Festus has no answer to give. He parts from Paracelsus perplexed and saddened rather than convinced, but with a dawning consciousness of depths in life, to which his strong but simple soul has no key.
In the fourth scene these depths are more fully and more perplexingly revealed. Two years more have elapsed. Paracelsus has escaped from Bale, and is at Colmar, once more confessing himself to Festus, and once more said to “aspire.” But his aspirations are less easy to understand than formerly, because their aim is less single. The sense of wasted life, Aprile’s warnings, some natural rebound against the continued intellectual strain have determined him to strive for a fuller existence, and neglect no opportunity of usefulness or enjoyment. A serious and commendable change would seem to be denoted by the words, “I have tried each way singly: now for both!” (page 121); and again at page 126, where a new-born softness asserts itself. His language has, however, a vein of bitterness, sometimes even of cynicism, which belies the idea of any sustained impulse to good. He is worn in body, weary in mind, fitful and wayward in mood, and just in the condition in which men half impose on others, and half on themselves. He alludes to the habit of drinking as one which he has now contracted; and he is clearly entering on the period of his greatest excesses, perhaps also of his most strenuous exertions in the cause of knowledge. But his energy is reckless and irregular, and the spirit of the gambler rather than that of the student is in it. He works all night to forget himself by day, gathering up his diminished strength for, a lavish expenditure; and a new misgiving as to the wisdom of his “aspirations” pierces through the assertion that even sickness may lend an aid; since
mind is nothing but disease,
And natural health is ignorance.” (vol. ii. p. 122.)
We feel that henceforward his path will be all downhill.
In the fifth and closing scene, thirteen years later, Paracelsus “attains” again, and for the last time. He is dying. Festus watches by him in his hospital cell with a very touching tenderness; and as Paracelsus awakes from a period of lethargy to a delirious remembrance of his past life, he soothes and guides him to an inspired calm in which its true meaning is revealed to him. The half prophetic death-bed vision includes everything which experience had taught him; and a great deal which we cannot help thinking only a more modern experience could have taught. It disclaims all striving after absolute knowledge, and asserts the value of limitation in every energy of life. The passage in which he describes the faculties of man, and which begins
put forth blindly, nor controlled
Calmly by perfect knowledge;” (vol. ii. p. 168.)
contains the natural lesson of the speaker’s career, supposing him in a condition to receive it. But it also reflects Mr. Browning’s constant ideal of a fruitful and progressive existence; and the very beautiful monologue of which it forms part is, so far as it goes, his actual confession of faith. The scientific idea of evolution is here distinctly foreshadowed: though it begins and ends, in Mr. Browning’s mind, in the large Theism which was and is the basis of his religious belief.