Last Updated September 6, 2023.
Robert Browning’s poem “Rabbi Ben Ezra” reflects on the deepest questions of human life. It contemplates the relationships between youth and old age, failure and success, humans and animals, and God and humanity.
The speaker is Rabbi Ben Ezra, a real person in the twelfth century. Browning uses the rabbi as his mouthpiece to explore ideas that all people must, at some point, confront and consider. Modern readers are thus nudged into a personal reflection on what it means to be human as the rabbi guides their thoughts.
The poem begins with an invitation: “Grow old along with me!” says the rabbi. “The best is yet to be.” Life is one whole that God plans and holds in His hand. Old age is the half that completes youth, so there is no need to be afraid.
Youth is a time of ambition, of wanting to have the best and outshine the stars. The rabbi does not blame young people for that, nor does he blame them for the “hopes and fears” of younger years. In fact, he prizes doubt, for it shows that human beings are different from “low kinds,” or animals. Humans have a “spark” that brings them greater care but also greater blessings and greater joy. It is this that separates people from animals.
The rabbi invites his audience to rejoice, for humans are “allied / To That which doth provide / And not partake.” God gives everything, including the spark that makes people more like Him than animals. There will be difficult times in life, rebuffs and stings and efforts, but people should welcome these, for they lead to learning and growth.
Striving and strain are not bad things. It is the trying, the aspiring, and the reaching toward a goal that is real success. Perceived failures only make people try harder. This “comforts me,” says the rabbi, because it means that he continues to advance in his humanity rather than becoming a brute who allows his flesh to lead his soul rather than vice versa.
The gifts God has given to humanity “should prove their use.” People must use the parts of their body, like their eyes, ears, and brains, to treasure everything the senses bring in. Human hearts should beat the words, “How good to live and learn” and “Praise be Thine!”
At his advanced age, the rabbi can now perfectly see God’s “whole design.” He recognizes both the power and the love in God’s plan, and he gives thanks that he is human. He also declares, “I trust what Thou shalt do!”
The rabbi continues that the flesh and soul go together in a human being. They are gifts from God, and the soul and flesh help each other. “All good things / Are ours,” says the rabbi with delight.
Age is “youth’s heritage.” Only in age does a person know if a life can be approved. Each person is “a god though in the germ.” There are seeds of the divine in everyone, but only the struggles of life will reveal them. In old age comes yet another “adventure brave and new,” the rabbi will meet it “Fearless and unperplexed” with just the right armor and weapons.
Now that the rabbi’s youth has ended and he has been tried by fire for many years, “what survives is gold.” He knows how his life will turn out, for he is almost at the end of it. Each day ends and is added to the log of life.
So also, each life ends, and people...
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must look back over their lives as they approach that end. They are ready to face the future only when they have “proved the Past” and properly understood it. Yet each person is only given one day at a time, so it is best to watch God work and imitate Him to live well each day and improve tomorrow.
It is, the rabbi says, better to strive in youth and even to make mistakes and sometimes act “uncouth” than to be complacent and let life go by. A better age comes from strife and experience, and people can then “wait death nor be afraid.” No one need feel alone, for “the Right / And Good and Infinite” is present.
Older people have learned the truth and can find peace. It is difficult to know whom to believe, for there are many judgments and perspectives. But the true meaning will not be found in what the “vulgar mass” calls work or in making much money. This is not success. Rather, it is just a form of accounting that makes “instincts immature” and “purposes unsure.”
True value in life is found when thoughts and imagination are free. It is also about realizing one’s “worth to God, whose wheel the pitcher shaped.” Here, the rabbi begins an extended metaphor of God as the Potter and the soul as His artistic creation. The soul is immortal. Everything else on earth changes, but “thy soul and God stand sure” and endure forever.
Therefore, the rabbi advises that people keep their eyes on what lasts even amid the changing circumstances of life. Life is both a trial and a gift to prepare for eternity. God allows the impressions made by trials to strengthen His creation.
Youth and age blend together in one life sculpted by God. The “laughing loves” of youth join the “graver mood” of old age to create a full person. The rabbi urges his audience to “Look not thou down but up!” toward God and the Heavenly feast to come.
The poem ends with a prayer to God, asking that He mold His people, amend their flaws, and use His work for His purposes. Age completes youth, and death completes life.