Browning's "Rabbi Ben Ezra" relates suffering to growth and suggests that God controls all things and offers lessons to us all. God controls our fate and destiny according to the following selection:

Ay, 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,
"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 entered into thee,
That was, is, and shall be:
Time's wheel runs back or stops: Potter and clay endure.

He fixed thee mid this dance
Of plastic circumstance,
This Present, thou, forsooth, wouldst fain arrest:
Machinery just meant
To give thy soul its bent,
Try thee and turn thee forth, sufficiently impressed. [lines 151-68]

Browning mocks the "live for the moment" mentality. According to him, God commands everything and even after you have died, God and his other creations will still remain. He controls all of creation, and Browning calls everything else "plastic circumstance". Your surrounding environment contributes to your morality and personality but not in the same way God does. God's power lasts forever and everything you see around you has a superficial and "plastic" presence.

1. Earlier in the poem, Browning writes "then, welcome each rebuff/that turns earth's smoothness rough". How does this passage relate to Helen Burns's religious beliefs as displayed in Jane Eyre?

2. Why does Browning choose to write a poem about Rabbi Ben Ezra since he never directly references any of Ezra's accomplishments?

3. Why does Browning choose to format this poem as a sextain? What effect does the sing-song nature of the poem have on its meaning?

4. How does this relate to Tennyson's search for meaning in his In Memoriam?

Related Material


Victorian Overview R. Browning Leading Questions

Modified 3 February 2009