Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“Rabbi Ben Ezra” is a poem about a Jewish thinker who sums up Browning’s optimistic vision of an imperfect, heaven-starved humanity searching through youthful doubts and trials for mature intimations of immortality that come in old age as a prelude to optimum spiritual fulfillment after death.
According to Browning’s philosophy of life, God created an imperfect world as a testing-ground for the full and final realization of human nature (with its immortal soul) in a heaven of spiritual perfection. Browning’s optimism was not blind; it was continually being tested by his awareness and acceptance of the evils of the world and human nature (“Then, welcome each rebuff/ That turns earth’s smoothness rough”). The optimism that once made “Rabbi Ben Ezra” a favorite of Victorian fans of Browning, however, eroded the poem’s popularity among twentieth century readers accustomed to harsher cultural realities and put off by the bouncing exhortations and affirmations in the verses. Underlying the poem’s theme of ultimate spiritual perfection behind apparent mortal limitations are three contrasting motifs of age and youth, godlike human and brute, and potter and clay.
The works of Abraham Ibn Ezra that Browning was most likely to have known were commentaries on the Old Testament. Although elements of Ezra’s philosophy are expressed in the monologue, Browning did not attempt to capture the spirit of medieval thought, but rather to express his own vigorous optimism tinged with Neoplatonic Christian idealism.
“Rabbi Ben Ezra” explores problems of faith and doubt, spirituality and evolution (for example, Darwinism) that troubled Browning’s Victorian contemporaries. In particular, the speaker’s rejection of low pleasures in the human quest for true happiness may be Browning’s dismissal of the hedonism in Edward FitzGerald’s The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1859), which had similarly employed the metaphor of the potter and the spinning wheel.