In 1850 Browning published a pair of poems on the two great festival days of the church year which memorialize two cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith—the Incarnation and the Resurrection—between which the Cross hangs suspended, as it were, and by which alone that awesome sacrifice achieves its true significance.
These two poems are said to be among the very few in which the great poet spoke in his own voice without his usual dramatic disguise. The first of these, it is true, is rather clearly direct (cf. “Browning’s ‘Christmas Eve’ ” in the Dec. 7, 1959 issue, CHRISTIANITY TODAY). It considered the evangelical, the liturgical, and the rationalistic approaches to the doctrine of the Incarnation—three basic movements within the church in Browning’s time as in ours.
The second poem is less direct, using the techniques of a dramatic dialogue and a monologue combined. It is not so clearly related to the main theme of the day of Resurrection as is the first to the Christmas theme. Browning here seems to be concerned with the problem of belief in the biblical realm of spiritual reality and also with its corollary, the tremendous responsibility imposed by the Christian faith upon one who does believe. The poem, therefore, has an existential implication peculiarly relevant to the contemporary pattern of thought.
“How very hard it is to be a Christian!” the first speaker in the poetic dialogue bursts out, and the dramatic statement recurs as a sort of refrain to the end of the poem. Whether the dialogue is intended to be a discussion between this man, possibly representing the poet who questions, who feels the burden of the mystery, the difficulty of combining a sincere and earnest faith with a correspondingly sincere manner of life, and another speaker who lives more comfortably “in trusting ease”; or whether it actually represents an interior debate within the mind of the poet between an earlier, more confident faith and a new, more carefully examined conviction, we cannot be sure. Some recent critics are inclined to the latter interpretation, seeing in it a similarity to the debate in Tennyson’s “The Two Voices.” It seems to me, however, that the debate is between one who feels the basic problem to be one of belief in the revelation and the other who feels the greater problem to be the necessity of acting upon the belief.
In any case, Browning, like Tennyson after the loss of Hallam, had reason at the time of the writing of this poem to re-examine earnestly the reality of his faith. A few days after the birth of his son, word had come of the death of his beloved mother who had been such a formative influence in the development of his Christian experience. The intense joy of the birth was clouded by the severe grief of his loss. It is out of this dramatic conflict of emotions that he writes these poems.
In “Christmas-Eve” he had considered the basis for and the nature of the corporate worship of the church. Now, in “Easter-Day” he is examining the nature and reality of a man’s personal relationship to the personal revelation of God in Christ.
THE PROBLEM OF BELIEF
The dialogue discusses the two basic problems confronting the believer in the Christian revelation. First is the problem of belief itself.
“Could I believe once thoroughly,
The rest were simple,”
says the second speaker.
“Prove to me, only that the least
Command of God is God’s indeed,
And what injunction shall I need
To pay obedience?”
He admits that
“You must mix some uncertainty
With faith, if you would have faith be,”
but he would like to “conceive the Creator’s reign as based upon exacter laws.” God should “geometrize.” And yet he admits also that “a scientific faith’s absurd.” He would “rest content with a mere probability, but probable”—the chance lying clearly on one side. Then he would not find it hard to be a Christian. To renounce the world would not be then a mighty hardship. He expresses an optimistic faith:
“While, when the scene of life shall shift
And the gay heart be taught to ache,
As sorrows and privations take
The place of joy,—the thing that seems
Mere misery, under human schemes,
Becomes, regarded by the light
Of love, as very near or quite
As good a gift as joy before.”
But the questioner, like the troubled Job, is not satisfied with this. “You know,” he says,
“The all-stupendous tale,—that Birth,
That Life, that Death! And all, the earth
Shuddered at,—all, the heavens grew black
Rather than see; …
all took place, you think,
Only to give our joys a zest,
And prove our sorrows for the best?
We differ, then! Were I, still pale
And heartstruck at the dreadful tale,
Waiting to hear God’s voice declare
What horror followed for my share,
As implicated in the deed,
Apart from other sins,—concede
That if He blacked out in a blot
My brief life’s pleasantness, ’t were not
So very disproportionate.”
And, in the light of that stupendous event, what comfort for the believer? Salvation, true. But how can he be thereafter at ease in Zion? As T. S. Eliot says, “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” The problem has shifted from that of belief to that of the action required by belief. Perhaps God might save, “at that day’s price, the impure in their impurities,”
“But there be certain words, broad, plain,
Uttered again and yet again,
Hard to mistake or overgloss—
Announcing this world’s gain for loss,
And bidding us reject the same …
How do you counsel in the case?”
