Verse > Anthologies > > Arthur Quiller-Couch, ed. > The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse
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Arthur Quiller-Couch, comp.  The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse.  1922.
 
Rabbi Ben Ezra
By Robert Browning (1812–1889)
 
GROW old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith ‘A whole I planned,        5
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!’
 
Not that, amassing flowers,
Youth sighed ‘Which rose make ours,
Which lily leave and then as best recall?’
Not that, admiring stars,        10
It yearned ‘Nor Jove, nor Mars;
Mine be some figured flame which blends, transcends them all!’
 
Not for such hopes and fears
Annulling youth’s brief years,
Do I remonstrate: folly wide the mark!        15
Rather I prize the doubt
Low kinds exist without,
Finish’d and finite clods, untroubled by a spark.
 
Poor vaunt of life indeed,
Were man but form’d to feed        20
On joy, to solely seek and find and feast:
Such feasting ended, then
As sure an end to men;
Irks care the crop-full bird? Frets doubt the maw-cramm’d beast?
 
Rejoice we are allied        25
To That which doth provide
And not partake, effect and not receive!
A spark disturbs our clod;
Nearer we hold of God
Who gives, than of His tribes that take, I must believe.        30
 
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;        35
Learn, nor account the pang; dare, never grudge the throe!
 
For thence,—a paradox
Which comforts while it mocks,—
Shall life succeed in that it seems to fail:
What I aspired to be,        40
And was not, comforts me:
A brute I might have been, but would not sink i’ the scale.
 
What is he but a brute
Whose flesh hath soul to suit,
Whose spirit works lest arms and legs want play?        45
To man, propose this test—
Thy body at its best,
How far can that project thy soul on its lone way?
 
Yet gifts should prove their use:
I own the Past profuse        50
Of power each side, perfection every turn:
Eyes, ears took in their dole,
Brain treasured up the whole;
Should not the heart beat once ‘How good to live and learn?’
 
Not once beat ‘Praise be Thine!        55
I see the whole design,
I, who saw Power, see now Love perfect too:
Perfect I call thy plan:
Thanks that I was a man!
Maker, remake, complete,—I trust what Thou shalt do!        60
 
For pleasant is this flesh;
Our soul in its rose-mesh
Pull’d ever to the earth, still yearns for rest:
Would we some prize might hold
To match those manifold        65
Possessions of the brute,—gain most, as we did best!
 
Let us not always say
’Spite of this flesh to-day
I strove, made head, gain’d ground upon the whole!’
As the bird wings and sings,        70
Let us cry ‘All good things
Are ours, nor soul helps flesh more, now, than flesh helps soul!’
 
Therefore I summon age
To grant youth’s heritage,
Life’s struggle having so far reach’d its term:        75
Thence shall I pass, approved
A man, for aye removed
From the develop’d brute; a God though in the germ.
 
And I shall thereupon
Take rest, ere I be gone        80
Once more on my adventure brave and new:
Fearless and unperplex’d,
When I wage battle next,
What weapons to select, what armour to indue.
 
Youth ended, I shall try        85
My gain or loss thereby;
Be the fire ashes, what survives is gold:
And I shall weigh the same,
Give life its praise or blame:
Young, all lay in dispute; I shall know, being old.        90
 
For note, when evening shuts,
A certain moment cuts
The deed off, calls the glory from the grey:
A whisper from the west
Shoots—‘Add this to the rest,        95
Take it and try its worth: here dies another day.’
 
So, still within this life,
Though lifted o’er its strife,
Let me discern, compare, pronounce at last,
‘This rage was right i’ the main,        100
That acquiescence vain:
The Future I may face now I have proved the Past.’
 
For more is not reserved
To man, with soul just nerved
To act to-morrow what he learns to-day:        105
Here, work enough to watch
The Master work, and catch
Hints of the proper craft, tricks of the tool’s true play.
 
As it was better youth
Should strive, through acts uncouth,        110
Toward making, than repose on aught found made:
So better, age, exempt
From strife, should know, than tempt
Further. Thou waitedst age; wait death nor be afraid!
 
Enough now, if the Right        115
And Good and Infinite
Be named here, as thou call’st thy hand thine own,
With knowledge absolute,
Subject to no dispute
From fools that crowded youth, nor let thee feel alone.        120
 
Be there, for once and all,
Sever’d great minds from small,
Announced to each his station in the Past!
Was I, the world arraign’d,
Were they, my soul disdain’d,        125
Right? Let age speak the truth and give us peace at last!
 
Now, who shall arbitrate?
Ten men love what I hate,
Shun what I follow, slight what I receive;
Ten, who in ears and eyes        130
Match me: we all surmise,
They, this thing, and I, that: whom shall my soul believe?
 
Not on the vulgar mass
Called ‘work’, must sentence pass,
Things done, that took the eye and had the price;        135
O’er which, from level stand,
The low world laid its hand,
Found straightway to its mind, could value in a trice:
 
But all the world’s coarse thumb
And finger failed to plumb,        140
So passed in making up the main account;
All instincts immature,
All purposes unsure,
That weigh’d not as his work, yet swell’d the man’s amount:
 
Thoughts hardly to be pack’d        145
Into a narrow act,
Fancies that broke through language and escaped;
All I could never be,
All, men ignored in me,—
This I was worth to God, whose wheel the pitcher shaped.        150
 
Aye, note that Potter’s wheel,
That metaphor! and feel
Why time spins fast, why passive lies our clay,—
Thou, to whom fools propound,
When the wine makes its round,        155
‘Since life fleets, all is change; the Past gone, seize to-day!’
 
Fool! All that is, at all,
Lasts ever, past recall;
Earth changes, but thy soul and God stand sure:
What enter’d into thee,        160
That was, is, and shall be:
Time’s wheel runs back or stops; Potter and clay endure.
 
He fix’d thee mid this dance
Of plastic circumstance,
This Present, thou, forsooth, wouldst fain arrest:        165
Machinery just meant
To give thy soul its bent,
Try thee and turn thee forth, sufficiently impress’d.
 
What though the earlier grooves
Which ran the laughing loves        170
Around thy base, no longer pause and press?
What though, about thy rim,
Skull-things in order grim
Grow out, in graver mood, obey the sterner stress?
 
Look not thou down but up!        175
To uses of a cup,
The festal board, lamp’s flash and trumpet’s peal,
The new wine’s foaming flow,
The Master’s lips aglow!
Thou, heaven’s consummate cup, what needst thou with earth’s wheel?        180
 
But I need, now as then,
Thee, God, who mouldest men;
And since, not even while the whirl was worst,
Did I—to the wheel of life
With shapes and colours rife,        185
Bound dizzily—mistake my end, to slake Thy thirst:
 
So, take and use thy work!
Amend what flaws may lurk,
What strain o’ the stuff, what warpings past the aim!
My times be in thy hand!        190
Perfect the cup as plann’d!
Let age approve of youth, and death complete the same!
 
 
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