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A poem by Robert Browning

Songs From Paracelsus

Title:     Songs From Paracelsus
Author: Robert Browning [More Titles by Browning]



Heap cassia, sandal-buds, and stripes
Of labdanum, and aloe-balls,
Smeared with dull nard an Indian wipes
From out her hair; such balsam falls
Down sea-side mountain pedestals, 5
From tree-tops where tired winds are fain,
Spent with the vast and howling main,
To treasure half their island-gain.

And strew faint sweetness from some old
Egyptian's fine worm-eaten shroud 10
Which breaks to dust when once unrolled;
Or shredded perfume, like a cloud
From closet long to quiet vowed,
With mothed and dropping arras hung,
Moldering her lute and books among, 15
As when a queen, long dead, was young.



Over the sea our galleys went
With cleaving prows in order brave
To a speeding wind and a bounding wave--
A gallant armament; 20
Each bark built out of a forest-tree
Left leafy and rough as first it grew,
And nailed all over the gaping sides,
Within and without, with black bull-hides,
Seethed in fat and suppled in flame, 25
To bear the playful billows' game.
So each good ship was rude to see,
Rude and bare to the outward view,
But each upbore a stately tent
Where cedar pales in scented row 30
Kept out the flakes of the dancing brine,
And an awning drooped the mast below,
In fold on fold of the purple fine,
That neither noontide nor starshine
Nor moonlight cold which maketh mad, 35
Might pierce the regal tenement.
When the sun dawned, oh, gay and glad
We set the sail and plied the oar;
But when the night-wind blew like breath,
For joy of one day's voyage more, 40
We sang together on the wide sea,
Like men at peace on a peaceful shore;
Each sail was loosed to the wind so free,
Each helm made sure by the twilight star,
And in a sleep as calm as death, 45
We, the voyagers from afar,
Lay stretched along, each weary crew
In a circle round its wondrous tent
Whence gleamed soft light and curled rich scent,
And with light and perfume, music too. 50
So the stars wheeled round, and the darkness passed,
And at morn we started beside the mast,
And still each ship was sailing fast.

Now one morn land appeared--a speck
Dim trembling betwixt sea and sky. 55
"Avoid it," cried our pilot, "check
The shout, restrain the eager eye!"
But the heaving sea was black behind
For many a night and many a day,
And land, though but a rock, drew nigh; 60
So we broke the cedar pales away,
Let the purple awning flap in the wind,
And a statue bright was on every deck!
We shouted, every man of us,
And steered right into the harbor thus, 65
With pomp and paean glorious.

A hundred shapes of lucid stone!
All day we built its shrine for each,
A shrine of rock for everyone,
Nor paused till in the westering sun 70
We sat together on the beach
To sing because our task was done.
When lo! what shouts and merry songs!
What laughter all the distance stirs!
A loaded raft with happy throngs 75
Of gentle islanders!
"Our isles are just at hand," they cried,
"Like cloudlets faint in even sleeping;
Our temple-gates are opened wide,
Our olive-groves thick shade are keeping 80
For these majestic forms"--they cried.
Oh, then we awoke with sudden start
From our deep dream, and knew, too late,
How bare the rock, how desolate,
Which had received our precious freight. 85
Yet we called out--"Depart!
Our gifts once given must here abide.
Our work is done; we have no heart
To mar our work"--we cried.



Thus the Mayne glideth 90
Where my Love abideth.
Sleep's no softer; it proceeds
On through lawns, on through meads,
On and on, whate'er befall,
Meandering and musical, 95
Though the niggard pasturage
Bears not on its shaven ledge
Aught but weeds and waving grasses
To view the river as it passes,
Save here and there a scanty patch 100
Of primroses too faint to catch
A weary bee.
And scarce it pushes
Its gentle way through strangling rushes
Where the glossy kingfisher
Flutters when noon-heats are near, 105
Glad the shelving banks to shun,
Red and steaming in the sun,
Where the shrew-mouse with pale throat
Burrows, and the speckled stoat;
Where the quick sandpipers flit 110
In and out the marl and grit
That seems to breed them, brown as they.
Naught disturbs its quiet way,
Save some lazy stork that springs,
Trailing it with legs and wings, 115
Whom the shy fox from the hill
Rouses, creep he ne'er so still.


