1

In book V of Aurora Leigh (1856) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the narrator makes an elaborate simile between the condition of the Earth in the interval between the Fall and the Incarnation, and a magician's stunt:

                              Earth, shut up
By Adam, like a fakir in a box
Left too long buried, remained stiff and dry,
A mere dumb corpse, till Christ the Lord came down,
Unlocked the doors, forced open the blank eyes,
And used his kingly chrisms to straighten out
The leathery tongue turned back into the throat:
Since when, she lives, remembers, palpitates
In every limb, aspires in every breath,
Embraces infinite relations.

Did 19th-century magicians have themselves buried alive (in the manner of David Blaine)? Was there a particular stunt that could have brought this to Browning’s notice?

2

Browning alludes here to the biblical account of the raising of Lazarus in John 11. But the details don’t come from John, in whose account Lazarus’s tomb is closed with a stone (11:38), not a locked door; Jesus calls Lazarus forth (11:43) instead of anointing him with “chrism” (consecrated oil); and there is no mention of Lazarus’s eyes or tongue.

There are, however, some striking similarities between Browning’s choice of words in this passage, and an 1845 account by British officer Claude Wade of the disinterment of a fakir at the court of Ranjit Singh in Lahore in 1837. I’ve highlighted in bold words and phrases which have echoes in Browning.

I was present at the Court of Runjeet Singh when the Fakeer mentioned by the Honourable Captain Osborne was buried alive for six weeks; and, although I arrived a few hours after his actual interment, and did not, consequently, witness that part of the phenomenon, I had the testimony of Runjeet Singh himself, and others the most credible witnesses of his Court, to the truth of the Fakeer having been so buried before them; and, from my having myself been present when he was disinterred, and restored to a state of perfect vitality, in a position so close to him as to render any deception impossible, it is my firm belief that there was no collusion in producing the extraordinary fact which I have related. […]

I accompanied Runjeet Singh to the spot where the Fakeer had been buried. […] When the door was thrown open, nothing but a dark room was to be seen. Runjeet Singh and myself then entered it, in company with the servant of the Fakeer; and a light being brought, we descended about three feet below the floor of the room, into a sort of cell, where a wooden box, about four feet long by three broad, with a sloping roof, containing the Fakeer, was placed upright, the door of which had also a padlock and seal similar to that on the outside. On opening it we saw a figure enclosed in a bag of white linen, fastened by a string over the head […] the Fakeer’s servant, putting his arms into the box, took the figure out, and closing the door, placed it with its back against it, exactly as the Fakeer had been squatted (like a Hindoo idol) in the box itself.

The servant then began pouring warm water over the figure; but, as my object was to see if any fraudulent practices could be detected, I proposed to Runjeet Singh to tear open the bag, and have a perfect view of the body before any means of resuscitation were employed. I accordingly did so; and may here remark, that the bag, when first seen by us, looked mildewed, as if it had been buried some time. The legs and arms of the body were shrivelled and stiff, the face full, the head reclining on the shoulder like that of a corpse. I then called to the medical gentleman who was attending me to come down and inspect the body, which he did, but could discover no pulsation in the heart, the temples, or the arm. There was, however, a heat about the region of the brain, which no other part of the body exhibited.

The servant then recommenced bathing him with hot water, and gradually relaxing his arms and legs from the rigid state in which they were contracted, Runjeet Singh taking his right and I his left leg, to aid by friction in restoring them to their proper action; during which time the servant placed a hot wheaten cake, about an inch thick, on the top of the head,—a process which he twice or thrice renewed. He then pulled out of his nostrils and ears the wax and cotton with which they were stopped; and after great exertion opened his mouth by inserting the point of a knife between his teeth, and, while holding his jaws open with his left hand, drew the tongue forward with his right,—in the course of which the tongue flew back several times to its curved position upwards, in which it had originally been, so as to close the gullet.

He then rubbed his eyelids with ghee† (or clarified butter) for some seconds, until he succeeded in opening them, when the eyes appeared quite motionless and glazed. After the cake had been applied for the third time to the top of his head, the body was violently convulsed, the nostrils became inflated, when respiration ensued, and the limbs began to assume a natural fulness; but the pulsation was still faintly perceptible. The servant then put some of the ghee on his tongue, and made him swallow it. A few minutes afterwards, the eyeballs became dilated, and recovered their natural colour, when the Fakeer, recognising Runjeet Singh sitting close to him, articulated, in a low, sepulchral tone, scarcely audible, “Do you believe me now?”

Claude Wade (13 September 1845). ‘Replies to Dr. Braid’s Queries Regarding the Fakeer who Buried Himself Alive at Lahore in 1837.’ In James Braid (1850). Observations on Trance, or, Human Hybernation, pp. 10–14. London: John Churchill.

† ghee is a type of oil, and corresponds to Browning’s “chrism”, meaning consecrated oil.

The most striking of the similarities is the detail of the tongue being turned back in the fakir’s throat, and this convinces me that Wade’s account was the source for Browning’s simile.

If Browning had missed Braid’s Observations on Trance, she had another chance to read Wade’s account in November 1854, when it was published in The North British Review 22:43, pp. 211–212. (In an abridged version, but including most of the words and phrases I highlighted.) This was during the composition of Aurora Leigh.

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