Paracelsus, by Robert Browning

Part III

Paracelsus

Scene. — Basil; a chamber in the house of Paracelsus. 1526.

Paracelsus, Festus.

Paracelsus.

Heap logs and let the blaze laugh out!

Festus.

                    True, true!

’T is very fit all, time and chance and change

Have wrought since last we sat thus, face to face

And soul to soul — all cares, far-looking fears,

Vague apprehensions, all vain fancies bred

By your long absence, should be cast away,

Forgotten in this glad unhoped renewal

Of our affections.

Paracelsus.

         Oh, omit not aught

Which witnesses your own and Michal’s own

Affection: spare not that! Only forget

The honours and the glories and what not,

It pleases you to tell profusely out.

Festus.

Nay, even your honours, in a sense, I waive:

The wondrous Paracelsus, life’s dispenser,

Fate’s commissary, idol of the schools

And courts, shall be no more than Aureole still,

Still Aureole and my friend as when we parted

Some twenty years ago, and I restrained

As best I could the promptings of my spirit

Which secretly advanced you, from the first,

To the pre-eminent rank which, since, your own

Adventurous ardour, nobly triumphing,

Has won for you.

Paracelsus.

        Yes, yes. And Michal’s face

Still wears that quiet and peculiar light

Like the dim circlet floating round a pearl?

Festus.

Just so.

Paracelsus.

    And yet her calm sweet countenance,

Though saintly, was not sad; for she would sing

Alone. Does she still sing alone, bird-like,

Not dreaming you are near? Her carols dropt

In flakes through that old leafy bower built under

The sunny wall at Würzburg, from her lattice

Among the trees above, while I, unseen,

Sat conning some rare scroll from Tritheim’s shelves

Much wondering notes so simple could divert

My mind from study. Those were happy days.

Respect all such as sing when all alone!

Festus.

Scarcely alone: her children, you may guess,

Are wild beside her.

Paracelsus.

          Ah, those children quite

Unsettle the pure picture in my mind:

A girl, she was so perfect, so distinct:

No change, no change! Not but this added grace

May blend and harmonize with its compeers,

And Michal may become her motherhood;

But’t is a change, and I detest all change,

And most a change in aught I loved long since.

So, Michal — you have said she thinks of me?

Festus.

O very proud will Michal be of you!

Imagine how we sat, long winter-nights,

Scheming and wondering, shaping your presumed

Adventure, or devising its reward;

Shutting out fear with all the strength of hope.

For it was strange how, even when most secure

In our domestic peace, a certain dim

And flitting shade could sadden all; it seemed

A restlessness of heart, a silent yearning,

A sense of something wanting, incomplete —

Not to be put in words, perhaps avoided

By mute consent — but, said or unsaid, felt

To point to one so loved and so long lost.

And then the hopes rose and shut out the fears —

How you would laugh should I recount them now

I still predicted your return at last

With gifts beyond the greatest of them all,

All Tritheim’s wondrous troop; did one of which

Attain renown by any chance, I smiled,

As well aware of who would prove his peer

Michal was sure some woman, long ere this,

As beautiful as you were sage, had loved . . .

Paracelsus.

Far-seeing, truly, to discern so much

In the fantastic projects and day-dreams

Of a raw restless boy!

Festus.

           Oh, no: the sunrise

Well warranted our faith in this full noon!

Can I forget the anxious voice which said

“Festus, have thoughts like these ere shaped themselves

“In other brains than mine? have their possessors

“Existed in like circumstance? were they weak

“As I, or ever constant from the first,

“Despising youth’s allurements and rejecting

“As spider-films the shackles I endure?

“Is there hope for me?"— and I answered gravely

As an acknowledged elder, calmer, wiser,

More gifted mortal. O you must remember,

For all your glorious . . .

Paracelsus.

              Glorious? ay, this hair,

These hands — nay, touch them, they are mine! Recall

With all the said recallings, times when thus

To lay them by your own ne’er turned you pale

As now. Most glorious, are they not?

Festus.

                   Why — why —

Something must be subtracted from success

So wide, no doubt. He would be scrupulous, truly,

Who should object such drawbacks. Still, still, Aureole,

You are changed, very changed! ’T were losing nothing

To look well to it: you must not be stolen

From the enjoyment of your well-won meed.

Paracelsus.

My friend! you seek my pleasure, past a doubt:

You will best gain your point, by talking, not

Of me, but of yourself.

Festus.

            Have I not said

All touching Michal and my children? Sure

You know, by this, full well how Aennchen looks

Gravely, while one disparts her thick brown hair;

And Aureole’s glee when some stray gannet builds

Amid the birch-trees by the lake. Small hope

Have I that he will honour (the wild imp)

His namesake. Sigh not! ’t is too much to ask

That all we love should reach the same proud fate.

But you are very kind to humour me

By showing interest in my quiet life;

You, who of old could never tame yourself

To tranquil pleasures, must at heart despise . . .

Paracelsus.

Festus, strange secrets are let out by death

Who blabs so oft the follies of this world:

And I am death’s familiar, as you know.

I helped a man to die, some few weeks since,

Warped even from his go-cart to one end —

The living on princes’ smiles, reflected from

A mighty herd of favourites. No mean trick

He left untried, and truly well-nigh wormed

All traces of God’s finger out of him:

Then died, grown old. And just an hour before,

Having lain long with blank and soulless eyes,

He sat up suddenly, and with natural voice

Said that in spite of thick air and closed doors

God told him it was June; and he knew well,

Without such telling, harebells grew in June;

And all that kings could ever give or take

Would not be precious as those blooms to him.

