Religious imagery permeates Browning’s “Rabbi Ben Ezra” in an attempt to bring the reader in touch with holy ideals. The title character functions as God’s mouthpiece; he is an authoritative and enlightened figure who recognizes the path to salvation and wants others to know it as well. Ben Ezra seeks to steer the reader away from the idea that death is end of the human experience. Instead, he hopes to assuage the unease that infects everyone at the possibility of a bleak, and nonexistent, future:

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith "A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!"

Continuing the religious themes, the narrator draws upon God's role as the Creator to highlight a common mode of thought amongst young people and how they decide to live their lives on earth:

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!"

Ben Ezra, on the other hand, disagrees vehemently with this sentiment; it embraces only the physical, tangible world as living beings know it while ignoring the everlasting life offered by God:

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.

But Ben Ezra's message brims with hope. He does not preach about the eternal damnation of these foolish souls but rather reminds others about the worthlessness of fear. Humans have no reason to dread the inevitable death of the body because God guarantees that the soul will outlive it in the afterlife. Their methods of trying to conquer these fears are wrong; they only ensure a brief stint of happiness rather than perpetual satisfaction.

Question

1. Like Tennyson's "St. Simeon Stylites," "Rabbi Ben Ezra" uses the title character as first-person narrator of the poem. However, Browning's poem differs by adopting an earnest tone and purpose, whereas Tennyson manipulates his titular narrator for ironic effect. What techniques do the two poets use to establish their narrators as either genuine or unnecessarily self-righteous?

2. What motivates Rabbi Ben Ezra's unwavering optimism about the ultimate fate of the human soul? What events transpired, if any, to assure him of God's salvation so strongly? Has he always felt this way, or did he too once succumb to the fear of death?

3. How old is the narrator? Has he determined all of these truths through his inherent wisdom, or does he possess worldly experience? The first sentence of the poem suggests he has not yet reached an old age, but does this line signify literal age or a plea to accept the concept of a Heaven?

4. Browning peppers exclamation points throughout the poem, both when the narrator and the ignorant youths speak. This appears to indicate passionate speech. What does this say about the role of passion in a person's life? Does Rabbi Ben Ezra, and therefore Browning, accept passion as necessary for the human soul, or does he more closely equate it with the temptation of life's pleasures?

Related Material


Victorian Overview R. Browning Leading Questions

Modified 5 February 2009