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Apocalyptic "Christmas-Eve"/ extravagant criticism.

"Christmas-Eve" has been a difficult poem to accommodate
to the Browning canon.**** It has seemed an exaggeration of the
poet's excesses--too ironic and at the same time too
self-satisfied, too crude in its rhythms, too simple in its resolution.
Too noisy all round. At its publication a review in the
 also ath·e·ne·um  
1. An institution, such as a literary club or scientific academy, for the promotion of learning.

2. A place, such as a library, where printed materials are available for reading.
 suggested that Browning had "recklessly impaired the dignity of his
purpose by the vehicle chosen for its development." (1) The poem
also provoked a strange review or, more accurately, a refusal to review
in the Browning-friendly precincts of the Pre-Raphaelite journal, The
William Michael Rossetti

, the reviewer, set up a barrage of


 as defense against the poem's reputed assault on
proprieties. Never mentioning the poem's religious subject,
Rossetti explains his peculiar critical stance: "Of all poets,
there is none more than Robert Browning, in approaching whom
The quality or state of being diffident; timidity or shyness.

Noun 1. diffidence - lack of self-confidence
self-distrust, self-doubt
 is necessary." (2) After struggling with the ratios of style,
conception, appropriateness in Browning, he confesses to failure:
"We have been
Having or expressing desire; desiring:

 to explain and justify the state of feeling
in which we enter on the consideration of a new poem by Robert Browning.
Those who already feel with us will scarcely be disposed to forgive the


 which, for the present, has put it out of our power to come at
the work itself" (p. 192).

Yet without knowing that he is doing so, Rossetti does suggest a
way to come at the work itself. In wandering among possible critical
approaches, he considers at some length the charge of extravagance
brought against Browning. Clearly intrigued by the concept, he
eventually regards extravagance as a way to
v. con·cep·tu·al·ized, con·cep·tu·al·iz·ing, con·cep·tu·al·iz·es
To form a concept or concepts of, and especially to interpret in a conceptual way:
 the gap
between style and content in Browning's poetry: "If so many
exceptions to Browning's 'system of extravagance' be
admitted ... wherein are we to seek this extravagance? The ground work
exempted, the

 attaches, if anywhere, to the framework; to the
body, if not to the soul. And we are thus left to consider the style, or
mode of expression" (l. 188). Extravagance, like the Atheneum
charge of impropriety, suggests that the poem lacks dignity. Rossetti
does not pursue this point about

 but points to its possibility.

In our present commemorative moment and given a general assent in
much literary criticism to early reviews, this essay takes up the
challenge of The Germ review to

v. t. 1. To frame again or anew.
 and revalue the concept of
extravagance, considering the extravagant style as an essential poetic
feature. As a corollary to considering the poem itself as extravagant,
 , branch of linguistics that investigates the history, development, and origin of words. It was this study that chiefly revealed the regular relations of sounds in the Indo-European languages (as described
 of the word signifying wandering out of bounds, authorizes
 in law, term applied to the offense of persons who are without visible means of support or domicile while able to work. State laws and municipal ordinances punishing vagrancy often also cover loitering, associating with reputed criminals, prostitution, and
. Browning's extravagant poem solicits extravagant
criticism and calls for judicious wandering to stop at signifying
moments that clarify its religious claims. (3) In contesting
interpretations of "Christmas-Eve" as primarily ironic or
satiric, this essay views its irony as endemic to the poem's
religious theme rather than as a position that distances the poet from
it. Browning's is an irony congruent with contemporary
interpretations of the bible as "disguised utterance." (4) In
arguing that "Christmas-Eve" can be understood by considering
its apocalyptic features, this essay turns the critical prism to view
its social context as an apocalyptic Victorian moment. Yes, the poem is
extravagant as prophetic rhetoric tends to be. Yes, the juxtaposition of
Christmas and Revelation seems extravagant.

Unlike Browning's dramatic poems set in the past,
"Christmas-Eve" takes the poet's own times as its setting
and at least two major social problems of Victorian England as its
context: consequences of

 and religious crises of
belief. To stress the urgency of these problems the poem adopts features
of the apocalyptic genre. Both meanings of apocalypse bear on the
structures of "Christmas-Eve." Its Greek and Latin etymology
signifies revelation or unveiling while its allusion to the biblical
book signifies prophesies about the end of the world.
"Christmas-Eve" appropriates many features of the apocalyptic
1. The branch of theology that is concerned with the end of the world or of humankind.

2. A belief or a doctrine concerning the ultimate or final things, such as death, the destiny of humanity, the Second
 content and its relation to a social crisis or
revolution, symbolic visions, traumatic events, social tensions
resulting from different degrees of wealth and different attitudes
towards it. (5) Above all, revelation is the genre's central
characteristic. Allusions to the Book of the Revelation of St. John draw
parallels between St. John's vision of apocalypse and Victorian
disruptions. Hovering over those upheavals contemporaneous with the
poem, the date 1848 reminds us of the turmoil that hangs in the air of
its social climate. (6) Revelation employs terrifying
apparitions--beasts, the Whore of Babylon, the Antichrist--to deliver
its urgent message. Irony disguises the Victorian poem from
Revelation's most
   also phan·tas·ma·go·ry
n. pl. phan·tas·ma·go·ri·as also phan·tas·ma·go·ries
a. A fantastic sequence of haphazardly associative imagery, as seen in dreams or fever.

 elements, yet without mitigating
their resonances in the poem. As in Revelation, disclosure arrives to
the speaker in a vision, in Browning's poem a dream vision. Some of
Revelation's spirit boils in its ambience, while its ending calms
those waters to achieve a more soothing conclusion.