Just so, allowing I am passing sage,

It seems to me much worthier argument

Why pansies, eyes that laugh, bear beauty’s prize

From violets, eyes that dream —(your Michal’s choice)—

Than all fools find to wonder at in me

Or in my fortunes. And be very sure

I say this from no prurient restlessness,

No self-complacency, itching to turn,

Vary and view its pleasure from all points,

And, in this instance, willing other men

May be at pains, demonstrate to itself

The realness of the very joy it tastes.

What should delight me like the news of friends

Whose memories were a solace to me oft,

As mountain-baths to wild fowls in their flight?

Ofter than you had wasted thought on me

Had you been wise, and rightly valued bliss.

But there’s no taming nor repressing hearts:

God knows I need such! — So, you heard me speak?

Festus.

Speak? when?

Paracelsus.

      When but this morning at my class?

There was noise and crowd enough. I saw you not.

Surely you know I am engaged to fill

The chair here? — that’t is part of my proud fate

To lecture to as many thick-skulled youths

As please, each day, to throng the theatre,

To my great reputation, and no small

Danger of Basil’s benches long unused

To crack beneath such honour?

Festus.

               I was there;

I mingled with the throng: shall I avow

Small care was mine to listen? — too intent

On gathering from the murmurs of the crowd

A full corroboration of my hopes!

What can I learn about your powers? but they

Know, care for nought beyond your actual state,

Your actual value; yet they worship you,

Those various natures whom you sway as one!

But ere I go, be sure I shall attend . . .

Paracelsus.

Stop, o’ God’s name: the thing’s by no means yet

Past remedy! Shall I read this morning’s labour

— At least in substance? Nought so worth the gaining

As an apt scholar! Thus then, with all due

Precision and emphasis — you, beside, are clearly

Guiltless of understanding more, a whit,

The subject than your stool — allowed to be

A notable advantage.

Festus.

          Surely, Aureole,

You laugh at me!

Paracelsus.

        I laugh? Ha, ha! thank heaven,

I charge you, if’t be so! for I forget

Much, and what laughter should be like. No less,

However, I forego that luxury

Since it alarms the friend who brings it back.

True, laughter like my own must echo strangely

To thinking men; a smile were better far;

So, make me smile! If the exulting look

You wore but now be smiling, ’t is so long

Since I have smiled! Alas, such smiles are born

Alone of hearts like yours, or herdsmen’s souls

Of ancient time, whose eyes, calm as their flocks,

Saw in the stars mere garnishry of heaven,

And in the earth a stage for altars only.

Never change, Festus: I say, never change!

Festus.

My God, if he be wretched after all

Paracelsus.

When last we parted, Festus, you declared,

— Or Michal, yes, her soft lips whispered words

I have preserved. She told me she believed

I should succeed (meaning, that in the search

I then engaged in, I should meet success)

And yet be wretched: now, she augured false.

Festus.

Thank heaven! but you spoke strangely: could I venture

To think bare apprehension lest your friend,

Dazzled by your resplendent course, might find

Henceforth less sweetness in his own, could move

Such earnest mood in you? Fear not, dear friend,

That I shall leave you, inwardly repining

Your lot was not my own!

Paracelsus.

            And this for ever!

For ever! gull who may, they will be gulled!

They will not look nor think; ’t is nothing new

In them: but surely he is not of them!

My Festus, do you know, I reckoned, you —

Though all beside were sand-blind — you, my friend,

Would look at me, once close, with piercing eye

Untroubled by the false glare that confounds

A weaker vision: would remain serene,

Though singular amid a gaping throng.

I feared you, or I had come, sure, long ere this,

To Einsiedeln. Well, error has no end,

And Rhasis is a sage, and Basil boasts

A tribe of wits, and I am wise and blest

Past all dispute! ’T is vain to fret at it.

I have vowed long ago my worshippers

Shall owe to their own deep sagacity

All further information, good or bad.

Small risk indeed my reputation runs,

Unless perchance the glance now searching me

Be fixed much longer; for it seems to spell

Dimly the characters a simpler man

Might read distinct enough. Old Eastern books

Say, the fallen prince of morning some short space

Remained unchanged in semblance; nay, his brow

Was hued with triumph: every spirit then

Praising, his heart on flame the while:— a tale!

Well, Festus, what discover you, I pray?

Festus.

Some foul deed sullies then a life which else

Were raised supreme?

Paracelsus.

          Good: I do well, most well

Why strive to make men hear, feel, fret themselves

With what is past their power to comprehend?

I should not strive now: only, having nursed

The faint surmise that one yet walked the earth,

One, at least, not the utter fool of show,

Not absolutely formed to be the dupe

Of shallow plausibilities alone:

One who, in youth, found wise enough to choose

The happiness his riper years approve,

Was yet so anxious for another’s sake,

That, ere his friend could rush upon a mad

And ruinous course, the converse of his own,

His gentle spirit essayed, prejudged for him

The perilous path, foresaw its destiny,

And warned the weak one in such tender words,

Such accents — his whole heart in every tone —

That oft their memory comforted that friend

When it by right should have increased despair:

— Having believed, I say, that this one man

Could never lose the light thus from the first

His portion — how should I refuse to grieve

At even my gain if it disturb our old

Relation, if it make me out more wise?

