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Browning's Christmas-Eve andEaster-Day. Formal Verse Satire and the Donnean Influence Barbara Ryerse Browning's poem Christmas-Eve andEaster-Day was published in the spring of 1850, and although critics from early to late have regarded this work as an exceptional piece within the overall dimensions of the canon, there is no clear consensus ofopinion as to why this should be the case, or how it should be categorised in terms ofgenre. No commentary was ever offered by Browning himselfto satisfy a reader's curiosity and already in 1891, Mrs. Sutherland Orr was voicing her own sense ofbewilderment: "This double poem stands indeed so much alone in Mr. Browning's work that we are tempted to ask ourselves to what circumstance or impulse, external or internal, it has been due [. . .]" (186). While answers to Mrs. Orr's question frequently make note ofthe influence ofElizabeth Barrett Browning, both before and after her marriage to the poet, as well as the trauma Browning suffered following the birth ofhis son and the death ofhis mother in March 1849, these factors, crucial as they may be, are likely to obscure the poem's dramatic effects and the strategic importance ofa composite structure that holds together an unusual admixture of stylistic features in the rendering ofreligious experience. More often than not, reviews ofthe poem reveal deep concerns over its motley effect or the incongruity ofserious religious themes delivered in comic or satiric tones. Yet irregularities ofthis kind can be seen in a different light when they are placed within the context ofmethods derived from the ancient Roman saturawith its root meaning ofmedley or mixture, and which have gradually evolved into what is now known in literary terms as Victorian Review (2003)49 B. Ryerse the genre of formal verse satire. It is true that readers and critics in Browning's time and later were not likely to be looking to an obscure classical genre to unravel the intricacies ofa mid-century poem. Victorian poets themselves were not much concerned at all with satirical writings, and, in fact, very few versions oforiginal formal verse satire had been produced by English satirists through the years. Deterred by its confusing historical roots and the tightly structured format ofthe genre, they preferred instead to give vent to their satirical spleen through imitations or adaptations ofthe original design. On the other hand, Browning's own extensive knowledge of traditional forms enabled him to draw at will on the literature ofthe past to fulfil his own poetic intentions, and when he began writing Cbristmas-Eve andEaster-Day early in 1850, at a time when the religious uncertainties that followed from his emotional crisis ofthe previous spring were heavy on his mind, he could turn to a ready and familiar precedent in the late sixteenth-century formal verse Satyres ofJohn Donne. And, indeed, an accumulation ofevidence, biographical as well as literary, suggests that Browning's own creative endeavour owes much to the model provided for him by the youngJohn Donne, both as an individual seeking truth in the midst ofdifficult choices affecting his spiritual life, and as a Christian satirist. It is an accepted fact, for example, that the Satyreswere written during a time when Donne was deeply involved in the intellectual inquiry that led to his turning from Catholicism to the Anglican Church: a "difficult and dangerous process ofconversion" which, Herbert Grierson tells us, "was accompanied by deep-rooted conflict and soul-torment that was never entirely dispelled"(xvi). Yet the five verse Satyreswith their rollicking good humour remain a testimony to the courage and optimism ofa poet who could enliven the graver moral aspects ofhis search for truth by threading his way imaginatively through the evils and foibles ofa contemporary world where both kings and fools become the target ofhis mockery and wit. Against this kind ofbackground the satiric domain in Christmas-Eve andEaster-Day loses much ofits jarring effect. Rather, it indicates that Browning, like Donne before 50volume 29 number 1 Browning's Christmas-Eve andEaster-Day him, discovered in the conventions and techniques offormal verse satire a viable method ofexamining, however obliquely, questions relating to his Christian faith. Furthermore, it is clear that Christmas-Eve andEaster...


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