Robert Browning's "Johannes Agricola in Meditation"

One of the greatest English poets of the Victorian Era, Robert Browning (1812-1889) began experimenting early in a genre of poetry that has since become almost identified with his name, the dramatic monologue.  His poem "Johannes Agricola in Meditation" (first published in 1836) is an oblique example of this genre, bordering upon dramatic soliloquy, and illustrates as well how the technique can be used for effects of humor and purposes of satire.  In the speaker of the poem we encounter the poet's unsympathetic imagination of the kind of mentality he believed was fostered by the teachings of the tradition known as Protestant Antinomianism. 

The antinomians maintained that, with the coming of Christ, God had revealed his true plan for salvation.  This of course is a point agreed upon by all those who declare themselves Christian, following Paul, who claimed (Galatians 3:15-18) that God had instituted a "New Covenant" ("covenant" = Latin testamentum, Gk diatheke) to replace the "Old Covenant" of the Mosaic law.  The details, however, about what this new covenant consists in are a major site of disagreement among the various Christian denominations. 

Following the Augustinian tradition stressed by Luther and Calvin, the antinomians held that God chooses from eternity those whom he will save, and those who will be cast into everlasting damnation, and that those whom he saves -- the saints -- He saves by freely (i.e., arbitrarily) suspending the execution of His justice upon them.  The antinomians maintained, further, that the saints are no longer subject to the law.  (Hence the name "antinomian," from Greek anti- [against-] and nomos [law].)  On this account, true believers (their faith being another product of divine grace, not an achievement of human effort) thus could in effect "do no wrong."  As for everyone else, whatever they might attempt to do to earn God's approval could only have the effect of intensifying his wrath, no matter what their own sense of their own intentions.  This is a special version, then, of the general Protestant tenet that salvation is by faith alone (and that works contribute nothing on their own to salvation).

Johannes Agricola (1494-1566) was a Protestant theologian and friend of Luther who fell into the latter's disfavor for developing a version of antinomianism.  He saw insistence on the Law -- for example the Ten Commandments (aka the "Decalog") -- as a case of the Catholic emphasis on good works.  "The Decalog belongs in the courthouse, not the pulpit.... To the gallows with Moses!"  he once declared.  Following Luther's treatise "Against the Antinomians" (1536), Agricola eventually recanted, but the position he gave up has repeatedly been taken up by minority voices.  The view that the salvation of the saints will not be affected by their doing what, for others, would count as a damnable sin can be coupled or not, depending on the thinker in question, with the view that the civil power should abstain from punishing such acts, or some of them.  Some antinomians have attempted to set up communities (restricted of course to the presumably redeemed) in which, for example, freedom of sexual congress was legally permissible.  Others have held that ("Old Testament") prohibitions -- for example, against adultery or sodomy -- should be enforced in the civil (i.e., "temporal") realm, against everyone, saved and unsaved alike, insisting still that salvation (one's destiny in the eternal realm) cannot be lost by saints who indulge in such behavior, just as it cannot be gained by conformity to the Law on these points.  How orthodox Calvinists understand their doctrine of "the perseverance of the saints" (according to which once one is saved, one cannot lose salvation) without affirmining antinomianism is a point that may interest some.  Here are some places to look:

But on to the poem.  As becomes immediately clear, we are listening to the speaker engaged in religious meditation, a pious exercise much practiced during the 16th Century (and before and later).  But the assumptions, values and attitudes of the meditator will rather quickly start to give us pause.  In your second reading, try to perform it aloud, with the pace and tone you think best expresses the personality of the speaker.


Robert Browning

Johannes Agricola in Meditation

 

There's heaven above, and night by night
   I look right through its gorgeous roof;
No suns and moons though e'er so bright
   Avail to stop me; splendour-proof
   I keep the broods of stars aloof:
For I intend to get to God,
   For 't is to God I speed so fast,
For in God's breast, my own abode,
   Those shoals of dazzling glory, passed,
   I lay my spirit down at last.
I lie where I have always lain,
   God smiles as he has always smiled;
Ere suns and moons could wax and wane,
   Ere stars were thundergirt, or piled
   The heavens, God thought on me his child;
Ordained a life for me, arrayed
   Its circumstances every one
To the minutest; ay, God said
   This head this had should rest upon
   Thus, ere he fashioned star or sun.
And having thus created me,
   Thus rooted me, he bade me grow,
Guiltless for ever, like a tree
   That buds and blooms, nor seeks to know
   The law by which it prospers so:
But sure that thought and word and deed
   All go to swell his love for me,
Me, made because that love had need
   Of something irreversibly
   Pledged soley its content to be.
Yes, yes, a tree which much ascend,
   No poison-gourd foredoomed to stoop!
I have God's warrant, could I blend
   All hideous sins, as in a cup,
   To drink the mingled venoms up;
Secure my nature will convert
   The draught to blossoming gladness fast:
While sweet dews turn to the gourd's hurt,
   And bloat, and while they bloat it, blast,
   As from the first its lot was cast.
For as I lie, smiled on, full-fed
   By unexhausted power to bless,
I gaze below on hell's fierce bed,
   And those its waves of flame oppress,
   Swarming in ghastly wretchedness;
Whose life on earth aspired to be
   One altar-smoke, so pure! -- to win
If not love like God's love for me,
   At least to keep his anger in;
   And all their striving turned to sin.
Priest, doctor, hermit, monk grown white
   With prayer, the broken-hearted nun,
The martyr, the wan acolyte,
   The incense-swinging child, -- undone
   Before God fashioned star or sun!
God, whom I praise; how could I praise,
   If such as I might understand,
Make out and reckon on his ways,
   And bargain for his love, and stand,
   Paying a price at his right hand?

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      Contents copyright 1999 by Lyman A. Baker

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      This page last updated 11 October 2000.