Therefore, once more reminding him how well

He prophesied, I note the single flaw

That spoils his prophet’s title. In plain words,

You were deceived, and thus were you deceived —

I have not been successful, and yet am

Most miserable; ’t is said at last; nor you

Give credit, lest you force me to concede

That common sense yet lives upon the world!

Festus.

You surely do not mean to banter me?

Paracelsus.

You know, or — if you have been wise enough

To cleanse your memory of such matters — knew,

As far as words of mine could make it clear,

That’t was my purpose to find joy or grief

Solely in the fulfilment of my plan

Or plot or whatsoe’er it was; rejoicing

Alone as it proceeded prosperously,

Sorrowing then only when mischance retarded

Its progress. That was in those Würzburg days!

Not to prolong a theme I thoroughly hate,

I have pursued this plan with all my strength;

And having failed therein most signally,

Cannot object to ruin utter and drear

As all-excelling would have been the prize

Had fortune favoured me. I scarce have right

To vex your frank good spirit late so glad

In my supposed prosperity, I know,

And, were I lucky in a glut of friends,

Would well agree to let your error live,

Nay, strengthen it with fables of success.

But mine is no condition to refuse

The transient solace of so rare a godsend,

My solitary luxury, my one friend:

Accordingly I venture to put off

The wearisome vest of falsehood galling me,

Secure when he is by. I lay me bare

Prone at his mercy — but he is my friend!

Not that he needs retain his aspect grave;

That answers not my purpose; for’t is like,

Some sunny morning — Basil being drained

Of its wise population, every corner

Of the amphitheatre crammed with learned clerks,

Here OEcolampadius, looking worlds of wit,

Here Castellanus, as profound as he,

Munsterus here, Frobenius there, all squeezed

And staring — that the zany of the show,

Even Paracelsus, shall put off before them

His trappings with a grace but seldom judged

Expedient in such cases:— the grim smile

That will go round! Is it not therefore best

To venture a rehearsal like the present

In a small way? Where are the signs I seek,

The first-fruits and fair sample of the scorn

Due to all quacks? Why, this will never do!

Festus.

These are foul vapours, Aureole; nought beside!

The effect of watching, study, weariness.

Were there a spark of truth in the confusion

Of these wild words, you would not outrage thus

Your youth’s companion. I shall ne’er regard

These wanderings, bred of faintness and much study.

’T is not thus you would trust a trouble to me,

To Michal’s friend.

Paracelsus.

          I have said it, dearest Festus!

For the manner, ’t is ungracious probably;

You may have it told in broken sobs, one day,

And scalding tears, ere long: but I thought best

To keep that off as long as possible.

Do you wonder still?

Festus.

          No; it must oft fall out

That one whose labour perfects any work,

Shall rise from it with eye so worn that he

Of all men least can measure the extent

Of what he has accomplished. He alone

Who, nothing tasked, is nothing weary too,

May clearly scan the little he effects:

But we, the bystanders, untouched by toil,

Estimate each aright.

Paracelsus.

           This worthy Festus

Is one of them, at last! ’T is so with all!

First, they set down all progress as a dream;

And next, when he whose quick discomfiture

Was counted on, accomplishes some few

And doubtful steps in his career — behold,

They look for every inch of ground to vanish

Beneath his tread, so sure they spy success!

Festus.

Few doubtful steps? when death retires before

Your presence — when the noblest of mankind,

Broken in body or subdued in soul,

May through your skill renew their vigour, raise

The shattered frame to pristine stateliness?

When men in racking pain may purchase dreams

Of what delights them most, swooning at once

Into a sea of bliss or rapt along

As in a flying sphere of turbulent light?

When we may look to you as one ordained

To free the flesh from fell disease, as frees

Our Luther’s burning tongue the fettered soul?

When . . .

Paracelsus.

     When and where, the devil, did you get

This notable news?

Festus.

         Even from the common voice;

From those whose envy, daring not dispute

The wonders it decries, attributes them

To magic and such folly.

Paracelsus.

            Folly? Why not

To magic, pray? You find a comfort doubtless

In holding, God ne’er troubles him about

Us or our doings: once we were judged worth

The devil’s tempting . . . I offend: forgive me,

And rest content. Your prophecy on the whole

Was fair enough as prophesyings go;

At fault a little in detail, but quite

Precise enough in the main; and hereupon

I pay due homage: you guessed long ago

(The prophet!) I should fail — and I have failed.

Festus.

You mean to tell me, then, the hopes which fed

Your youth have not been realized as yet?

Some obstacle has barred them hitherto?

Or that their innate . . .

Paracelsus.

              As I said but now,

You have a very decent prophet’s fame,

So you but shun details here. Little matter

Whether those hopes were mad — the aims they sought,

Safe and secure from all ambitious fools;

Or whether my weak wits are overcome

By what a better spirit would scorn: I fail.

And now methinks’t were best to change a theme

I am a sad fool to have stumbled on.

I say confusedly what comes uppermost;

But there are times when patience proves at fault,

As now: this morning’s strange encounter — you

Beside me once again! you, whom I guessed

Alive, since hitherto (with Luther’s leave)

No friend have I among the saints at peace,

To judge by any good their prayers effect.

I knew you would have helped me — why not he,

My strange competitor in enterprise,

Bound for the same end by another path,

Arrived, or ill or well, before the time,

At our disastrous journey’s doubtful close?

