It is a notable fact that the life of Paracelsus formed the theme for the first important work of one of the greatest of modern poets, Robert Browning, in whom the mystical tendency forms one of the strongest characteristics of his thought. Paracelsus is a wonderful composition; almost marvelous when it is considered that it was written when the poet was but 28 years old. It exhibits a noble maturity of intellect; in the exalted spirituality of its thought it has never been surpassed by any of the poet's subsequent works. Its shows that Browning had a true appreciation of the greatness of the Master. In his note he says that he has taken very trifling liberties with his subject and that "the reader may slip the foregoing scenes between the leaves of any memoir of Paracelsus he pleases, by way of commentary." Browning must have studied the writings of Paracelsus closely, and with his inner vision, for throughout the poem there runs a deep vein of occultism. Although he has followed the historical accounts of the Master, and therefore depicts some blemishes upon his character which could hardly have existed in reality, it seems not unlikely that a mind of the lofty spiritual quality of Browning's may, in its aspiration for true knowledge of his theme, have been impressed by that of Paracelsus himself, or of the one formerly known by that name.
The poem has the form of a drama in five acts. The first act has its scene at Wurzburg, where Paracelsus is studying under Tritheim, in 1512, a youth of 19 years. With him is Festus, his boyhood's friend, older than he, and Michal, the betrothed of Festus. The three are together in a garden, and Paracelsus is about to enter upon his long wanderings through the world. To these two he confides the secret of his aspirations. Festus, who has a conservative nature, endeavors to dissuade him from his enterprise, and to pursue knowledge in the ordinary channels. Paracelsus then tells something of the extraordinary nature which has distinguished him from his fellowmen. He says:
"From childhood I have been possessed
By a fire — by a true fire, or faint or fierce,
As from without some master, so it seemed,
Repressed or urged its current: this but ill
Expresses what I would convey — but rather
I will believe an angel ruled me thus,
Than that my soul's own workings, own high nature,
So become manifest. I knew not then
What whispered in the evening, and spoke out
At midnight. If some mortal, born too soon,
Were laid away in some great trance — the ages
Coming and going all the while — till dawned
His true time's advent, and could then record
The words they spoke who kept watch by his bed, —
Then I might tell more of the breath so light
Upon my eyelids, and the fingers warm
Among my hair. Youth is confused: yet never
So dull was I but, when that spirit passed,
I turned to him, scarce consciously, as turns
A water-snake when fairies cross his sleep."
These words characterize the born Adept and show that the poet really apprehended the nature of the memories of past existences. Paracelsus confesses how the impulse was ever with him to devote himself to the good of mankind and do some great work in its behalf. In his youth, as he sat under Tritheim's teachings, he felt somehow that a mighty power was brooding, taking shape within him, and this lasted till one night, as he sat revolving it more and more, a still voice from without spoke to him, and then it was that he first discovered his aim's extent,
"Which sought to comprehend the works of God,
And God himself, and all God's intercourse
With the human mind."
The voice continued:
"There is a way —
'Tis hard for flesh to tread therein, imbued
With frailty — hopeless, if indulgence first
Have ripened inborn germs of sin to strength:
Wilt thou adventure for my sake and man's,
Apart from all reward?' And last it breathed —
'Be happy my good soldier; I am by thee,
Be sure, even to the end!' — I answered not,
Knowing Him. As He spoke, I was endued
With comprehension and a steadfast will;
And when He ceased, my brow was sealed His own.
If there took place no special change in me,
How comes it all things wore a different hue
Thenceforward? — pregnant with vast consequence —
Teeming with grand results — loaded with fate;
So that when quailing at the mighty range
Of secret truths which yearn for birth, I haste
To contemplate undazzled some one truth,
Its bearings and effects alone — at once
What was a speck expands into a star,
Asking a life to pass exploring thus,
Till I near craze."
This voice is that which speaks to all true Mystics. It is the higher Self that speaks; the voice of the Warrior, spoken of in Light on the Path, "He is thyself, yet infinitely wiser and stronger than thyself." It may also be the voice of a Master, as well. For, at the stage where the bonds of the personality are loosened, the sense of separateness has disappeared, and the higher Self of one is that of all. In this passage, the poet gives beautiful utterance to the fact of the spiritual rebirth, the moment when the lower consciousness becomes united with the higher.
