Aging in Matthew Arnold's Growning Old and Robert Browning's Rabbi Ben Ezra

Aging in Matthew Arnold's Growning Old and Robert Browning's Rabbi Ben Ezra

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Aging in Matthew Arnold's Growning Old and Robert Browning's Rabbi Ben Ezra  


Contemporaries of the Victorian Age, Matthew Arnold and Robert Browning wrote the poems, "Growning Old" and "Rabbi Ben Ezra," respectively, to express their views on aging. Arnold suffers tremendously, for he lives in melancholy solitude with his deteriorating body, helpless in his moral and physical pain. Browning, a happier man, finds much joy in his age and comfort in the moral and spiritual strength which God gives him. In effect, while Arnold pessimistically dwells on the physical pain accompanying the aging process and the inevitability of a cruel death, Browning devoutly expresses his optimistic outlook of old age and death as God's consummate end to the labors of life.

Arnold's pessimism regarding aging leaves no room for optimism. The reader encounters this negativity right away, for in the first stanza Arnold ascertains, in answer to his question "What is it to grow old?", that aging involves "[losing] the glory of the form." The words "lose the glory" implicate a tragic and perhaps humiliating experience. Furthermore, Arnold describes the loss of "the glory of the form" as a time when "beauty [forgoes] her wreath," a phrase which presents the reader with the image of a queen abandoning her crown, as her time of glory ends forever. Arnold gives the reader another foreboding image of aging in line twenty-four, when he describes himself as being incarcerated by his age with the image of the "hot prison of the present, month to month with weary pain." The words "hot", "weary", "prison", and "pain" effectively portray Arnold's suffering and discomfort to the reader, simultaneously lending to his overall pessimistic standpoint. In addition, Arnold experiences an absense of feeling in accordance with his age. In the fourth stanza he declares that old age dies not imply gazing down on the world with "rapt prophetic eyes" and a "heart profoundly stirred/ to weep and feel the fullness of the past." Furthermore, he writes, "Deep in our hidden heart/ Festers the dull remembrance of a change/ But no emotion--none." One critic concurs, stating that Arnold's age induces an "emotional frigidity" (Madden 115). Another critic describes Arnold as having an "incapacity for feeling" (Bush 50). As to the "dull remembrance of a change" Madden adds, "There was always the memory of that 'different world' [which Arnold] had once known..." (115). Most probably, the "different world" of which Madden speaks is Arnold's youth, of which the poet only has a "dull remembrance" left, suggesting that Arnold finds no fulfillment or feeling in the memories of his youth.

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Browning, contrary to Arnold, looks at aging through rose-colored lenses. In the words of Donald Thomas, "...there was the brisk thumping optimism of 'Rabbi Ben Ezra', whose ease of quotation brought Browning general popularity" (214). Browning anticipates great things to come with old age, for he gratuitously begins "Rabbi Ben Ezra" asking the reader to "Grow old with [him]/ The best is yet to be." Rather than dwell on the physical decay which accompanies the aging process, Browning instructs the reader to rely on his mind for fulfillment; he states in the eighth stanza, "What is he but a brute/ Whose flesh has soul to suit/ Whose spirit works lest arms and legs want play?" For Browning, the soul does not reside in beautiful skin and a strong body. The poet challenges the reader in line forty-seven: "Thy body at its best/ How far can that project the soul on its lone way?" From Browning's hopeful outlook, aging is far less of a burden to bear; as long as the mind and soul are at peace, physical decay is insignificant. Moreover, Browning refuses to see any downsides to aging, which leaves the poet with one option: to promote aging's advantages, thereby persuading the reader to embrace it. Edward Dowden, who writes as the persuaded reader, describes the effect the poem has on him as, "an influx of new strength" (51). In line ninety, with "Young, all lay in dispute; I shall know, being old," old age becomes an advantage, bringing him knowledge and ridding him of the tumult of feelings common in youth. "With knowledge absolute/ Subject to no dispute/ Let age speak the truth and give us peace at last!," exclaims the joyful Browning. Moreover, with the knowledge and peace of mind obtained in old age, the soul feeds the body which worked so hard in earlier years: "...soul helps flesh more, now, than flesh helps soul!" In stanza thirteen, the poet takes his sanguinity to an extreme, claiming that with the knowledge which his advanced age shall bring him, he will become divine, as "...[He summons] age/ To grant youth's heritage/ Thence shall [he] pass/ aye removed from the developed brute; a god..." Moreover, the reader should "welcome each rebuff/ That turns earth's smoothness rough." Therefore, believing old age to be so great an advantage, Browning, metaphorically comparing earth and man's body, tells the reader to welcome harsh experiences, as painful as they may be, for each blow, each mark of suffering upon the body, each rough wrinkle, brings along with it the knowledge and wisdom that will give man his godly quality in old age. The advantage lies in man's mind for the knowledge each mark of his age shall bring him.