The poem _Paracelsus_ is divided into five parts, each of which describes an important period in the experience of Paracelsus, the celebrated German-Swiss physician, alchemist, and philosopher of the sixteenth century. Book I tells of the eagerness and pride with which he set out in his youth to compass all knowledge; he believed himself commissioned of God to learn Truth and to give it to mankind. Books II and III show him followed and idolized by multitudes to whom he imparts the fragments of knowledge he has gained. But though these fragments seem to his disciples the sum and substance of wisdom, his own mind is preoccupied with a desolating certainty that he has hardly touched on the outer confines of truth. In Book IV, after experiencing the ingratitude of his fickle adherents, he is represented as abjuring the dreams of his youth. At this point comes the first of the three songs given in the text. He builds an imaginary altar on which he offers up the aspirations, the hopes, the plans, with which he had begun his career.


1-3. _Cassia_ is an unidentified fragrant plant; the wood of the _sandal_ tree is also fragrant; _labdanum_ or _ladanum_, is a resinous gum of dark color and pungent odor, exuding from various species of the cistus, a plant found around the Mediterranean; _aloe-balls_ are made from a bitter resinous juice extracted from the leaves of aloe-plants; _nard_ is an ointment made from an aromatic plant and used in the East Indies. These substances have long been traditionally associated in literature. In _Psalms_ xlv, 8 we read: "All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces, whereby they have made thee glad." Milton in _Paradise Lost_, v, 293, speaks of "flowering odors, cassia, nard, and balms."

4. _Such balsam_. The meaning of II. 4-8 is obscure. "Sea-side mountain pedestals" are presumably cliffs. In the tops of the trees on these cliffs the wind, weary of its rough work on the ocean, has gently dropped the fragrant things it has swept up from the island.

9-16. In this stanza the faint sweetness from the spices used in embalming, and the perfume still clinging to the tapestry in an ancient royal room carry suggestions of vanished power and beauty that add an appropriate pathos to the richly piled altar on which Paracelsus is to offer up the "lovely fancies" of his youth. "Shredded" is a transferred epithet, referring really to "arras," but transferred to the perfume of the arras.

SONG II. (Book IV)

When Paracelsus confesses the failure of his pursuit of absolute knowledge, his friend Festus urges him to redeem the past by making new use of what he has gained; but Paracelsus has no courage to attempt a reorganization of his life in accordance with a new ideal. His answer to Festus is the second of the three songs. He afterwards calls it,

"The sad rhyme of the men who proudly clung
To their first fault and withered in their pride."

The song is a beautiful and clear allegory, vivid in its pictures, rapid and musical.

SONG III. (Book V)

In Book V Paracelsus is described as lying ill in the Hospital of St. Sebastian. Festus is endeavoring to divert the current of his dying friend's fierce, delirious thoughts into a gentler channel. He brings up one picture after another of the early happy life of Paracelsus, and dwells on the grandeur of his mind and achievements, and on the fame that shall be his. But the desired peace comes only when Festus sings the song of the river Mayne beside which their youth had been spent. At the end of the song Paracelsus exclaims,

"My heart! they loose my heart, those simple words;
Its darkness passes which naught else could touch."

The Mayne, or Main, is the most important of the right-hand tributaries of the Rhine. Wurzburg, where Festus and Paracelsus had been as students, is on its banks. Its University was especially noted for its medical department. Mr. Stopford Brooke (_The Poetry of Robert Browning_, p. 99) says of this lovely lyric: "I have driven through that gracious country of low hill and dale and wide water-meadows, where under flowered banks only a foot high the slow river winds in gentleness; and this poem is steeped in the sentiment of the scenery. But, as before, Browning quickly slides away from the beauty of inanimate nature into a record of the animals that haunt the streams. He could not get on long with mountains and rivers alone. He must people them with breathing, feeling things; anything for life!"

[The end]
Robert Browning's poem: Songs From Paracelsus