Again, in the following words, the fact of reincarnation is expressed:
"At times I almost dream
I too have spent a life the sages' way,
And tread once more familiar paths. Perchance
I perished in an arrogant self-reliance
An age ago; and in that act, a prayer
For one more chance went up so earnest, so
Instinct with better light let in by Death,
That life was blotted out — not so completely
But scattered wrecks enough of it remain,
Dim memories; as now, when seems once more
The goal in sight again."
This feeling of the truth of reincarnation finds utterance throughout Browning's work. It would be difficult to account for the greatness of a person like Paracelsus except under the theory of pre-existence.
"The dim star that burns within," and the reason for its dimness, is gloriously expressed in the following words:
"Truth is within ourselves; it takes no rise
From outward things, whate'er you may believe:
There is an inmost center in us all,
Where truth abides in fulness; and around
Wall upon wall, the gross flesh hems it in,
This perfect clear perception — which is truth;
A baffling and perverting carnal mesh
Blinds it, and makes all error: and 'to know'
Rather consists in opening out a way
Whence the imprisoned splendor may escape,
Than in effecting entry for a light
Supposed to be without. Watch narrowly
The demonstration of a truth, its birth,
And you trace back the effluence to its spring
And source within us, where broods radiance vast,
To be elicited ray by ray, as chance Shall favor."
This passage, which is pure mysticism, is too long to quote entire, but the reader will find that it continues in the same exalted strain, showing how the unveiling of the soul, the higher self, may, through various means, be accomplished by what seems chance, or, as it says in Through the Gates of Gold, man may "tear the veil that hides him from the eternal at any point where it is easiest for him to do so; the most often this point will be where he least expects to find it." The poet has seen clearly, with Paracelsus himself, how it is that matter bars in the spirit, and he asks:
"May not truth be lodged alike in all,
The lowest as the highest? some slight film
The interposing bar which binds it up,
And makes the idiot, just as makes the sage
Some film removed, the happy outlet whence
Truth issues proudly? See this soul of ours!
How it strives weakly in the child, is loosed
In manhood, clogged by sickness, back compelled
By age and waste, set free at last by death:
Why is it, flesh enthralls it or enthrones?
What is this flesh we have to penetrate?
O not alone when life flows still do truth
And power emerge, but also when strange chance
Ruffles its current; in unused conjuncture,
When sickness breaks the body — hunger, watching,
Excess or languor, — oftenest death's approach —
Peril, deep joy, or woe."
It was to give clearer hints for this setting free of the soul that Through the Gates of Gold was written. In the second act Browning shows us Paracelsus in Constantinople in the year 1521, where history tells that he was at that time, having spent something like seven years in the Orient, "among the Tartars," a term that permits a wide range for his whereabouts. The Master was accordingly then 28 years old. He is said to have received the "Philospher's stone," in reality the Great Jewel or Master Stone, described in the beautiful story called "Papyrus," — printed in the March The Path — from a German Adept, Solomon Trismosinus. Browning, however, lays the scene at "the House of the Greek conjuror." This act, though very beautiful, is of slight value historically, as it was designed to carry out the motive of the poem that Paracelsus failed by seeking to attain his end through knowledge alone, leaving love out of account. In this regard Browning failed to grasp the full greatness of the Master, for Paracelsus could not have held his exalted position in the Rosicrucian brotherhood without being inspired by the most unbounded love for humanity.
To carry out this idea of the necessity of both knowledge and love, Browning introduces an Italian poet, Aprile, who has sought to attain the same end as Paracelsus through love alone. Aprile dies in the arms of Paracelsus and thus teaches him the lesson of love. This passage may be taken as symbolic of the union of the distinctive traits of the individuals and the assimilation of their essences by him who has arrived at the stage of killing out the sense of separateness. This is shown in the words addressed by Paracelsus to Aprile:
"Are we not halves of one dissevered world,
Whom this strange chance unites once more? Part? never!
Till thou, the lover, know; and I, the knower,
Love — until both are saved."
In this act are the following glorious words spoken by the dying Aprile:
"God is the perfect poet,
Who in creation acts his own conceptions.
Shall man refuse to be ought less than God?
Man's weakness is his glory — for the strength
Which raises him to heaven and near God's self,
Came spite of it: God's strength his glory is,
For thence came with our weakness sympathy
Which brought God down to earth, a man like us."
