Rabbi Ben Ezra by Robert Browning


Photo taken of wall mural in Tiong Bahru depicting a traditional Chinese past-time where men would bring their caged birds to socialise and bird singing contest.

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith “A whole I planned,

Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!”
Not that, amassing flowers,
Youth sighed “Which rose make ours,
Which lily leave and then as best recall?”
Not that, admiring stars,
It yearned “Nor Jove, nor Mars;
Mine be some figured flame which blends, transcends them all!”

For thence,—a paradox
Which comforts while it mocks,—
Shall life succeed in that it seems to fail:
What I aspired to be,
And was not, comforts me:
A brute I might have been, but would not sink i’ the scale.

Let us not always say,
“Spite of this flesh to-day
I strove, made head, gained ground upon the whole!”
As the bird wings and sings,
Let us cry “All good things
Are ours, nor soul helps flesh more, now, than flesh helps soul!”

Now, who shall arbitrate?
Ten men love what I hate,
Shun what I follow, slight what I receive;
Ten, who in ears and eyes
Match me: we all surmise,
They this thing, and I that: whom shall my soul believe?

I first heard of this poem thirty years ago as it was part of the school motto of my father’s school. Then my brothers and now my nephew. The best is yet to be was then an aspiration for the younger me. Life can be better.

Revisiting the poem, I realise that the poem is about the paradox of life. The failures of our life breeds success. The limitations of our flesh gives appreciation of the gifts of life. Let us not be too anxious about disagreements and unrealized goals as the ultimate truth is out of our reach anyway. But let’s keep our focus upwards as we draw near the curtain of our lives.

It is disease that makes health pleasant, hunger that makes fullness good, and weariness that makes rest sweet. – Heraclitus

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