There is no sentiment more constantly re-iterated in the poetry of Robert Browning than the deceptiveness of that illusion that we call success, or of that other illusion that we call failure; and I think one of the great causes of Browning's triumph as a poet of humanity has been his ability to inspire courage in other men, not only to teach them, but to make them realise that there are other elements in every struggle than those the world sees, and that what our short-sighted eyes call defeat is very often to the vision of the Gods a victory. To fail in the pursuit of an ideal is the common portion of humanity; why then should any one of us be exempt? So in "The Last Ride Together," the poet comforts himself with this thought:
"Fail I alone, in words and deeds?
Why, all men strive and who succeeds?
We rode; it seemed my spirit flew,
Saw other regions, cities new,
As the world rushed by on either side.
I thought, All labour, yet no less
Bear up beneath their unsuccess.
Look at the end of work, contrast
The petty Done, the Undone vast,
This present of theirs with the hopeful past!"
And in the next verse he hints at one reason of this failure.
"What hand and brain went ever paired?
What heart alike conceived and dared?
What act proved all its thought had been?
What will but felt the fleshly screen?"
Here he seems to realise how hard it is for the physical man to carry out the dictates of the spiritual man. It is the same lesson that Patanjali teaches when he says that the obstacles in the way of him who desires to attain concentration, or union with the Divine, are sickness, languor, doubt, carelessness, laziness, and so forth. It is easy to account for most of our failures in the little struggles of every-day life by one of the obstacles just mentioned without going on to the end of the list. The greatest obstacle of all is the one from which all our evils spring, Ignorance. The little things of life present themselves so often in a disguise that we fail to penetrate; we realize only when the opportunity is past that it was an opportunity, and then we say "If I had only known!" It is only experience that can teach us, only repeated stumbles that can teach us how to walk, only losses from oversight that can teach us how to see. When the trumpets sound for battle we gird up our loins and are ready for the fight; but when the enemy steals upon us in friendly guise and we have but to shut the door upon him, how often we are betrayed!
The only way to treat failure is to make it a stepping-stone to success.
"I hold it truth with one who sings
To one clear harp in divers tones,
That men may rise on stepping-stones
Of their dead selves to higher things."
And what are "our dead selves" but our failures to be or to do what we ought to be or to do? Every time that we fail, whether from ignorance or from carelessness or from any other cause, we should have learned at least this lesson, never to do that again. And so we may painfully stumble through the alphabet of life, and though we never get beyond our letters, yet if our progress be always in the right direction, we shall yet hear, when the end comes, the Voice of the Silence saying "Well done, thou good and faithful servant."
Nor can we always measure failure and success. The conditions are so complex that only omniscient eyes can read them aright. The very thing we are most proud of may prove to have a secret flaw; the task we had despised may turn out to be a glorious achievement. The soldier who fights and dies on the losing side is as brave as he who falls on that of the victors, and the losing side is sometimes the right side in the eyes of Truth. It was of such as these that Walt Whitman was thinking when he wrote his stirring hymn to the vanquished.
"With music strong I come — with my cornets and my drums; I play not marches for accepted victors only — I play great marches for conquered and slain persons. Have you heard that it was good to win the day? I also say that it is good to fall — battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won. I beat and pound for the dead; I blow through my embouchures my loudest and gayest for them. Vivas to those who have failed!
And to those whose war-vessels sank in the sea!
And to those themselves who sank in the sea!
And to all generals that lost engagements! and all overcome heroes!
And the numberless unknown heroes, equal to the greatest heroes known!
In an article on "Awakening" in the last number of Lucifer the writer has italicised these words: "Never is the aspirant in such danger of falling as the moment after he has successfully resisted temptation." And here we see the greatest danger of success, in that spiritual pride that blinds our eyes and makes us lose our balance, that inspiring us with confidence causes us to relax our guard and renders us a easy prey to the thousand insidious evil influences that hover about us.
We must take courage, then, and learn that it is not for us to judge of the measure of our successes or our defeats; that must be left for wiser intelligences than ours. And if we cannot make a right estimate of our own victories, how much less can we do so in the case of our neighbor, of whose real nature and of whose real temptations we are so hopelessly ignorant. The man we think fallen among the slain may be really mounting to a higher sphere, whence he can survey our harsh judgment with the pitying eyes of a wider knowledge; the conqueror we see flushed with victory may have gained the whole world to lose his own soul. So, to quote Browning again:
"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;
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:
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.
We certainly cannot judge of the comparative success or failure of others; we can hardly judge of our own; but we can take courage when we seem to be beaten, and try to discover the flaw in our armor that we may be better prepared for another fight. And we can study that lesson which is set us every day, but which we so often fail to learn, that in the little things of every day life are our opportunities for conquest over ourselves. If we neglect these tasks, how can we expect to have harder lessons set us?
"Would- but some fairy lend to me her charm!"
Lately I cried, in a despairing hour;
"Some mighty spell to nerve my weary arm,
Some Open Sesame of magic power!
Or, better still, show but the time and place
Where a brave heart might win itself a name,
And fall, perchance to benefit the race,
Winning the blossoms of a deathless fame!"
Then as I mused a beldame crossed my way,
Tottering along, with shrouded, earth-bent brow;
She stretched a lean hand from her mantle gray,
And said, in shaking whispers, "Here, and now!"
"O poor delusion!" then I cried in scorn;
"Not thus are godlike powers to mortals given;
The Helpers come clad in the strength of morn,
Bright with the ling'ring radiance of heaven!
Nor this the place or hour for mighty deeds,
On this lone way, beneath this tranquil sky;
No foe is here, no hapless victim bleeds;
We are the only passers, thou and I!"
Silent she tottered on, but having past,
A sudden glory seemed to light her way;
White angel-wings sprang from her shoulders vast,
And fair she shone as shines the god of day.
A noble scorn shot lightnings from her eyes,
As fleeing still she turned her lovely head;
"The gods sent me in answer to thy cries,
But once repulsed, I am forever fled!
Learn to know Fortune ere she pass thee by;
Seize on her coming, for she will not wait!
And know by all thy ways divine things lie,
And every place and hour holds thy fate!"
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