The second speaker replies,
“I’d take, by all means, in your place,
The safe side, since it so appears:
Deny myself, a few brief years …”
The first speaker objects that this might be to “renounce life for the sake of death,” and he has proved again “how hard it is to be a Christian!”
And then he launches into an account of a vision he had had one Easter dawn three years before. He was crossing the common near the chapel mentioned in “Christmas-Eve,” and was meditating on the ideas which the two have been discussing in the dialogue. He had asked himself
“Fairly and frankly what might be
That History, that Faith, to me
—Me there—not me in some domain
Built up and peopled by my brain …
But my faith there, or none at all.
‘How were my case, now, did I fall
Dead here, this minute—should I lie
Faithful or faithless?’ ”
He was somewhat startled by the sharp intensity of the idea, and by the imaginative realization of it. Common sense reassured him that, if anyone was a Christian, he certainly could be so considered. He wished God’s kingdom to come. But then his complacency was shattered: he had a vision of the Judgment Day. The flaming end of the world is described in poetry of great power and intensity, and the awful pageant strangely resembles a holocaust such as man’s proud folly could well release upon the earth in our time.
“… I found
Suddenly all the midnight round
One fire … one vast rack
Of ripples infinite and black,
From sky to sky. Sudden there went,
Like horror and astonishment,
A fierce vindictive scribble of red
Quick flame across, as if one said …
Burn it!’ ”
The great conflagration spread over all heaven, and on every side the earth was lit. Vast pillars of cloud exposed “the utmost walls of time, about to tumble in and end the world.”
“There, stood I, found and fixed, I knew,
Choosing the world.”
He began to prepare excuses. God had made him sensitive to beauty, and it was hard to renounce the cup of earthly pleasures.
“A final belch of fire like blood
Overbroke all heaven in one flood
Of doom. Then fire was sky, and sky
Fire, and both, one brief ecstasy,
Then beside him there is a voice:
“ ‘Life is done,
Time ends, Eternity’s begun,
And thou art judged forevermore.’ ”
The awful vision of the flaming sky had passed. It now stretched drear and empty. It was the last watch of the night. He shook off the vision as a mere dream, a nightmare.
He had almost regained his composure when against the graying sky he saw a figure clothed in black. It is Christ the Judge. (One thinks of the figure in T. S. Eliot’s “Gerontion,” “Christ the tiger,” no longer “to be eaten in whispers.” Now “us he devours.”) And the word of judgment is pronounced.
“ ‘This world,
This finite life, thou hast preferred,
In disbelief of God’s plain word,
To heaven and to infinity,
Here the probation was for thee,
To show thy soul the earthly
Mixed with heavenly it must choose betwixt.
The earthly joys lay palpable,—
A taint, in each, distinct as well;
The heavenly flitted, faint and rare,
Above them, but as truly were
Taintless, so, in their nature, best.
Thy choice was earth: thou didst attest
’T was fitter spirit should subserve
The flesh, than flesh refine to nerve
Beneath the spirit’s play.
… Thou art shut
Out of the heaven of spirit; glut
Thy sense upon the world: ’t is thine
Forever—take it!’ ”
At first this seems an incredible joy, no penalty indeed. Earth’s exquisite treasures of wonder and delight for him? Earth’s endless resources all for him? But the judge points out that he has been satisfied with “one rose out of a summer’s opulence” flung over the Eden-barrier whence he is excluded. The earth was but the ante-chamber to eternal joys.
“ ‘All partial beauty was a pledge
Of beauty in its plenitude:
But since the pledge sufficed thy mood,
Retain it! plenitude be theirs
Who looked above!’ ”
The narrator now has doubts and switches from natural to artistic beauty—man’s achievements, the statuary of the Greek, Italy’s painting.
This too is granted. But the judge points out that man is like a lizard breathing for ages in a rocky niche when outside his dark little vault is all the glory of a world of light. And as a man might break with a mallet the lizard’s chambered rock, so “has God abolished at a blow this world wherein his saints were pent,” and set them free into the spiritual world for which their souls had yearned.
The speaker then shifts to the pursuit of wisdom, conceding “mind is best.” He would force his mind “through circling sciences, philosophies and histories,” through “verse, fining to music.” But even as he speaks, he anticipates the judge’s answer, and he sickens with the realization of how earthbound he has become. The goal itself has become part of the ruin.
