Items related to Robert Browning’s “Christmas Eve”

Letter from Ella Sophia Armitage to Robert Browning, December 6th. 1889

1850 Edition of “Christmas-Eve” owned by William Allingham with reader’s manuscript jingle. Browning Guide M0107. ABLibrary Rare X 821.83 P5 C466c c. 6

1850 Edition of “Christmas-Eve” owned by Dante Gabriel Rossetti with reader’s manuscript response. Browning Guide M0112. ABLibrary Rare X 821.83 P5 C466c c. 7

Rare Item Analysis: Class, Nature, and Sectarianism in Robert Browning’s “Christmas Eve”

By Christian Dickinson

Presentation: Class, Nature, and Sectarianism in Robert Browning’s “Christmas Eve”

Provenance and Significance of Items Analyzed

The first item is a letter to Robert Browning from Ella Sophia Armitage, a historian and archeologist from the late 19th to the early 20th century. The Armstrong-Browning Library acquired this item in February of 1970 from Paul C. Richards, a private autograph and rare books dealer in Templeton Massachusetts, for 100.00 dollars. The item can be found Victorian Letters collection and may be accessed electronically through ABL’s in-house database of letters from this period. The item is significant for two primary reasons: First, we see that Browning’s “Christmas-Eve” is one of the poems listed in Armitage’s proposed anthology for her ‘Working-Man’s Browning’. This tells us that the poem itself remains an important piece in Browning’s oeuvre even some twenty years after its publication. Secondly, a comparison can be made between “Christmas-Eve’s” theme of spiritual community and the ‘cultural community’ Armitage seeks to develop through the use of the anthology. The second item is a rare manuscript edition of “Christmas-Eve” once owned by the Irish poet William Allingham. The ABL was gifted this item in September of 1980 by James Borg, a collector who sold manuscripts and other Browning-related material to the ABL in the same period. The item be found in the ABL’s Rare-Book collection. The significance of this particular item comes from the jingle that is penciled in at the end of the poem. The jingle itself is a playful jab at Browning’s writing style and his tendency to produce long, overly-complex poetic lines and ‘scenes’ which even his group of close literary friends found difficult at times to decipher. It also points to the existence of such a group, composed of men like Allingham that would write to Browning often and visit him whenever the time and resources permitted him. We see from this jingle what must have been a very cordial friendship between the two men. The final item is another manuscript copy of “Christmas-Eve” once owned by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a poet and painter who was another contemporary of Browning’s. This manuscript was purchased for the ABL on June 25, 1982 by W. Thomas Taylor at a Sotheby’s auction in New York. The copy was also once owned by composer Jerome Kern. As with the Allingham copy, this manuscript can be found in the ABL’s Rare-Book collection. Also as with the Allingham copy, the significance of this manuscript lies in the addition in Rossetti’s own hand at the poem’s end. The verse appended to this manuscript is written in a satirical mock-style of Browning’s own poetic voice. The rhyme scheme, which switches between alternating rhymes and couplets, is one Browning himself employed on several occasions. Dante also pokes fun at Browning’s penchant for odd close rhymes (“gibe-ill” / “Bible”, “Shakespeare” / “break spear”) and the tendency to load his poetry with obscure references from ‘Oriental’ Literature or Scripture. Each of these items will now be examined in further detail.

Item 1: Letter from Ella Sophia Armitage to Robert Browning, December 6th. 1889

            Ella Sophia Armitage is quite an unusual woman for her time. In an age when most women from a middle or upper-class background were expected to reside solely in the ‘domestic sphere’ of the home, Armitage vowed to “overcome ‘the accursed thralldom of womanhood’”[1], and enter the Academy, a place typically reserved for the male population. In so doing, Armitage was able to add an impressive list of ‘firsts’ to her accomplishments: she became the first of five students to attend Newnham College, Cambridge; she then became the first of this college’s research students, and eventually served as the first woman on the school board at Rotherham.[2] In addition to her work in mediaeval history and archeology, Armitage was a tireless champion for women’s rights who sought to expand opportunities for young women in secondary and post-secondary education.[3]

It is important to consider Armitage’s letter to Browning in the context of her status as a female academic and her work in women’s education reform. In the first instance, Armitage’s status as an academic protects her from the charge of lionizing[4] Browning as her motivation behind the Browning Society which she conducts during “the winter months”[5]. Rather than fawning over a popular author of the period, Armitage views Browning’s poetry as “an admirable instrument of culture” which can be used for “the uplifting and enlarging”[6] of her fellow men and women.

