THEOSOPHY, Vol. 24, No. 3, January, 1936
(Pages 97-101; Size: 14K)
(Number 4 of a 7-part series)

PRECURSORS OF H.P.B.

ROBERT BROWNING'S "PARACELSUS"

THE mystical tendency of Robert Browning is known to every lover of his poetry. It filters through his lines with a subtle insistence, illumining his words with a light never born from human brain and emboldening his readers to

..."trace back the effulgence to its spring
And source within us, where broods radiance vast,
To be elicited ray by ray."
Some of the brightest rays of his mysticism are focused in the poem "Paracelsus", and the student need go no further to find the indelible imprint of Theosophical ideas. His very choice of Paracelsus as the subject of his first important literary effort shows the mystical trend of his youthful mind, while his approach to the subject is a further indication of his deep interest in the hidden side of Nature and the psychic and spiritual powers latent in man. Browning's interest in Paracelsus was not centered in the father of modern chemistry, but in the seeker after eternal wisdom. His artistic energy was not expended in recreating the historical figure of a renowned scientist, traveller and teacher, but in giving tangible shape and form to the inner experiences and spiritual flights of one who dared to know, to aspire and to keep silent. In the wanderings of Paracelsus he found footprints which every seeker after truth could follow, and in the experiments of the great alchemist a symbolic outline of the method whereby the baser metals of the lower, personal desires might be transmuted into the pure gold of altruistic service.

Paracelsus spoke to him in the universal language of symbols, and in recreating the character Browning used the same tongue. He did not surround Paracelsus with those well-known personages usually associated with him -- such as Martin Luther, the Prince Palatine, the alchemists Trithemius and Fugger -- but with allegorical figures personifying certain human characteristics which have their part to play in the life drama of every individual who aspires toward the higher life.

For the sake of those who would taste of the ripened fruit of Paracelsus' experience, Browning marked out the lines of aspiration and attainment. To help those whose feet were straying toward the Path, he pointed out the difference between the sweet, sane fruits of true Occultism and the bitter poisonous fruits of the Occult Arts:

..."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."
These two sorts of knowledge may seem identical to the man who starts out to fathom the hidden secrets of Nature, but in reality they are as different as day and night. True Occultism -- Atma-Vidya -- is the highest form of spiritual knowledge, while the Occult Arts deal with the lower, material side of Nature. The fruits of the latter held little lure for Paracelsus, for he said:
"I can abjure so well the idle arts
These pedants strive to learn and teach; Black Arts,
Great Works, the Secret and Sublime, forsooth --
Let others prize."
Nature will yield up the fruit of the "idle arts" to anyone willing to pay her price, irrespective of his moral or spiritual development or the motive which prompts him to make his investigations. But her higher secrets are carefully preserved for those whose training is directed first of all to the moral nature, and whose desire to know is generated by the desire to serve.
"I never fashioned out a fancied good
Distinct from man's; a service to be done,
A glory to be ministered unto
With powers put forth at man's expense; a strength
Denied that might avail him.
                    For God is glorified in man,
And to man's glory vowed I soul and limb."
To the ordinary man the name of Parcelsus evokes the image of an alchemist in his gloomy laboratory, surrounded by strange retorts and alembics; an astrologer, silently probing the secret of the stars; an unorthodox physician, combining theurgical rites with the practice of medicine. To the Theosophist his name means much more than that. It recalls the individual who was the link between the science of the ancients and what is now miscalled modern science. For Paracelsus, standing midway between the two, was both a re-discoverer and a pre-discoverer. He re-discovered Hydrogen, the germ-theory of disease, and the occult properties of the magnet -- that "bone of Horus" which played such an important part in the theurgic mysteries twelve centuries before. He had a School of Magnetism some three hundred years before Mesmer appeared upon the scene. He used electro-magnetism as a healing agency three hundred years before its so-called discoverer, Dr. Oersted. He taught the relation between physiology and psychology almost four hundred years before the schools of Freud, Adler and Jung came into existence.