Visions of the end of the world echo
Containing or characterized by indirect references:

tr.v. tan·ta·lized, tan·ta·liz·ing, tan·ta·liz·es
To excite (another) by exposing something desirable while keeping it out of reach.
Browning brings down the elevated periods characteristic of biblical
prophetic verse to a

 level. In keeping with the poem's
democratic message, the speaker at first presents himself not as a
disciple but as a hapless stranger who strays onto a visionary path that
originates near "a squalid knot of alleys" (l. 32). Apocalypse
thus lives in the poem but colored in ordinary hues--in the misery of
everyday life, in the religious crisis that serves to locate social
crises within the spiritual disturbances of one ordinary Christian, and
in its

 into a mean little chapel at the edge of a commons,
its back to "Love-lane" (l.42).

Saint John's


"Christmas-Eve" opens in the middle of an action, when
someone rushes out of an odiferous, abjected chapel, located in the
slums of an unnamed town:

   Out of the little chapel I burst
      Into the fresh night-air again. (ll. 1-2)

The three sections following the dramatic opening apparently move
backwards in time from the dramatic exit and the speaker's
subsequent relief. The storm from which he sought refuge explains his
incongruous presence among a congregation he clearly differs from in
class, education, and approach to religious belief. In addition the
storm allegorizes the speaker's personal crisis. Mount Zion Chapel
at the edge of the "commons," (l. 5) suggests its earthiness,
its humanness, and its spiritual hegemony all at the same time. It is a
place of refuge, a physical and, eventually, a spiritual refuge,
heralding the return of everyone to Jerusalem's Mount Zion as a
sign of last days. Yet, the speaker wryly wonders about how the
congregation could have adopted the biblical reference without
understanding its inclusiveness:

   Still, why paint over their door "Mount Zion,"
      To which all flesh shall come, saith the prophesy? (ll. 261-262)

This is only one of many allusions in the poem to the Return, a
topic that had also been raised to national awareness in the evangelical
support in the 1830s and early 1840s for the Restoration of the Jews to
the Holy Land as politically expedient and religiously connected to
"apocalyptic considerations." (7) The speaker's defensive
reaction to the congregation's distrust of a stranger measures his
distance from those biased and ignorant
 see nonconformists.
 and brings his
attention to the meaning of Mount Zion and its apocalyptic overtones.

A traveler from Manchester, the speaker knows himself an
"alien" (l. 87) because of the hostile gazes he receives from
the "elect" (l. 88) who gather to celebrate the Incarnation.
On the "Christmas-Eve of 'Forty-nine" (l. 135) the
assembly includes the entire flock "and one sheep over" (l.
137). Exquisitely detailed observations of "
adj. beast·li·er, beast·li·est
1. Of or resembling a beast; bestial.

2. Very disagreeable; unpleasant.

adv. Chiefly British
To an extreme degree; very.
" (l.
36) in the chapel's placement and congregants
tr.v. im·pelled, im·pel·ling, im·pels
1. To urge to action through moral pressure; drive:

2. To drive forward; propel.
 the speaker to
escape, not only from the sordid spectacle of the ragged classes,
including a
 /tu·ber·cu·lar/ ()
1. pertaining to or resembling tubercles.

2. tuberculous.

 whore, a man who exposes a horrible wen while
"screwing" his eyelids, a young girl, old before her time,
uncomfortably carrying a sickly baby, but equally from the "immense
stupidity" (l. 144) of their minister's sermon and the
congregation's pleasurable assent to it:

   My gorge rose at the nonsense and stuff of it;
      So, saying like Eve when she plucked the apple,
      "I wanted a taste, and now there's enough of it,"
   I flung out of the chapel. (ll. 183-186)

The line above, the end of section III, brings the poem back to its
beginning. Before it does so, however, it offers an extravagant
comparison of the speaker to Eve tasting forbidden fruit. The speaker,
who would not have frequented such a Chapel in Manchester, now tastes
lower-class Protestantism and spits it out. His identification with Eve
and the apple suggests that his burst out of the chapel resembles a
fall. Yet his ensuing blessing of the natural world and its rewarding
vision of Christ imitates a rise. To complicate the matter of rises and
falls, the Manchester speaker's hometown furnishes a concrete
instance of a Victorian fallen world with its associations with the city
where lived the highest percentage of paupers in England.

It seems, then, that the visitor to Mount Zion Chapel has gained
unhappy knowledge of his participation in a specific fallen world, with
its physical and moral deformations of the working class. (8) In the
context of a Christmas poem, the Manchester traveler evokes the
industrialized cotton-mill city that had received close and devastating
scrutiny. In 1832, James Kay (Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth) published his
best-selling The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes
Employed in the Cotton Manufacture in Manchester; Edwin Chadwick issued
his Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Classes in 1842.
(9) Friedrich Engel's 1844 account, The Condition of the Working
Class in England joins the ranks of those sociological revelations. In
that print context, the speaker serves as witness to the Manchester
scene with its environmental and social consequences of
industrialization. (10) His burst away from that chapel measures the
distance he must travel in order to become a true Christian.
"Christmas-Eve" offers a visionary account of that difficult
journey for a Victorian who may divine in the devastation of the green
and pleasant land by disease, deformation, and starvation a
foreshadowing of the end of the world, certainly as it had been.

The narrative blurs time sequences, beginning with a burst out of
the chapel, then back into it to describe its congregants and rituals,
flinging out again, and then "Into the little chapel again"
(l. 1237). The man from Manchester awakens to discover himself in the
same place, symbolically "on my bench," (l. 1239), a dreamer
who has had a revelation. In that context, a striking, even grotesque,
allusion to Revelation merits the extravagant label.

