me!"
"Ay, would he--with just for a dowry your can!"
"I'm Muckle-mouth Meg" chirruped she.

"Then so--so--so--so--" as he kissed her apace--
"Will I widen thee out till thou turnest
From Margaret Minnikin-mou', by God's grace,
To Muckle-mouth Meg in good earnest!"
A young, handsome Scottish lad is arrested for trespassing and is sentenced to death by the “Law of the Border.” The Lady of the land (the Lord’s wife), intervenes and begs for mercy; she is able to broker a deal: if the young man agrees to marry their daughter, Muckle-Mouth Meg, his life will be spared. The proud young man scoffs at the idea of marrying the “‘mile-wide-mouthed monster” of a daughter (he has never seen her) and concludes: “‘Grant rather the gallows!” Determined to marry off their daughter to this quick tempered and proud “callant,” the parents decide to imprison the lad for a week without food because “Cold, darkness, and hunger work wonders . . .”, and the “lion” will become a “mouse.” He spends a week in the jail but does not go hungry; it seems a young lass, who remains unseen, with the voice of “a lark” brings him food every day. She asks him if he is still “scorning” Muckle-mouth Meg and the stubborn young man admits “No frog-jaws” will become his wife.

At the end of his sentence, one week later, the young lad is released from prison and again is given the choice to marry Muckle-mouth Meg or swing from the gallows. Again, he chooses death over marriage; he explains that Meg’s muckle-mouth is “too eerie/The mouth that can swallow a bubblyjock’s egg;/Shall I let it munch mine?”  Browning’s word choice in the poem is immensely humorous. The young lad describes the daughter as a “mile-wide-mouthed monster,” as having “frog-jaws,” and a “mouth that can swallow a bubblyjock’s egg.” Even the verb “munch” instead of the word “kiss” is wonderfully funny. The young, pretty girl with the voice “like a lark” who had been giving him food while imprisoned, suggests that rather than marry Muckle-mouth Meg, “Perhaps he would rather wed me!” The young man, much taken by the young girl’s kindness and beauty (and, of course to avoid the gallows) instantly accepts her proposal with the odd words “with just for a dowry your can!” Just then, the pretty young lass confesses that she is, in fact, Muckly-mouth Meg and the young man stammers: “Then so- so- so- so-“ he says, as he grabs and kisses the girl to transform Margaret Minnikin-mou’s (her real name) sweet, lovely, normal mouth “To Muckle-Mouth Meg in good earnest!”

As Browning leaves the young man ironically and passionately doing his best to transform pretty Margaret’s mouth in the previously abhorrent frog-jawed monster, a whole different kind of monster appears in the next poem.

“Doctor” by Robert Browning: (Dramatic Idyls, Second Series – 1880)

A Rabbi told me: On the day allowed
Satan for carping at God's rule, he came,
Fresh from our earth, to brave the angel-crowd.

"What is the fault now?" "This I find to blame:
Many and various are the tongues below,
Yet all agree in one speech, all proclaim

" 'Hell has no might to match what earth can show:
Death is the strongest-born of Hell, and yet
Stronger than Death is a Bad Wife, we know.'

"Is it a wonder if I fume and fret—  
Robbed of my rights, since Death am I, and mine
The style of Strongest? Men pay Nature's debt

"Because they must at my demand; decline
To pay it henceforth surely men will please,
Provided husbands with bad wives combine

"To baffle Death. Judge between me and these!"
"Thyself shalt judge. Descend to earth in shape
Of mortal, marry, drain from froth to lees

"The bitter draught, then see if thou escape
Concluding, with men sorrowful and sage, 
A Bad Wife's strength Death's self in vain would ape!"

How Satan entered on his pilgrimage,
Conformed himself to earthly ordinance,
Wived and played husband well from youth to age

Intrepidly—I leave untold, advance
Through many a married year until I reach
A day when—of his father's countenance

The very image, like him too in speech
As well as thought and deed,—the union's fruit
Attained maturity. "I needs must teach  

"My son a trade: but trade, such son to suit,
Needs seeking after. He a man of war?
Tox) cowardly! A lawyer wins repute—

"Having to toil and moil, though—both which are
Beyond this sluggard. There's Divinity:
No, that's my own bread-winner—that be far

"From my poor offspring! Physic? Ha, we'll try
If this be practicable. Where's my wit?
Asleep?—since, now I come to think . . . Ay, ay!

