Christmas Eve by Robert Browning

Christmas Eve

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subjects: Poetry

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Description

“Christmas-Eve” is an account of a vision in which the narrator is taken to a Nonconformist church, to St. Peter’s in Rome, to a Göttingen lecture theatre where a practitioner of the Higher criticism is discoursing on the Christian myth, and back to the Nonconformist church.


37 pages, with a reading time of ~0.75 hours (9,366 words), and first published in 1850. This DRM-Free edition published by epubBooks, .

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Excerpt

I

Out of the little chapel I burst
  Into the fresh night-air again.
Five minutes full, I waited first
  In the doorway, to escape the rain
That drove in gusts down the common's centre
  At the edge of which the chapel stands,
Before I plucked up heart to enter.
  Heaven knows how many sorts of hands
Reached past me, groping for the latch
Of the inner door that hung on catch
More obstinate the more they fumbled,
  Till, giving way at last with a scold
Of the crazy hinge, in squeezed or tumbled
  One sheep more to the rest in fold,
And left me irresolute, standing sentry
In the sheepfold's lath-and-plaster entry,
Six feet long by three feet wide,
Partitioned off from the vast inside--
  I blocked up half of it at least.
No remedy; the rain kept driving.
  They eyed me much as some wild beast,
That congregation, still arriving,
Some of them by the main road, white
A long way past me into the night,
Skirting the common, then diverging;
Not a few suddenly emerging
From the common's self thro' the paling-gaps
--They house in the gravel-pits perhaps,
Where the road stops short with its safeguard border
Of lamps, as tired of such disorder;--
But the most turned in yet more abruptly
  From a certain squalid knot of alleys,
Where the town's bad blood once slept corruptly,
  Which now the little chapel rallies
And leads into day again,--its priestliness
Lending itself to hide their beastliness
So cleverly (thanks in part to the mason),
And putting so cheery a whitewashed face on
Those neophytes too much in lack of it,
  That, where you cross the common as I did,
  And meet the party thus presided,
"Mount Zion" with Love-lane at the back of it,
They front you as little disconcerted
As, bound for the hills, her fate averted,
And her wicked people made to mind him,
Lot might have marched with Gomorrah behind him.

II

Well, from the road, the lanes or the common,
In came the flock: the fat weary woman,
Panting and bewildered, down-clapping
  Her umbrella with a mighty report,
Grounded it by me, wry and flapping,
  A wreck of whalebones; then, with snort,
Like a startled horse, at the interloper
(Who humbly knew himself improper,
But could not shrink up small enough)
--Round to the door, and in,--the gruff
Hinge's invariable scold
Making my very blood run cold.
Prompt in the wake of her, up-pattered
On broken clogs, the many-tattered
Little old-faced peaking sister-turned-mother
Of the sickly babe she tried to smother
Somehow up, with its spotted face,
From the cold, on her breast, the one warm place;
She too must stop, wring the poor ends dry
Of a draggled shawl, and add thereby
Her tribute to the door-mat, sopping
Already from my own clothes' dropping,
Which yet she seemed to grudge I should stand on:
  Then, stooping down to take off her pattens,
  She bore them defiantly, in each hand one,
Planted together before her breast
And its babe, as good as a lance in rest.
  Close on her heels, the dingy satins
Of a female something, past me flitted,
  With lips as much too white, as a streak
  Lay far too red on each hollow cheek;
And it seemed the very door-hinge pitied
All that was left of a woman once,
Holding at least its tongue for the nonce.
Then a tall yellow man, like the Penitent Thief,
With his jaw bound up in a handkerchief,
And eyelids screwed together tight,
Led himself in by some inner light.
And, except from him, from each that entered,
  I got the same interrogation--
"What, you the alien, you have ventured
  "To take with us, the elect, your station?
"A carer for none of it, a Gallio!"--
  Thus, plain as print, I read the glance
At a common prey, in each countenance
  As of huntsman giving his hounds the tallyho.
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.[1]
There was no standing it much longer.
"Good folks," thought I, as resolve grew stronger,
"This way you perform the Grand-Inquisitor
"When the weather sends you a chance visitor?
"You are the men, and wisdom shall die with you,
"And none of the old Seven Churches vie with you!