Even more important than Armitage’s status as an academic is to consider her letter in light of her work in women’s education reform. The primary purpose of the letter is to request permission from Browning to compile an anthology of poetry for the enjoyment of the laboring classes. Armitage hopes that this ‘Working Man’s Browning’ will enrich the lives of the laboring poor. As she states in the letter, “What do people most want, whose lives are filled up with hard and monotonous work, but great thoughts to uplift them out of the narrow circle in which they live, and at the same time to shed a nobler light upon their daily toil?”[7] In a sense, Armitage sees Browning’s poetry as a vehicle by which laboring-class people can rise out of their lives which are circumscribed by poverty and “daily toil” and become a part of the larger, ‘public’ world. Essentially, Armitage is promoting the idea of social mobility (or intellectual mobility at least) through education – the very same idea that she is promoting in female education, whose lives are similarly ‘circumscribed’ by a daily ‘domestic toil’.

Finally, it is important to note that one of the primary themes of Browning’s “Christmas-Eve”, is the importance of communal worship. As a Dissenter,[8] Browning saw the ‘Body of Christ’ – worshipping as part of a community of believers – as the primary way of knowing and experiencing God, rather than through the religious rituals and forms of the Anglican Church. In the same way, Armitage is seeking to bring together an intellectual community through the experience of poetry.

Item 2: 1850 Edition of “Christmas-Eve” owned by William Allingham with reader’s manuscript jingle

            William Allingham was born in Ballyshannon county Donegal, Ireland, where he spent much of his life. At the age of twenty-two, Allingham entered the customs service which was to be his continual vocation for most of his life.[9] Unfortunately, Allingham was not able to make a living for himself as an author alone, and the frustration he experienced working as a customs officer for over 20 years is apparent from his personal correspondence to the Brownings. In a letter of December 14th, 1865, he muses, “All things considered, might I not hope to prove myself better worth this sum to the country with my freedom than as a Coast Officer of Customs?”[10]. It is important to know about Allingham in the context of his frustrations as a struggling poet, as it helps readers to understand what high admiration he held for men like Browning who were able to gain national recognition for their work.

It is with this understanding that the ‘jingle’ Allingham has written at the end of his copy of “Christmas-Eve” must be approached. Knowing his admiration for Browning, Allingham’s question at the end of the poem, ‘Ay, who can say? – or guess indeed / What all this is I make you read?’ takes on a tone of playfulness from one poet to another and should not at all be read as a serious criticism of the work itself. In the literary circle in London of which Allingham was often a part (time and resources permitting due to his custom’s work), it was an almost habitual practice to puzzle over the latest work published by Browning. In a diary-entry by Allingham on June 24th of 1872, he writes that he made a visit to the Victorian moral philosopher Thomas Carlyle (another member of this literary circle) who “[had] been reading Fifne at the Fair[11] and saying every now and again to Browning (though not present), ‘What the Devil do you mean?’”[12]. It is pleasant to know that even the great writers of the era struggled with poetic interpretation at times.

