Essay / Misc.

Today Abraham Ibn Ezra Died (1164)

Abraham Ibn Ezra was a medieval Jewish commentator on the Old Testament. His commentaries are a bizarre combination of unconstrained creativity and extreme jot-and-tittle conservatism. He also wrote poetry and is highly regarded as a philosopher. His way of talking about any subject is often so cryptic that it demands an active interpreter.

One of those active interpreters was english poet Robert Browning. Browning cast Abraham Ibn Ezra as the speaker in one of his most memorable poems, Rabbi Ben Ezra. That poem, appearing in the sequence Dramatis Personae, shows obvious signs that Browning had read Ezra’s philosophical musings with real insight and fascination, but the resulting poem, a masterpiece in its own right, is as much Browning as it is Ezra. Nevertheless, this is the form in which Ezra’s ideas and voice have been most widely distributed in English. You can read the whole poem elsewhere. Here are the best bits:

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!”

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!

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!”

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

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.

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

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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