Robert Browning was fully aware of Paracelsus' standing as a scientist, but he was never for an instant deceived as to the real goal of his search. For Browning knew -- as every Theosophist knows -- that Paracelsus was the greatest Occultist of the Middle Ages, and that his wanderings were instigated by the same motive that prompted H.P.B. to travel over the face of the globe. When Paracelsus was questioned about the necessity for his contemplated journey, he replied:

                    ..."I go to gather this
The sacred knowledge, here and there dispersed
About the world, long lost or never found."
Browning's allusion to the "sacred knowledge" -- known in the East as Gupta-Vidya -- indicates his intuitive perception of some primeval fount of Wisdom from which all streams of knowledge first issued, and into which they will eventually converge. It is said that in the ancient and prehistoric days the whole earth was nourished by the pure and uncontaminated waters that flowed from this primal Source. But today the parched and arid earth attests the fact that these streams no longer flow freely from the parent spring. Clogged by the weeds of superstition, credulity and blind belief, dammed by the rocks of materialism and selfishness, they have become little more than stagnant pools, poisonous to the man who stops to quench his thirst. Those "wanderers" who, like Paracelsus, are seeking the ocean of knowledge, have no time for dallying at these pools.
"We rush to the ocean; what have we to do
With feeding streamlets, lingering in the vales,
Sleeping in lazy pools?"
There are certain "prime principles", as Browning calls them, which form the basis upon which the "sacred knowledge" is reared. They are so simple, he says (being mainly of the overturning sort) that anyone can understandand apply them. But they are of such importance that, if man intends to learn at all, he must use them as the basis of his philosophical investigation and his every action.

The first thing to be overturned by an application of these "prime principles" is the idea of a personal God. Although Browning makes frequent references to "God", he interprets the Deity of Paracelsus in terms of the One Life, everywhere present in Nature, conscious and intelligent from its lowest to its highest manifestation:

"I knew, I felt (perception unexpressed,
Uncomprehended by our narrow thought,
But somehow known and felt 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 includes."
The spirit of true Pantheism breathes through the lines of this poem -- the worship of a Deity so vast and all-inclusive that nothing in the whole of Nature can be left out. It is a Pantheism which finds an aspect and a reminder of the One Universal Life in every page of Nature's book: in the stately procession of the heavenly orbs, in the rhythmical breathing of the oceans and seas, in the faint quiver of life stirring in the new-born blade of grass. In this form of Pantheism everything in Nature becomes a focal point where
                            ..."God renews
His ancient rapture. Thus He dwells in all,
From life's minute beginnings, up at last
To man."
Browning minutely describes the slow and majestic march of evolution through the lower kingdoms of Nature, culminating in the production of the human form. When this form has issued from the womb of Nature, one stage of being is complete, one scheme of evolution wound up. But this is not the end,
"For these things tend still upward, progress is
The law of life, man is not Man as yet."
For man to become Man, the harp of Nature must be strung anew, and the Player of the harp must come upon the stage of life. From that time on, it is man himself who elicits discords or harmonies from his life-strings. With the dawning of self-consciousness in man, a two-fold duty is assumed: the responsibility for his own actions and the moral obligation to help those forms of life which stand below him on the ladder of evolution:
                            ..."Not alone
For their possessor dawn those qualities,
But the new glory mixes with the heaven
And the earth; man, once described, imprints forever
His presence on all lifeless things."
When man first awakens to a sense of his own responsibility, it is as if a "still, small voice" spoke to him from within. At first he scarcely hears it, so softly does it whisper. And when its soft wings first faintly brush the surface of his mind, he turns to it
            ..."scarce consciously, as turns
A water snake when fairies cross his sleep."
But the mighty power is brooding and taking shape within, and the day will come when its voice can no longer be ignored. For it is the voice of the Ego Sum, the Immortal Entity, and it impels him to retreat within the silent sanctuary of his own heart to find the truth he seeks. For
"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 fullness; all around,
Wall upon wall, the gross flesh hems it in,
This perfect, clear perception, which is Truth."
If truth lies within the imperishable center of our being, every effort to find it elsewhere is in vain. No sharpening of the senses, no whetting of the brain, no galvanizing of the emotional or artistic faculties can awaken in us the power to know, for
                            ..."to KNOW
Rather consists in opening out a way
Whence the imprisoned splendour may escape
Than in effecting entry for a light
Supposed to be without."

Next article:
Precursors of H.P.B.
Robert Browning's "Paracelsus"--II
(Part 5 of 7)


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