Then the idea that is central in Browning’s religious thought breaks upon the mind of the lone watcher of that Easter dawn. It is Love that is eternal.
“I let the world go, and take love!
I mind how love repaired all ill,
Cured wrong, soothed grief, made earth amends
With parents, brothers, children, friends!”
Love is seen as the highest good, the supreme value. He prays for leave to love only. Then the Figure rises above him, and he falls prone at His feet. “Love is the best?” says the dread voice. “ ’Tis somewhat late!”
… “ ‘Thy soul
Still shrunk from him who made thee whole,
Still set deliberate aside
His love!—Now take love! Well betide
Thy tardy conscience! Haste to take
The show of love for the name’s sake,
Remembering every moment who,
Beside creating thee unto
These ends, and these for thee, was said
To undergo death in thy stead
In flesh like thine: so ran the tale,
What doubt in thee could countervail
Belief in it? Upon the ground
That in the story had been found
Too much love! How could God love so?’ ”
Stricken, the narrator cries out his deepest need.
“ ‘Thou Love of God! Or let me die,
Or grant what shall seem heaven almost!
With darkness, hunger, toil, distress:
Be all the earth a wilderness!
Only let me go on, go on,
Still hoping ever and anon
To reach one eve the Better Land!’
“Then did the form expand, expand—
I knew him through the dread disguise
As the whole God within his eyes
The Judge is seen as the Saviour. The poet rises to his feet.
And when he lived again, the day was breaking, the gray plain silvered with dew. For a time he could not decide whether the experience had been a true vision or a dream induced by Northern Lights. But in any case, he came back to earth-consciousness a different man.
“And so I live, you see,
Go through the world, try, prove, reject,
Prefer, still struggling to effect
My warfare; happy that I can
Be crossed and thwarted as a man,
Not left in God’s contempt apart,
With ghastly smooth life, dead at heart.
Thank God, no paradise stands barred
To entry, and I find it hard
To be a Christian, as I said!”
There still may be times of defeat and discouragement.
“But Easter-Day breaks! But
Christ rises! Mercy every way
Is infinite,—and who can say?”
RESURRECTION AND JUDGMENT
So ends the strange poem that strangely, and yet not so strangely, links the day of Resurrection and a day of Judgment. It would almost seem to be a poetic homily on Paul’s injunction to the Colossian Christians, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” It is a call to discover a true hierarchy of values.
Misread, the poem might seem to be a call to a Puritan austerity, to a sort of asceticism which was not actually Browning’s position at all. In his great characterization of Fra Lippo Lippi, he expressed the importance of seeing and feeling all the beauty God has made through the senses he has given to man.
“… You’ve seen the world—
The beauty and the wonder and the power,
The shapes of things, their colors, lights and shades,
Changes, surprises,—and God made it all!
For what? Do you feel thankful, ay or no,
For this fair town’s face, yonder river’s line,
The mountain round it and the sky above,
Much more the figures of man, woman, child,
These are the frame to? What is it all about?
To be passed over, despised? Or dwelt upon,
God, the supreme Artist, is not honored or glorified if we walk blindly through the gallery of his glories unmoved. Certainly, to be sensual is to be unspiritual. The carnal mind is enmity against God. The secular mind is also the enemy of the spirit. But to be sensuous, (a distinction in terms that we desperately need to preserve, although it is not always observed,) to be sensuous, to live richly in and through the senses, is not necessarily to be unspiritual. It is a problem of relative values, of maintaining a hierarchy, a divinely ordained order in which the senses serve the mind, and the mind serves the spirit. And it is this problem of a proper scale of values, of giving first place to the Brings of the spirit, which makes it “hard to be a Christian” once one has settled the problem of belief. And this is the basic theme of the poem.
The highest value in the scale is seen to be what Paul said it was—Love—Love in all its mysterious and beautiful relationships, with its source and its completion in the love of God revealed perfectly in the One who lived and died and rose again, and who calls us to live in the spirit through his redeeming and sustaining grace.
Jacob J. Vellenga served on the National Board of Administration of the United Presbyterian Church from 1948–54. Since 1958 he has served the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. as Associate Executive. He holds the A.B. degree from Monmouth College, the B.D. from Pittsburgh-Xenia Seminary, Th.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and D.D. from Monmouth College, Illinois.
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