Before the speaker enters the chapel proper, he stands under a
flickering lantern, as if in a spotlight, in its narrow
 /ves·ti·bule/ () a space or cavity at the entrance to a canal.vestib´ular

vestibule of aorta  a small space at root of the aorta.
 ("Six feet long by three feet wide" [l. 17]) where the wet,
shuffling worshippers return his own ethnographic gaze:

   And, when the door's cry drowned their wonder,
      The draught, it always sent in shutting,
   Made the flame of the single tallow candle
   In the cracked square lantern I stood under,
      Shoot its blue lip at me, rebutting
   As it were, the luckless cause of scandal:
   I verily fancied the zealous light
   (In the chapel's secret, too!) for spite
   Would shudder itself clean off the wick,
   With the airs of a Saint John's Candlestick. (ll. 93-102) (11)

In this animated chapel in which objects cast judgments, the door
hinge renders appraisals by its creaks and cries, while the door
influences the lantern in its aggressive, uncharitable revelation of the
stranger. This blue light, mean and low, betokening its cheap source in

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, bears malice against the "luckless cause of scandal,"
who enters the chapel not to worship but to avoid a storm. The
extravagance of the allusion to Saint John's Candlestick resides in
its comparison to a rickety, broken lantern; on the face of it, nothing
about it would recall the seven golden candlesticks in Revelation. In
seeking to explain Saint John's candlestick in the poem,
extravagant criticism notes parallels between the social situation in
the little English chapel and the urgent message in Revelation to
"the old Seven Churches" (l. 108) that Browning explicitly
evokes. In Revelation, the candlesticks represent the seven churches of
Asia, and it is thus appropriate for "Christmas-Eve" that the
contemporary social crisis referred to in Revelation 3.17-18 alludes to
tensions between rich and poor in Asia Minor. (12)

In alluding to the candlestick, the speaker begins to take on the
prophetic mantle of a Victorian type of St. John, one receiving a
prophetic vision in the context of religious upheaval and huge
disparities in wealth. (13) And yet, the discrepancy between the
earthly, cracked lantern and the heavenly golden candlestick marks
Browning's difference from St. John. Rather than mystify economic
disparity by clothing it in gold, Browning opts for a baser metal
betokening privation. Parallel to biblical wealth disparity, the man
from Manchester lives amongst
1. Extreme want of resources or the means of subsistence; complete poverty.

2. A deprivation or lack; a deficiency.

Noun 1.
in the midst

 of immense
prosperity. The deformed congregants in Zion Chapel embody the dark side
of British industrial ascendancy in the context of the hungry forties.

Victorian religious disputes also contribute to the religious
crisis that subtends the poem, also a feature of the apocalyptic genre.
The crisis of religious belief, almost a cliche in Victorian cultural
history, exerts an urgent pressure that finds expression in every aspect
of "Christmas-Eve." Loss of faith, loss of direction, and a
conflict among varieties of religious belief in the context of social
upheaval and environmental degradation characterize the symbolic journey
that is central to the poem. It is this sense of losing direction that
"Christmas-Eve" literalizes in the pilgrim (for that is the
label that we now see he deserves) of Mount Zion Chapel. His vision
presents three forms of belief that appear embodied in the three sites
of the poem, the places signifying the pilgrim's itinerary on his
path to find a place for himself: the Dissenting Chapel, the Roman
Catholic Cathedral, and the Temple of Learning.

In addition to the social context, the momentous events of
Browning's own life in 1849 add to the poem's relevance. In
March, Browning's beloved mother, who was a devout Chapel-goer,
died. Browning's inconsolable mourning verged on

. In
that same month Browning's first and only son was born, which must
have seemed a miraculous birth, given Elizabeth Barrett Browning's
age, health and previous miscarriages. (14) Browning's life in
March 1849 imbues the work with personal poignancy without being overtly

Lunar Rainbow and Vision of Christ

Bursting out of the Chapel, the pilgrim views an uneasy and
changing sky with the moon attempting to break through clouds "Like
furnace smoke" (l. 202). In the lull of the wind, in the momentary
clearing of the sky, he reviews and moderates his distaste. He meditates
on his spiritual life and its origins, reminding himself that to find
Christian love involves a process of continually refinding it. Affirming
his way to that love and praising the firmament leads to two related
visions, one of a rare natural event and the other a vision of Christ.
Winds calm, clouds part, and the moon shines:

   The rain and the wind ceased, and the sky
   Received at once the full fruition
   Of the moon's consummate apparition. (ll. 376-378) (15)

The consummate
 spiritualistic manifestation of a person or object in which a form not actually present is seen with such intensity that belief in its reality is created.
 gives rise to an astonishing showing
forth. A double lunar rainbow appears,
   also pris·mat·i·cal
1. Of, relating to, resembling, or being a prism.

2. Formed by refraction of light through a prism. Used of a spectrum of light.

3. Brilliantly colored; iridescent.
 diffusing the
perfect white orb. Attempting to match the natural miracle with
appropriately exalted language, Browning first rhymes
"perfect" with "perfect":

   'Twas a moon-rainbow, vast and perfect
   From heaven to heaven extending, perfect
   As the mother-moon's self, full in face.
   It rose, distinctly at the base
      With its seven proper colours chorded,
   Which still, in the rising, were compressed,
   Until at last they coalesced,
      And supreme the spectral creature lorded
   In a triumph of whitest white,--Above
   which intervened the night. (ll. 385-394)

Exalted diction attempts to bring into the poem the visionary
"[r]apture" (1. 401) of the moment. The double rainbow,
according to Browning the one autobiographical fact in the poem, adds
that personal significance to his image of the mother-moon's full
face breaking up into
   also pris·mat·i·cal
1. Of, relating to, resembling, or being a prism.

2. Formed by refraction of light through a prism. Used of a spectrum of light.

3. Brilliantly colored; iridescent.
 hues. The rainbow extends moonlight down
to earth in an arc of colors. The mothermoon, having been translated to
heaven and mythology, blesses the speaker and offers consolation to the
poet for his maternal loss.

In addition, the perfect seven colors chorded refer to the harmony
of the spheres; a spiritual music elevates the diction of this section
of the poem and finally bears upon the musical modulation to the all-too
earthly sounds of this poem. At this glorious moment, the double moon
rainbow heralds a vision of Christ, a key feature of the apocalyptic
genre, appearing also in medieval dream visions. "Glutted with the
glory" (l. 422) the pilgrim discerns a foot emerging at the
"keystone of that arc" (l. 404). (16) Feeling himself
"Singled forth" (l. 407), the pilgrim sees Christ. (17) The
pilgrim's Christ acts as a guide, a

n. 1. (Myth.) A leader or guide of souls .