How goes it with Aprile? Ah, they miss

Your lone sad sunny idleness of heaven,

Our martyrs for the world’s sake; heaven shuts fast:

The poor mad poet is howling by this time!

Since you are my sole friend then, here or there,

I could not quite repress the varied feelings

This meeting wakens; they have had their vent,

And now forget them. Do the rear-mice still

Hang like a fretwork on the gate (or what

In my time was a gate) fronting the road

From Einsiedeln to Lachen?

Festus.

              Trifle not:

Answer me, for my sake alone! You smiled

Just now, when I supposed some deed, unworthy

Yourself, might blot the else so bright result;

Yet if your motives have continued pure,

Your will unfaltering, and in spite of this,

You have experienced a defeat, why then

I say not you would cheerfully withdraw

From contest — mortal hearts are not so fashioned —

But surely you would ne’ertheless withdraw.

You sought not fame nor gain nor even love,

No end distinct from knowledge — I repeat

Your very words: once satisfied that knowledge

Is a mere dream, you would announce as much,

Yourself the first. But how is the event?

You are defeated — and I find you here!

Paracelsus.

As though “here” did not signify defeat!

I spoke not of my little labours here,

But of the break-down of my general aims:

For you, aware of their extent and scope,

To look on these sage lecturings, approved

By beardless boys, and bearded dotards worse,

As a fit consummation of such aims,

Is worthy notice. A professorship

At Basil! Since you see so much in it,

And think my life was reasonably drained

Of life’s delights to render me a match

For duties arduous as such post demands —

Be it far from me to deny my power

To fill the petty circle lotted out

Of infinite space, or justify the host

Of honours thence accruing. So, take notice,

This jewel dangling from my neck preserves

The features of a prince, my skill restored

To plague his people some few years to come:

And all through a pure whim. He had eased the earth

For me, but that the droll despair which seized

The vermin of his household, tickled me.

I came to see. Here, drivelled the physician,

Whose most infallible nostrum was at fault;

There quaked the astrologer, whose horoscope

Had promised him interminable years;

Here a monk fumbled at the sick man’s mouth

With some undoubted relic — a sudary

Of the Virgin; while another piebald knave

Of the same brotherhood (he loved them ever)

Was actively preparing ’neath his nose

Such a suffumigation as, once fired,

Had stunk the patient dead ere he could groan.

I cursed the doctor and upset the brother,

Brushed past the conjurer, vowed that the first gust

Of stench from the ingredients just alight

Would raise a cross-grained devil in my sword,

Not easily laid: and ere an hour the prince

Slept as he never slept since prince he was.

A day — and I was posting for my life,

Placarded through the town as one whose spite

Had near availed to stop the blessed effects

Of the doctor’s nostrum which, well seconded

By the sudary, and most by the costly smoke —

Not leaving out the strenuous prayers sent up

Hard by in the abbey — raised the prince to life:

To the great reputation of the seer

Who, confident, expected all along

The glad event — the doctor’s recompense —

Much largess from his highness to the monks —

And the vast solace of his loving people,

Whose general satisfaction to increase,

The prince was pleased no longer to defer

The burning of some dozen heretics

Remanded till God’s mercy should be shown

Touching his sickness: last of all were joined

Ample directions to all loyal folk

To swell the complement by seizing me

Who — doubtless some rank sorcerer — endeavoured

To thwart these pious offices, obstruct

The prince’s cure, and frustrate heaven by help

Of certain devils dwelling in his sword.

By luck, the prince in his first fit of thanks

Had forced this bauble on me as an earnest

Of further favours. This one case may serve

To give sufficient taste of many such,

So, let them pass. Those shelves support a pile

Of patents, licences, diplomas, titles

From Germany, France, Spain, and Italy;

They authorize some honour; ne’ertheless,

I set more store by this Erasmus sent;

He trusts me; our Frobenius is his friend,

And him “I raised” (nay, read it) “from the dead.”

I weary you, I see. I merely sought

To show, there’s no great wonder after all

That, while I fill the class-room and attract

A crowd to Basil, I get leave to stay,

And therefore need not scruple to accept

The utmost they can offer, if I please:

For’t is but right the world should be prepared

To treat with favour e’en fantastic wants

Of one like me, used up in serving her.

Just as the mortal, whom the gods in part

Devoured, received in place of his lost limb

Some virtue or other — cured disease, I think;

You mind the fables we have read together.

Festus.

You do not think I comprehend a word.

The time was, Aureole, you were apt enough

To clothe the airiest thoughts in specious breath;

But surely you must feel how vague and strange

These speeches sound.

Paracelsus.

           Well, then: you know my hopes;

I am assured, at length, those hopes were vain;

That truth is just as far from me as ever;

That I have thrown my life away; that sorrow

On that account is idle, and further effort

To mend and patch what’s marred beyond repairing,

As useless: and all this was taught your friend

By the convincing good old-fashioned method

Of force — by sheer compulsion. Is that plain?

Festus.

Dear Aureole, can it be my fears were just?

God wills not . . .

Paracelsus.

          Now, ’t is this I most admire —

The constant talk men of your stamp keep up

Of God’s will, as they style it; one would swear

Man had but merely to uplift his eye,

And see the will in question charactered

On the heaven’s vault. ’T is hardly wise to moot

Such topics: doubts are many and faith is weak.

