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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 ach rebuff
That turns earth's smoothness rough,
Be our jays three-parts pain!
Strive, and hold cheap the strain; Learn, nor account the pang; dare, never grudge the throe!" And if failur: 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:
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 soul 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 despieed.
“Eyes, ears took in their dole;
Brain treasured up the whole.” Therefore,
"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 ices 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 tie 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 foryouth has accomplished all of thai-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 orowded 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 is just time itself, with all its whirl and play of circumstance. Time, the revolving wheel, spins fast, and the soul lies passive like clay; but though time changes, and the wheel rushes on or turns back or stops, the impress which it gives to the clay is never lost.
"Time's wheel runs back or stops: Potter and clay endure." Therefore it is useless to lament the passage of time and the change of things, for the earth and its happenings are but the Potter's machinery, which should perish when they have served their purpose. If in the moulding of the cup, the love-grooves about the base are succeeded by grim figures of skull-things about the rim when the cup is almost finished, there is here no cause for consternation or alarm. What does it matter? Let not the cup look backward, but forward to the uses for which it is framed, the consummation of the long process, when it shall be taken into the Master's own hand at the banquet of heaven, and used to slake the Master's thirst.
“Thou, heaven's consummate cup, what needst thou with earth's
wheel ?" Therefore the cup may look forward with complacency to its completion and final removal from the wheel of Time, saying only to the Master,
"My times be in thy hand!
Perfect the cup as planned!
Such, then, is one man's patiently sought answer to the riddle of life. As we read it, we cannot help saying, “Well done, Rabbi Ben Ezra !” The whole theory is a beautiful thing, and as expressed in Browning's terse, vigorous, inspiring language, it obtains a forcefulness that is irresistible. The completeness with which it answers the demand for unity in the experiences of life, for a fulfillment of the promises of youth, and a meaning to the whole, is evident; with such a theory of things, there can be no room for despair; or even for hesitation and wavering. But, let us ask, on what foundation does it all rest? Whence comes this "knowledge absolute, subject to no dispute,” which Rabbi Ben Ezra hopes to attain later, and yet has in some measure even now? What assurance has he that his whole scheme of the Potter and 'the whirling wheel and shaping clay are not momentary illusions, a figment of his own brain—at best a revival of his old youthful habit of hoping? Truly enough, his doubts have been solved and his questions answered, but is there not a possibility that they may have been answered falsely? Above all, why does he frame his answer in exactly this form rather than another? I think that to all of these questions there is but one sufficient answer. The theory of things presented in this poem is, like every other theory of things, the theory of an individual (and may we not assume that in this case the individual is Browning himself?), and is therefore, in large measure, an expression of his personality—is in fact his theory. It is the man's own nature that expresses itself in his thought, and in this case the value of the expression is greatly increased by the fact that it may be taken as the type of a certain class of theories or ways of looking at things— the very sum and substance of a certain quality of mind, of a certain temperament. And the essence of this temper, this way of seeing things, is, I think, expressed in the word courage. Persons of this temper are invariably persons in whom doing takes precedence of mere thinking; and their answers to theoretical questions are not so much answers to the question, “How is it?” as to the question, "How will you have it?” They are strong hearts, whose creed is hope, and in whom the courage to achieve hope is never lacking. They make certain demands of life; and their theoretical principles must conform to certain requirements in order that mere life should be possible to them. There must for them be no gaps in the plan of things; there must be no broken music-no room for such things as blind chance and failure and unrelated happenings. In order that this should be so, there must be some fixed point of reference for all the daily happenings of life, some one firm, unshakable truth which shall stand unmoved amid all the changes and the shows of things. For these souls, the music of the spheres is no idle fiction; it is the supreme reality, penetrating all things, and rendering existence itself possible. Their belief in its reality is not so much a self-persuasion as a postulate which they make of things, arising from the needs of their own natures, and always with the reserve answer of doubters: “If it is not so, I will act as though it were so.” The need is the prominent thing: to my mind, the most characteristic utterance of the whole poem is this:
“But I need, now as then,
Thee, God, who mouldest men.” Those words tell the whole tale-make the whole poem comprehensible. For out of this need, this courage, this hope, grows faith.
But the two lines quoted above reveal also another aspect of Rabbi Ben Ezra's thought, and cast a side light on the whole. This implied confession that the thing postulated is in the end only postulated, that, after all, God is very far off from man and can be touched only by stretching out groping hands of faith—this thought, with its implications, gives a pathos to the closing of the poem, and reminds us that Rabbi Ben Ezra has only just now passed beyond the stage of doubt and despair. This pathetic, appealing tone may be caught in many passages; it is an undertone, though almost inaudible, throughout the whole poem. The very vehemence of its assertion of the Right, the Good and the Infinite shows that the poem is to be taken as a protesta protest against loss and failure and death. These are the things that minds of the courageous type protest against; and the systems that they frame, as well as the separate acts of their lives are all the more vehemently wrought out, all the more forceful, all the more beautiful, for the realization of a difficulty to be overcome only by means of such courage. So far from restraining their impulses, the thought of an obstacle adds but another flower to their garland of triumph.