The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Browning. "Education is a Life." Part II

by E. A. Skurray.
Volume 13, 1902, pg. 263-272

In Andrea del Sarto and A Grammarian's Funeral we had Browning's criticism of art and intellectual life, and only incidentally of life in general, so in Rabbi Ben Ezra have we his criticism of life as a whole, its aims and ends.

Many poets, Professor Huxley says, have written of youth; it was left to the greatest of our times to leave us perfect pictures of old age.*

    "Grow old along with me!
    The best is yet to be,
    The last of life, for which the first was made."

* He gives Tennyson's Ulysses, and Rabbi Ben Ezra as examples; also The Pope and St. John.

For his estimate of old age is the most striking part of Rabbi Ben Ezra's philosophy; that the climax of life is not the middle but in old age; it is not merely a time of rest, but of fruition. "The very infirmities of later life, incapacity to receive new impressions, dulness of sight by which far and near are blended together, have their peculiar office of revealing lessons of life." [Bishop Westcott]

As he looks back on his own life, Rabbi Ben Ezra takes youth by the hand and tells him to regard life as a whole. "Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, be not afraid!" for he can say, "I, who saw power, see now Love perfect too." The poet returns to the same idea in Reverie, [Asolando] when he is himself an old man.

The soul is eternal, it completes its first step of experience in life upon this earth, so he can,

    "Welcome each rebuff
    That turns earth's smoothness rough,
    Each sting that bids not sit nor stand but go!
    Be our joys three parts pain!
    Strive, and hold cheap the strain;
    Learn, nor account the pang: dare never grudge the throe!"

Thus even the aspirations we could never fulfil will keep us from sinking to the level of the brutes; for not alone in what the world can recognize and appraise as work, will the final judgment be set.

    "But all, the world's coarse thumb
    And finger failed to plumb."

Even --

    "All I could never be,
    All, men ignored in me,
    This was I worth to God, whose wheel the pitcher shaped."

Then he gives us the metaphor of the potter's wheel, man is the clay to be formed into "heaven's consummate cup." Time spins that wheel, "plastic circumstance" is the machinery which helps to mould man's soul, so he can say,

    "My times be in thy hand!
    Perfect the cup as planned!
    Let age approve of youth, and death complete the same!"

This poem is purely theistic, the utterance of a pious Jew. We may contrast it with A Death in the Desert, where we have the stand-point of Christianity as interpreted by the old apostle, St. John. His disciples have carried him out into the desert, and laid him down in a cave, where for a time he has been in a trance, but at the words, "I am the Resurrection and the Life," he suddenly opens his eyes, sits up and speaks. He goes over again the story of the perfect Life he has known, and deduces the lesson:--

    "For life, with all it yields of joy and woe,
    And hope and fear -- believe the aged friend,--
    Is just our chance o' the prize of learning love."

To those who argue it would have been easier to live well when Christ was on earth, he says he is left to teach them that all times have their own difficulties, their tests of faith: "the help whereby he mounts: may fall away, "since all things suffer change save God and Truth." Man is not mean to trust to any of these props, or to rest in any one statement of his faith, but should ever be apprehending fresh aspects of truth, and be cautious of crystallizing it into definitions. As Mr. Balfour has said:-- "If their meanings should be exhausted by one generation, they would be false for the next. It is because they can be charged with a richer and wider content, as our knowledge slowly grows to a fuller harmony with the Infinite Reality, that they may be counted among the most precious of our unalienable possessions." [Foundations of Belief]

The Death in the Desert seems especially useful to us, in these days when all things are being put to the test, and the faith of so many is dim through doubt. Browning by the mouth of St. John assures us--

    "The acknowledgment of God in Christ
    Accepted by thy reason, solves for thee
    All questions in the earth and out of it,
    And has so far advanced thee to be wise."

Through his mistakes man is meant to conceive of truth, progress being his distinctive mark. The brute creation while true to its type, cannot rise into a higher state: man alone, with his mixed nature, is progressive, and is intended to grow from less to more, from lower to higher.

              "Progress, man's distinctive mark alone,
    Not God's, and not the beasts': God is, they are.
    Man partly is and wholly hopes to be.

