Paracelsus by Robert Browning

Instructor: Audrey Farley

Audrey is a doctoral student in English at University of Maryland.

This lesson presents a summary of plot and main characters in Robert Browning's poem, Paracelsus. This lesson also analyzes the poem's important themes.

Overview of the Poem

Robert Browning published his first major poem, Paracelsus, in 1835. The poem is about a sixteenth-century physicist. It is one of Browning's most celebrated works. Browning took approximately six months to write the poem. He would take walks late at night in London, meditating about the passages.

Main Characters

Paracelsus is a young man who aspires to better himself with a strong education. He lives with his good friend, Festus, and Festus' betrothed, Michal.

Aprile is an Italian poet whom Paracelsus meets while studying abroad.

Summary of the Five Acts

Formally speaking, the form resembles a drama, since it is organized into five acts. The first act is set in Wurzburg, where Paracelsus is studying. He meets with his two housemates to tell them that he aspires to leave town to obtain an education, particularly in the natural sciences (philosophy). He explains that he wants to cultivate his talents for the sake of society.

The second act portrays Paracelsus in Constantinople, where he has been for the last seven years. He is now a learned philosopher, who has earned the 'Papyrus' (master stone) for his knowledge. This scene reveals how Paracelsus prioritized the pursuit of knowledge over all else, including love and brotherhood.

The third and fourth acts involve Aprile, an Italian poet who also aspires to better humanity, but through love, rather than knowledge. Aprile and Paracelsus become close, and Aprile ultimately dies in his friend's arms. At this moment, Paracelsus realizes his error and commits to live for love.

The final act portrays Paracelsus at age 48. He is dying in Salzburg, with his friend Festus by his side. He relates his experience of dying to his friend to 'instruct' him -- he wants to make sure that his friend realizes the importance of saving his soul for Eternity.

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