"Man Partly Is And Wholly Hopes To Be"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: In this long poem, supposedly an account of the death of St. John written by a first century Christian, Browning sets forth several of his favorite religious and philosophical concepts. Among such concepts the one repeated most frequently in his other poems is that man is unique in the universe because he alone strives to better himself; this unique quality is man's blessing but also his curse, for he will never be satisfied with what he thinks he wants. The process is, therefore, an eternal striving for an unattainable goal, but neither Browning nor St. John, his spokesman, despairs over the futility implied in this struggle. Quite the contrary: the struggle, not the goal, should give man the greatest degree of available happiness; a man who sets such a low goal that he can attain it will earn only the misery of not being able to strive for a higher.

. . . man knows partly but conceives beside,
Creeps ever on from fancies to the fact,
And in this striving, this converting air
Into a solid he may grasp and use,
Finds progress, man's distinctive mark alone,
Not God's, and not the beasts': God is, they are,
Man partly is and wholly hopes to be. . . .
Man, therefore, thus conditioned, must expect
He could not, what he knows now, know at first;
What he considers that he knows to-day,
Come but to-morrow, he will find misknown. . . .