A Reverence to Shortcomings ’s "Rabbi Ben Ezra"

Zoe Weiss, English ENGL 0600J Madmen, Mystics, Monsters, Prophets, and Perverts, Brown University 2012

Robert Browning glorifies the shortcomings of mankind using a poetic description of youth, aging, and the value of experiences. The poem appraises old age, glorifies man's faults, and displays a deeply passionate reverence for God. Browning believes man was made to serve God; to slake his thirst. Instead of emphasizing the predictable ideals put forth by religion, Browning honors manÕs limitations and imperfections. Unconventionally, instead of praising manÕs accomplishment, Browning values the many aspirations never achieved. He finds divinity and learning in all that man lacks..

Not for such hopes and fears
Annulling youth's brief years,
Do I remonstrate: folly wide the mark!
Rather I prize the doubt
Low kinds exist without,
Finished and finite clods, untroubled by a spark.

Here, Browning points out the personal growth attainable through doubt. He goes so far as to say that people who lack doubt are "low kinds." This seems to contradict the religious doctrine of complete and total faith. Browning knows that his stance on the importance of doubt is contradictory to the norm, as evidence by the use of the word "rather."

But all, the world's coarse thumb
And finger failed to plumb,
So passed in making up the main account;
All instincts immature,
All purposes unsure,
That weighed not as his work, yet swelled the man's amount:

Thoughts hardly to be packed
Into a narrow act,
Fancies that broke through language and escaped;
All I could never be,
All, men ignored in me,
This, I was worth to God, whose wheel the pitcher shaped.

Browning counters the common assumption that manÕs worth lies in what he has accomplished through work. He gives a description of what is truly important to God, highlighting immature instincts, unsure purposes, and unreached


1. Why did Robert Browning choose to convey the messages of this poem through the character of Rabbi Ben Ezra? What significance does he hold?

2 Why do you think the narrator reveled in the shortcomings of man instead of on his many wonderful attributes?

3. How closely does the text coincide with Jewish doctrine, with Christian doctrine? Why might there be some contradictions?

4. How closely does the text coincide with Jewish doctrine, with Christian doctrine? Why might there be some contradictions?

5. How does the narrator use rhyme scheme to set the tone of the poem? How does the use of rhyming complement the themes within the text?

6. What is the purpose of using the metaphor of a hand (fingers/thumb) in BrowningÕs text?

Related Material

Victorian Overview R. Browning Leading Questions

Modified 3 February 2009