I know as much of any will of God

As knows some dumb and tortured brute what Man,

His stern lord, wills from the perplexing blows

That plague him every way; but there, of course,

Where least he suffers, longest he remains —

My case; and for such reasons I plod on,

Subdued but not convinced. I know as little

Why I deserve to fail, as why I hoped

Better things in my youth. I simply know

I am no master here, but trained and beaten

Into the path I tread; and here I stay,

Until some further intimation reach me,

Like an obedient drudge. Though I prefer

To view the whole thing as a task imposed

Which, whether dull or pleasant, must be done —

Yet, I deny not, there is made provision

Of joys which tastes less jaded might affect;

Nay, some which please me too, for all my pride —

Pleasures that once were pains: the iron ring

Festering about a slave’s neck grows at length

Into the flesh it eats. I hate no longer

A host of petty vile delights, undreamed of

Or spurned before; such now supply the place

Of my dead aims: as in the autumn woods

Where tall trees used to flourish, from their roots

Springs up a fungous brood sickly and pale,

Chill mushrooms coloured like a corpse’s cheek.

Festus.

If I interpret well your words, I own

It troubles me but little that your aims,

Vast in their dawning and most likely grown

Extravagantly since, have baffled you.

Perchance I am glad; you merit greater praise;

Because they are too glorious to be gained,

You do not blindly cling to them and die;

You fell, but have not sullenly refused

To rise, because an angel worsted you

In wrestling, though the world holds not your peer;

And though too harsh and sudden is the change

To yield content as yet, still you pursue

The ungracious path as though’t were rosv-strewn.

’T is well: and your reward, or soon or late,

Will come from him whom no man serves in vain.

Paracelsus.

Ah, very fine! For my part, I conceive

The very pausing from all further toil,

Which you find heinous, would become a seal

To the sincerity of all my deeds.

To be consistent I should die at once;

I calculated on no after-life;

Yet (how crept in, how fostered, I know not)

Here am I with as passionate regret

For youth and health and love so vainly lavished,

As if their preservation had been first

And foremost in my thoughts; and this strange fact

Humbled me wondrously, and had due force

In rendering me the less averse to follow

A certain counsel, a mysterious warning —

You will not understand — but’t was a man

With aims not mine and yet pursued like mine,

With the same fervour and no more success,

Perishing in my sight; who summoned me

As I would shun the ghastly fate I saw,

To serve my race at once; to wait no longer

That God should interfere in my behalf,

But to distrust myself, put pride away,

And give my gains, imperfect as they were,

To men. I have not leisure to explain

How, since, a singular series of events

Has raised me to the station you behold,

Wherein I seem to turn to most account

The mere wreck of the past — perhaps receive

Some feeble glimmering token that God views

And may approve my penance: therefore here

You find me, doing most good or least harm.

And if folks wonder much and profit little

’T is not my fault; only, I shall rejoice

When my part in the farce is shuffled through,

And the curtain falls: I must hold out till then.

Festus.

Till when, dear Aureole?

Paracelsus.

            Till I’m fairly thrust

From my proud eminence. Fortune is fickle

And even professors fall: should that arrive,

I see no sin in ceding to my bent.

You little fancy what rude shocks apprise us

We sin; God’s intimations rather fail

In clearness than in energy: ’t were well

Did they but indicate the course to take

Like that to be forsaken. I would fain

Be spared a further sample. Here I stand,

And here I stay, be sure, till forced to flit.

Festus.

Be you but firm on that head! long ere then

All I expect will come to pass, I trust:

The cloud that wraps you will have disappeared.

Meantime, I see small chance of such event:

They praise you here as one whose lore, already

Divulged, eclipses all the past can show,

But whose achievements, marvellous as they be,

Are faint anticipations of a glory

About to be revealed. When Basil’s crowds

Dismiss their teacher, I shall be content

That he depart.

Paracelsus.

        This favour at their hands

I look for earlier than your view of things

Would warrant. Of the crowd you saw to-day,

Remove the full half sheer amazement draws,

Mere novelty, nought else; and next, the tribe

Whose innate blockish dulness just perceives

That unless miracles (as seem my works)

Be wrought in their behalf, their chance is slight

To puzzle the devil; next, the numerous set

Who bitterly hate established schools, and help

The teacher that oppugns them, till he once

Have planted his own doctrine, when the teacher

May reckon on their rancour in his turn;

Take, too, the sprinkling of sagacious knaves

Whose cunning runs not counter to the vogue

But seeks, by flattery and crafty nursing,

To force my system to a premature

Short-lived development. Why swell the list?

Each has his end to serve, and his best way

Of serving it: remove all these, remains

A scantling, a poor dozen at the best,

Worthy to look for sympathy and service,

And likely to draw profit from my pains.

Festus.

’T is no encouraging picture: still these few

Redeem their fellows. Once the germ implanted,

Its growth, if slow, is sure.

Paracelsus.

               God grant it so!

I would make some amends: but if I fail,

The luckless rogues have this excuse to urge,

That much is in my method and my manner,

My uncouth habits, my impatient spirit,

Which hinders of reception and result

My doctrine: much to say, small skill to speak!

These old aims suffered not a looking-off

Though for an instant; therefore, only when

I thus renounced them and resolved to reap

Some present fruit — to teach mankind some truth

So dearly purchased — only then I found

Such teaching was an art requiring cares

And qualities peculiar to itself:

That to possess was one thing — to display

Another. With renown first in my thoughts,

Or popular praise, I had soon discovered it:

One grows but little apt to learn these things.