    He could not, what he knows now, know at first:
    What he considers that he knows today,
    Come but tomorrow, he will find misknown;
    Getting increase of knowledge, since he learns
    Because he lives, which is to be a man."

For "we know only in part," therefore we know wrongly." [Foundations of Belief, A. Balfour] Science, as well as ehtics, has advanced as man's horizon has widened, as his capacity to receive light has corresponded with the clearer light given him. "The capacity for moral progress thus recognised in the law of outer growth and decay, is indeed laid down by Browning to be the essential characteristic of man." [Bishop Westcott]

In the parenthesis he gives us an approach to a statement of the "animism" of some ancient and mediaeval writers.

The idea of the Trinity is carried into the individual life-- "What Does, what Knows, what Is: three souls, one man." First come the bodily parts, which "ends the man downwards"; but they may grow up into the next soul, which is seated in the brain.

It uses the body, "feeleth, thinketh, willeth,--is what Knows": the last soul which "Is," in its turn uses the other two,

    "And leans upon the former, makes it play,
    As that played off the first: and tending up,
    Holds, is upheld, by God"--

and returns to Him.

At the end of the poem we have the commentary of one Cerinthus, with the results which had followed from Christ's life on earth: "Can a mere man do this?" he asks; yet it was this

    "He lived and died to do,
    Call Christ, then, the illimitable God."

From this poem we pass by easy transition to Christmas Eve and Easter Day: the lesson of the former is, roughly speaking, Divine love; and that the value of religion to ourselves is according to our apprehension of that love, which will show itself in our attitude toward our fellows. In Easter Day the poet gives us a glimpse of heaven, and the nature of eternal life and immortality.

He begins Christmas Eve by painting for us a very realistic picture of the least attractive form of worship; no sordid detail is spared. [Sections I.-III.] Driven into the chapel by a violent storm, the man who is the poet's mouthpiece, criticises the service and the audience, as one who stands aloof. Soon he has enough, so out into the rain he goes; nature is his church, and his heart glows with the consciousness of the unseen Love, which is everywhere.

    "I found God there, His visible power;
    Yet felt in my heart, and all its sense
    Of the power, an equal evidence
    That His love, there too, was the nobler dower.
    For the loving worm within its clod,
    Were diviner than a loveless god."

Thus even at the beginning he has in some degree grasped the idea of Divine love, therefore a vision is granted him.

Was it a hallucination caused by that rarely seen occurrence, a moon-rainbow, "with its seven proper colours chorded"? Out of the midst of this beauty of sky he sees the Christ, and he forgets everything else--but His face is turned away. Can it be because he was too censorious?

Has he despised Christ's friends for their distorted uneducated views of religion? He had forgotten the benediction pronounced on the two or three gathered together to worship. In terror lest Christ should leave him, he catches at the "vesture's hem" and prays for forgiveness. He pleads by the fact that he had some insight into Divine truths, because he saw that the love of God was greater even than His power, and had placed it first; and recognises that He Who did not despise the cup of cold water,

    "Disdains not his own thirst to slake
    At the poorest love was ever offered."

Then the Face is turned towards him, he is allowed to follow, holding by the garment's hem.

From the barest, most protestant form of worship he is taken to Rome, outside St. Peter's, in which a mighty concourse of people is gathered together to take part in a great Mass, performed with all the most ornate accompaniments of music and ritual. He remains outside while Christ enters in, but he has still hold of "the garment's extreme fold." He meditates on the system of the Roman Church; his intellect shows him the errors: how it was overlaid with gross superstitions, which dimmed the light of true faith, but,

    "Love was all-sufficient too;
    And seeing that, you saw the rest:
    As a babe can find its mother's breast
    As well in darkness as in light,
    Love shut our eyes, and all seemed right."

Therefore can he also lift his voice in praise. Whilst he thinks of this, the Figure has moved on swiftly again, and he is only just in time to follow by his hold on the garment edge. How typical of our apprehension of eternal verities, how little can we grasp! Is it for us to be narrow and censorious?