Noun 1. psychopomp - a conductor of souls to the afterworld; "Hermes was their psychopomp"
, who conducts the
troubled soul to some resolution. (18) A tour guide, as Virgil and
Beatrice for Dante but not in any afterworld, this revelatory journey
takes place on earth, exposing infernal,
1. Serving to purify of sin; expiatory.

2. Of, relating to, or resembling purgatory.

Adj. 1.
, and paradisial

The apocalyptic genre shares with the dream vision the transcendent
moment of the vision of Christ. Browning wanders in and out, through and
around this medieval tradition. (19) Ultimately, however, he finds both
the form and the characteristic spiritual vision of the face of Christ
unsustainable, though redeeming, and this sense of unsustainability
contributes to the poem's vagrancy. The medieval dream vision is a
form that, like the apocalyptic genre, posits vision as the primary mode
of Christian religious understanding. But in "Christmas. Eve"
faces hide, appear, and disappear. The faces of Christ, of truth, of
buildings, and of the parishioners of Mount Zion Chapel turn away, mask
their emotions, or are concealed behind closed doors; they are spotted,
whitewashed, dirty, or begrudging. Indeed the word "face" is
repeated sixteen times in the poem, although the Christ's face
reveals itself only once.

This treatment of faces suggests the poem's relationship to
the dream vision, and the medieval tradition of meditation on the face
of the divinity. (20) It shares the vision, the quest, the guide, but
the poem emphasizes the anxiety over the sustainability of that vision
within the modern world, arguing for a visionary with his feet on the
ground. Browning's final choice of Mount Zion Chapel represents a
satisfactory place of rest, imperfect, "common," and human.
Though the vision of Christ fades, it will,
That can be presumed or taken for granted; reasonable as a supposition:
, allow him to
retain, in a phrase from Dante's Paradiso, the "sweetness
sprung from it." (21)

The pilgrim is haunted by uncertainty. His desire for a central
point between "
1. Careless in handling money; wasteful.

2. Archaic Lacking usefulness or value.

 learning" and ignorance foreshadows
his choice of Mount Zion Chapel, but the use of the
 see mood.
the impossibility of remaining "ever here ... forever in
[God's] presence":

   "Good were it to be ever here....
      Where, forever in thy presence,
   In ecstatic acquiescence
   Far alike from thriftless learning
   And ignorance's undiscerning,
   I may worship and remain!" (ll. 412-419).

But where is here? Browning's topography is noteworthy. The
speaker first stands on the edge of the "common"--another
oft-repeated word--facing a narrow path, in the middle of a December
rainstorm. The path is a symbol it shares with the pilgrimage of the
dream vision. The pilgrim wishes to remain outside and apart from
humanity, a condition which prepares him for the vision of Christ, but
that astonishing vision is

Of short duration; passing away quickly.
. On another level, the fleeting
vision is a sign of the poem's vagrancy. This is a pilgrim but one
who wanders.

The face appears at the moment when the pilgrim most wishes to
forget himself and the world, at a moment of humility within the harsh
natural surroundings characteristic of
A recluse or hermit, especially a religious recluse.

[Middle English, from Late Latin er
 devotion. Here we get
the sense of the pilgrim as a
adj. god·li·er, god·li·est
1. Having great reverence for God; pious.

2. Divine.

 man; one who has actively but often
mistakenly sought after Christ. (22) In this quest, he has attempted to
eschew such worldly and common means as he eventually comes to rest in,
and to look straight up to Christ:

      I have looked to thee from the beginning,
   Straight up to thee through all the world
   Which, like an idle scroll, lay furled
   To nothingness on either side:
   And since the time thou wast descried,
   Spite of the weak heart, so have I
   Lived ever, and so fain would die,
   Living and dying, thee before!
   But if thou leavest me--"

   When,--have mercy, Lord, on us!
   The whole face turned upon me full. (ll. 476-487)

Thus our dreamer sees the face, not as the culminating vision it is
in many other dream visions, but as soon as he begins to recognize that
he has mistakenly looked beyond the world rather than within it. His
desires combine both the guide and the redeeming figure of the deity in
a single form. But what do we make of the face's appearance early
in the vision, and then only once, maybe twice, in a glance? In one
sense, it affirms the claims of dissenting Christianity, testifying to
the guiding presence of Christ from the beginning; in another not
necessarily contradictory sense, it states that there is much more to be
achieved, as this presence is only the first step to the revelation.
"Christmas-Eve" hints at dream visions and pilgrimages, toys
with the idea of eremitism, but finally escapes them all to affirm
spiritual value in the visions of Christ that leads him to unfurl the
world and look to it, in it, and at it.

Holding Christ's robe the pilgrim is whisked to Rome where he
experiences the acme of Catholic splendor in
St. Peter's Cathedral

Time collapses here and the ancient church is still in view. Just as the
pilgrim sees through the church doors to the scene inside from which he
is excluded, he sees through the gilt and glitter to the original love,
as well as some of the original blindness, of the primitive church,
which banished "the sovereign Intellect" (l. 652), and some of
its constituents who are still "lulled by the same old baby
prattle" (l. 697). This probably refers to the Pauline concept of
spiritual growth, expanding from the understanding of a child to the
wisdom of an adult. (23) For a man, like our pilgrim, who is very much
entrenched in the modern world, such blind childishness is impossible.
So, we can

, are the intense, prolonged meditations of
medieval devotees who exiled themselves from this world and anchored
themselves in vision. Browning's pilgrim is allowed such spiritual
aloofness for only short periods of time when, as he is borne along on
the garment of Christ, or viewing His face, he is not "'ware
of the world" (l. 525). It is not until the end of the poem that he
is content to worship in a "narrow shrine" (l. 373). Before
then, his choice is pilgrimage without a clear purpose, a choice that
leaves him wandering, lurking in doorways; his vagrancy creates a

free-floating anxiety

Anxiety that lacks a definite focus or content.