Yet, Allingham offers his own interpretation in a ‘Summary’ on the very next page: ‘Author, when other motives fail, is / By an Aurora Borealis / Converted’. This mention of the Borealis refers to a moment in “Christmas-Eve” when the narrator beholds the forming of a ‘moon-rainbow’ in the clouds above him just before he encounters a vision of the incarnate Christ. In the poem itself, Browning argues for the possibility of experiencing God in several ways. One of these ways, is through nature. This view seems to be something Allingham would empathize with, as praise of and references to nature proliferate his personal correspondence with Browning. One letter in particular suggests Allingham’s belief in the power of nature to impact earthly events: “The unannounced Comet which (in compensation) has lately been bright of evenings, now hid in sunshines, promises to support the family reputation by shaking horrible things down on us out of its hair. North, West, East,–cholera, Yellow Fever, War. But the milder stars shine many, & always.”[13] In “Christmas-Eve” the rainbow serves as a similar ‘portent’ before the appearance of Christ himself.

Item 3: 1850 Edition of “Christmas-Eve” owned by Dante Gabriel Rossetti with reader’s manuscript response

            Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a painter and poet who, like Allingham, was a contemporary of the Brownings, is perhaps the most colorful character of the three being discussed here. Rossetti is primarily known for being a founding-member of the ‘Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’, a group of painters whose goal was to ‘revitalize’ English art by creating works that hearkened back to the Italian Masters of the early Renaissance.[14] Despite being much more successful in his artistic pursuits than Allingham, Dante’s personality was marked by “moodiness and depression”, and he would often have periods marked by “impulsiveness, irascibility, and self-absorption”[15]. In addition to this, Dante would often have passionate infatuations with women, and it is widely believed that many of the models Dante used for his paintings were also his lovers. This is unquestionably true in the case of Elizabeth Siddal, a young woman who modeled for Dante for a number of years and who Dante eventually married in 1860.[16]

No one, it seems, was free from Rossetti’s emotional impulsivity. This includes Robert Browning himself. In 1847, Rossetti happened upon a copy of Browning’s “Pauline” at the British Museum. He was instantly enthused by it, so much so that he copied the poem out by hand, there not being an edition available to purchase. He then writes to Browning himself: “Sir, Being a most enthusiastic admirer of your works, I can no longer restrain myself from intruding upon you (though I feel that I do so at the risk of being considered presumptuous) with a question concerning them, which I have for some time been deliberating whether or not to venture on”[17]. Not many years later, Rossetti was a fixture in the literary circle of which Browning and Allingham were a part. To add to this, Rossetti even painted the Brownings portraits, which correspondence during this period communicates. Despite what at all events seems to be a strong association, Rossetti suddenly severs himself from Browning in 1872 after the publication by Browning of Fifne at the Fair. Rossetti believed that the title character of the poem was a satirical mock of himself, something for which he never forgave Browning.

However, the satirical verse written on the final pages of Rossetti’s copy of “Christmas-Eve” were done when the two still enjoyed a strong friendship. Like Allingham’s jingle, the satirical verse is a playful goading of “Christmas-Eve’s” author. As discussed above, the poem satirizes Browning by mimicking his often complex rhyme scheme and bizarre end-rhymes. He also seems to be satirizing Browning’s proclivity for overloading his poetry with at times obscure references. In the verse, Dante makes references to Catholic religious ritual (myrrh and sandal), Classical Greek and Roman poets (Virgil, Ovid, Hesiod, Melesigines [Homer]), Middle-Eastern peoples (Muslem, Ashantee), English authors (Shakespeare, Dickens, Tennyson, Thackery), Middle-Eastern folk-tales (Alnaschar), and Scriptural names and places (Ezra, Nahum, Japhet, Jared, Tophet). Dante also makes a reference to himself as a sort of ‘worshiper’ of Browning in a mock representation of his own hurt feelings: “Me also, prayer for the one candle / Burnt at thy shrine … Me, swinger of the myrrh and sandal Before thee”. Finally, these images may also reference Dante as a nominal Catholic, goading Browning, who was a life-long Dissenter.

[1] Online Dictionary of National Biography, Ella Sophia Armitage

[2] A large town in South Yorkshire, England. Online Dictionary of National Biography

[3] Ibid.