They next stop before a temple or college of some old German town. Again we are given one of Browning's realistic pictures. We can see it all so plainly: the students bursting in and settling to their seats, all attention; "the wan pure look, well nigh celestial," of the professor, with the mind shining out of his lamp-like eyes; his flesh subdued to emaciation, the painful cough. As it is Christmas Eve, the professor takes for his subject Christianity, and the Author of it, and discusses and dissects both. This time the poet is not bidden enter--

    "The exhausted air-bell of the Critic. *
    Truth's atmosphere may grow mephitic
    When Papist struggles with Dissenter,
    Impregnating its pristine clarity,--
    One, by his daily fare's vulgarity,
    Its gust of broken meat and garlic;--
    One, by his soul's too much presuming
    To turn the frankincense's fuming.

    Each, that thus sets the pure air seething,
    May poison it for healthy breathing--
    But the Critic leaves no air to poison."

* This forcible line is a good example of Browning's power of saying much in a few words.

Then the poet gives us his own commentary on Christianity and Christ's claims upon us, and comes to the conclusion that it lies in the test of character. As "a thousand poets pried at life," and only one became Shakespeare, "whose insight makes all others dim"; so is humanity summed up in Christ, Who is to us a mirror of all that our conscience tells us is best and highest, all that is contained in our conception of the Godhead.

    "What is left for us, save, in growth
    Of soul, to rise up, far past both,
    From the gift looking to the giver,
    And from the cistern to the river,
    And from the infinite to infinity,
    And from man's dust to God's divinity?
    Take all in a word: the truth in God's breast
    Lies trace for trace upon ours impressed:
    Though He is so bright and we are so dim,
    We were made in His image to witness Him."

Yet even here, into this "exhausted air-bell," has Christ entered, and to the poet's astonishment He stays within--

    "Unlearned love was safe from spurning--
    Can't we respect your loveless learning?"

We feel we cannot withdraw our admiration for the frail life wearing itself away in its keen search for truth, its beautiful self-sacrifice. Though he reduce the pearl of great price to its chemical constituents, or grind it to dust before their eyes, yet bids them take back their faith and continue to adore this man, for the beauty of Christ's character is borne in upon his mind: he sees that in Him we have the most perfect example of the higher life.

The poet is satisfied, he seeks no longer to find a new church: let him enjoy his own convictions, without criticism of, or irritation towards his neighbour's faith. Then the storm breaks out afresh, and a voice in his heart tells him this is not the whole of the lesson he is to learn: there must be a best way in which to worship. Shall he not seek it, and when found, show it to others?

Once more he is swept up in the vestment's fold, and finds himself back in the chapel again, for it is there, where he had cavilled and criticised, that the full force of his lesson is to be brought home to him. He is now in a humbler frame of mind, so he sees that the mistake he made was in attaching too much importance to the shape of the cup, too little to the life-giving water itself.

              "Because the water found
    Welling up from underground,
    Is mingled with the taints of earth."

He had conceived the idea of bringing a beautiful chalice: it is empty, true, but cannot God fill it Himself, pure from all stains of earth? He finds no miracle will be worked for him, the chalice remains empty, and his thirst unquenched; he realises, as we all have to, that the waters of truth and of life must come to us through the imperfect earthly medium, which will always leave its trace, more or less, so at last he can say,--

    "Better have knelt at the poorest stream
    That trickles in pain from the straightest rift!
    For the less or the more is all God's gift,
    Who blocks up or breaks wide the granite-seam.
    And here, is there water or not, to drink?
    I then, in ignorance and weakness,
    Taking God's help, have attained to think
    My heart does best to receive in meekness
    That mode of worship, as most to his mind,
    Where earthly aids being cast behind,
    His All in All appears serene
    With the thinnest human veil between,
    Letting the mystic lamps, the seven,
    The many motions of his spirit,
    Pass, as they list, to earth from heaven."

In this poem we have a strong reflection of Browning's faith in divine love and personal guidance.

Easter Day begins with the cry so many have echoed, "How very hard it is to be a Christian!" Not merely hard to live up to our ideal of what a Christian should be, that is always so; but it is also hard to grasp the verities of the faith in such a way as to work out our Christianity in our lives with even medium success.

The first part deals with the deeper issues of scepticism and faith. There is a dialogue in which the opposite positions are maintained; each speaker has belief in God, but one only goes on to the acceptance of Christianity through faith. Long afterwards in another poem, La Saisiaz, the argument is resumed, only in a more personal form.

