The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Rabbi Ben Ezra” is a long poem of 192 lines expressing Robert Browning’s optimistic philosophy of life regarding both youth and old age. Youth is a time of struggle for glimpses of God’s omnipotence in an imperfect world. Old age can usher in the wisdom of spiritual maturity that comes from recognizing divine perfection behind earthly imperfection and from perceiving God’s unbounded love as well as God’s omnipotence.

Abraham Ibn Ezra (1092?-1167) was a Spanish rabbi who, in his middle years, was driven by persecution from Spain into a life of travel and scholarship. He was a theologian, a philosopher, a linguist, and a scientist. A strong believer in immortality, he found the second half of his life much more productive and satisfactory than the first half. The ideas of the poem are Browning’s, and they are not always in accord with the rabbi’s actual sentiments.

The first stanza of the poem enunciates the philosophy of the whole work and begins a series of exhortations encouraging readers to look forward to the aging process that brings a mature faith in God’s providence to take what is defective and partial in this world of seeming limitations and to make all right and whole.

Stanzas 2 through 9 refuse to chastise youth for the frustrated ambitions, doubts and confusions, and unsatisfying pleasures that serve the useful purpose of redirecting human striving for higher spiritual goals. Humankind was born to...

(The entire section is 508 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Rabbi Ben Ezra” is a dramatic monologue of thirty-two stanzas, each consisting of six lines with an experimental rhyme scheme (aabccb). The prevailing meter is iambic trimeter (“Grów óld ǎlǒng wǐth mé!”), but the rhyming third and sixth lines in each stanza employ iambic pentameter (“Th lást ǒf lífe, fǒr whích th fírst wǎs máde”). The musical effect of short and long lines of iambic beats is an alternating staccato and legato (smooth) sound system that parallels the sense of the poem’s alternating concern with dynamic yearnings and divine satisfactions, where human yearnings have their ultimate rest. Consonance and assonance permeate the poem (“Grow old along with me!/ The best is yet to be”).

The primary paradox of the poem is the reconciliation of the oppositions of earthly imperfection and divine perfection by affirming that doubt and limitation teach humanity faith in ultimate spiritual fulfillment (“For thence,—a paradox/ Which comforts while it mocks”). Metaphors abound. Human aspirations are implicitly compared to plucking flowers (lines 7-9), admiring stars (lines 10-12), and waging chivalric war (lines 79-84). Throughout the poem, the dichotomy of the material and spiritual sides of human nature is metaphorically expressed through the contraries of “clod” and “spark”; brutish “beast” and “god in the germ”; and “flesh” and “soul, in its rose-mesh.” These metaphors, in...

(The entire section is 514 words.)