We will pass over the next two acts as comparatively unimportant to our purpose. In the last act we find Paracelsus, in the year 1541, at the age of 48, dying at Salzburg, alone with his faithful friend Festus. He tells Festus of the sensations of his dying moments in a passage in which occur inspired words, depicting the soul in the state of Eternity, where time and space are as nought. He tells Festus "You are here to be instructed. I will tell God's message," and he describes his experiences on the threshold of the Eternal as containing his entire past life:
"If I selectWhat follows may be taken, perhaps, in a sense, for a mystic initiation. Mustering superhuman strength Paracelsus stands upon his couch, dons his scarlet cloak lined with fur, puts his chain around his neck, his signet ring is on his finger, and last he takes his good sword, his trusty Azoth, in his grasp for the last time, and says:
Some special epoch from the crowd, 'tis but
To will and straight the rest dissolve away,
And only that particular state is present,
With all its long-forgotten circumstance,
Distinct and vivid as at first — myself
A careless looker-on, and nothing more!
Indifferent and amused, but nothing more!
And this is death: I understand it all.
New being waits me; new perceptions must
Be born in me before I plunge therein;
Which last is Death's affair, and while I speak,
Minute by minute he is filling me
With power; and while my foot is on the threshold
Of boundless life — the doors unopened yet,
All preparations not complete within —
I turn new knowledge upon old events,
And the effect is — But I must not tell;
It is not lawful."
"This couch shall be my throne: I bid these walls
Be consecrate; this wretched cell become
A shrine; for here God speaks to men through me:"
Then he tells the story of his birth to power, and of the wisdom he has attained. He tells how
"I stood at first where all aspire at last
To stand: the secret of the world was mine.
I knew, I felt, (perception unexpressed,
Uncomprehended by our narrow thought,
But somehow felt and known in every shift
And change in the spirit, — nay, in every pore
Of the body, even,) — what God is, what we are,
What life is — how God tastes an infinite joy
In infinite ways — one everlasting bliss,
From whom all being emanates, all power
Proceeds; in whom is life forevermore,
Yet whom existence in its lowest form
It is a long address, and so full of the most spiritual thought that it seems a pity space will not allow it to be quoted entire. There is one passage which corresponds very closely to a passage in Hartmann's work, from one of Paracelsus's writings, describing the union in man of the attributes of this sphere of life which had, here and there
"Been scattered o'er the visible world before,
Asking to be combined — dim fragments meant
To be united in some wondrous whole —
Imperfect qualities throughout creation,
Suggesting some one creature yet to make —
Some point where all those scattered rays should meet
Convergent in the faculties of man."
This point of convergence is spoken of in Through the Gates of Gold as "that primeval place which is the only throne of God, — that place whence forms of life emerge and to which they return. That place is the central point of existence, where there is a permanent spot of life as there is in the midst of the heart of man." Again we see the same subject treated in the closing part of the Gates of Gold, the mighty results to be attained through the subjugation of the animal nature in man to the godly nature, looked forward to by Paracelsus, as Browning makes him speak, with prophetic vision, in the following words:
"But when full roused, each giant limb awake,
Each sinew strung, the great heart pulsing fast,
He shall start up, and stand on his own earth,
And so begin his long triumphant march,
And date his being thence, — thus wholly roused,
What he achieves shall be set down to him!
When all the race is perfected alike
As Man, that is: all tended to mankind,
And, man produced, all has its end thus far;
But in completed man begins anew
A tendency to God."
And it is given significantly, as a trait of completed man, that such
The narrow creeds of right and wrong, which fade
Before the unmeasured thirst for good; while peace
Rises within them ever more and more.
Such men are even now upon the earth,
Serene amid the half-formed creatures round,
Who should be saved by them and joined with them."
These words of Paracelsus are almost the last in the poem:
"As yet men cannot do without contempt —
'Tis for their good, and therefore fit awhile
That they reject the weak, and scorn the false,
Rather than praise the strong and true, in me.
But after, they will know me!
If I stoop into a dark tremendous sea of cloud,
It is but for a time; I press God's lamp
Close to my breast — its splendor, soon or late,
Will pierce the gloom: I shall emerge one day!
We believe that the time is not far distant when he will be understood, will be known, and shall emerge.