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Rabbi Ben Ezra

photo
Roxie Laybourne is still trying to memorize this poem, an unfinished college assignment from 70 years ago. Though 88, Roxie still walks her farm, in Manassas, Va., flanked here by Marcy Heacker-Skeans and Lorenzo Baskerville.
[Times photo: Bill Serne]

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 21, 1999


In their biography of Robert Browning, William Irvine and Park Honan talked about Rabbi Ben Ezra’s message:

“He is really assailing the flesh -- and Youth. In Youth ‘pleasant’ lures of the flesh impede and tend to defeat the soul’s would-be flights of grandeur. In Age, soul and flesh are no longer at loggerheads since flesh now projects ‘soul on its lone way’ in a perfectly harmonious if somewhat subservient manner.

“More percipient and brave, Age outclasses Youth and is not simply the latter half of life but the ‘best’ of being. Youth sees poorly. It needs to be remade. Age sees ‘the whole design’ and the ‘perfect’ plan of life -- and so can well afford to be stridently cheerful.”

***

Rabbi Ben Ezra
by Robert Browning

I

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!"

* * *

II

Not that, amassing flowers,
Youth sighed "Which rose make ours,
Which lily leave and then as best recall?"
Not that, admiring stars,
It yearned "Nor Jove, nor Mars;
Mine be some figured flame which blends, transcends them all!"

* * *

III

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.

* * *

Back to:
Roxius_Amazingus
It's a rare bird who can create a whole new science, solve murders and make airplanes safer. But Roxie Laybourne did, and now, at age 88, she's teaching another generation about feathers -- and about not giving up.
IV

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?

* * *

V

Rejoice we are allied
To That which doth provide
And not partake, effect and not receive!
A spark disturbs our clod;
Nearer we hold of God
Who gives, than of His tribes that take, I must believe.

* * *

VI

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!

* * *

VII

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.

* * *

VIII

What is he but a brute
Whose flesh has soul to suit,
Whose spirit works lest arms and legs want play?
To man, propose this test --
Thy body at its best,
How far can that project thy soul on its lone way?

* * *

IX

Yet gifts should prove their use:
I own the Past profuse
Of power each side, perfection every turn:
Eyes, ears took in their dole,
Brain treasured up the whole;
Should not the heart beat once "How good to live and learn?"

* * *

X

Not once beat "Praise be Thine!
I see the whole design,
I, who saw power, see now love perfect too
Perfect I call Thy plan:
Thanks that I was a man!
Maker, remake, complete -- I trust what Thou shalt do!"

* * *

XI

For pleasant in this flesh;
Our soul, in its rose-mesh
Pulled ever to the earth, still yearns for rest;
Would we some prize might hold
To match those manifold
Possessions of the brute -- gain most, as we did best!

* * *

XII

Let us not always say
"Spite of this flesh today
I strove, made head, gained ground upon the whole!"
As the bird wings and sings,
Let us cry "All good things
Are ours, nor soul helps flesh more, now, than flesh helps soul!"

* * *

XIII

Therefore I summon age
To grant youth's heritage,
Life 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.

* * *

XIV

And I shall thereupon
Take rest, ere I be gone
Once more on my adventure brave and new:
Fearless and unperplexed,
When I wage battle next,
What weapons to select, what armor to indue.

* * *

XV

Youth ended, I shall try
My gain or loss thereby;
Leave the fire ashes, what survives is gold:
And I shall weigh the same,
Give life its praise or blame:
Young, all lay in dispute; I shall know, being old.

* * *

XVI

For note, when evening shuts,
A certain moment cuts
The deed off, calls the glory from the gray:
A whisper from the west
Shoots -- "Add this to the rest,
Take it and try its worth: here dies another day."

* * *

XVII

So, still within this life,
Though lifted o'er its strife,
Let me discern, compare, pronounce at last,
"This rage was right i' the main,
That acquiescence vain:
The Future I may face now I have proved the Past."

* * *

XVIII

For more is not reserved
To man, with soul just nerved
To act tomorrow what he learns today:
Here, work enough to watch
The Master work, and catch
Hints of the proper craft, tricks of the tool's true play.

* * *

XIX

As it was better, youth
Should strive, through acts uncouth,
Toward making, than repose on aught found made:
So, better, age, exempt
From strife, should know, than tempt
Further. Thou waitedest age: wait death nor be afraid!

* * *

XX

Enough now, if the Right
And Good and Infinite
Be named here, as thou callest thy hand thine own,
With knowledge absolute,
Subject to no dispute
From fools that crowded youth, nor let thee feel alone.

* * *

XXI

Be there, for once and all,
Severed great minds from small,
Announced to each his station in the Past!
Was I, the world arraigned,
Were they, my soul disdained,
Right? Let age speak the truth and give us peace at last!

* * *

XXII

Now, who shall arbitrate?
Ten men love what I hate,
Shun what I follow, slight what I receive;
Ten, who in ears and eyes
Match me: we all surmise,
They this thing, and I that: whom shall my soul believe?

* * *

XXIII

Not on the vulgar mass
Called "work," must sentence pass,
Things done, that took the eye and had the price:
O'er which, from level stand,
The low world laid its hand,
Found straightway to its mind, could value in a trice:

* * *

XXIV

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:

* * *

XXV

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.

* * *

XXVI

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 today!"

* * *

XXVII

Fool! All that is, at all,
Last 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.

* * *

XXVIII

He fixed thee mid this dance
Of plastic circumstance,
This Present, thou, forsooth, wouldst fain arrest:
Machinery just meant
To give thy soul its bent.
Try thee and turn thee forth, sufficiently impressed.

* * *

XXIX

What though the earlier grooves
Which ran the laughing loves
Around thy base, no longer pause and press?
What though, about thy rim,
Scull-things in order grim
Grow out, in graver mood, obey the sterner stress?

* * *

XXX

Look not thou down but up!
To uses of a cup,
The festal board, lamp's flash and trumpet's peal,
The new wine's foaming flow,
The Master's lips aglow!
Thou, heaven's consummate cup, what need'st thou with earth's wheel?

* * *

XXXI

But I need, now as then,
Thee, God, who moldest men;
And since, not even while the whirl was worst,
Did I -- to the wheel of life
With shapes and colors rife,
Bound dizzily -- mistake my end, to slake Thy thirst:

* * *

XXXII

So, take and use Thy work;
Amend what flaws may lurk,
What strain o' the stuff, what warpings past the aim!
My times be in Thy hand!
Perfect the cup as planned!
Let age approve of youth, and death complete the same!

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