Passing over this part of the poem, we come to where he who represents Faith, tells how, on Easter Eve, three years ago,as he crossed the Common where the little chapel stands, a revelation of the judgment day is given him. Meditating on the problems of life and death and eternity, he makes his decision and chooses earth: it is all so beautiful, why should he be obliged to renounce it so soon, why let the cup pass by undrained: For this choice he is to be judged now. We are given a wonderful picture of the heavens, the clouds shot through with flame, and then-- "A final belch of fire" broke over the skies, and he hears a voice say--

    "Life is done,
    Time ends, Eternity's begun,
    And thou art judged for evermore.

    This finite life, thou hast preferred,
    In disbelief of God's own word,
    To heaven and to infinity.
    Here the probation was for thee,
    To show thy soul the earthly mixed
    With heavenly, it must choose betwixt."

Shut out from heaven, earth is his, he may glut his senses in it.

First he tries the beauties of nature, disappointed there, he turns to Art, but neither does Art satisfy, for both partake of earth and are bound by its limitations. Life, as compared with Eternity, is likened to the lizard shut up in the rock, which the blow of a mallet can destroy. The Saints of God understood these things better, though content to use the provision earth afforded, they felt the hunger of their spirit unsated here, but "not unsatable, as paradise gives proof."

In his anguish he would grasp all that the mind of man has achieved: but being still of the earth, earthy, that too ceases to interest him, and the Voice which has spoken before, tells him why. It is because of those intuitions in man's soul,

    "That pull the more into the less,
    Making the finite comprehend

Therefore he can only be satisfied when the breath of God's Spirit plays on the "seven strings" of the earthly instrument. He learns that there is a world of spirit, as distinguished from the world of sense. He has a little light, but it is very dim, Heaven is not on earth, these gleams are only sent "to sting with hunger for full light."

At last, though somewhat late, he turns to love--

              "Is this thy final choice?
    Love is the best? 'Tis somewhat late!
    And all thou dost enumerate
    Of power and beauty in the world,
    The mightiness of love was curled
    Inextricably round about.
    Love lay within it and without,
    To clasp thee,-- but in vain!"

So he is bidden--

              "Haste to take
    The show of love for the name's sake."

God had made him for love, yet had he ignored even the love of earth, and had quite forgotten that Love which had been at the heart's core of his whole scheme of Christian redemption. Then at last he cries out for death, for only thus can he reach heaven or conceive of eternity.

    "Thou Love of God! Or let me die,
    Or grant what shall seem heaven almost!
    Let me not know that all is lost,
    Though lost it be-- leave me not tied
    To this despair, this corpse-like bride!
    Let that old life seem mine--no more--
    With limitations as before.

    Only let me go on, go on,
    Still hoping ever and anon
    To reach one eve the Better Land!"

Thus passionately does he cry out for the old life of probation, with all its limitations.

I would have my reader note that he was judged not for the wrong things he had done, but for wrong choice, a choice which showed his utter want of comprehension of heaven, and his lack of preparation for it; to enjoy heaven we must become fit for it. He has learnt that an unending life on earth would be unbearable, that heaven does not consist of everlasting enjoyment of all that is best on earth; it does not mean never ending time, that with man's earthly body would only be as if tied to a corpse. Eternity means the presence of God, when the spirit of man, after his probabtion here, shall return to that home which is its true atmosphere, and there attain its infinite expansion.

Then he lives again--

              "Happy that I can
    Be crossed and thwarted as a man,
    Not left in God's contempt apart,
    With ghastly smooth life, dead at heart."

For it is one of Browning's strongest beliefs, that there can be no sadder thing for the human soul than to be left alone, unpunished, and therefore incapable of change or improvement.

Now he can--

    "Thank God, no paradise stands barred
    To entry--

    How dreadful to be grudged
    No ease henceforth, as one that's judged,
    Condemned to earth for ever, shut
    From heaven!
    Christ rises! Mercy every way
    Is infinite,--and who can say?"

In Browning's opinion, human experience is a help, an education, not as some think a snare.

These two poems are a revelation, a glimpse into that heaven he saw as in a vision.

(To be continued.)

Typed by Blossom Barden, Mar 2020; Proofread by LNL, Apr 2020