- 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 Atheneum 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 Germ. William Michael Rossetti, the reviewer, set up a barrage of verbiage 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 diffidence is necessary.”2 After struggling with the ratios of style, conception, appropriateness in Browning, he confesses to failure: “We have been desirous 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 prolixity 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 conceptualize 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 imputation 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 decorum 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 [End Page 485] Germ review to reframe 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, the etymology of the word signifying wandering out of bounds, authorizes critical vagrancy. 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 industrialization 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 genre: eschatological 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...