Christmas as Humbug: A Manuscript Poem by Letitia Elizabeth Landon ("L. E. L.")
F. J. Sypher
Published in Connotations Vol. 3.2 (1993/94)
"L.E.L."—as she signed her work—enjoyed great popularity and esteem during the 1820s and 1830s, not only in England, but also in the United States and on the European Continent.1) Landon was a literary prodigy, who started to compose poems as a child and began publishing in March 1820, when she was seventeen years old. She died at the age of thirty−six, in West Africa, where she had gone to live after her marriage in June 1838 to George Maclean, governor of the British post at Cape Coast (in present−day Ghana). In her remarkably productive career, Landon wrote seventeen volumes of poetry, three substantial novels, two books of short stories, a tragedy, countless reviews and critical articles, and many other works, in addition to journals and letters. In fact, considering the quantity and variety of her work, and the high regard accorded it by contemporaries, one might make a case for Landon as one of the most prominent English poets during the period between the death of Byron in 1824 and the emergence of the great Victorians.
Among specific reasons why her poetry is not better known today, is perhaps her early predilection for the now−obsolete genre of romantic verse narrative as, for instance, in The Improvisa—trice (1824), or The Troubadour (1825), which were inspired by Sir Walter Scott's poems. Furthermore, many of Landon's poems appeared in annual volumes like Forget Me Not, The Keepsake, or Fisher's Drawing Room Scrap Book—gift−books which enjoyed a great vogue at the time but went out of fashion in the 1840s, when Landon's work went out too, as if by association with an outmoded cultural phenomenon. (The fiction of Bulwer and Disraeli underwent a similar eclipse.)
[page 194] Finally, much of Landon's writing is frankly sentimental. Her chosen themes, she says in the preface to her book of tales for children, Traits and Trials of Early Life (1836), were "Sorrow, Beauty, Love, and Death." But to dismiss Landon's work as "merely" sentimental is a mistake. Certainly she wrote for the paying press many poems that were little more than charming decorations.2) But even in the least of them there are hints of an earnestness and intensity that is far from facile or superficial. And in her best work she is never dealing in "mere" sentiment. On the contrary, there are cynical, almost nihilistic qualities in her work; they did not pass unnoticed. Contemporary critics, such as S. Sheppard3) and Frederic Rowton,4) commented on her tendencies to melancholy and gloom, with no available solace in religious faith or programs for social improvement (compare E. B. Browning's view of Landon as expressed in "L.E.L.'s Last Question"). As examples, one might cite Landon's poems "Necessity," "The Astrologer," and "The Feast of Life." Landon was even capable of deep sympathy with a wicked lust for revenge. Her poem, "The Laurel," with its vengeful expression of a poet's curse upon a faithless lover, is a case in point. More violent is the revenge of Lady Marchmont, who murders both her husband and her lover—in Landon's novel Ethel Churchill (1837; a new edition, with an introduction by the author of this article, was published October 1992 by Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, Delmar, New York 12054).
Criticism of the cruelty, greed, injustice, and vanity of "actual" life, then, is pervasive in Landon's work. But since much of her writing was composed for members of the "establishment" she rarely speaks out on specific political or social issues. A notable exception is her poem, "The Factory" (1835), in which she decries the child labor system.
The interest of "Christmas" is that the poet openly voices the darker thoughts she nourished while writing "poetical illustrations" for costly picture−books that were destined to grace the drawing−rooms of the rich at Christmas time. In this poem, one feels, the mask of propriety is put aside, and the author gives free rein to her anger and bitterness in an ironic tone, which, in light of the sacrosanct status of Christmas, is nothing less than shocking. It is a time when one is supposed not only to be "merry" but also to believe in hope and redemption, even of the [page 195] most unredeemable characters, as in Dickens' A Christmas Carol. To join old Scrooge in calling Christmas "humbug" is blasphemous.
