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all of his infinite modes of revealing by half concealing himself behind his characters, the task is exceedingly difficult. But perhaps for this very reason, for the manifoldness of his thought, for his power of seeing things from numberless points of view, the task would in the case of no other poet be so well worth undertaking. I shall not attempt it with regard to his work as a whole, nor in any considerable part; but in the case of one poem I shall at least attempt to make plain the philosophy of life which he gives to one of his characters to present that character with all its implications,leaving untouched the question as to how far the views here so perfectly expressed must from that very fact be those of the author.
Rabbi Ben Ezra is a man who is at a point midway between youth and age. He stands at the apex of life, on an eminence from which he can look both ways. As he realizes this, he pauses, and looks back on the pleasant land behind and forward to the misty, uncertain road ahead-taking in at one glance youth with its noise and strife and perplexity as well as its keen enjoyments, and age with its peace as well as its deprivations; and, as it were, struck suddenly reflective by the sight of all that, he asks himself with great earnestness, what is the meaning of it all? It is a turning point in the man's life, plainly enough: the first realization of the situation has brought him to a sudden halt, struck a chill to his heart, and plunged him into a comfortless, wistful mood of questioning, hesitation and thought, bringing him for the first time into the presence of those primal doubts from which there is and can be no final escape possible to man.
Up to this time, the joy of activity, of striving and attaining, has occupied the man's whole being; youth was to him a continuous battle-field on which the world and the soul, mind and sense, take sides, and where the world is made to surrender bit by bit its treasures of youth and beauty to become the inalienable possessions of the soul. But in the midst of all of this absorbing strife and conquest, there was yet room at every step for perplexity. For all of the gains, of which surely many are good, what is best? Where much is offered, how shall one choose with perfect surety that the choice will never become cause for regret? For what one supremely good thing should one strive, and, if need be, let all else go by? If there be such a single true object of endeavor, the failure to recognize
it may be fatal. Moreover, it is the very essence of the striving temper of youth that no attainment whatever completely satisfies it: there is always a light just ahead; no matter what may be given, the youth invariably answers, "Yes, this is good, but I meant something a little bit better." And so he goes on seeking in order that he may find it. Rabbi Ben Ezra has chased this glimmering light to the top of the hill, and now stands gazing into the darkness on the other side, straining his eyes to see if perchance he may catch some stray gleams though they be fainter than ever before, or if perchance the light has vanished altogether. For youth has always placed the fulfillment of its endeavors just ahead; and now, with that fulfillment still ahead, he finds youth going and age coming to take its place. The appalling question now is, will age bring the fulfillment? The prospect is not of the brightest. Can it be that what life in its prime, with all its powers at their height, was unable to accomplish, will yet be accomplished when every day sees the decline of some power, the loss of some source of enjoyment—that a light too wavering to be fixed by the keen eyes of youth shall yet be held in view by the dim eyes of old age. In short, is it not a better, more beautiful thing to be young than to be old? And if age, if the whole of life, cannot finish the tale, the hope becomes hopeless when pushed forward into the shadow-land beyond life. The man's life is therefore, for lack of certainty, left as an unfinished thing, an unanswered riddle-at most, an unmeaning series of experiences of which the best-have already come and gone.
The need for some solution to the problem becomes imperative: the man cannot find it in his nature to acquiesce in a state of things in which doubt prevails over certainty, in which what comes so near to being an ordered cosmos is yet for the lack of something chaotic; where the separate notes may at times be clear and strong and beautiful, it is true, but where the melody that should run through the whole and make itself felt in every part is lacking. Many natures would succumb to the difficulty, would find themselves conquered by this eternal problem of youth and age, life and death, and would consent to live blindly without hope or fear. But Rabbi Ben Ezra, emerging from this turmoil of perplexity, like a bloody warrior from the battle-field, can yet, as the result of all his painful deliberation, cry out triumphantly:
"Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life for which the first was made!"
For the man's own nature is an answer to all the problems that itself can raise; and of the depths of that nature he has evolved a theory which sheds light into the darkness, supplies the missing notes, and makes the melody complete. The demand for a unifying principle has been answered; and what was all but a chaos has been converted into a cosmos where the most absolute, soul-satisfying harmony prevails. And what may be this revivifying principle, struggled after so painfully, and leading to such triumphant results? I cannot but think that the keystone of the arch, to Rabbi Ben Ezra's mind, is the word God. That is the talisman-the unseen light for which the man's whole soul has been seeking "the Everlasting Yea, wherein all contradiction is solved; wherein whoso walks and works, it is well with him." As for Browning himself as he expressed it in the poem La Saisiaz, the soul and God are for Rabbi Ben Ezra the indubitable ontological certainties: "Why, he at least believed in soul, was very sure of God." Of the exceeding potency of this conception in solving contradictions and making a beautiful unity of life, the poem is a detailed exemplification. The problems of youth and age, of attempt and failure, of soul and sense; doubts as to the true values of things, which are often to youth irresolvable; doubts as the true estimate of one's own character, which the world is so prone to estimate falsely; and, above all, the final doubt as to the purpose of life as a whole and the meaning of death-all of these are one by one resolved and transmuted by the alchemy of this potent conception.
