Heaven opened to a soul while yet on earth, Earth forced on a soul’s use while seeing heaven

From Robert Browning’s An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, The Arab Physician, in his Men and Women. The full poem – an outsider’s account of encountering Lazarus long after his resurrection – is online here.

Not terribly related but John Ruskin made amusing mention of this one in a letter to Browning about the collection – “I can’t say I have really made out any one yet … except the epistle from the Arabian physician, which I like immensely.”

This grown man eyes the world now like a child.
Some elders of his tribe, I should premise,
Led in their friend, obedient as a sheep,
To bear my inquisition. While they spoke, 120
Now sharply, now with sorrow, told the case,
He listened not except I spoke to him,
But folded his two hands and let them talk,
Watching the flies that buzzed: and yet no fool.
And that’s a sample how his years must go.
Look, if a beggar, in fixed middle-life,
Should find a treasure, can he use the same
With straitened habits and with tastes starved small,
And take at once to his impoverished brain
The sudden element that changes things, 130
That sets the undreamed-of rapture at his hand
And puts the cheap old joy in the scorned dust?
Is he not such an one as moves to mirth—
Warily parsimonious, when no need,
Wasteful as drunkenness at undue times?
All prudent counsel as to what befits
The golden mean, is lost on such an one:
The man’s fantastic will is the man’s law.
So here—we call the treasure knowledge, say,
Increased beyond the fleshly faculty— 140
Heaven opened to a soul while yet on earth,
Earth forced on a soul’s use while seeing heaven:
The man is witless of the size, the sum,
The value in proportion of all things,
Or whether it be little or be much.
Discourse to him of prodigious armaments
Assembled to besiege his city now,
And of the passing of a mule with gourds—
‘T is one! Then take it on the other side,
Speak of some trifling fact, he will gaze rapt 150
With stupor at its very littleness,
(Far as I see) as if in that indeed
He caught prodigious import, whole results;
And so will turn to us the bystanders
In ever the same stupor (note this point)
That we too see not with his opened eyes.
Wonder and doubt come wrongly into play,
Preposterously, at cross purposes.
Should his child sicken unto death, why, look
For scarce abatement of his cheerfulness, 160
Or pretermission of the daily craft!
While a word, gesture, glance from that same child
At play or in the school or laid asleep,
Will startle him to an agony of fear,
Exasperation, just as like. Demand
The reason why—”‘t is but a word,” object—
“A gesture”—he regards thee as our lord
Who lived there in the pyramid alone,
Looked at us (dost thou mind?) when, being young,
We both would unadvisedly recite 170
Some charm’s beginning, from that book of his,
Able to bid the sun throb wide and burst
All into stars, as suns grown old are wont.
Thou and the child have each a veil alike
Thrown o’er your heads, from under which ye both
Stretch your blind hands and trifle with a match
Over a mine of Greek fire, did ye know!
He holds on firmly to some thread of life—
(It is the life to lead perforcedly)
Which runs across some vast distracting orb 180
Of glory on either side that meagre thread,
Which, conscious of, he must not enter yet—
The spiritual life around the earthly life:
The law of that is known to him as this,
His heart and brain move there, his feet stay here.
So is the man perplext with impulses
Sudden to start off crosswise, not straight on,
Proclaiming what is right and wrong across,
And not along, this black thread through the blaze—
“It should be” balked by “here it cannot be.” 190
And oft the man’s soul springs into his face
As if he saw again and heard again
His sage that bade him “Rise” and he did rise.
Something, a word, a tick o’ the blood within
Admonishes: then back he sinks at once
To ashes, who was very fire before,
In sedulous recurrence to his trade
Whereby he earneth him the daily bread;
And studiously the humbler for that pride,
Professedly the faultier that he knows 200
God’s secret, while he holds the thread of life.

I have tried to provide the reader with, so to speak, an improvised memory

From the opening pages of Proust’s preface to his translation of John Ruskin’s Bible of Amiens. This translation is from the Yale press On Reading Ruskin. The French is available here

To read only one book by an author is to see that author only once. True, in a single conversation with someone we can discern particular traits. But it is only through repeated encounters in varied circumstances that we can recognize these traits as characteristic and essential . For a writer, for a musician, or for a painter, this variation of circumstances that enables us to discern, by a sort of experimentation, the permanent features of character is found in the variety of the works themselves. We meet again in a second book, in another painting, the peculiarities which we might have thought the first time belonged to the subject matter as much as to the writer or the painter himself. By comparing different works, we distinguish common traits which, taken together, reveal the moral character of the artist.

When several portraits by Rembrandt, painted from different models, are gathered in a room, we are immediately struck by what is common to all of them, what constitutes the very features of the Rembrandt face. By inserting a footnote to the text of The Bible of Amiens each time this text evoked, through even remote analogies, the recollection of other works of Ruskin, and by translating in the note the passage which had come to my mind, I have tried to put the reader in the position of one who would not find himself in Ruskin’s presence for the first time but who, having had previous conversations with Ruskin, would be able to recognize in his words what is permanent and fundamental in him. Thus I have tried to provide the reader with ,so to speak, an improvised memory in which I have arranged recollections of other works of Ruskin-a kind of sounding board against which the words of The Bible of Amiens will be able to ring more deeply by awakening fraternal echoes. But these echoes will undoubtedly not correspond to the words of The Bible of Amiens, as they penetrate a memory which is itself composed of horizons generally hidden from our sight and whose various distances our life itself has measured day by day. In order to come into focus with the present word whose resemblance evoked them, these echoes will not have to go through the gentle resistance of that interposed atmosphere which is the span of our life and all the poetry of memory.

Fundamentally, the first part of every critic’s task should be to help the reader appreciate these special traits by drawing his attention to similar traits that enable him to recognize them as the essential features of the genius of a writer.

If the critic is aware of this and has helped others to awareness, his function is almost fulfilled. Ifhe has not perceived it, he can write all the books in the world on Ruskin: the Man, the Writer, the Prophet, the Artist, the Influence of his Thought, the Errors of his Doctrine, and all these works may perhaps reach a very high level of excellence, but skirt the subject. They may exalt the reputation of the critic but, as regards the true understanding of the work, they will be of less value than the exact perception of a correct nuance, however insignificant it might seem.