Festus.

If it be so, which nowise I believe,

There needs no waiting fuller dispensation

To leave a labour of so little use.

Why not throw up the irksome charge at once?

Paracelsus.

A task, a task!

        But wherefore hide the whole

Extent of degradation, once engaged

In the confessing vein? Despite of all

My fine talk of obedience and repugnance,

Docility and what not, ’t is yet to learn

If when the task shall really be performed,

My inclination free to choose once more,

I shall do aught but slightly modify

The nature of the hated task I quit.

In plain words, I am spoiled; my life still tends

As first it tended; I am broken and trained

To my old habits: they are part of me.

I know, and none so well, my darling ends

Are proved impossible: no less, no less,

Even now what humours me, fond fool, as when

Their faint ghosts sit with me and flatter me

And send me back content to my dull round?

How can I change this soul? — this apparatus

Constructed solely for their purposes,

So well adapted to their every want,

To search out and discover, prove and perfect;

This intricate machine whose most minute

And meanest motions have their charm to me

Though to none else — an aptitude I seize,

An object I perceive, a use, a meaning,

A property, a fitness, I explain

And I alone:— how can I change my soul?

And this wronged body, worthless save when tasked

Under that soul’s dominion — used to care

For its bright master’s cares and quite subdue

Its proper cravings — not to ail nor pine

So he but prosper — whither drag this poor

Tried patient body? God! how I essayed

To live like that mad poet, for a while,

To love alone; and how I felt too warped

And twisted and deformed! What should I do,

Even tho’released from drudgery, but return

Faint, as you see, and halting, blind and sore,

To my old life and die as I began?

I cannot feed on beauty for the sake

Of beauty only, nor can drink in balm

From lovely objects for their loveliness;

My nature cannot lose her first imprint;

I still must hoard and heap and class all truths

With one ulterior purpose: I must know!

Would God translate me to his throne, believe

That I should only listen to his word

To further my own aim! For other men,

Beauty is prodigally strewn around,

And I were happy could I quench as they

This mad and thriveless longing, and content me

With beauty for itself alone: alas,

I have addressed a frock of heavy mail

Yet may not join the troop of sacred knights;

And now the forest-creatures fly from me,

The grass-banks cool, the sunbeams warm no more.

Best follow, dreaming that ere night arrive,

I shall o’ertake the company and ride

Glittering as they!

Festus.

          I think I apprehend

What you would say: if you, in truth, design

To enter once more on the life thus left,

Seek not to hide that all this consciousness

Of failure is assumed!

Paracelsus.

           My friend, my friend,

I toil, you listen; I explain, perhaps

You understand: there our communion ends.

Have you learnt nothing from to-day’s discourse?

When we would thoroughly know the sick man’s state

We feel awhile the fluttering pulse, press soft

The hot brow, look upon the languid eye,

And thence divine the rest. Must I lay bare

My heart, hideous and beating, or tear up

My vitals for your gaze, ere you will deem

Enough made known? You! who are you, forsooth?

That is the crowning operation claimed

By the arch-demonstrator — heaven the hall,

And earth the audience. Let Aprile and you

Secure good places: ’t will be worth the while.

Festus.

Are you mad, Aureole? What can I have said

To call for this? I judged from your own words.

Paracelsus.

Oh, doubtless! A sick wretch describes the ape

That mocks him from the bed-foot, and all gravely

You thither turn at once: or he recounts

The perilous journey he has late performed,

And you are puzzled much how that could be!

You find me here, half stupid and half mad;

It makes no part of my delight to search

Into these matters, much less undergo

Another’s scrutiny; but so it chances

That I am led to trust my state to you:

And the event is, you combine, contrast

And ponder on my foolish words as though

They thoroughly conveyed all hidden here —

Here, loathsome with despair and hate and rage!

Is there no fear, no shrinking and no shame?

Will you guess nothing? will you spare me nothing?

Must I go deeper? Ay or no?

Festus.

              Dear friend . . .

Paracelsus.

True: I am brutal —’t is a part of it;

The plague’s sign — you are not a lazar-haunter,

How should you know? Well then, you think it strange

I should profess to have failed utterly,

And yet propose an ultimate return

To courses void of hope: and this, because

You know not what temptation is, nor how

’T is like to ply men in the sickliest part.

You are to understand that we who make

Sport for the gods, are hunted to the end:

There is not one sharp volley shot at us,

Which ’scaped with life, though hurt, we slacken pace

And gather by the wayside herbs and roots

To staunch our wounds, secure from further harm:

We are assailed to life’s extremest verge.

It will be well indeed if I return,

A harmless busy fool, to my old ways!

I would forget hints of another fate,

Significant enough, which silent hours

Have lately scared me with.

Festus.

              Another! and what?

Paracelsus.

After all, Festus, you say well: I am

A man yet: I need never humble me.

I would have been — something, I know not what;

But though I cannot soar, I do not crawl.

There are worse portions than this one of mine.

You say well!

Festus.

      Ah!

Paracelsus.

        And deeper degradation!

If the mean stimulants of vulgar praise,

If vanity should become the chosen food

Of a sunk mind, should stifle even the wish

To find its early aspirations true,

Should teach it to breathe falsehood like life-breath —

An atmosphere of craft and trick and lies;

Should make it proud to emulate, surpass

Base natures in the practices which woke

Its most indignant loathing once . . . No, no!

Utter damnation is reserved for hell!

