Appendix 8: Browning and “Rabbi ben Ezra”.

The story as it is usually told (eg Garrard, as note 1f, p.81) – and to which we will return later – is as follows. Robert Browning was given a copy of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1861. In 1864, Browning published a collection of poems called Dramatis Personae. In this collection was the poem entitled “Rabbi ben Ezra” (= Abraham ibn Ezra, a 12th century poet, scholar and mathematician) which, basically, rejects the hedonistic sentiments of  FitzGerald’s Khayyam in favour of higher things. Indeed, “Rabbi ben Ezra” might be described as Browning’s reply to FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat, Browning’s Rabbi being the opposite number to FitzGerald’s Omar. Instead of a nihilistic “live for today” approach to life, Browning’s Rabbi ben Ezra sees life’s trials and tribulations as a road to spiritual development and maturity of soul. Rather than holding onto today and prolonging our youth, with all its follies, we should welcome the wisdom and understanding of God’s Plan which we gain as we progress through life’s troubles to old age and, ultimately, to death. The first two lines of Browning’s poem are in direct opposition to FitzGerald’s regret “that Youth’s sweet-scented Manuscript should close!” (verse 72) The whole first verse reads as follows:

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!”

In other words, old age is the best part of life, for which youth is a preparation. We must trust God, and not be afraid. In verse 2, the Rabbi decries the follies of youth, whilst at the same time (verse 3) valuing the doubts of youth as part of our development. In verse 4 The Rabbi again directly opposes Omar’s “eat, drink and be merry” philosophy:

Poor vaunt of life indeed,
Were man but formed to feed
On joy, to solely seek and find and feast;
Such feasting ended, then
As sure an end to men;
Irks care the crop full bird? Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast?

In other words, life is more than just joy and feasting! (This last line is a good example of the obscurity of Browning as opposed to the directness of FitzGerald – the line means that the sated bird or beast feels nothing beyond its fullness.)

Verses 6 and 7 are again in direct opposition to Omar and his “sorry scheme of things”, for here the Rabbi places value on life’s problems, because they are part of our developmental process. Paradoxically, they are not problems but valuable lessons:

Then, welcome each rebuff
That turns earth's smoothness rough,
Each sting that bids nor 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!

For thence, – a paradox
Which comforts while it mocks, –
Shall life succeed in that it seems to fail:
What I aspired to be,
And was not, comforts me:
A brute I might have been, but would not sink i'the scale.

As the Rabbi says in verse 9, “How good to live and learn!” In verse 10, the Rabbi praises God’s plan, which he now realises is perfect. He then thanks God that he is a human being, and expresses his trust in God’s purposes. Verses 11 &12 are rather obscure references to life as a mutually supportive mixture of body and soul, and to getting the balance right in meeting the needs of both: “Life may err as gravely by being over-spiritual as over-worldly.” (Edward Berdoe, Browning’s Message to his Time: his Religion, Philosophy, and Science (1890), p.205.) In verse 13, we return to spiritual development through ageing:

Therefore I summon age
To grant youth's heritage,
Life's struggle having so far reached its term:
Thence shall I pass, approved
A man, for aye removed
From the developed brute; a God though in the germ.

In other words, spiritual development is what distinguishes Man from Beast. Verses 14 to 18 further extol the virtues of the ageing process, to the point where death is seen as the natural culmination of that process: “Thou waitedst age: wait death nor be afraid!” (verse 19) Verses 20 to 25 debate the relative worth of the events in one’s life (the virtue of work, for example), arriving at the conclusion (verse 25) that the sum total of those events – both good and bad – measures one’s worth in the eyes of God. It is at this point that the Rabbi begins his rebuttal to Omar’s Potter, referring to “God, whose wheel the pitcher shaped.” Verse 26 reads thus:

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.”

The last three lines of this verse, of course, are directly opposed to Omar’s “drink, and live for today” philosophy. Verses 27 & 28 read:

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, would fain arrest:
Machinery just meant
To give thy soul its bent,
Try thee and turn thee forth, sufficiently impressed.

Verse 27 tells us that our souls and God endure through Time and Change; verse 28 that Time and Change are the mechanism by which our souls are given chance to develop. These ideas are expanded in subsequent verses, the final verse – verse 32 – ending with the notable line: “Let age approve of youth, and death complete the same!”