"Hither, my son! Exactly have I hit 
On a profession for thee. Medicus—
Behold, thou art appointed! Yea, I spit

"Upon thine eyes, bestow a virtue thus
That henceforth not this human form I wear
Shalt thou perceive alone, but—one of us

"By privilege—thy fleshly sight shall bear
Me in my spirit-person as I walk
The world and take my prey appointed there.

"Doctor once dubbed—what ignorance shall baulk
Thy march triumphant? Diagnose the gout 
As colic, and prescribe it cheese for chalk—

"No matter! All's one: cure shall come about
And win thee wealth—fees paid with such a roar
Of thanks and praise alike from lord and lout

"As never stunned man's ears on earth before.
'How may this be?' Why, that's my sceptic! Soon
Truth will corrupt thee, soon thou doubt'st no more!

"Why is it I bestow on thee the boon
Of recognizing me the while I go
Invisibly among men, morning, noon,  

"And night, from house to house, and—quick or slow—
Take my appointed prey? They summon thee
For help, suppose: obey the summons! so!

"Enter, look round! Where's Death? Know—I am he,
Satan who work all evil: I who bring
Pain to the patient in whate'er degree.

"I, then, am there: first glance thine eye shall fling
Will find me—whether distant or at hand,
As I am free to do my spiriting.

"At such mere first glance thou shalt understand  
Wherefore I reach no higher up the room
Than door or window, when my form is scanned.

"Howe'er friends' faces please to gather gloom,
Bent o'er the sick,—howe'er himself desponds,—
In such case Death is not the sufferer's doom.

"Contrariwise, do friends rejoice my bonds
Are broken, does the captive in his turn
Crow 'Life shall conquer'? Nip these foolish fronds

"Of hope a-sprout, if haply thou discern
Me at the head—my victim's head, be sure!  
Forth now! This taught thee, little else to learn!"

And forth he went. Folk heard him ask demure,
"How do you style this ailment? (There he peeps,
My father, through the arras!) Sirs, the cure

"Is plain as A. B. C.! Experience steeps
Blossoms of pennyroyal half an hour
In sherris. Sumat!—Lo, how sound he sleeps—

"The subject you presumed was past the power
Of Galen to relieve!" Or else, "How's this?
Why call for help so tardily? Clouds lour  

"Portentously indeed, Sirs! (Naught's amiss:
He's at the bed-foot merely.) Still, the storm
May pass averted—not by quacks, I wis,

"Like you, my masters! You, forsooth, perform
A miracle? Stand, sciolists, aside!
At ignorance blood, ne'er so cold, grows warm!"

Which boasting by result was justified,
Big as might words be: whether drugged or left
Drugless, the patient always lived, not died.

Great the heir's gratitude, so nigh bereft  
Of all he prized in this world: sweet the smile
Of disconcerted rivals: "Cure?—say, theft

"From Nature in despite of Art—so style
This off-hand kill-or-cure work! You did much,
I had done more: folks cannot wait awhile!"

But did the case change? was it—"Scarcely such
The symptoms as to warrant our recourse
To your skill, Doctor! Yet since just a touch

"Of pulse, a taste of breath, has all the force
With you of long investigation claimed  
By others,—tracks an ailment to its source

"Intuitively,—may we ask unblamed
What from this pimple you prognosticate?"
"Death!" was the answer, as he saw and named

The coucher by the sick man's head. "Too late
You send for my assistance. I am bold
Only by Nature's leave, and bow to Fate!
"Besides, you have my rivals: lavish gold!
How comfortably quick shall life depart
Cosseted by attentions manifold!  

"One day, one hour ago, perchance my art
Had done some service. Since you have yourselves
Chosen—before the horse—to put the cart,

"Why, Sirs, the sooner that the sexton delves
Your patient's grave, the better! How you stare
—Shallow, for all the deep books on your shelves!

"Fare you well, fumblers!" Do I need declare
What name and fame, what riches recompensed
The Doctor's practice? Never anywhere

Such an adept as daily evidenced  
Each new vaticination! Oh, not he
Like dolts who dallied with their scruples, fenced

With subterfuge, nor gave out frank and free
Something decisive! If he said "I save
The patient," saved he was: if "Death will be

"His portion," you might count him dead. Thus brave,
Behold our worthy, sans competitor
Throughout the country, on the architrave

Of Glory's temple golden-lettered for
Machaon redivivus! So, it fell  
That, of a sudden, when the Emperor

Was smit by sore disease, I need not tell
If any other Doctor's aid was sought
To come and forthwith make the sick Prince well.