Mentioned in: Anxiety

 Psychiatry Severe, generalized, persistent anxiety not specifically ascribed to a particular object or event and
 in the atmosphere. After a transformative period
of transient detachment, the dreamer finds a resting place, bringing him
back into the human fold. Unlike dreamers in earlier Christian dream
visions, "Christmas-Eve" is concerned with what happens after
the enlightening vision.

In Rome, ultimate architectural comparisons pit Zion Chapel's
red brick, narrow vestibule, and bare wood against Saint Peter's
marble, "pillars of prodigious

," and "This
miraculous Dome of God" (ll. 527, 529); the Chapel's bare
whitewashed walls against art, gilding, and "stones of price"
(l. 541); and organ music and rehearsed choirs against untrained
enthusiastic voices. Yet, while conceding that despite the "popes
and kings in their
 , c.232–c.304, Greek scholar and Neoplatonic philosopher. He studied rhetoric under Cassius Longinus and philosophy under Plotinus.
 wombs" and the "errors and
perversities" of Roman Catholicism, truth yet lives "
1. From side to side; crosswise or transversely.

2. So as to thwart, obstruct, or oppose; perversely.

 the lies" (ll. 566, 617, 618). The Manchester pilgrim knows that
Christ's spirit dwells in the Cathedral. (24) Images of sight and
vision confirm that a veil has dropped from the pilgrim's clouded
sight, enabling his reason to see more clearly, enabling him to reject
yet respect Roman Catholicism beyond the error of its architecture and
beyond its worldly show to see the love that inspired its origins:

   I see the error; but above
   The scope of error, see the love.--
   Oh, love of those first Christian days! (ll. 647-649)

By the end of his visit to Rome, the pilgrim realizes that


 experience of the face of Christ is unsustainable for any
length of time. The poem then affirms both the value of seeing the
ultimate vision right away and of a gradual acquisition of spiritual
truth. Browning's pilgrim thus has an opportunity to be like both
sculptors whom he describes at the end of his review of Rome. The first
is a great-hearted artist:

   On the face alone he expends his devotion,
      He rather would mar than resolve to diminish it,
   --Saying, "Applaud me for this grand notion
   Of what a face may be! ...

      And how much nobler than petty cavils,
      Were a hope to find, in my spirit-travels,
   Some artist of another ambition,
   Who having a block to carve, no bigger,
      Has spent his power on the opposite quest,
      And believed to begin at the feet was best--For
   so may I see, ere I die, the whole figure! (ll. 754-768)

Here, Browning hints at a spiritual aesthetics that does not
emphasize the face at the expense of the feet. A too narrow focus on the
face betrays contempt for the rest of the body; the proper place for a
humble Christian to begin is at the feet. While the first kind of
sculptor expends his devotion on the face, possibly getting it wrong,
and certainly lacking a larger vision, the second abandons narrowness
for a devotional journey. The poem takes up a poetics of the feet,
initiated by Christ's feet in the pilgrim's vision, which
appear first at the keystone of the rainbow's arc. The face, under
these terms, is not as crucial and, in accepting the feet before finding
the face, our pilgrim has lost some of that
1. The condition of being exceptional or unique.

2. The theory or belief that something, especially a nation, does not conform to a pattern or norm.
 that drove
him from Mount Zion Chapel. This is the first step towards spiritual

In the poem's allegory, Christ leaves the pilgrim (who is a
stranger, an observer, a tourist, led by the deity to the world, not
beyond it) outside the cathedral doors but then returns to escort him to
Germany and a German temple of learning in Gottingen, with its
intellectual fellowship, its appeal to reason, and its textual
methodology. The German professor's scholarly method denies
Christ's divinity not his exceptional human worth. "The
Professor's grave voice, sweet though hoarse" (l. 840)
addresses the "Myth of Christ" (l. 859) tracing its historical
development while honoring the bible for placing humanity at the summit
of creation. (25)

The Gottingen section lacks suspense and the drama of the other
sections of the poem in part because Christ as a divinity has deposited
the speaker at the very site that is engaged in denying it; his function
and presence in the poem at that very moment confirms his divinity. As
the visionary pilgrim exclaims at the emergence of Christ from the
keystone of the arc of the lunar rainbows, "He was there" (l.
431). This shortest line in the poem affirms Christ's divinity and
refutes the sweet, hoarse voice of the German professor even before he
appears in the dreamer's vision to deliver his learned, earnest,
but clearly misguided, lecture. (26)

In presenting an aesthetic through the analogy of the sculptors,
Browning's poem is expansive; it does not confine itself to the
vision of the face as a sign of correctness in his opinions, nor in its
election of a church to topics of social or doctrinal controversy.
Neither does it confine itself to a single generic model, but travels
through them, occasionally taking up their modes and symbols, and laying
them down, or infusing them with new significance. Such revelations as
it describes emerge through
   also i·tin·er·a·cy
n. pl. i·tin·er·an·cies
A state or system of itinerating, especially in the role or office of public speaker, minister, or judge.
, through wandering, but
eventually the traveler must rest, must return to earth with its wens
and its smoke. He must wake up.

The Key of This Life

The Manchester pilgrim comes to recognize that his dream vision
addressed his own spiritual conflict as one also speaking to his social,
aesthetic commitment. The end of the poem leads the pilgrim to affirm
something that he can live by in anticipation of End Times. In line with
the dissenting pride in independent choice, he accepts that he not only
has the power of choice but that he has an obligation to it:

   Meantime, in the still recurring fear
      Lest myself, at unawares, be found,
      While attacking the choice of my neighbours round,
   With none of my own made--I choose here! (ll. 1338-41)

This declaration to cast his lot with Mount Zion Chapel comes as no
surprise, yet the pilgrim uses his choice to account for the poem's
extravagant style. In a metacritical moment, the speaker characterizes
its exuberant rhymes and rhythms as "
adj. froth·i·er, froth·i·est
1. Made of, covered with, or resembling froth; foamy.

2. Playfully frivolous in character or content:
Foam or froth on a liquid, as on the sea.

intr.v. spumed, spum·ing, spumes
To froth or foam.