The problem of youth, and age, which had eaten itself so cruelly into the man's heart and driven him to seek some refuge from its sickening possibilities, is here solved when life is recognized as an orderly, purposeful progress, and referred to God as its end and consummation. For the whole of life is but a vestibule, in which man's soul is prepared step by step for its true use hereafter; and therefore the final steps are as necessary as the first, if not more so, to the making of a rounded whole. It is clear, then, that "youth shows but half." Youth requires age to complete it; for age has as much to give youth as youth has to give age. Both have their uses. What
is learned in youth is not forgotten-nothing is finally lost-but "all remains the spirit's dower." Adopting this solution, we are able to put a real value on the inevitable losses and disappointments that every day brings forth. But above all, doubt, fear, perplexity are themselves to be prized most highly as indications of man's progress toward the power above him, and his advance beyond the brute. For our very suffering, provided it be suffering in the struggle upward, is a proof of our closer kindred to God who gives but does not receive.
"Then, welcome each rebuff
That turns earth's smoothness rough,
Each sting that bids nor sit nor stand but go!
Be our joys three-parts pain!
Strive, and hold cheap the strain;
Learn, nor account the pang; dare, never grudge the throe!”
And if failure must be, there is success even in failure, where the prize is a worthy one:
"What I aspired to be
And was not comforts me:
A brute I might have been, but would not sink i' the scale."
Thus the struggle goes on, in which, for its very reverses, the soul is all the more sure of triumph in the end. Each item of the earthly life has its value: it is a mistake to suppose that the triumph of sou! is to be attained only by the negation of body. Truly enough, all things are in the end subservient to soul-growth. But this manifold
of sense, which plays so prominent a part in the life of youth, is a gift of God, is a part of His plan for soul-growth, and is therefore not to be despised.
"Eyes, ears took in their dole;
"Let us cry, 'All good things
Are ours, nor soul helps flesh, now, more than flesh helps soul!'" Such is the part that youth plays in the making of a man. What, then, has age to add to this? Plainly enough, it is to give just that definiteness and roundedness to the lesson of life which the more or icas chaotic experiences of youth so evidently needed. Youth gives
knowledge, and age gives understanding; where youth was active, age takes rest, and reflects, taking in as a whole the life behind, and, with a clearer vision for the realities beyond life, is able, at last, to fix things at their true value. "Young, all lay in dispute, I shall know, being old." As in the evening there comes a time just before the final darkness when the sun sends back one more flush of light to make the day complete, just so on the border-land between life and death, there is a single illumined moment, in the light of which the past and future are made plain. And it is the province of age. to take and to use this moment. There is nothing left to strive for— youth has accomplished all of that-but it is time for rest, for reflection, for recognition of the best, to merely name the right and good and infinite
"With knowledge absolute
Subject to no dispute
From fools that crowded youth, nor let thee feel alone."
If age does even this, the good that it gives to the soul is incalculable. For during the bustle and stir of life, all men are at war in their opinions; they seem alike, but they judge differently, and at best each can only guess. Who shall arbitrate among them? But when a clearer vision shall discern the true proportions of things, the difficulties shall be solved, and to each opinion and to each man. his true place in the scale shall be assigned. For God judges men not by men's standards, but by standards of his own-by those subtle refinements of character which the faculties of men are too gross to perceive, but which in his eyes constitute the whole burden of success or failure. Not so much value does he lay upon man's deeds for these the world can estimate readily enough-but upon his intentions, upon his unfulfilled purposes, his thoughts that bore no fruitage, the things that he never did, and never said, and never was. All of these have their due place in the final account-"This I was worth to God, whose wheel the pitcher shaped." And this also the inspired vision of old age is able to appreciate, in so far as it approaches to the divine insight.
Once more, at the conclusion of the poem, Browning presents this solution of the problem of life and death in the form of a very striking figure of the potter and his wheel. God is the potter, man is the vessel which he forms, and the wheel on which he shapes it