"He will reward thee as a monarch ought.
Not much imports the malady; hut then,
He clings to life and cries like one distraught

"For thee—who, from a simple citizen,
Mayst look to rise in rank,—nay, haply wear
A medal with his portrait,—always when  

"Recovery is quite accomplished. There!
Pass to the presence!" Hardly has he crossed
The chamber's threshold when he halts, aware

Of who stands sentry by the head. All's lost,
"Sire, naught avails my art: you near the goal,
And end the race by giving up the ghost."
"How?" cried the monarch: "Names upon your roll
Of half my subjects rescued by your skill—
Old and young, rich and poor—crowd cheek by jowl
"And yet no room for mine? Be saved I will!  
Why else am I earth's foremost potentate?
Add me to these and take as fee your fill

"Of gold—that point admits of no debate
Between us: save me, as you can and must,—
Gold, till your gown's pouch cracks beneath the weight!"

This touched the Doctor. "Truly a home-thrust,
Parent, you will not parry! Have I dared
Entreat that you forego the meal of dust

"—Man that is snake's meat—when I saw prepared
Your daily portion? Never! Just this once,  
Go from his head, then,—let his life be spared!"

Whisper met whisper in the gruff response:
"Fool, I must have my prey: no inch I budge
From where thou see'st me thus myself ensconce."

"Ah," moaned the sufferer, "by thy look I judge
Wealth fails to tempt thee: what if honours prove
More efficacious? Nought to him I grudge

"Who saves me. Only keep my head above
The cloud that's creeping round it—I'll divide
My empire with thee! No? What's left but—love?  

"Does love allure thee? Well then, take as bride
My only daughter, fair beyond belief!
Save me—to-morrow shall the knot be tied!"

"Father, you hear him! Respite ne'er so brief
Is all I beg: go now and come again
Next day, for aught I care: respect the grief

"Mine will be if thy first-born sues in vain!"
"Fool, I must have my prey!" was all he got
In answer. But a fancy crossed his brain.

"I have it! Sire, methinks a meteor shot 
Just now across the heavens and neutralized
Jove's salutary influence: 'neath the blot

"Plumb are you placed now: well that I surmised
The cause of failure! Knaves, reverse the bed!"
"Stay!" groaned the monarch, "I shall be capsized—

"Jolt—jolt—my heels uplift where late my head
Was lying—sure I'm turned right round at last!
What do you say now, Doctor?" Nought he said,

For why? With one brisk leap the Antic passed
From couch-foot back to pillow,—as before,  
Lord of the situation. Long aghast

The Doctor gazed, then "Yet one trial more
Is left me" inwardly he uttered. "Shame
Upon thy flinty heart! Do I implore

"This trifling favour in the idle name
Of mercy to the moribund? I plead
The cause of all thou dost affect: my aim

"Befits my author! Why would I succeed?
Simply that by success I may promote
The growth of thy pet virtues—pride and greed.  

"But keep thy favours!—curse thee! I devote
Henceforth my service to the other side.
No time to lose: the rattle's in his throat.

"So,—not to leave one last resource untried,—
Run to my house with all haste, somebody!
Bring me that knobstick thence, so often plied

"With profit by the astrologer—shall I
Disdain its help, the mystic Jacob's-Staff?
Sire, do but have the courage not to die

"Till this arrive! Let none of you dare laugh!  
Though rugged its exterior, I have seen
That implement work wonders, send the chaff

"Quick and thick flying from the wheat—I mean,
By metaphor, a human sheaf it threshed
Flail-like. Go fetch it! Or—a word between

"Just you and me, friend!—go bid, unabashed,
My mother, whom you'll find there, bring the stick
Herself—herself, mind!" Out the lackey dashed

Zealous upon the errand. Craft and trick
Are meat and drink to Satan: and he grinned 
—How else?—at an excuse so politic

For failure: scarce would Jacob's-Staff rescind
Fate's firm decree! And ever as he neared
The agonizing one, his breath like wind

Froze to the marrow, while his eye-flash seared
Sense in the brain up: closelier and more close
Pressing his prey, when at the door appeared

—Who but his Wife the Bad? Whereof one dose,
One grain, one mite of the medicament,
Sufficed him. Up he sprang. One word, too gross  

To soil my lips with,—and through ceiling went
Somehow the Husband. "That a storm's dispersed
We know for certain by the sulphury scent!

