Christmas is a time for love. There are perhaps as many kinds of love as there are kinds of people, but love, in essence, is a celebration of faith and hope and charity. The Babe born in the manger is the ultimate symbol of that love and Christmas its sublime celebration. In literary terms, from St. Luke to Cervantes to Charlie Brown, love is the Light that shines in the darkness.
Throughout this wondrous season, I offer to readers some poems of love to warm the heart on a cold winter night; and I present some wondrous lyrics about a little town that became the sign of divine love.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a child poet who became an accomplished and acclaimed adult poet in England and throughout the world. She lived from 1806 to 1861, during a time known as the Victorian era.
The Victorians and their era have been sorely misunderstood and malignantly interpreted. The Victorians, on the whole, were intensely logical, organized, industrious and prudent. They were equally sensual and spiritual, fervent in thought as well as in desire.
The Victorians, as a society, upheld morals that were known as “virtues,” not “values,” a term that connotes the current ribald relativism and the popular watered-down wisdom that have pretty much obliterated common sense. As individuals, the Victorians lusted after virtues just as much as they condemned lusting after vices.
They were not hypocrites. They knew precisely (perhaps too precisely) what sin was and they knew precisely when, how, where and maybe even why — they’d sinned. And they sincerely prayed to the Almighty for forgiveness of their sins while they hoped, with a passionate heart, that the devil did not get to them . . . again!
As a Victorian woman, Elizabeth Barrett Browning might not have been any more or less passionate than any other adult female of her time. It was the path that the expression of her passions took which fundamentally made the difference in this woman of enormous will and elevated inspiration. With Browning, her passion became her poetry, and her poetry was profound.
She suffered from various physical illnesses, including tuberculosis. These maladies began during her adolescence and persisted throughout her lifetime. Her frail constitution and her addiction to the medicine, laudanum (a common but unintended consequence at the time), became catalysts for her creativity rather than detractions and distractions from her overall quality of thought.
It is mind-boggling for anyone today to accurately assess the cataclysms, both personal and poetic, that this woman underwent to prevail over what is now called “family-of-origin” problems (or “issues”) and to contend with her poor health. She was undoubtedly sustained by her overwhelming and overarching love for the writer, Robert Browning, whom she wed. In poetry and in life, he was one of her greatest admirers. To say that these two people, poets, no less, shared a communion of their souls is to sound trite. Their affinity was so close that reputedly they spoke of love to each other only through written verse.
Categorized a Romantic writer, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was the real thing. She did not suffer in order to write about her experiences; nor did she take off like a comet in the literary firmament, only to burn out just as quickly, like John Keats (who was also a “lunger”) or Lord Byron. (“She Walks in Beauty” is about all that I can take of milord.)
Mrs. Browning found her muse with her husband who, likewise, received his inspiration from the woman he called “My Little Portuguese.” Her 44 love sonnets that comprise the volume, “Sonnets from the Portuguese,” were so-named by Robert Browning for commercial appeal, not for romantic cachet. Elizabeth had deemed those poems too personal for publication; but her husband knew a good volume of poetry when he saw one.
Robert had already granted to his beloved the nickname from the Portuguese. He then convinced his wife to change her chosen title from “Sonnets from the Bosnians” to “Sonnets from the Portuguese.” With no offense intended toward the Bosnians, I am forever thankful for that editorial change!
One of the most famous and widely read of the Sonnets is Number 43, “How do I love thee?” I prefer Number 38:
First time he kissed me, he but only kissed
The fingers of this hand wherewith I write,
And ever since it grew more clean and white . . .
Slow to world-greetings . . . quick with its “Oh, list,”
When the angels speak. A ring of amethyst
I could not wear here plainer to my sight,
Than that first kiss. The second passed in height
The first, and sought the forehead, and half missed,
Half falling on the hair. O beyond meed!
That was the chrism of love, which love’s own crown,
With sanctifying sweetness, did precede.
The third, upon my lips, was folded down
In perfect, purple state! since when, indeed,
I have been proud and said, “My Love, my own.”
I have been in love with Sonnet 29 by William Shakespeare since I was fifteen years of age. The calm tone of sincerity, the elegant simplicity of the avowal, and the quiet drama of the speaker, pulling himself up by his bootstraps out of an exterior world that feels completely at odds with his inner world – to at last achieve integration and resolution at the ending (a quintessentially Shakespearean “state”) -- these elements make this sonnet one of the best of the Bard.
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
Phillips Brooks was born in Boston in 1835. He was descended from a long familial line of illustrious fame. Yet when reading his comments about himself, I got the distinct impression that he did not believe that he could or would ever measure up to his predecessors, one of whom was the founder of Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Indeed, he sounded as if he would not measure up to anything!
