By: Joseph Jacobs
English poet; born in Clerkenwell, London, 1812; died at Venice Dec. 12, 1889. From his somewhat Jewish appearance, knowledge of Hebrew, and sympathy with Jews, it was for a long time thought that Browning was of Jewish descent, but this has been disproved by the tracing of his genealogy by Dr. Furnivall. His interest in Jews may to some extent be due to the fact that his father obtained a position in the Bank of England through the influence of the Rothschilds, with whom the poet was personally acquainted throughout his life. Several of Browning's poems deal with Jewish subjects. "Holy Cross Day" gives the soliloquy of a Jew of the Roman ghetto who was unwilling to attend the sermons of a Dominican friar. The concluding lines state the case forcibly of the Jew against Christian persecution:
"By the torture. prolonged from age to age, By the infamy, Israel's heritage, By the Ghetto's plague, by the garb's disgrace, By the badge of shame, by the felon's place, By the branding tool, the bloody whip, And the summons to Christian fellowship—We boast our proof that at least the Jew Would wrest Christ's name from the Devil's crew."
His principal Jewish poems were "Rabbi Ben Ezra" and "Jochanan Haḳḳadosh," the former giving the life-philosophy of a Jewish sage, who may perhaps be identified with Abraham ibn Ezra; it is full of true Jewish optimism. "Jochanan Hakkadosh" is an account of a great rabbi who obtains the privilege of additional months of life given up to him by his pupils, through whose experience he passes. He declares that all is vanity, after three months' experience of the life of a married lover, of a warrior, of a poet, and of a statesman. But by accident he has also obtained the gift of three months from the life of a little child, and this experience harmonizes all the discrepancies, and enables the sage to feel that life is not altogether in vain.
Other poems of Jewish interest are: "Filippo Baldunecci on the Privilege of Burial" and "Ben Karshook's Wisdom"—the latter an extension of the saying in Pirḳe Abot, "Repent the day before your death."
Besides his poems, Browning showed his sympathy with Jews by signing, in 1881, the memorial to the lord mayor to summon a meeting to protest against the persecution of the Jews of Russia; and by joining the Council of the Anglo-Jewish Exhibition in 1887.
- Joseph Jacobs, Jewish Ideals, pp. 84-95.