The first scene is entitled “Paracelsus aspires;” and takes place at Wuerzburg between himself, Festus, and Michal, on the eve of his departure from their common home. Both friends begin by opposing his aspirations, and thus lead him to expound and defend them. The aim and spirit of these is the distinguishing feature of the poem. Paracelsus aspires to knowledge: such knowledge as will benefit his fellow-men. He will seek it in the properties of nature, and, as history tells us, he will succeed. But his aspirations pass over these isolated discoveries, which he has no idea of connecting into scientific truths: and tend ever towards some final revelation of the secret of life, to flash forth from his own brain when the flesh shall have been subdued, and the imprisoned light of intellect set free. And here Mr. Browning’s metaphysical fancy is somewhat at issue with his facts. Paracelsus employed nature in the quest of the supernatural or magical; this is shown by the poem, though in it he begins by repudiating, with all other external aids, the help of the black art. He therefore relied on other kinds of knowledge than that which springs direct from the human mind. The inconsistency however disappears in Mr. Browning’s conception of the case, and the metaphysical language which he imputes to Paracelsus in the earlier stages of his career, is not felt to be untrue.
Paracelsus not only aspires to know: he believes it his mission to acquire knowledge; and he believes also that it is only to be acquired through untried methods, through untaught men: most of all through solitary communion with nature, and at the sacrifice of all human joys. Festus regards this as a delusion, and combats it, in this first scene, with the arguments of common sense; overshooting the mark just enough to leave his friend the victory. Paracelsus has declared that he appreciates all he is renouncing, but that he has no choice. He knows that the way on which he is about to enter is “trackless;” but so is the bird’s: God will guide him as He guides the bird. And Festus replies that the road to knowledge is not trackless. “Mighty marchers” have left their footprints upon it. Nature has not written her secrets in desert places, but in the souls of great men: the “Stagirite," and the sages who form a glory round him. He urges Paracelsus to learn what they can teach, and then take the torch of wisdom from the exhausted runner’s hand, and let his fresh strength continue the race. He warns him against the personal ambition which alloys his unselfish thirst for knowledge; against the presumption which impels him to serve God (and man).