[Middle English, from Old French espume, from Latin
 and frequent
sputter" (l. 1352). He vindicates such poetry as nevertheless
reflecting an earnest soul. Readers may recall the traveler's
earlier auditory reflections when the train inspires a "tune"
that was "born in my head" (l. 249). Singled out by his
responsive ear, the tune he hears annoys his fellow passenger as
cacophony. "Out of the thump-thump and shriek-shriek" (1.
250), the Manchester pilgrim discovers music, "While it only makes
my neighbour's haunches stir" (l. 254). (27) Locomotive sounds
of Victorian technology suggest a tune for its times-one that may jar an
ear searching for pre-industrial religious harmonies. Poetic
extravagance thus reveals itself as "boil[ing]" (l. 1353) with
the soul's conviction and represents industrial-age decorum, a
choice to accept the rhythms of the iron horse, to find a tune in its
regular thump and

, though many hear discordant
   also dog·grel
Crudely or irregularly fashioned verse, often of a humorous or burlesque nature.

[From Middle English, poor, worthless, from dogge, dog; see

Confident that the "truth" (l. 1354) radiates from
heartfelt conviction, the Manchester pilgrim lends his voice to the
ending ritual of the service:

   To Hepzibah Tune, without further apology,
      The last five verses of the third section
      Of the seventeenth hymn of Whitfield's collection."
      (ll. 1357-59)

Because its many editions are organized differently, which
particular Whitfield hymn is alluded to remains
1. Based on or involving conjecture. See Synonyms at supposed.

2. Tending to conjecture.

, and nothing
in Whitfield clearly fits the description of the "last five verses
of the third section." Nevertheless, the seventeenth hymn that
resonates with the apocalyptic theme and the return to Jerusalem appears
in Whit(e)field's twenty-ninth edition, 1758, "Heavenly Joy on
Earth" in which the fourth stanza refers to the return to Mount

   The Hill of Zion yields
   A thousand sacred Sweets,
   Before we reach the heav'nly Fields,
   Or walk the golden Streets. (28)

In line with apocalyptic references to the New Jerusalem in the
hymn, Hepzibah Tune also references the Return to Jerusalem, which
Isaiah (62.4) prophesied would be renamed Hepzibah. Mount Zion Chapel is
the place to be to await the heavenly fields.

Moreover, and relevant to Browning's own music theory,
Hepzibah Tune, adaptable to various hymns, is typically in the key of C
Major, a key with no sharps or fiats. (29) The voice raised at this
point in the poem becomes almost a duet, with the poet seeming to join
in. "I put up pencil," says our pilgrim, "and join
chorus" (l. 1355). Perhaps the poem at its end reveals Browning
plain (or plain-ish) because the time sequence is once again disrupted
(Has the Manchester man been writing down his experience as he is having
it? Though in the present tense, is he recollecting the revelation in
tranquility?). A further biographical element may emerge in that the
voice sings in the key that the poet will use throughout his career to
indicate a kind of perfection. And it further may argue for the
revelation of the poet behind the Manchester man's persona to
To such an extent.

Adv. 1. insofar - to the degree or extent that; "insofar as it can be ascertained, the horse lung is comparable to that of man"; "so far as it is reasonably practical he should practice
 as this poem issues forth from Browning's great
loss and miraculous gain, Sarah Anna Wiedemann Browning's
contribution to her son's passion for music, including her fondness
for Charles Avison, a composer that Browning resuscitates at the end of
his career. (30)

In the parleying "With Charles Avison" (1887) Browning
praises the eighteenth-century composer's "Bold-stepping
'March'"(l. 51):

      The key
   Was--should not memory play me false--well, C. (ll. 84-85)

In "Avison" the key represents boldness, truth,
perfection, completeness, and carries associations with consummate
truth: "Orbed to the full can be but fully orbed" (131).
Despite increased musical complexities in such musicians as Wagner,
Browning avers that Avison's Key of C retains its simple
perfection. Likewise, Abt Vogler, inventor of a unique organ in an
effort to attain an unearthly perfection, ultimately "feel[s] for
the common chord" (l. 91) and modulates his piece to "The C
Major of this life" (l. 96). Like Hepzibah Tune for the Manchester
pilgrim, Vogler returns to C Major after a flight of fancy, a vision
which raises him above the earth, closer to the deity. He, like the
Manchester pilgrim, feels himself chosen for a vision, this time an
auditory one:

   But God has a few of us whom he whispers in the ear;
      The rest may reason and welcome; 'tis we musicians know.
   Well, it is to earth with me. (ll. 87-89).

In the "well" of both poems we hear a sigh but one of
wisdom. C Major is an earthly resting place, spiritually sufficient, and
the soundtrack to the pilgrim's assent at Mount Zion Chapel. (31)
Hepzibah Tune at the end of "Christmas-Eve" confirms
Browning's Key of C Major as an emblem enabling the common chord to
resonate with the heavenly spheres.

The end moves out of Revelation and dream vision--but not entirely
away from a consciousness of what the Hill of Zion foretells--to settle
into common prayer and common praise with the common folk. In adapting
the apocalyptic genre to give a religious context and meaning to
conditions of industrialized England, the poem bounces to popular
rhythms and virtuoso rhymes. To live on earth among its men and women
(the title of Browning's next volume of poems) and to make poetry
from the sounds of one's moment constitute part of the revelation.
It is humble, beginning with the feet and ending with the common chord.


(1) Quoted in The Poetical Work of Robert Browning, vol. 4, ed. Ian
Jack, Rowena Fowler, and Margaret Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991),
p. 319. Two other editions of the poems, notes, and variants have been
consulted for this essay: Robert Browning: The Poems, vol. 1, ed. John
Pettigrew and Thomas J. Collins (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1981); the
quotations from the poem are from Harry Krynicky, editor of
"Christmas-Eve," The Complete Works of Robert Browning, edited
by Roma King, et. al. (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1981), vol. 5.

(2) The Germ, no. 4 (1850):187.
http:/// html.