I had immortal feelings; such shall never

Be wholly quenched: no, no!

              My friend, you wear

A melancholy face, and certain’t is

There’s little cheer in all this dismal work.

But was it my desire to set abroach

Such memories and forebodings? I foresaw

Where they would drive. ’T were better we discuss

News from Lucerne or Zurich; ask and tell

Of Egypt’s flaring sky or Spain’s cork-groves.

Festus.

I have thought: trust me, this mood will pass away!

I know you and the lofty spirit you bear,

And easily ravel out a clue to all.

These are the trials meet for such as you,

Nor must you hope exemption: to be mortal

Is to be plied with trials manifold.

Look round! The obstacles which kept the rest

From your ambition, have been spurned by you;

Their fears, their doubts, the chains that bind themall,

Were flax before your resolute soul, which nought

Avails to awe save these delusions bred

From its own strength, its selfsame strength disguised,

Mocking itself. Be brave, dear Aureole! Since

The rabbit has his shade to frighten him,

The fawn a rustling bough, mortals their cares,

And higher natures yet would slight and laugh

At these entangling fantasies, as you

At trammels of a weaker intellect —

Measure your mind’s height by the shade it casts!

I know you.

Paracelsus.

     And I know you, dearest Festus!

And how you love unworthily; and how

All admiration renders blind.

Festus.

               You hold

That admiration blinds?

Paracelsus.

            Ay and alas!

Festus.

Nought blinds you less than admiration, friend!

Whether it be that all love renders wise

In its degree; from love which blends with love —

Heart answering heart — to love which spends itself

In silent mad idolatry of some

Pre-eminent mortal, some great soul of souls,

Which ne’er will know how well it is adored.

I say, such love is never blind; but rather

Alive to every the minutest spot

Which mars its object, and which hate (supposed

So vigilant and searching) dreams not of.

Love broods on such: what then? When first perceived

Is there no sweet strife to forget, to change,

To overflush those blemishes with all

The glow of general goodness they disturb?

— To make those very defects an endless source

Of new affection grown from hopes and fears?

And, when all fails, is there no gallant stand

Made even for much proved weak? no shrinking-back

Lest, since all love assimilates the soul

To what it loves, it should at length become

Almost a rival of its idol? Trust me,

If there be fiends who seek to work our hurt,

To ruin and drag down earth’s mightiest spirits

Even at God’s foot, ’t will be from such as love,

Their zeal will gather most to serve their cause;

And least from those who hate, who most essay

By contumely and scorn to blot the light

Which forces entrance even to their hearts:

For thence will our defender tear the veil

And show within each heart, as in a shrine,

The giant image of perfection, grown

In hate’s despite, whose calumnies were spawned

In the untroubled presence of its eyes.

True admiration blinds not; nor am I

So blind. I call your sin exceptional;

It springs from one whose life has passed the bounds

Prescribed to life. Compound that fault with God!

I speak of men; to common men like me

The weakness you reveal endears you more,

Like the far traces of decay in suns.

I bid you have good cheer!

Paracelsus.

              Proeclare! Optime!

Think of a quiet mountain-cloistered priest

Instructing Paracelsus! yet’t is so.

Come, I will show you where my merit lies.

’T is in the advance of individual minds

That the slow crowd should ground their expectation

Eventually to follow; as the sea

Waits ages in its bed till some one wave

Out of the multitudinous mass, extends

The empire of the whole, some feet perhaps,

Over the strip of sand which could confine

Its fellows so long time: thenceforth the rest,

Even to the meanest, hurry in at once,

And so much is clear gained. I shall be glad

If all my labours, failing of aught else,

Suffice to make such inroad and procure

A wider range for thought: nay, they do this;

For, whatsoe’er my notions of true knowledge

And a legitimate success, may be,

I am not blind to my undoubted rank

When classed with others: I precede my age:

And whoso wills is very free to mount

These labours as a platform whence his own

May have a prosperous outset. But, alas!

My followers — they are noisy as you heard;

But, for intelligence, the best of them

So clumsily wield the weapons I supply

And they extol, that I begin to doubt

Whether their own rude clubs and pebble-stones

Would not do better service than my arms

Thus vilely swayed — if error will not fall

Sooner before the old awkward batterings

Than my more subtle warfare, not half learned.

Festus.

I would supply that art, then, or withhold

New arms until you teach their mystery.

Paracelsus.

Content you, ’t is my wish; I have recourse

To the simplest training. Day by day I seek

To wake the mood, the spirit which alone

Can make those arms of any use to men.

Of course they are for swaggering forth at once

Graced with Ulysses’ bow, Achilles’ shield —

Flash on us, all in armour, thou Achilles!

Make our hearts dance to thy resounding step!

A proper sight to scare the crows away!

Festus.

Pity you choose not then some other method

Of coming at your point. The marvellous art

At length established in the world bids fair

To remedy all hindrances like these:

Trust to Frobenius’ press the precious lore

Obscured by uncouth manner, or unfit

For raw beginners; let his types secure

A deathless monument to after-time;

Meanwhile wait confidently and enjoy

The ultimate effect: sooner or later

You shall be all-revealed.

Paracelsus.

              The old dull question

In a new form; no more. Thus: I possess

Two sorts of knowledge; one — vast, shadowy,

Hints of the unbounded aim I once pursued:

The other consists of many secrets, caught

While bent on nobler prize — perhaps a few

Prime principles which may conduct to much:

These last I offer to my followers here.