[4] The Victorian practice of making a celebrity out of an author, whose works would then simply be admired because of his or her popularity, rather than being seriously read and studied for their cultural and intellectual value.

[5] Ella Sophia Armitage, letter to Robert Browning, 6th Dec. 1889.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Someone who attended a Non-Anglican Church or held theological or religious views that ‘dissented’ from the national religion of Anglicanism.

[9] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, William Allingham

[10] William Allingham, letter to Robert Browning, 14th Dec. 1865.

[11] A poem by Browning published in 1871.

[12] Richard S. Kennedy and Donald S. Hair, The Dramatic Imagination of Robert Browning: A Literary Life (Columbia: U of Missouri press, 2007), 328.

[13] William Allingham, letter to Robert Browning, 24th Sep. 1853.

[14] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Dante Gabriel Rossetti, letter to Robert Browning, 17th Oct. 1847.

Transcription of Armitage’s Letter to Browning 

89:274.  Ella Sophia Armitage to RB



Dec. 6. 1889

Dear Mr Browning

I have for the last three years been conducting a little Browning Society during the winter months, and this has led me to realize what an admirable instrument of culture the study of your poetry is. It has made me long very much that working-men might become acquainted with it. What do people most want, whose lives are filled up with hard and monotonous work, but great thoughts to uplift them out of the narrow circle in which they live, and at the same time to shed a nobler light upon their daily toil? But at present it is impossible for the working-man to read your poems; the price is beyond his reach, and besides that he requires a key to open the meaning and to explain the unaccustomed learning which they contain. Now I am writing to ask you if you will give me permission to edit a Working Man’s Browning; to wit, a small selection of your poems, with an analysis and notes attached to each. I should hope to make it such a taste of your works as should make the reader wish for more. I hate anthologies and selections myself; but a working-man’s reading time is short, and he requires help towards the best books, and help in them. My plan would be to give the text first, unpolluted by any notes or references; then to follow it by an analysis of the poem, with notes explaining the difficult words. I enclose as a specimen an analysis of A Grammarian’s Funeral. The poems which I have thought of as suitable for such a selection are as follows:

Love among the ruins.

The Lost Leader

By the Fireside

The Guardian Angel

Incident of the French Camp

The Patriot

The Boy and the Angel

The Italian in England

The Last Ride Together

A Grammarian’s Funeral

Holy Cross Day

Christmas Eve.

Fra Lippo Lippi.

Bishop Blougram’s Apology

Dis Aliter Visum

Abt Vogler

Rabbi Ben Ezra

A Death in the Desert


One Word more.

But if you should be gracious to my proposal, I would of course take any poems which you were pleased to select, if the above list does not commend itself to you. I have roughly calculated that the above poems, with a sufficient allowance of analysis and notes, might be printed in a volume of the same size as the “Camelot Classics”, which sell for a shilling; and a shilling is the price that I aim at, as best suited to my working-men friends. As regards the business part of the transaction, I should not wish for any share in the profits of the sale during your lifetime, as this would be to me entirely a labour of love and gratitude. I send you herewith a copy of a book I published some years ago, to show you that I have a certain amount of equipment of knowledge. This book also was written with the view of bringing the delight of English history within reach of the uneducated classes.

I cannot conclude this letter without expressing what I should like to utter, whether my design finds favour in your eyes or not, my deep gratitude to you for the uplifting and enlarging which I & so many others have got from your poetry.

Yours faithfully

Ella S. Armitage

William Allingham Handout1 William Allingham Handout2

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Satirical Verse on “Christmas Eve”