Rabbi ben Ezra is not easy to follow in a lot of places and so, as stated earlier, it lacks the immediacy and impact of FitzGerald’s verses. Obscurity was a common complaint levelled against Browning’s poetry generally. For example, the art historian Anna Jameson summed things up nicely when she wrote that whilst she admired “the wondrous wisdom and subtlety of thought” of Browning’s poetry, she did not admire his “obscurity in the expression of the thought”! (Clara Thomas, Love and Work Enough: the Life of Anna Jameson (1967), p.211.) Frederick Tennyson was more abrupt – for him Browning posed a series of “Chinese puzzles, trackless labyrinths, unapproachable nebulosities.” (Quoted in Tennyson: a Memoir by his Son, vol.1, p.382.) The work by Berdoe, cited above, is useful for understanding the poem, as is the little book Rabbi ben Ezra by Robert Browning, published by George Bell and Sons in 1901, and which contains a short essay about the Rabbi, with a verse by verse explanation of the poem by “E.B.” For some useful background on Browning religious beliefs and their emergence in his poetry, see F.E. Halliday, Robert Browning: his Life and Work (1975): eg. for his poem “A Death in the Desert” as a reply to Renan’s Life of Jesus, as well as “Rabbi ben Ezra” as a reply to FitzGerald, see p.137-8; for “La Saiziaz” and the issues of life after death, see p.175; and for the Epilogue of “Ferishtah’s Fancies” and its chilling line, “What if all be error?”, see p.183. As a guide to these poems, Mrs Sutherland Orr’s book A Handbook to the Works of Robert Browning (5th edn, 1890) is useful. Also of interest is Hugh Martin’s little book, The Faith of Robert Browning (1963), though it is written from a Christian’s viewpoint. Browning is also the subject of chapter 3 of Lionel Stevenson's fascinating study Darwin among the Poets (1932).

FitzGerald himself seems not to have read Rabbi ben Ezra, for there is no reference to the poem in his surviving letters. However, he was certainly no fan of Browning. Towards the end of 1868, he wrote to his friend W.F.Pollock:

“I don’t suppose I shall see Browning’s new Poem (The Ring and the Book); I never could read one of his old ones.” (III.114)

Subsequently he did read some extracts of the poem published in The Athenaeum, but found them “dull as well as disagreeable” (III.137). Other descriptors are: “an impudent piece of Cockneyism” (III.139 & 145 for his definition of “Cockneyism” as an “affected and overstrained style”); “another ugly poem” (III.424); and last but not least, “Cockney Rot” (IV.390). In November 1869, FitzGerald wrote to Alfred Tennyson saying that it wasn’t just him who couldn’t read Browning, but the Cowells, the Thompsons and the Donnes couldn’t read him either; that Pollock, who was a great friend of Browning, couldn’t read him either, but pretended to have read him just to keep him happy; and that Carlyle thought Browning’s “The Ring and the Book” to be “among the absurdest Books ever written by a gifted Man.” (III.163) Again, writing to Tennyson in December 1875, FitzGerald wrote:

“I see Browning has another of his uncouth Poems out (The Inn Album): I call him the great Prophet of The Gurgoyle School – in England: in France they have a much greater man, but equally disagreeable to me – Victor Hugo.” (III.628)

In fairness, though, in a letter to Cowell written in November 1876, FitzGerald said of Tennyson:

“He still admires Browning, for a great, though unshapen Spirit; and acknowledges Morris, Swinburne and Co., though not displeased, I think, that I do not.” (III.724)

See note 54 of the main essay for Morris, Swinburne and Co.

For Browning’s part, he appears to have made no reference in his extant letters either to being given a copy of The Rubaiyat by Rossetti in 1861, or to writing Rabbi ben Ezra as a direct response to it.

As regards the former, though there appears to be no documentary evidence that Rossetti gave Browning a copy in that year, it is certainly plausible that he did so. In July 1861 Rossetti and Swinburne had both bought copies specifically to give away to friends (see note 8). Also, following the death of his wife in Florence on June 29th 1861, Browning had left there – about the end of July – and after spending two months in France, had returned to London – so, probably in about October. Browning had certainly known Rossetti socially since the 1850s – in a letter to William Allingham, postmarked December 18th 1856, Rossetti describes the Brownings’ London home as “one of my delights – an evening resort where I never felt unhappy” – so there is nothing at all improbable in the idea of Rossetti giving Browning a copy of The Rubaiyat later in 1861, in the first rush of Pre-Raphaelite interest in it.

Not only that, but Browning was profoundly affected by his wife’s death, and had beliefs in – or at least hopes of – some sort of afterlife for her. Omar’s nihilism, therefore, would have touched a raw nerve in him. “God took her to himself”, he wrote in a letter to Miss Haworth dated July 20th 1861 (while he was still in Florence), adding later, “I shall grow, still, I hope.” This optimism in the face of grief is entirely in keeping with “Rabbi ben Ezra” as his reply to Omar.