"Hail to the Doctor! Who but one so versed
In all Dame Nature's secrets had prescribed
The staff thus opportunely? Style him first
"And foremost of physicians!" "I've imbibed
Elixir surely," smiled the prince,—"have gained
New lease of life. Dear Doctor, how you bribed

"Death to forego me, boots not: you've obtained  
My daughter and her dowry. Death, I've heard,
Was still on earth the strongest power that reigned,

"Except a Bad Wife!" Whereunto demurred
Nowise the Doctor, so refused the fee
—No dowry, no bad wife!

  "You think absurd
This tale?"—the Rabbi added: "True, our Talmud
Boasts sundry such: yet—have our elders erred
In thinking there's some water there, not all mud?"
I tell it, as the Rabbi told it me.

This poem, writes Halliday in Robert Browning: His Life and Work, is “a short story that should be included in any anthology of comic verse.” Browning prefaces this delightfully comic tale with the words “A Rabbi told me,” and proceeds to re-tell the story according to the Rabbi’s reading of the Talmud, which, he intimates, may have a grain of truth to it. As the story goes, Satan is allowed, one day, “for carping at god’s rule” whereby he ascends to heaven “to brave the angle-crowd.” 

Immediately the reader is prepared to hear a comic tale, the very presence of the Devil meeting with God in heaven draws a smile. God asks Satan “What is the fault now?” The adverb ‘now’ is itself humorous, since it is God who uses it, much like an impatient mother who asks her child: “What are you crying about now?” Satan takes this opportunity to complain that all of the denizens of hell agree on one point alone – the point being that “Death is the strongest-born of Hell,” or, in other words, Satan’s greatest strength is Death. God probably nods at this complaint and Satan continues, but all agree that “Stronger than Death is a Bad Wife.” Satan whines, it is not fair, not right for a bad wife to be more powerful than Death itself. The story could have easily ended here with the punch line “Stronger than Death is a Bad Wife,” but Browning elaborates the story in a comic reverse, beginning with the punch line.
God sagely advises the devil to “Descend to earth in shape / Of mortal,” to become a human and live life as all humans must: to grow up, marry, raise a family and see for himself whether or not a bad wife is stronger than death. So Satan becomes a mortal, marries and has a son. When his son comes of age, the devil (also a mortal human) decides that his son needs to find “a trade.” First the father considers the military, but rejects this choice because his son is “Too cowardly.” Then he hits on the idea of “a lawyer,” but this too goes by the wayside because his son is too lazy. Then he considers “Divinity” but says, “No, that’s my own bread-winner.” The inherent humor of Satan claiming his trade to be “Divinity” is pure Browning. As Satan struggles to find a proper profession for his son, he says, comically: “Where’s my wit? / Asleep? – since, now I come to think . . . Ay, ay! / Hither my son!” The colloquial, slightly befuddled language Satan uses adds to the humor. Finally, Satan arrives at the profession of “Medicus” and, making this decision, he appoints his son to be a doctor. The son, of course, has absolutely no training or experience in his new profession making the irony of the title especially fun. It is interesting to note that while his fame grows throughout the land, the son is nothing more than a greedy quack. Satan advises his son on his duties: “Doctor once dubbed – what ignorance shall balk / Thy march triumphant!” He explains that the son’s diagnosis and treatment of all illness is of “No matter!” He tells his son that it is perfectly acceptable to “Diagnose the gout / As cholic, and prescribe it cheese for chalk – . . .” Whatever affliction a patient might have is not important because Satan will decide the fate. While anointing his son physician-ship, the father explains that, henceforth, his son will be able to perceive the “spirit-person” of his demonic real self, otherwise known as Death. Together, father and son, the daunting duo, Death and the doctor, travel throughout the land, “morning, noon, / And night, from house to  house,” so that Death can claim his “prey.” Satan tells his son that he will stand near the head of the sick, unseen by other mortals, so that the son will know that the person will not remain among the living. When he stands at a patient’s feet, the patient will live. With this short explanation, the invisible father and inexperienced but visible son begin their rounds.

Eventually the doctor’s fame spreads throughout the land (and for all the wrong reasons) – some of his patients live while others die; either way, the doctor can claim his fees. When death is the result, the son has ready excuses such as: “Why call for help so tardily?” or that the disease was far too progressed to be cured. Of course, the reader understands that the cure or death of the patient has nothing to do with the doctor; it is all decided by Death claiming his “prey.” When the doctor sees his invisible father standing at the feet of a patient, he knows that life will be the result and he can thereby dole out any kind of medicinal concoction to increase his notoriety and reputation.

