Rabbi Ben Ezra

Original Text: 
Robert Browning, Dramatis Personae (London: Chapman and Hall, 1864). PR 4209 A1 1864 ROBA.
2The best is yet to be,
3The last of life, for which the first was made:
4Our times are in His hand
5Who saith "A whole I planned,
6Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!''
7Not that, amassing flowers,
8Youth sighed "Which rose make ours,
9Which lily leave and then as best recall?"
10Not that, admiring stars,
11It yearned "Nor Jove, nor Mars;
12Mine be some figured flame which blends, transcends them all!"
13Not for such hopes and fears
14Annulling youth's brief years,
15Do I remonstrate: folly wide the mark!
16Rather I prize the doubt
17Low kinds exist without,
18Finished and finite clods, untroubled by a spark.
19Poor vaunt of life indeed,
20Were man but formed to feed
21On joy, to solely seek and find and feast:
22Such feasting ended, then
23As sure an end to men;
24Irks care the crop-full bird? Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast?
25Rejoice we are allied
26To That which doth provide
27And not partake, effect and not receive!
28A spark disturbs our clod;
29Nearer we hold of God
30Who gives, than of His tribes that take, I must believe.
31Then, welcome each rebuff
32That turns earth's smoothness rough,
33Each sting that bids nor sit nor stand but go!
34Be our joys three-parts pain!
35Strive, and hold cheap the strain;
36Learn, nor account the pang; dare, never grudge the throe!
37For thence,--a paradox
38Which comforts while it mocks,--
39Shall life succeed in that it seems to fail:
40What I aspired to be,
41And was not, comforts me:
42A brute I might have been, but would not sink i' the scale.
43What is he but a brute
44Whose flesh has soul to suit,
45Whose spirit works lest arms and legs want play?
46To man, propose this test--
47Thy body at its best,
48How far can that project thy soul on its lone way?
49Yet gifts should prove their use:
50I own the Past profuse
51Of power each side, perfection every turn:
52Eyes, ears took in their dole,
53Brain treasured up the whole;
54Should not the heart beat once "How good to live and learn?"
55Not once beat "Praise be Thine!
56I see the whole design,
57I, who saw power, see now love perfect too:
58Perfect I call Thy plan:
59Thanks that I was a man!
60  Maker, remake, complete,--I trust what Thou shalt do!"
61For pleasant is this flesh;
62Our soul, in its rose-mesh
63Pulled ever to the earth, still yearns for rest;
64Would we some prize might hold
65To match those manifold
66Possessions of the brute,--gain most, as we did best!
67Let us not always say,
68"Spite of this flesh to-day
69I strove, made head, gained ground upon the whole!"
70As the bird wings and sings,
71Let us cry "All good things
72Are ours, nor soul helps flesh more, now, than flesh helps soul!"
73Therefore I summon age
74To grant youth's heritage,
75Life's struggle having so far reached its term:
76Thence shall I pass, approved
77A man, for aye removed
78From the developed brute; a god though in the germ.
79And I shall thereupon
80Take rest, ere I be gone
81Once more on my adventure brave and new:
82Fearless and unperplexed,
83When I wage battle next,
84What weapons to select, what armour to indue.
85Youth ended, I shall try
86My gain or loss thereby;
87Leave the fire ashes, what survives is gold:
88And I shall weigh the same,
89Give life its praise or blame:
90Young, all lay in dispute; I shall know, being old.
91For note, when evening shuts,
92A certain moment cuts
93The deed off, calls the glory from the grey:
94A whisper from the west
95Shoots--"Add this to the rest,
96Take it and try its worth: here dies another day."
97So, still within this life,
98Though lifted o'er its strife,
99Let me discern, compare, pronounce at last,
100This rage was right i' the main,
101That acquiescence vain:
102The Future I may face now I have proved the Past."
103For more is not reserved
104To man, with soul just nerved
105To act to-morrow what he learns to-day:
106Here, work enough to watch
107The Master work, and catch
108Hints of the proper craft, tricks of the tool's true play.
109As it was better, youth
110Should strive, through acts uncouth,
111Toward making, than repose on aught found made:
112So, better, age, exempt
113From strife, should know, than tempt
114Further. Thou waitedst age: wait death nor be afraid!
115Enough now, if the Right
116And Good and Infinite
117Be named here, as thou callest thy hand thine own
118With knowledge absolute,
119Subject to no dispute
120From fools that crowded youth, nor let thee feel alone.
121Be there, for once and all,
122Severed great minds from small,
123Announced to each his station in the Past!
124Was I, the world arraigned,
125Were they, my soul disdained,
126Right? Let age speak the truth and give us peace at last!
127Now, who shall arbitrate?
128Ten men love what I hate,
129Shun what I follow, slight what I receive;
130Ten, who in ears and eyes
131Match me: we all surmise,
132They this thing, and I that: whom shall my soul believe?
133Not on the vulgar mass
134Called "work," must sentence pass,
135Things done, that took the eye and had the price;
136O'er which, from level stand,
137The low world laid its hand,
138Found straightway to its mind, could value in a trice:
139But all, the world's coarse thumb
140And finger failed to plumb,
141So passed in making up the main account;
142All instincts immature,
143All purposes unsure,
144That weighed not as his work, yet swelled the man's amount:
145Thoughts hardly to be packed
146Into a narrow act,
147Fancies that broke through language and escaped;
148All I could never be,
149All, men ignored in me,
150This, I was worth to God, whose wheel the pitcher shaped.
152That metaphor! and feel
153Why time spins fast, why passive lies our clay,--
154Thou, to whom fools propound,
155When the wine makes its round,
156"Since life fleets, all is change; the Past gone, seize to-day!"
157Fool! All that is, at all,
158Lasts ever, past recall;
159Earth changes, but thy soul and God stand sure:
160What entered into thee,
161That was, is, and shall be:
162Time's wheel runs back or stops: Potter and clay endure.
163He fixed thee mid this dance
164Of plastic circumstance,
165This Present, thou, forsooth, wouldst fain arrest:
166Machinery just meant
167To give thy soul its bent,
168Try thee and turn thee forth, sufficiently impressed.
169What though the earlier grooves,
170Which ran the laughing loves
171Around thy base, no longer pause and press?
172What though, about thy rim,
173Skull-things in order grim
174Grow out, in graver mood, obey the sterner stress?
175Look not thou down but up!
176To uses of a cup,
177The festal board, lamp's flash and trumpet's peal,
178The new wine's foaming flow,
179The Master's lips a-glow!
180Thou, heaven's consummate cup, what need'st thou with earth's wheel?
181But I need, now as then,
182Thee, God, who mouldest men;
183And since, not even while the whirl was worst,
184Did I,--to the wheel of life
185With shapes and colours rife,
186Bound dizzily,--mistake my end, to slake Thy thirst:
187So, take and use Thy work:
188Amend what flaws may lurk,
189What strain o' the stuff, what warpings past the aim!
190My times be in Thy hand!
191Perfect the cup as planned!
192Let age approve of youth, and death complete the same!


1] Ben Ezra, a Spanish Jew who lived in the twelfth century, was a distinguished scholar. In this poem, however, Browning does not build on historic facts. He simply needed, as the mouthpiece of the ideas of the poem, a theist familiar with the Scriptures. The point of view is the antithesis of that of the Epicurean and Sceptic, the man who lives for the passing moment. Back to Line
151] The image is biblical; see Isaiah 64: 8. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
F. E. L. Priestley
RPO Edition: 
3RP 3.165.