Now, bid me chronicle the first of these,

My ancient study, and in effect you bid

Revert to the wild courses just abjured:

I must go find them scattered through the world.

Then, for the principles, they are so simple

(Being chiefly of the overturning sort),

That one time is as proper to propound them

As any other — to-morrow at my class,

Or half a century hence embalmed in print.

For if mankind intend to learn at all,

They must begin by giving faith to them

And acting on them: and I do not see

But that my lectures serve indifferent well:

No doubt these dogmas fall not to the earth,

For all their novelty and rugged setting.

I think my class will not forget the day

I let them know the gods of Israel,

Aëtius, Oribasius, Galen, Rhasis,

Serapion, Avicenna, Averröes,

Were blocks!

Festus.

      And that reminds me, I heard something

About your waywardness: you burned their books,

It seems, instead of answering those sages.

Paracelsus.

And who said that?

Festus.

         Some I met yesternight

With OEcolampadius. As you know, the purpose

Of this short stay at Basil was to learn

His pleasure touching certain missives sent

For our Zuinglius and himself. ’T was he

Apprised me that the famous teacher here

Was my old friend.

Paracelsus.

         Ah, I forgot: you went . . .

Festus.

From Zurich with advices for the ear

Of Luther, now at Wittenberg —(you know,

I make no doubt, the differences of late

With Carolostadius)— and returning sought

Basil and . . .

Paracelsus.

        I remember. Here’s a case, now,

Will teach you why I answer not, but burn

The books you mention. Pray, does Luther dream

His arguments convince by their own force

The crowds that own his doctrine? No, indeed!

His plain denial of established points

Ages had sanctified and men supposed

Could never be oppugned while earth was under

And heaven above them — points which chance or time

Affected not — did more than the array

Of argument which followed. Boldly deny!

There is much breath-stopping, hair-stiffening

Awhile; then, amazed glances, mute awaiting

The thunderbolt which does not come: and next,

Reproachful wonder and inquiry: those

Who else had never stirred, are able now

To find the rest out for themselves, perhaps

To outstrip him who set the whole at work,

— As never will my wise class its instructor.

And you saw Luther?

Festus.

          ’T is a wondrous soul!

Paracelsus.

True: the so-heavy chain which galled mankind

Is shattered, and the noblest of us all

Must bow to the deliverer — nay, the worker

Of our own project — we who long before

Had burst our trammels, but forgot the crowd,

We should have taught, still groaned beneath the load:

This he has done and nobly. Speed that may!

Whatever be my chance or my mischance,

What benefits mankind must glad me too;

And men seem made, though not as I believed,

For something better than the times produce.

Witness these gangs of peasants your new lights

From Suabia have possessed, whom Münzer leads,

And whom the duke, the landgrave and the elector

Will calm in blood! Well, well; ’t is not my world!

Festus.

Hark!

Paracelsus.

  ’T is the melancholy wind astir

Within the trees; the embers too are grey:

Morn must be near.

Festus.

         Best ope the casement: see,

The night, late strewn with clouds and flying stars,

Is blank and motionless: how peaceful sleep

The tree-tops altogether! Like an asp,

The wind slips whispering from bough to bough.

Paracelsus.

Ay; you would gaze on a wind-shaken tree

By the hour, nor count time lost.

Festus.

                 So you shall gaze:

Those happy times will come again.

Paracelsus.

                  Gone, gone,

Those pleasant times! Does not the moaning wind

Seem to bewail that we have gained such gains

And bartered sleep for them?

Festus.

               It is our trust

That there is yet another world to mend

All error and mischance.

Paracelsus.

            Another world!

And why this world, this common world, to be

A make-shift, a mere foil, how fair soever,

To some fine life to come? Man must be fed

With angels’ food, forsooth; and some few traces

Of a diviner nature which look out

Through his corporeal baseness, warrant him

In a supreme contempt of all provision

For his inferior tastes — some straggling marks

Which constitute his essence, just as truly

As here and there a gem would constitute

The rock, their barren bed, one diamond.

But were it so — were man all mind — he gains

A station little enviable. From God

Down to the lowest spirit ministrant,

Intelligence exists which casts our mind

Into immeasurable shade. No, no:

Love, hope, fear, faith — these make humanity;

These are its sign and note and character,

And these I have lost! — gone, shut from me for ever,

Like a dead friend safe from unkindness more!

See, morn at length. The heavy darkness seems

Diluted, grey and clear without the stars;

The shrubs bestir and rouse themselves as if

Some snake, that weighed them down all night, let go

His hold; and from the East, fuller and fuller

Day, like a mighty river, flowing in;

But clouded, wintry, desolate and cold.

Yet see how that broad prickly star-shaped plant,

Half-down in the crevice, spreads its woolly leaves

All thick and glistering with diamond dew.

And you depart for Einsiedeln this day,

And we have spent all night in talk like this!

If you would have me better for your love,

Revert no more to these sad themes.

Festus.

                   One favour,

And I have done. I leave you, deeply moved;

Unwilling to have fared so well, the while

My friend has changed so sorely. If this mood

Shall pass away, if light once more arise

Where all is darkness now, if you see fit

To hope and trust again, and strive again,

You will remember — not our love alone —

But that my faith in God’s desire that man

Should trust on his support, (as I must think

You trusted) is obscured and dim through you:

For you are thus, and this is no reward.

Will you not call me to your side, dear Aureole?

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32