In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Matthew Arnold in his “Dover Beach” said that he could hear only “the melancholy, long-withdrawing roar” of the tide of faith that had once been at the full. Many a thoughtful mind and earnest spirit were swept away by the receding tide, caught in the undertow of rationalism and skepticism.
Robert Browning, now generally recognized as the greatest English poet of his time, and one of the chief celebrities of English poetry, stood like a pharos-tower against these forces that were weakening the hold of the Christian faith upon many of the great minds of the age. William Lyon Phelps called him “of all true English poets, the most definitely Christian, the most sure of his ground.”
Brought up in an evangelical home by a devout mother and a highly intelligent father, Browning, after a period of youthful skepticism and rebellion, was to turn the great combined powers of his penetrating intellect and brilliant imagination to the defense of the Christian faith, and to expressing again and again in his poetry the centrality of Christ, whom he adored as very God and very man, in whom he found the key to all this unintelligible world, as he has the aged Apostle John say in “A Death in the Desert:”
I say, the acknowledgement of God in Christ,
Accepted by thy reason, solves for thee
All questions in the earth and out of it
And has so far advanced thee to be wise.
And he ends that poem with the heart-wrung cry:
“Call Christ, then, the illimitable God,
Browning’s poetic method is generally that of the dramatist, communicating ideas through his characters objectively rather than directly and didactically in his own person. However, in 1850, influenced perhaps by his wife’s earlier prompting to speak out unequivocally in his own voice some of his great convictions, he published a pair of poems on the two supreme holy days in the Church’s calendar, “Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day.”
It is unfortunate that Browning’s poetry in general and this work in particular are so little known among ministers and theological students in our time. There is no poet of his stature more fitted to challenge the indifferent, to strengthen the faltering, to guide and quicken the bewildered. He sounds no uncertain trumpet. And in the hands of the intelligent preacher, his instrument can sound a rallying call to those who halt between two opinions.
ONE STORMY NIGHT
“Christmas-Eve” is a first-person narrative. It purports to give us an account of an experience the poet had one stormy night. Whimsey and fantasy are combined with an almost Dickensian realism. In dream-like sequence the poet is transported from a little Nonconformist, Congregational Chapel to the great basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome, and from thence to a lecture-hall in Göttingen—and in these three experiences, so dramatically juxtaposed, we see represented three very different approaches to the mystery of the Incarnation: the evangelical (albeit here in its most primitive and least attractive form); the ritualistic or liturgical (in its most majestic display); and finally the rationalist (in its most pathetic and sterile self-assurance).
It was a cold, rainy night that imagined Christmas-Eve when the poet made his way to the lath-and-plaster entry of the ugly little Zion Chapel. The gathering congregation pressed by him, somewhat contemptuous of the stranger. Browning sketches a few of the characters with the skill of a cartoonist. There was a “fat, weary woman, panting and bewildered;” a “little old-faced sister-turned-mother” with a sickly babe; “a female something” with lips too white and streaks of red on each hollow cheek; “a tall yellow man, like the Penitent Thief, with his jaw bound up in a handkerchief.” Each gave him the same questioning glance, as if he were a spy among the elect. He—
… soon had enough of it,
The hot smell and the human noises,
… the pig-of-lead-like pressure
Of the preaching man’s immense stupidity …
pouring his doctrine forth, handling the Word with a fine irreverence, making a patchwork of chapters and texts in severance. But the flock “sat on, divinely flustered.”
Eventually the poet could stand no more and escaped from the stifling atmosphere of the little chapel. Outside there was a lull in the storm and a moon struggling in its cloud-prison. He walked on, his mind full of the scene he had left, “the placid flock, the pastor vociferant,” reflecting on the pathos of the mangled truth, the text-proving zeal of the earnest but ignorant preacher. “The zeal was good and the aspiration,” but to one of his trained intelligence the fantastic allegorizing was intolerable, proving “by Pharaoh’s baker’s dream of Baskets Three the doctrine of the Trinity.”
He began to think it better to worship God in Nature. And across the night sky, he saw “a moon-rainbow, vast and perfect, from heaven to heaven extending.” All at once he looked up with terror.
He was there,
He himself with his human air.
But the poet could see only the back of the mystical Figure of the Lord as he passed. No face, only “a sweepy garment, vast and white” with a hem that he could recognize.
And he realized that the Lord had been there in the little chapel as he had promised to be “where two or three should meet and pray.” And he pressed toward the vesture’s hem and cried out:
“But not so, Lord! It cannot be
That thou, indeed, art leaving me—
Me, that have despised thy friends!…
Folly and pride o’ercame my heart.
Our best is bad, nor bears thy test;
Still, it should be our very best.
I thought it best that you, the spirit,
Be worshipped in spirit and in truth,
And in beauty, as even we require it—
Not in the forms burlesque, uncouth …
I have looked to thee from the beginning …
But if thou leavest me—”
The whole wondrous Face turned upon him full then, and, caught up as it were in the vesture’s amplitude, he is upborne, yet walking too. And the Lord seems to say to him:
“God who registers the cup
Of mere cold water, for his sake
To a disciple rendered up,
Disdains not his own thirst to slake
At the poorest love was ever offered.”
And because the poet’s heart was “with true love trembling at the brim,” he is allowed to follow the great Figure across the world. They stop before the marvel of St. Peter’s in Rome,
The whole Basilica alive!
Men in the chancel, body and nave,
Men on the pillars’ architrave,
Men on the statues, men on the tombs …
All famishing in expectation
Of the main altar’s consummation.