A devoutly religious man, Browning continues the metaphor between man's body and earth in stanzas twenty-six and twenty-seven, simultaneously adding a metaphor between God and potter, and man's soul and clay. According to the poet, "Earth changes, but thy soul and God stand sure/ Time's wheel runs back or stops: Potter and clay endure." Now the reader encounters yet another reason for Browning's gaiety--the poet's faith in God's permanence as well as the soul's. Although physical beauty is ephemeral, as time makes its marks on the body, God and the soul are everlasting. And since Browning instructs the reader at the beginning of the poem to rely on the soul and new knowledge for fulfillment, and perhaps more importantly, God will always be a source of moral and spiritual support, then physical decay brings with it minimal consequence. Frank Harris comments, " 'Rabbi Ben Ezra' gives full expression [of] religious optimism" (103). Furthermore, Browning confronts old age positively, for aging is part of God's perfect plan: "Perfect I call Thy plan/ Thanks that I was a man!/ Maker, remake, complete,--I trust what Thou shalt do." Harris describes Browning as having a "highly individualistic faith" and a "necessity for a loving God" (103). This faith aids him in accepting, and even welcoming old age. Arnold does not share Browning's faith in God, for in one occasion the poet stated, "I cannot conceal from myself the objection which really wounds and perplexes me from the religious side is that the service of reason is freezing to feeling, chilling to the religious moods and feeling and the religious moods are eternally the deepest being of man, the ground of all joy and greatness for him" (Madden 45). In effect, the disbelieving poet, lacking this "joy and greatness," suffers from the religious disillusionment which causes, in part, the depressing view of old age which the reader observes in his poetry.

Furthermore, the poets' differing views of religion play roles in each man's perspective of death itself. Arnold feels that death is an unjust ending for all the traumas of life. Death, "the disappointing end," incites the poet's hopelessness in that nothing but pain remains to look forward to (Thorpe 74). Arnold gives the reader a sensation of coldness and discomfort, describing death as a time when "we are frozen up within." Additionally, he projects a sense of distress because although once dead, man is a "phantom of [himself]," he can still hear the hypocritical people who "blamed the living man" yet now "applaud the hollow ghost." Arnold does not comfort the reader by telling him that heaven awaits him; instead, he presents the reader with an image of a "frozen" state, which hardly transmits a sense of security and paradise with which the reader can put to rest his anxiety towards death. Moreover, the fact that the poet hears the voices of the people still alive as they praise or vilify him, tells the reader that in death man shall linger on on earth as a "phantom," or "hollow ghost," listening to "the world," in a tormented state of mind.

Browning, to no surprise, regards death enthusiastically as a new and exciting enterprise. In stanza fourteen he informs the reader that after "life's struggle...[reaches] its term," the poet shall "...be gone/ Once more on [his] adventure brave and new: fearless and unperplexed." With the wisdom and peace which old age has brought him, the poet now knows that death should not be feared, but rather faced with eager acceptance. In line one hundred and fourteen Browning rationalizes with the reader, stating that if "Thou waitest age: wait death nor be afraid." Towards the end of the poem, in stanza thirty, death gains new justification as the end to God's perfect plan. The poet begins the stanza exclaiming, "Look not thou down but up!", a command that instructs the reader to look up to heaven rather than down to earth, and adds to earth's "pottery wheel," heaven's "consummate cup." The reader faces the question, "With heaven's consummate cup, what needs thou with earth's wheel?" In other words, with a perfect cup already made, what use remains of a pottery wheel? So, the poet embraces heaven with great affection, as it brings him closer to "God, who moldest men," and exclaims with faithful devotion, "My times be in Thy hand!/ Perfect the cup as planned!" In other words, when God puts the poet to sleep with the blanket of death, he ordains the final step in the perfection of the soul (Defries 69).

While Browning's "Rabbi Ben Ezra" evokes tremendous eagerness for old age from the reader, and instructs the reader throughout the poem to "rejoice, strive, learn, and welcome" it, Arnold's "Growing Old" evokes a feeling of distress, as he makes it clear that the agony of aging is universal with his use of the words "we" and "our." However, Browning's love for God and complete religious devotion fertilizes the growing sanguinity which, in effect, can only inspire the equally religious reader. Browning justifies death and aging in terms of God's "perfect plan"; as the reader ages, the "nearer [he] holds of God." In effect, "Rabbi Ben Ezra" can only appeal to the devoutly religious lover of God, for the atheist or the agnostic, to whom God barely exists or not at all, cannot rejoice in reading of old age as the plan of the great "potter who mouldest men." On the other hand, Arnold, who suffers from religious disillusionment and lacks the "ground of all joy and greatness" which he believes religion gives man, writes as the incredulous reader whose writing projects despondency with images of a physical prison and a painfully cold death.

Undoubtedly, old age brings about its downsides, yet if met with joyful expectancy can prove a fulfilling experience. The final decision, whether to succumb to aging's blows on both mind and body, or to seek fulfillment from the experiences and knowledge attained from old age, rests on the reader. The decision which Arnold makes, to cringe with old age's blows, brings him nothing but deep, pulsating depression. Browning, on the contrary, relies on his religious faith as his ally in destroying any thoughts of gloom and despair, and anticipates a joyous, spiritual life.
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