But Landon is, of course, no Scrooge. Scrooge dismisses Christmas because he is interested only in money; he accepts without question the actualities and institutions of the world, such as prisons and workhouses. By contrast, Landon strongly protests the conditions of everyday life. Like Dickens, she glances back to an idealized Christmas past, "When the red hearth blazed, the harper sang, ⁄ And the bells rung their glorious chime." She writes in this nostalgic vein in her poems, "Christmas in the Olden Time, 1650" and "Thoughts on Christmas−day in India,"5) where she seems to be drawing on happy memories of her childhood at Trevor Park—the ancient gabled country house at East Barnet, where her family lived until the postwar depression of 1815 compelled them to move back to London.6)
But when Landon turns her thoughts from the past and considers the present, she—unlike Dickens—finds no redeeming power in memories. The "merry" Christmas of her past, and of tradition and conventional belief, appears to her as an empty, obsolete illusion. At Christmas, as at any other time, people hurry along dreary streets, struggling to make a living; the needs of the poor, old, and helpless are ignored; a child is murdered so its body can be sold for use in scientific experiments.7) In the countryside, the mythical "Captain Swing"—as the rick−burners and machinery−breakers were known—is setting fire to haystacks and barns to protest agricultural depression, unemployment, and the importing of cheap Irish labor. At the same time, there were repercussions from the French revolution of 1830, together with intense political controversy over electoral reform, which finally resulted in the passage of the Reform Bill of 1832.8) And the cholera, having marched across Europe, has now arrived in England like a plague, seemingly carried across the English Channel by unseasonably warm winds.9)
Amid material struggle, crime, social protest, and disease—Landon suggests—celebration of Christmas is not a gesture of hope, but a hypocritical mockery. She sees the prevailing social conditions as signs that the nation is under a kind of curse, or moral retribution, as a punishment of society as a whole for its evil and inhumanity.10) She implies that neither faith nor annual effusions of good feeling alter [page 196] fundamental conditions in a world which rolls round in its diurnal course like a vast juggernaut, crushing everything before it. For Landon, the only refuge is the ethereal, unattainable realm of the ideal, to which she appeals so eloquently in poetry that earned for her pen name —"L.E.L."—the epithet "magical letters."
The constellation of topical allusions in Landon's "Christmas" suggests a date around Christmas 1831, when she was living at 22 Hans Place, London. The drab interior of her narrow attic chamber—in which most of her works were composed—is described in detail in Laman Blanchard's Life and Literary Remains of L.E.L (London, 1841), and starkly depicted in an illustration to Thomas Crofton Croker's A Walk from London to Fulham (London, 1860; reprinted 1896).11)
Other works written by Landon at about this time are her first novel, Romance and Reality (1831), and her poems for The Easter Gift (published by Fisher in 1832 and reprinted in following years). Most significant for the present purpose is that she had been engaged as "editor" of the first volume of Fisher's Drawing Room Scrap Book (published late 1831, dated 1832). For this and other similar works, Landon had to compose dozens of pieces to accompany engraved plates which had been prepared in advance and sent to her during the summer. As one critic comments: "A more devastating form of drudgery it is difficult to imagine."12) Nevertheless, one may agree with L.E.L., as she writes to her publisher, not so much with complacency as, undoubtedly, with pointed irony: "Some of my best poems have appeared in the Drawing−Room Scrap Book."13)
The text of "Christmas" is printed, by permission, from the holograph manuscript (signed "L.E.L.") in the collection of Mr. John Elliott, Jr., to whom grateful thanks are due. The poem does not appear in volumes of Landon's collected works. However, L.E.L. published literally hundreds of poems in newspapers, magazines, gift−books, anthologies, etc., and many of these were never collected for republication, either by the author or by later editors. There are also many poems in manuscript collections. The bibliography of Landon's voluminous work is therefore an immense, complex subject, and it has hardly been touched. That "Christmas" may perhaps have been published somewhere may be suggested by the stanza−break marks in the left margin of the [page 197] ms.—these would presumably have been noted for the use of a printer. But it is of course possible that the poem never appeared in print.14)
The ms. of "Christmas" is lightly punctuated and contains a number of deletions which suggest that Landon was, at least to some extent, composing or revising her verses as she wrote. In fact this may well be a first and only draft of the poem. The author was known, even as a teenager, for the ease and rapidity with which she composed. In the absence of a fully punctuated text, gone over by a contemporary editor and proofread by the author, one hesitates to make extensive alterations or additions—line endings can serve for pauses; but a few emendations seem to be called for. Where changes have been made or textual comments are needed, actual readings of the ms. are noted as follows: references are to lines; ms. readings are given in roman type; angle brackets enclose readings crossed out by the author; square brackets enclose editorial explanations, in italics.
Now out upon you Christmas!
Is this the merry time
When the red hearth blazed, the harper sang,
And the bells rung their glorious chime?
You are called merry, Christmas
Like many that I know
You are living on a character
Acquired long ago.
The dim lamps glimmer o'er the streets
Through the dun and murky air
You may not see the moon or stars
For the fog is heavy there.
