Titling the poem "Rabbi Ben Ezra" discloses Browning's knowledge of Ezra's rabbinical wisdom extending to the cusp of doctrine and disposition. The poem reflects Browning's fondness towards the philosopher's opinions and chiefly is used as a platform of expression for the poet's individual faith. Browning elicits a symbolic image of God as a potter molding man from clod into a cup, thus representing the soul's ability of achieving spiritual fervor.

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.

The poet labels the man who believes "Since life fleets, all is change; the Past gone seize today!" a fool. At first glance, the ridicule may appear haughty and demeaning but as Browning intertwines the imagery of the Potter molding clay, the fools realize Browning's intentions are in fact genuine, deriving out of vigorous hope that man will recall and learn from the past.

The concept of religious hopefulness, noted above, is apparent through a series of affirmations selected from Browning's personal experience. He notes the flimsiness of Earthly men as time persists and consequently reveals the only concreteness resides in his soul, circumstanced by the fashioning hands of God. The upshot here arrives as Browning deems the figure of flesh with that of clay, coinciding the two with the same ability to take part in their own formation.

Questions

1. In In Memoriam A.H.H., Tennyson creates the image of himself "waiting for a hand, A hand that can be clasped no more" emphasizing emotional vacancy and unfulfilled yearning caused by the death of his friend. It appears through Tennyson's poem, the waiting hand portrays an apprehensive state of expectation that can no longer find a solution. What can be said about the contrasting functions of hands presented in Tennyson's work and in Browning's work? If anything, could the potter's hands in Rabbi Ben Ezra be a suggestion or an answer to the vacant hand presented in In Memoriam A.H.H.?

2. In appearance, the poem seems rather irrational and written in a colloquial style. Is drawing upon informal language effective in revealing his religious optimism? Had the poem been written in more a presuming formal tone, would the audience respond with less accepting minds, especially taking into account the titling men as fools?

3. After reading the poem, would Browning be considered a mystic or more of a prophet?

4. Within the poem, Browning capitalizes "Future," "Present," "Past," "Right," "Good," "Infinite," "God," and "Potter," but never the word "time." Why would Browning not capitalize the word time in the poem? Is there a deemphasizing tactic applied here?

Related Material


Victorian Overview R. Browning Leading Questions

Modified 5 February 2009