For see, for see, the rapturous moment
Approaches, and earth’s best endowment
Blends with heaven’s; the taper-fires
Pant up, the winding brazen spires
Heave loftier …
The incense-gaspings …
Suspire in clouds; the organ blatant
Holds his breath …
At the silver bell’s shrill tinkling …
Earth breaks up, time drops away,
In flows heaven, with its new day
Of endless life, when He who trod,
Very man and very God,
This earth in weakness shame and pain,
Dying the death whose signs remain
Up yonder on the accursed tree,—
Shall come again, no more to be
Of captivity the thrall,
But the one God, All in all,
King of kings, and Lord of lords,
As his servant John received the words,
“I died, and live forevermore!”
But the poet is left outside the door, meditating on the magnificent display of the Christmas mass. He recalls the errors and perversities under Rome’s yoke which had brought on the Reformation, but above the error he sees the love, here too amid the beauty, pomp and pageantry, just as it was in the unsightly little chapel. But in each, while his heart was warmed by the human devotion, his intellect was left unsatisfied, and he longs for something that will meet the need of the whole man.
TEMPER OF RATIONALISM
He is caught up again in the vesture’s fold and left alone at the entrance to a lecture-hall in Göttingen where people are sitting expectantly. There is a buzzing, and “a hawk-nosed, high-cheekboned Professor” ascends to the lecture-desk. He utters a kind of “cough-preludious” and stands, surveying his audience “with a wan pure look, well nigh celestial.” He bows, arranges his notes, pushes higher his spectacles, and begins his lecture.
Since, where could be a fitter time
For tracing backward to its prime
This Christianity, this lake,
This reservoir, whereat we slake
From one or other bank our thirst?
So, he proposed inquiring first
Into the various sources whence
This myth of Christ is derivable;
Demanding from the evidence,
(Since plainly no such life was livable)
How these phenomena should class?
Whether ’twere best opine Christ was,
Or never was at all …
’Twas obviously as well to take
The popular story—understanding
How the ineptitude of the time,
And the penman’s prejudice, expanding
Fact into fable fit for the clime,
Had, by slow and sure degrees, translated it
Into this myth …
and left for residuum,
A Man! a right true man, however,
Whose work was worthy a man’s endeavor,
Work that gave warrant almost sufficient
To his disciples, for rather believing
He was just omnipotent and omniscient …
When the lecturer came to a pause, coughing and clearing his throat, the poet took the opportunity to escape. Outside once again, he meditates on the way in which both Dessenters and Papists set the pure air seething; one, by his “daily fare’s vulgarity, its gust of broken meat and garlic;” the other with “the frankincense’s fuming and vapors of the candle starlike.”
But the critic leaves no air to poison;
Pumps out with ruthless ingenuity
Atom by atom, and leaves you—vacuity.
The poet ponders in a long passage the faulty logic of trying to retain the reconstructed figure of a man as the greatest teacher and best of men who yet made such tremendous claims, monstrous if untrue. And the poet asks a significant question:
What is the point where himself lays stress?
Does the precept run “Believe in good,
In justice, truth, now understood
For the first time?”—or, “Believe in me,
Who lived and died, yet essentially
Am Lord of Life?”
There seems to be only a ghost of love in the lecture-room.
And when the Critic had done his best,
And the pearl of price, at reason’s test,
Lay dust and ashes levigable
On the Professor’s lecture-table …
He bids us when we least expect it
Take back our faith, if it be not just whole,
Yet a pearl indeed …
“Go home and venerate the myth
I thus have experimented with—
This man, continue to adore him,
Rather than all who went before him,
And all who followed after!”
This sort of logic reminds the poet of boys riding a cockhorse, really carrying what they say carries them. It is the sort of a system which is ultimately powerless to support itself.
For some time then he sat brooding over the various modes of man’s belief, sure that there must be one true way and wondering if God would bring all wanderers back to a single track.
IN THE HUMBLE CHAPEL
Suddenly he finds himself in the little Dissenters’ chapel again, as if he had never left it (as probably he had not actually!). The same simple and rather ignorant people are there: the sallow man with the wen, the old fat woman, the girl with the painted cheeks. The preacher was speaking through his nose, the thought lacked theological meaning and logic, and the English was ungrammatic.
But now he concludes that it is better to drink the Water of Life even when mingled with taints of earth.
For the preacher’s merit or demerit,
It were to be wished the flaws were fewer
In the earthen vessel, holding treasure
Which lies as safe in a golden ewer,
But the main thing is, does it hold good measure?
Heaven soon sets right all other matters!
His heart goes out compassionately, not alone to the little Dissenting minister, but to the Pope, when he may weary of “posturings and petticoatings.” But his most moving prayer is reserved for the Göttingen professor:
Nor may the Professor forego its peace
At Göttingen presently, when, in the dusk
Of his life, if his cough, as I fear, should increase …
When thicker and thicker the darkness fills
The world through his misty spectacles,
And he gropes for something more substantial
Than a fable, myth or personification,—
May Christ do for him what no mere man shall,
And stand confessed as the God of salvation!
Here, in this poem, Browning seems to be suggesting by his usual method of indirection that the one eternal God, incarnate in his Son, deserves the best of which our minds and hearts are capable—worship in beauty and truth and holiness and sincerity. Nothing less than the highest upreach of the human spirit is worthy of him who gave himself for our redemption. But, at the same time, no advance in the high and holy arts of worship should blind us to the simple and fervent devotion in the hearts of the lowliest of his people; nor should it permit us to be satisfied with the loftiest liturgical splendor apart from the simple truths of the Gospel, salvation by faith in the Son of God and a passionate love for him.
James Wesley Ingles is Professor of English and Head of the English Department at Eastern Baptist College. He is the author of five novels: The Silver Trumpet, Fair Are the Meadows, Blind Clamour, A Woman of Samaria, and Test of Valor. He holds the A.B. from Wheaton College, Th.B. from Princeton Theological Seminary, M.A. from Princeton University, and D.D. from Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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