(3) What William Michael Rossetti calls "diffidence" as a
necessary critical position, in a later esteemed critic, Ian Jack, might
be called a stance of critical resistance. Yet, without knowing it, Jack
builds on the traveling root of the word extravagance, judging
Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day a "false direction" ("A
False Direction: 'Christmas-Eve and Easter Day,'"
Browning's Major Poetry [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973], pp.

(4) See Stephen Prickett, Narrative, Religion, and Science:
Fundamentalism versus Irony, 1700-1999 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ.
Press, 2002). Prickett discusses John Keble's The Christian Year as
a soothing work and discusses that confirming function in relation to
ironic interpretation of the bible, irony meaning "disguised
utterance" (p. 150). Such uses of irony conform to this
essay's understanding of Browning's irony in
"Christmas-Eve." For contextualizing "Christmas-Eve"
in relation to Prickett's analysis of irony and The Christian Year,
see Adrienne Munich, Margaret S. Kennedy, and Nicole Garret,
"Nonconforming Attitudes, Victorian Dissenting Characters,"
Anglistik 22 (2011): 85-86.

(5) The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed.
David Noel Freedman

, et al., 6
vols. (
New York
 Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of
: Doubleday, 1992), 1:704.

(6) Revolution and fears of its spread produce the milieu of the
poem as a time of upheaval. E. J. Hobsbawm's The Age of Revolution,
1789-1848 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1962) made the perception of
an age characterized by revolution an inevitable historical category.
Although the poem does not directly engage fears of revolution, that
consciousness hovers over the poem, much as the 2001 attacks hover over
our own times.

(7) Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, M.P.,
active in various bible and missionary societies and an evangelical
philanthropist, combined

 with politics and garnered the
support of Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston. For more details on the
initiative and its success in establishing a Protestant Church in
Jerusalem in the late 1830s, see Geoffrey B. A. M. Finlayson, The
Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury 1801-1885 (London: Eyre Methuen, 1981), pp.

(8) A Victorian literary context for revelations of social and
economic inequity as a result of industrial capitalism is Charles
Dickens' 1843 A Christmas Carol with its supernatural visions and
subsequent redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge. Of course, Tiny Tim Cratchit
comes to mind as one poor, deformed child, suffering, assert some
critics, from poor diet.

(9) For contextual analysis of these works, see Lauren M. E.
Goodlad, Victorian Literature and the Victorian State (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins Univ. Press, 2003). On Kay and his influence on Chadwick, see
particularly, pp. 48-53.

(10) E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class,
provides details of the industrial devastation and creation of the
starving classes of workers. Tristram Hunt, Building Jerusalem: The Rise
and Fall of the Victorian City, echoes in its title apocalyptic
possibilities in Victorian social visions, useful in its detailed
descriptions of urban degradation in the midst of prosperity.

(11) The "secrets" held in the chapel may refer to
secrets that lie at the generic heart of revelation, the unveiling of
unknown things. See Jonathan
A colorless brandy made from the fermented juice of cherries.

[French, short for German Kirschwasser; see kirschwasser.
, A History of the End of the World
(New York: Harper, 2006): "an apocalypse might reveal all kinds of
secret things," p. 22.

(12) Cited in The Anchor Bible Dictionary as one historical marker
for the politics in the Book of Revelation.

(13) For Browning's uses of typology, see my "Troops of
Shadows: Browning's Types," in Robert Browning: A Collection
of Critical Essays, ed. Harold Bloom (Englewood Cliffs, NJ:
Prentice-Hall, 1979), pp. 167-187; and Linda Peterson, "Biblical
Typology and the Self-Portrait of the Poet in Robert Browning," in
Approaches to Victorian Autobiography, ed. George P. Landow (Athens:
Ohio Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 235-268.

(14) For a controversial analysis of Browning's relation to
his mother, see Betty Miller, Robert Browning: A Portrait, (London: John
Murray, 1952). Browning's intimate attachment to Sarah Anna
Browning and his extravagant mourning, remarked on by EBB and
subsequently in all biographies and annotations to the poem, is given as
an inspiration for "Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day."

(15) Browning ties the word "consummate" with female
connections to the moon. See "Pan and Luna" where the full
moon is associated with the "consummate circle" that is emblem
of woman. He also uses the word in a religious context in "
Ben Ezra

 see Ibn Ezra, Abraham ben Meir.

Rabbi Ben Ezra

Browning’s poem about old age. [Br. Poetry: Benét, 836]

See : Age, Old
" when he refers to transcendence as a cup not made of
clay, "heaven's consummate cup" (l. 180).

(16) The generic feature of a guide to the underworld is adapted
here by Browning to a tour on earth with Christ as tour guide. The
influence of Dante on Browning's poetics in general cannot be

tr.v. o·ver·stat·ed, o·ver·stat·ing, o·ver·states
To state in exaggerated terms. See Synonyms at exaggerate.

. A particularly useful study of the touristic feature of
apocalyptic literature, see Martha Himmelfarb, Tours of Hell: An
Apocalyptic Form in Jewish and Christian Literature (Philadelphia: Univ.
of Pennsylvania Press, 1983).

(17) As George Landow, Victorian Types, Victorian Shadows :
Biblical Typology in Victorian Literature, Art, and Thought (Boston:
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980) points out, the rainbow is a sign of
God's covenant with man, and "was interpreted by Christian
exegetes as a type of Christ, who both brought the new covenant of grace
and was Himself its sign" (p. 112). As a measure of Browning's
distance from, yet understanding of, the feeling of being chosen, the
speaker, who scorned the "elect" of Mount Zion Chapel, now
feels himself chosen, as in another way does Abt Vogler.

(18) Beyond the scope of this essay but essential to it is a
recognition of Browning's debt to Romanticism, particularly
Shelley, in his use of apocalypse. For the relevant aspect of this
background, see Morton D. Paley, Apocalypse and Millennium in English
Romantic Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999). Shelley complicates an
interpretation of tone because of Shelley's strong ironic position
that holds
v. proph·e·sied , proph·e·sy·ing , proph·e·sies
1. To reveal by divine inspiration.