His approach to life was nonetheless measured. It was in a meek but heartfelt way that Brooks pointed his direction toward teaching. He graduated from Harvard University in 1855 and then worked as an instructor of Latin. He was, however, fired, and the event only added to an overall sense of failure. This state of mind was then accompanied by apathy. He wrote, “I do not know what will become of me and I do not care much . . .”
He expressed the wish to be fifteen years of age again, perhaps to regain the chance to bend his vibrant youthful energies toward a different direction. He stated, “I believe I might become a stunning man: but somehow or other I do not seem in the way to come to much now.”
This Bostonian of fine pedigree thereafter studied at the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia and he became an ordained priest. In 1862, he was named the rector at Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia. There, Brooks preached for seven years and he realized his greatness as a man of faith and of patriotism. He might have been largely unaware of the magnificence within him. It was a gentle power that quietly but inexorably increased the magnificence of the Church of the Holy Trinity. An even greater majesty of spirit grew among the parishioners. This blessed development would likely have deemed by Brooks as the work of the Lord; he, Phillips, the humble servant, merely fulfilled the will of his Maker.
Brooks later brought his inspirational guidance to Trinity Church in Boston, directing architects and artists to create an architectural masterpiece. In some ways, he was not unlike Abbot Suger in France, circa 1100, who designed, improved, and re-created “his” Gothic cathedral at Saint-Denis.
Phillips Brooks was a huge bear of a man, well over six feet in height. Photographs show a large, handsome face with big, beautiful eyes of relentless but solemn intensity. To say he was driven might underestimate the power inside the man, not that such a force was rash or rude or reckless. His innate strength and aura were expressed through determination and persistence that demanded from him glorious achievement of grand deeds in the service of God. His gentleness and generosity of spirit produced many faithful words of hope-filled consolation and deeds of intended kindness, gifts that would come down the centuries to this day, a day of flagging faith and dimming hopes and dwindling charity amidst deeds of intended savagery.
In 1891 Brooks was elected the sixth Bishop of Massachusetts, a position that formed the pinnacle of his life. The work of the Lord was the focus of the life of this man who did indeed become, in his once-despondent words, “a stunning man.” He succeeded in countless ways along the paths of faith and hope and charity.
His physical journey on this earth came to an end on January 23, 1893. He was fifty-seven years of age. His funeral service was reported to have been fit for a king, a public glory that likely would not have met with the approval of this humble clergyman.
There are many eloquent quotations from this Episcopalian priest. Only two are needed to display his direct artistry with words:
“Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks.”
“Character may be manifested in the great moments, but it is made in the small ones.”
Phillips Brooks had written that his sole ambition was “to be a parish priest and, though not much of one . . .”
By any standards, but especially by the standards of the weary world of today, Phillips Brooks was very much a man of duty and of devotion and of dreams. He wrote of Christmas:
“The earth has grown old with its burden of care, but at Christmas it always is young, the heart of the jewel burns lustrous and fair, and its soul full of music breaks the air, when the song of angels is sung.”
Brooks is largely remembered today, if he is remembered at all, for writing the lyrics of the Christmas hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The story behind this magical composition is believed to be that three years earlier, in 1865, during a time of Civil War in the once-united United States, this American, Phillips Brooks, journeyed to the Holy Lands, the region currently known as the Middle East.
On Christmas Eve, he rode on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to attend a scheduled spiritual celebration. On that night, Brooks experienced his own spiritual celebration, unscheduled, perhaps unexpected. The time was right; so was the setting. Brooks was not very far away from the hillside where the shepherds had so long ago kept watch by night. The first Christmas song had been heard that night.
On Christmas Eve, 1868, this humble man recalled that historic night of so long ago in Bethlehem. He wrote lyrics for a new Christmas song. These lyrics were to be sung by a choir of children in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia. The church organist, Lewis Redner, composed the accompanying music. On that night of nights, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was sung for the very first time.
O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee to-night.
O morning stars, together
Proclaim the holy birth!
And praises sing to God the King,
And peace to men on earth.
For Christ is born of Mary,
And gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love.
How silently, how silently,
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him, still
The dear Christ enters in.
Where children pure and happy
Pray to the blessed Child,
Where misery cries out to thee,
Son of the mother mild;
Where charity stands watching
And faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks,
And Christmas comes once more.
O holy Child of Bethlehem!
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us to-day.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!
My wish for you this day, this night, this week, and throughout the New Year is the glory of radiance: the faith and hope and charity that — amidst the darkness — keep alive the flame of the everlasting Light.