Though Browning himself never stated that “Rabbi ben Ezra” was his direct reply to FitzGerald’s Omar, as William Irvine and Park Honan write, in The Book, the Ring and the Poet (1974):

“One feels that the atheism, pessimism, and rampant hedonism of FitzGerald’s Omar Khayyam are being countered, if not directly answered, by the religious feeling, optimism, and somewhat abstemious habits of Ben Ezra’s Robert Browning; and also that Browning fully intended his poem as a reply to the Persian-Victorian one. The elaborated metaphor of the biblical potter’s wheel seems to link the two poems circumstantially.” (p.398-9)

More than this, the fact that F. LeRoy Sargent (note 59) was able to interweave the verses of Browning’s poem with those of FitzGerald’s, so as to create a dialogue in which the optimism of the first replied directly to the nihilism of the second, does seem to imply that Browning was indeed replying to FitzGerald. (The view that Browning was replying directly to FitzGerald did not originate with Irvine and Honan, but goes back to William C. DeVane’s book A Browning Handbook (1935), p.260, and earlier still to William Lyon Phelps’s book Robert Browning – How to Know Him (1916), p.342. For a good discussion of the issues, see “The Protean Precursor: Browning and Edward FitzGerald” by John Woolford, in Victorian Literature and Culture (1996; vol.24, p.313-332); also “’Ay, note that Potter’s Wheel’ – Browning and that Metaphor” by S. Viswanathan, in Victorian Poetry (1969; vol.7, p.349-352), which shows that Browning used the Potter Metaphor in his poem “In a Balcony”, written in 1853/4, and thus before the publication of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat.)

The only direct reference to FitzGerald in Browning’s letters, that I know of, refers not to the writing of Rabbi ben Ezra as a response to The Rubaiyat, but to what Browning called “a repulsive incident” involving FitzGerald. The incident occurred in July 1889, long after FitzGerald’s death, when Browning happened to be reading William Aldis Wright’s Letters and Literary Remains of Edward FitzGerald (1889), and chanced upon the following paragraph in one of FitzGerald’s letters. The letter had been written to W.H.Thompson in July 1861, and referred to Mrs Browning’s death and her poem Aurora Leigh:

“Mrs Browning’s death is rather a relief to me, I must say. no more Aurora Leighs, thank God! A woman of real Genius, I know; but what is the upshot of it all? She and her Sex had better mind the Kitchen and their Children; and perhaps the Poor; except in such things as little Novels, they only devote themselves to what Men do much better, leaving that which Men do worse or not at all.” (Wright, vol.1, p.280-1; Terhune & Terhune II.407.)

As Irvine and Honan write:

“Never having met the misogynist who scribbled the Rubaiyat, Browning confronted in white heat a faceless ghost. He composed a poem Monday, sent it off to The Athenaeum Tuesday, tried to retract it by telegram Wednesday or Thursday, and saw it again – now in irrevocable print – on Saturday, July 13th, 1889.” (op.cit. p.513-4)

The poem, “To Edward FitzGerald”, reads as follows, and is for once free of Browning’s usual obscurities:

I chanced upon a new book yesterday:
I opened it, and, where my finger lay
'Twixt page and uncut page, these words I read –
Some six or seven at most – and learned thereby
That you, FitzGerald, whom by ear and eye
She never knew, "thanked God my wife was dead."
Aye, dead! and were yourself alive, good Fitz,
How to return you thanks would task my wits:
Kicking you seems the common lot of curs –
While more appropriate greeting lends you grace:
Surely to spit there glorifies your face –
Spitting – from lips once sanctified by hers.

Irvine and Honan go on:

“’Like all impulsive actions,’ Robert explained to Furnival early the next week, ‘I believe I might preferably have left the thing to its proper contempt.’ Yet there the poem was. Aldis Wright’s apology in the Athenaeum – and some louder cacophony elsewhere – underlined the fact that Browning had called attention to a slight insult by most violently compounding it. With tactful, dignified, and sometimes excruciating letters of apology and self-defence, he managed to console almost everyone mortally offended by his savagery except himself. He had shown to the public a raw, brutal reaction, he had humiliated himself, and probably he knew that in doing so he had humiliated Elizabeth in a way FitzGerald never could.” (ib. p.514)

In addition to referring to this incident in the above cited letter to F.J.Furnival, written on July 16th 1889 (which can be seen in full in Thurman L. Hood, The Letters of Robert Browning (1933), p.312-3), Browning also wrote in some detail about it to his brother-in-law George Barrett. In a letter dated October 22nd 1889, he wrote:

“Mere literary criticism, however inept and even malicious, I should have left alone: ‘The wild ass o’er her head/stamps with his foot and nought disturbs her sleep:’ but to couple that with any satisfaction at the greatest calamity of my life, – no indeed!” (Letters of the Brownings to George Barrett, edited by Paul Landis, with the assistance of Ronald E. Freeman (1958), p.331.)

The “wild ass” is, of course, FitzGerald, in a parody of verse 17 of his first edition of The Rubaiyat.


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