Monday, December 21, 2009

A little spare the night I loved, \ And hold it solemn to the past. - Christmas and context

I have committed a venial literary sin and am duly chastened.

I read Robert Browning's long poem Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day (1850) in part just because I wanted to filch Christmasy bits for the blog.  I found nothing, absolutely nothing, and instead read a long, dull poem in the Victorian Faith and Doubt genre.

A traveller, escaping from a Christmas Eve storm, enters a little chapel.  He may or may not be a religious skeptic, but he is contemptuous of the small-town church and sermon.  He falls asleep, or has a mystical experience, in which he is transported by Christ to Rome, and then to Germany, and learns to not be so rude in other people's churchs.  Or something like that.  Here's a good description, of a woman entering the chapel:

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 (47-52)

Pretty good, but not really very Christmasy, is it?  And most of the poem is not descriptive but argumentative.

I was surprised to find so much about Christmas in Tennyson's In Memoram (also 1850).  Three Christmas scenes provide one of the few concrete structural devices in a mostly abstractly structured poem.  From the third Christmas:

The time draws near the birth of Christ;
  The moon is hid, the night is still;
  A single church below the hill
Is pealing, folded in the mist (Stanza 104).

Which is nice enough, I guess, but treating a chunk of this poem about grief and loss as Christmas decoration seems misguided.  This particular Christmas is the third since the loss of Tennyson's best friend, so the theme is acceptance:

Let cares that petty shadows cast,
  By which our lives are chiefly proved,
  A little spare the night I loved,
And hold it solemn to the past. (105)

Not exactly cheery, but suitably serious.  Even useful to this reader, but useless out of context.

As a result, readers of Wuthering Expectations will have to make due, tomorrow, with a sculpture of Santa with a possum in his pocket.

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