2. To predict with certainty as if by divine inspiration. See Synonyms at foretell.
 in tension and may at times undercut its fervor. It
is also Shelley's use of prismatic hues as earthly stains that so
influenced Browning's images.

(19) Richard S. Kennedy and Donald S. Hair place
"Christmas-Eve" in the medieval dream vision tradition:
"Christmas-Eve' is a dramatic narrative, the story of a dream
vision, which is a narrative of the soul but, like medieval dream
visions, firmly grounded in the actual and the here and now." See
Richard S. Kennedy and Donald S. Hair, The Dramatic Imagination of
Robert Browning (Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 2007), p. 189. Mary
Sanders Pollock, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning: A Creative
Partnership (Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate, 2003) says that the
poem's connection to the dream vision is a feature of its form as
Menippean Satire, "from which vision literature derives ... and
which possesses the ability to absorb other genres" (pp. 112-113).

(20) The face of Christ is the ultimate vision in many medieval
dream poems as it is in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. See
Charlotte Clutterbuck, Encounters with God in Medieval and
Early Modern

 Poetry (Burlington: Ashgate, 2004), pp. 27, 34. The vision of
Christ is also the culmination of Dante's Paradiso.

(21) Dante Alighieri, Paradiso,
n. pl. can·tos
One of the principal divisions of a long poem.

[Italian, from Latin cantus, song; see canticle.
 23, ll. 61-63: "coral
son io, che quasi tutta cessa/ mia visione, e ancor mi distilla/ nel
core il dolce che nacque da essa" (ed. Robert Hollander [New York:
Doubleday, 2007], p. 822). Here Dante, like Browning, reflects on the

Not lasting or durable; not permanent.

im·perma·nence, im·per
 of the vision, but the possibility of its prolonged
effects. At the end of Paradiso the pilgrim sees three celestial circles
of light of three colors, which he compares a triple rainbow. Again, we
can only suggest the resonance of Dante for Browning.

(22) In Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession the speaker confesses
to a misguided, or failed, quest for God: "As I look back, I see
that I have halted / Or hastened as I looked towards that star--/ A
need, a trust, a yearning after God" (ll. 291-295).
"Christmas-Eve" apparently discovers a place to affirm that

(23) A well-known articulation of the position is in 1 Corinthians
13.11: "When I was a child, I
v. Archaic
A past tense of speak.


Archaic a past tense of speak
 as a child, I understood as a
child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away
childish things."

(24) Offering a positive interpretation of Roman urban glory in
Browning's vision, Kevin Mills in Approaching Apocalypse:
Univeiling Revelation in Victorian Writing (Lewisburg: Bucknell Univ.
Press, 2007) finds that allusions to the New Jerusalem in ll. 530-554
refer positively to millennial visions of an urban ideal (pp. 65-66).

(25) For a useful review of Browning's religious opinions and
religious experiences that bear upon "Christmas-Eve," see
William O. Raymond, "Browning and Higher Criticism," PMLA 44
(1929): 590-621.

(26) See Elinor Shaffer, "Browning's St. John: The

  [Lat., casus=case], art of applying general moral law to particular cases.
 of the Higher Criticism," Victorian Studies 16 (1972):
205-221, for a later development in Browning's thought. Shaffer
believes that "Christmas-Eve" is in particular a dialogue with
Strauss (p. 206). The German lecturer in "Christmas Eve"
maintains the image of Christ as authentic, but strips it of its
religious value.

(27) The poem has made critical haunches stir as well. In addition
to other citations above and in specific regard to the railroad tune,
Linda H. Peterson, "Rereading Christmas-Eve, Rereading
Browning" Victorian Poetry 26 (1988): 363-380, argues that the
speaker, characteristically a misreader, interprets the tune being heard
by the speaker but not his neighbor as a
   also her·me·neu·ti·cal
Interpretive; explanatory.

[Greek herm
 problem. This essay
suggests that the tune heard by the Manchester pilgrim represents a
creative adaptation, finding new music in new technologies of travel. In
the metapoetics within the poem, Browning anticipated objections to it
by telling readers what he is doing in the verse--the analogy of the
sculptors and his descriptions of seemingly discordant poetry.

(28) George Whitefield, A Collection of Hymns for Social Worship,
29th ed. (London, 1785), p. 127. This is the same hymn, the first verse
being "Come we that love the Lord," that Peterson in
"Biblical Typology" believes Browning alludes to, although she
cites the seventh edition, 1758, and interprets its significance as
making Browning a modern Israelite. Yet, she admits that to interpret
the hymn in this way "raises more questions than it answers"
(p. 242). Extravagant criticism encourages an interpretation linking the
references to End Times in the hymn to the apocalyptic mode of the poem.

(29) The music is given in the notes to The Poetical Works of
Robert Browning, edited by Jack, Fowler, and Smith (Oxford: Clarendon
Press), 4:381. Hepzibah Tune can be heard with the lyrics of
"Amazing Grace": Hephzibah.htm. I am
grateful to music historians Bennett Zohn, Michael Allis, and lain Quinn
for speculating about the meanings of key signatures. Apparently key
signatures may have individual significance to particular composers, but
not commonly accepted meanings. Thus Browning's admiration for the
key of C is his own, based on his considerable knowledge of music.

(30) His mother, Sarah Browning, played the piano competently and
included Charles Avison's marches in her repertory. See lain
Finlayson, Robert Browning: A Private Life (London: Harper Collins,
2004), p. 34.

(31) Without mentioning the key of C, Esther Loehndorf says,
quoting "Abt Vogler," "the idea that Earth's
'broken arcs' will eventually be resolved into heaven's
'perfect round' underlies Browning's poetry from the
beginning and emerges from the religious meditations in Christmas-Eve
and Easter-Day" (Loehndorf, The Master's Voices: Robert
Browning, The Dramatic Monologue, and Modern Poetry [Tubingen: Franke
Verlag, 1997], p. 57).

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