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a Browning poem: not the light?

January 12, 2012

Today, my spouse emailed me the following lines from Robert Browning’s Paracelsus. We first met when working as docents in a Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning museum and library, where I’d read the long poem years ago. What I noticed is that one of the phrases (in the version my wife sent) had been updated. (And I’ve restored the original phrase below, from “may escape” to how Browning put it, “may dart forth”). But then I saw something I’d never seen before. And Browning’s words have me asking whether he’s intending, ironically, for his readers (and namely the symbolic readers as listeners within his poem — “dearest Michal” and “dearest Festus”) to let his words enlighten us. Or are his words simply to rip open the carnal mesh of gross flesh? What’s in this poem? And what’s in you? Is it what the words suggest that is within? What is there to know? And how are you to know that? Have a listen:

Truth is within ourselves; it takes no rise
From outward things, whate’re you may believe.
There is an inmost center in us all,
Where truth abides in fullness; and around
Wall upon wall, the gross flesh hems it in.
This perfect clear perception — which is truth
A baffling and perverting carnal mesh
Binds it and makes all error and “to know
Rather consists in opening out a way
Whence imprison’d splendour may dart forth
Than in effecting entry for the light
Supposed to be without.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 12, 2012 9:45 pm

    Or, perhaps, for the accolades:

    Know, not for knowing’s sake,
    But to become a star to men for ever;
    Know, for the gain it gets, the praise it brings,

  2. January 13, 2012 6:53 am

    How astute, Theophrastus!

    Browning would love that you caught on. The poet of the poem here in these lines is talking back to his “dear” friend Festus (perhaps not so different as one of the friends of Job). And this adviser seems to suggest Tradition be the poet’s guide. But the latter reconsiders the advice “from without” — Festus’ voice and the very external voice of the poet striving and struggling against motives — as you put it — “for accolades”; Browning puts the lines you quote within a long quotation of this “still voice from without.” Then, as you know, there is another voice still, and more voices then. (The last several lines I give below — the ones after the lines you’ve given — seem to echo St. Paul and Christ and the whispers of the Holy Ghost.)

    Browning wrote these lines when he was only 22 or 23 years old. Maybe the youth, the young poet, was struggling for accolades. But he started writing English verse when he was 12, and had learned Latin, Greek, and French by the time he was 14. And he published his first works pseudonomously. He was probably an atheist already by the time he wrote Paracelcus. This sort of dramatic monologue—the symbolism, the diction and rhythm, the Socratic dialectic twist, the rhetoric—had a huge impact on the poetry of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Robert Frost.

    Given what Frost supposedly and famously said about poetry being what’s lost in translation, I wonder how much of this dramatic monologue might be rendered in French or in Japanese?! With this poem particularly, doesn’t one have to account for the motives and the means of the poet? And don’t these change from verse to verse, as you’ve shown with your three lines?

    The poem shares one’s struggles with various motives for enlightenment, how and why “to know”; here’s a bit more that includes, that contextualizes and complicates, your three lines:

    You were beside me Festus as you say
    You saw me plunge in their pursuits whom Fame
    Is lavish to attest the lords of mind
    Not pausing to make sure the prize in view
    Would satiate my cravings when obtained
    But since they strove I strove Then came a slow
    And strangling failure We aspired alike
    Yet not the meanest plodder Tritheim schools
    But faced me all sufficient all content
    Or staggered only at his own strong wits
    While I was restless nothing satisfied
    Distrustful most perplexed I would slur over
    That struggle suffice it that I loathed myself
    As weak compared with them yet felt somehow
    A mighty power was brooding taking shape
    Within me and this lasted till one night
    When as I sate revolving it and more
    A still voice from without said “See’st thou not
    Desponding child whence came defeat and loss
    Even from thy strength Consider hast thou gazed
    Presumptuously on Wisdom’s countenance
    No veil between and can thy hands which falter
    Unguided by thy brain the mighty sight
    Continues to absorb pursue their task
    On earth like these around thee what their sense
    ….

    Know, not for knowing’s sake,
    But to become a star to men for ever;
    Know, for the gain it gets, the praise it brings,
    The wonder it inspires the love it breeds
    Look one step onward and secure that step.”

    And I smiled as one never smiles but once
    Then first discovering my own aim’s extent
    Which sought to comprehend the works of God
    And God himself and all God’s intercourse
    With the human mind I understood no less
    My fellow’s studies whose true worth I saw
    But smiled not well aware who stood by me
    And softer came the voice — “There is a way —
    Tis hard for flesh to tread therein imbued
    With frailty hopeless if indulgence first
    Have ripened inborn germs of sin to strength:
    Wilt thou adventure for my sake and man’s
    Apart from all reward?” And last it breathed —
    “Be happy my good soldier; I am by thee
    Be sure even to the end!”
    I answered not
    Knowing Him As He spoke, I was endued
    With comprehension and a steadfast will;
    And when He ceased, my brow was sealed His own.

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