As if all high and lovely things
Were blotted from the sight,
And earth had nothing but herself,—
Left to her own drear light.
[page 198] A gloomy world goes hurrying by
And in the lamplight's glare
Many a heavy step is seen
And many a face of care.
I saw an aged woman turn
To her wretched home again
All day she had asked charity
And all day asked in vain.
The fog was on the cutting wind
The frost was on the flood
And yet how many past that night
With neither fire nor food.
There came on the air a smothered groan
And a low and stifled cry
And there struggled a child, a young fair child
In its mortal agony.
"Now for its price," the murderer said
On earth we must live as we can
"And this is not a crime but a sacrifice
In the cause of science and man."
Is this the curse that is laid on the earth
And must it ever be so
That there can be nothing of human good
But must from some evil flow?
"On on and the dreary city's smoke
And the fog are left behind
And the leafless boughs of the large old trees
Are stirred by the moaning wind
And all is calm, like the happy dream
Which we have of an English home
A lowly roof where cheerful toil
And healthy slumbers come.
[page 199] Is there a foreign foe in the land
That the midnight sky grows red
That by homestead and barn, and rick and stock
Yon cruel blaze is fed?
There were months of labour, of rain and sun
Ere the harvest followed the plough
Ere the stack was reared, and the barn was filled
Which the fire is destroying now.
And the dark incendiary goes through the night
With a fierce and wicked joy
The wealth and the food which he may not share
He will at least destroy.
The wind—the wind it comes from the sea
With a wailing sound it past
'Tis soft and mild for a winter wind
And yet there is death on the blast.
From the south to the North hath the Cholera come
He came like a despot king
He hath swept the earth with a conqueror's step
And the air with a spirit's wing.
We shut him out with a grille of ships
And a guarded quarantine
What ho! now which of your watchers slipt?
The Cholera's past your line.
There's a curse on the blessed sun and air
What will ye do for breath?
For breath which was once but a word for life
Is now but a word for death.
Woe for affection when love must look
On each face it loves with dread
Kindred, and friends; when a few brief hours
And the dearest may be, the dead.
[page 200] The months pass on, and the circle spreads
And the time is drawing nigh
When each street may have a darkened house
Or a coffin passing by.
Our lot is cast upon evil days
In the world's winter time,
The earth is old, and worn with years
Of want, of woe and of crime.
Then out on the folly of ancient times
The folly which wished you mirth!
Look round on the anguish—look round on the vice
Then dare to be glad upon earth.
1 Christmas [no punctuation]
4 rung [clearly, and not "rang"—see OED for examples of this past tense form as used by Southey (1797) and Disraeli (1837)]
11 stars [the star of Bethlehem would not be visible here]
16 [the image recalls Byron's "Darkness"]
21 aged woman [perhaps an ironic parallel to the Virgin Mary]
27 past [alternate past tense form for "passed"—see OED; cf. l. 62]
31 young fair child [perhaps an ironic parallel to the Christ Child]
32 agony [no punctuation]
33 'Now for its price,' [single quotation marks]
35 sacrifice [a bitter inversion of Christ's sacrifice]
39 That that there [sic]
45 all is calm [perhaps an ironic echo of the Christmas hymn, "Stille Nacht" ("Silent Night"), composed in 1818 by Franz Gruber, with words by Josef Mohr]
45 happy <home> dream
[page 201] 50 the <mind> midnight
51 by <by> homestead
52 <The> Yon
53 of <su> rain
55 barn [suggests the setting of the Nativity]
67 conqueror's <king> step [the image may parallel the Epiphany]
68 wing [no punctuation]
69 a <guard> gwille [sic, clearly, over <guard> probably a slip of the pen, or possibly an inadvertent phonetic spelling reflecting the author's pronunciation]
71 slipt [sic, clearly, with no punctuation, and not "slept"]
74 for <the> breath [no punctuation]
75 word for life [Greek ψυχή, Latin "anima" and "spiritus"—as in the Holy Spirit— literally mean "breath"]
79 Friends, and kindred [with author's indication to transpose]
80 dead [no punctuation]
85 is <ch> cast
87 The <ol> earth
90 mirth [no punctuation]
92 [The words "glad upon earth" and the previous reference to the "old" earth (line 87), recall phrases from the well−known hymn that begins: "Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways," by Louis Bourgeois (1551). The moral message expressed in the first two stanzas of the hymn, with their reference to "tragic empires," is perfectly in harmony with Landon's poem.]
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