  • Was this well done, thou Robert Browning?
  • —Me also, prayer for the one candle
  • Burnt at thy shrine—to set mefrowning?
  • Me, swinger of the myrrh & sandal
  • Before thee, asFor thy nose, as for nose of Providence,
  • Who for thy sake dreamed not a gibe ill
  • At any verse in the Holy Bible;
  • Who said—Take Virgil & take Ovid hence
  • Off Hesiod—let old Melesigines
  • 10Be off poste haste on his yellow ridgyCreak down at once on his yellow ridgy knees
  • Who’d ask, if you showed fight for Dante
  • If it was earnest or a blague you meant
  • And cursorily in course of argument
  • Had brought to mind a man namedmanaged to remember Shakespeare
  • —Who, Robert, in thy cause would break spear
  • With Christian Muslem or Ashantee
  • Who to any old book on any bookstall
  • Which, opened, turned out to be not a tome
  • Of thine, would say, as to the cook’s call
  • 20From the area, that her master’s not at h[ome]
  • “Thank you, I’m sorry to have troubled [you]”
  • From their spoil giving thee thy double [due]
  • And for the books, in this day [fashionable]
  • [Did?] Dickens, Tennyson, & Thackeray
  • (Wishing to swearcurse but not for passion able)
  • Lest rendvamp their crockery & crackery
  • Or kick the bucket like Alnaschar;
  • Me who in faith (theme then abhorred)
  • Turning an inkling ofThough with a leaning towards the Lascar,
  • 30Would have girded my loins upon thy warrant
  • And having hugged Ali hard & kist Yan,
  • [With?]Taken up staff & cudgels for Mahomet;
  • And at least felt sure (touching the Christian)
  • That bread which Ezra & which Nahum ate
  • BroughtFetched to them, wasn’t it by raven,
  • Grovelled prone in the trough of the desert
  • At high noon when the sand is hottest
  • Seething & writhing at their protest,—
  • As they were painted by Simon Griesseart
  • 40Gold saucers round theireach numskull s shaven
  • Tell me that thatbread & the other bread
  • Broken elsewhere for bond & brotherhead
  • (For such, quoth I, is of the prophets)
  • Was the devil’s—just a baking of Tophets
  • For Tophet is ordained of old—
  • Yea for the King it is preparèd
  • (Is now by Robert, am I told)
  • [?]And for all of us from Japhet & Jared
  • [?] him & me!—O Robert Browning
  • 50[And?] also—me—to set mefrowning
  • Was this well done, thou Robert Browning?

Notes to Rossetti’s Satirical Verse on Christmas-Eve

  1. Myrrh – A bitter, aromatic gum resin exuded by various Arabian and African trees of the genus Commiphora(family Burseraceae), esp.  abyssinicaand C. myrrha, which was formerly important esp. in perfumery and as an ingredient of incense. Also in Pharmacol.: a tincture made from this, used medicinally as an astringent and expectorant. and in figurative contexts. Balm; sweetness; something which soothes, heals, or preserves
  1. Sandal – A kind of half-shoe of red leather, silk, etc., richly embroidered and fastened with straps and bands, forming part of the regalia of a sovereign or of the official dress of a bishop or abbot.
  1. Virgil / Ovid – Roman poets Hesiod / Melesigines – Greek poets (‘Melesigines’ another name for Homer!)
  1. Ashantee – One of the Akan peoples of West Africa; a member of this people. Also, their language.
  1. Alnaschar – the name of a beggar in the Arabian Nights who destroys his means of livelihood because he indulges in visions of riches and grandeur – (in a reverie, he kicks over the basket containing glass he was selling, causing them to fall and shatter)
  1. Lascar – (Freq. with capital initial.) An East Indian sailor. Anglo-Indian. ‘A tent-pitcher’; also, an inferior class of artilleryman (more fully gun-lascar).
  1. Ezra & Nahum – Old Testament Scribe and Minor Prophet (I think Rossetti is confusing them with Elijah)
  1. Tophet – Proper name of a place near Gehenna or the Valley of the Son or Children of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem, where, according to Jer. xix. 4, etc., the Jews made human sacrifices to strange gods. Later it was used as a place for the deposit of refuse, and became symbolic of the torments of hell. The place of punishment for the wicked after death; the place of eternal fire; hell, Gehenna.
  1. Japhet – ? (Jeptha?) Jared – Son of Mahalaleel and father of Enoch. Lived for 962 years.