One day, the Emperor of the land “was smit by sore disease,” and the now famous doctor is called. (Browning often uses remote words for comic effect as he does here with “smit” rather than the standard “smitten.”) When the doctor enters the King’s bedchamber, who should he see standing near the Emperor’s head but dear old Dad. The King pleads for the doctor to work his magic and save his life; he is desperate. First he offers the doctor gold, as much gold as he can carry. The greedy doctor, of course, would surely like to have his fill of gold so he asks his invisible father to “‘forgo the meal of dust,” a quaint yet humorous metaphor for death. He asks Death a second time to spare the King, the “‘Man that is snake meat,” another irreverent metaphor. Dear old Dad replies: “Fool, I must have my prey.” The King mistakenly thinks, since he remains on the edge of death, that the doctor is not tempted by the world’s golden lucre so he offers a second prize, if only his life be saved. This prize is power; the King offers the doctor up to half his kingdom. Sonny looks to Pop who, as expected, refuses to change his mind. Then the King offers a last reward, his “only daughter, fair beyond belief!” The King promises “‘to-morrow shall the knot be tied!”

To this very attractive offer, the doctor begs his father to leave and “come again / Next day;” by doing so, the King will still die, but not before the doctor has won the King’s beautiful daughter for his bride. This, among other details, shows just how un-doctor-like this doctor really is. The request is again refused when Death repeats: “‘Fool, I must have my prey.” Now the pressure builds; the doctor is intent on marrying the comely Princess (along with gathering gold and power) and suddenly has a bolt of inspiration. In a very comic scene, the doctor exclaims: “I have it!” and demands the King’s attendants to spin the bed about, a full 180˚ so that Death will be standing at the King’s feet rather than his head (thus escaping death). The astonished (and dying) King shouts: “‘Stay . . . I shall be capsized / Jolt – jolt my heels uplift where late my head/Was lying.” The not so clever doctor’s “antic” is quickly foiled because with “one brisk leap” over the bed, Satan resumes his invisible stance at the King’s head. Completely shocked by his father’s nimble leap, the doctor resolves to try one last trick; he plans to cast “Shame / Upon the flinty heart!” He plots to appeal to his father’s “‘pet virtues – pride and greed.” Pride and greed are, of course, two of the seven deadly sins, but in the mind of the devil, they are, naturally and comically, virtues. The doctor, quite cleverly, tells one of the King’s attendants to run to the doctor’s house to fetch the “knobstick,” “the mystic Jacob’s-staff,” an implement used by astrologers. Dear old Dad can not resist watching his son’s foolish attempt to thwart his decision by employing the use of so impotent a tool. But the doctor actually tosses his father a red herring; just before the “lackey” servant departs for the “knobstick,” the doctor whispers instructions to him (so that Dad can not hear) and says: “bring the stick” and “‘my mother . . . /  Herself – herself, mind!”

While the attendant is off fetching both the “knobstick” and the doctor’s mother, Death approaches the King, nearer and nearer, “‘closelier and more close / Pressing his prey … Just then, the door to the King’s bedroom opens and “Who but [appeared was] his Wife the Bad?” with just “‘one dose, / One grain, one mite of the medicament,” the Devil jumps up from beside the King’s head and flies “through the ceiling” after cursing, Browning tells us, with “One word, too gross / To soil [the speaker’s] lips with,” and leaves behind the “sulphury scent” of Hell. With Death’s departure, the King recovers, everyone praises the doctor and the King promises him his “daughter and her dowry.” The doctor, having just witnessed the effect his mother (Bad Wife) had on his father, declines the offer with the simple explanation: “‘No dowry, no bad Wife!” (??).

The son may be too cowardly, too lazy, too greedy and a complete nincompoop in the field of medicine, but at least he is a keen observer of his parents. Having seen the effect his mother had on his father, that is the Bad Wife forcing Dad to plow through the ceiling in abject terror, the son is sufficiently astute to decline the King’s daughter for his bride. As the doctor learns a smidgen of wisdom by the end of the poem, the next two characters begin the poem with an ultimate endowment of wisdom; what they do with their combined wisdom creates a very different and humorous poem indeed.