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A poem by Robert Browning

Holy-Cross Day

Title:     Holy-Cross Day
Author: Robert Browning [More Titles by Browning]


[" Now was come about Holy-Cross Day, and now must my lord preach his first sermon to the Jews: as it was of old cared for in the merciful bowels of the Church, that, so to speak, a crumb at least from her conspicuous table here in Rome should be, though but once yearly, cast to the famishing dogs, under-trampled and bespitten-upon beneath the feet of the guests. And a moving sight in truth, this, of so many of the besotted blind restif and ready-to-perish Hebrews! now maternally brought-nay (for He saith, 'Compel them to come in') haled, as it were, by the head and hair, and against their obstinate hearts, to partake of the heavenly grace. What awakening, what striving with tears, what working of a yeasty conscience! Nor was my lord wanting to himself on so apt an occasion; witness the abundance of conversions which did incontinently reward him: though not to my lord be altogether the glory."-Diary by the Bishop's Secretary, 1600.]

What the Jews really said, on thus being driven to church, was rather to this effect:-


Fee, faw, fum! bubble and squeak!
Blessedest Thursday's the fat of the week.
Rumble and tumble, sleek and rough,
Stinking and savoury, smug and gruff,
Take the church-road, for the bell's due chime
Gives us the summons--'tis sermon-time!


Boh, here's Barnabas! Job, that's you?
Up stumps Solomon--bustling too?
Shame, man! greedy beyond your years
To handsel the bishop's shaving-shears?
Fair play's a jewel! Leave friends in the lurch? 10
Stand on a line ere you start for the church!


Higgledy piggledy, packed we lie,
Rats in a hamper, swine in a stye,
Wasps in a bottle, frogs in a sieve,
Worms in a carcase, fleas in a sleeve.
Hist! square shoulders, settle your thumbs
And buzz for the bishop--here he comes.


Bow, wow, wow--a bone for the dog!
I liken his Grace to an acorned hog. 20
What, a boy at his side, with the bloom of a lass,
To help and handle my lord's hour-glass!
Didst ever behold so lithe a chine?
His cheek hath laps like a fresh-singed swine.


Aaron's asleep--shove hip to haunch,
Or somebody deal him a dig in the paunch!
Look at the purse with the tassel and knob
And the gown with the angel and thingumbob!
What's he at, quotha? reading his text!
Now you've his curtsey--and what comes next? 30


See to our converts--you doomed black dozen--
No stealing away--nor cog nor cozen!
You five, that were thieves, deserve it fairly;
You seven, that were beggars, will live less sparely;
You took your turn and dipped in the hat,
Got fortune--and fortune gets you; mind that!


Give your first groan--compunction's at work
And soft! from a Jew you mount to a Turk.
Lo, Micah,--the selfsame beard on chin
He was four times already converted in! 40
Here's a knife, clip quick--it's a sign of grace--
Or he ruins us all with his hanging-face.


Whom now is the bishop a-leering at?
I know a point where his text falls pat.
I'll tell him to-morrow, a word just now
Went to my heart and made me vow
I meddle no more with the worst of trades--
Let somebody else pay his serenades.


Groan all together now, whee-hee-hee!
It's a-work, it's a-work, ah, woe is me! 50
It began, when a herd of us, picked and placed,
Were spurred through the Corso, stripped to the waist;
Jew brutes, with sweat and blood well spent
To usher in worthily Christian Lent.


It grew, when the hangman entered our bounds,
Yelled, pricked us out to his church like hounds:
It got to a pitch, when the hand indeed
Which gutted my purse would throttle my creed:
And it overflows when, to even the odd,
Men I helped to their sins help me to their God. 60


But now, while the scapegoats leave our flock,
And the rest sit silent and count the clock,
Since forced to muse the appointed time
On these precious facts and truths sublime,
Let us fitly employ it, under our breath,
In saying Ben Ezra's Song of Death.


For Rabbi Ben Ezra, the night he died,
Called sons and sons' sons to his side,
And spoke, "This world has been harsh and strange;
Something is wrong: there needeth change. 70
But what, or where? at the last or first?
In one point only we sinned, at worst.


"The Lord will have mercy on Jacob yet,
And again in his border see Israel set.
When Judah beholds Jerusalem,
The stranger-seed shall be joined to them:
To Jacob's House shall the Gentiles cleave.
So the Prophet saith and his sons believe.


"Ay, the children of the chosen race
Shall carry and bring them to their place: 80
In the land of the Lord shall lead the same
Bondsmen and handmaids. Who shall blame,
When the slaves enslave, the oppressed ones o'er
The oppressor triumph for evermore?


"God spoke, and gave us the word to keep,
Bade never fold the hands nor sleep
'Mid a faithless world, at watch and ward,
Till Christ at the end relieve our guard.
By His servant Moses the watch was set:
Though near upon cock-crow, we keep it yet. 90


"Thou! if thou wast He, who at mid-watch came,
By the starlight, naming a dubious name!
And if, too heavy with sleep--too rash
With fear--O Thou, if that martyr-gash
Fell on Thee coming to take thine own,
And we gave the Cross, when we owed the Throne--


"Thou art the Judge. We are bruised thus.
But, the Judgment over, join sides with us!
Thine too is the cause! and not more thine
Than ours, is the work of these dogs and swine, 100
Whose life laughs through and spits at their creed!
Who maintain Thee in word, and defy Thee in deed!


"We withstood Christ then? Be mindful how
At least we withstand Barabbas now!
Was our outrage sore? But the worst we spared,
To have called these--Christians, had we dared!
Let defiance to them pay mistrust of Thee,
And Rome make amends for Calvary!


"By the torture, prolonged from age to age,
By the infamy, Israel's heritage, 110
By the Ghetto's plague, by the garb's disgrace,
By the badge of shame, by the felon's place,
By the branding-tool, the bloody whip,
And the summons to Christian fellowship,--


"We boast our proof that at least the Jew
Would wrest Christ's name from the Devil's crew.
Thy face took never so deep a shade
But we fought them in it, God our aid!
A trophy to bear, as we march, thy band,
South, East, and on to the Pleasant Land!" 120

[Pope Gregory XVI abolished this bad business of the Sermon. --R. B.]

NOTES: "Holy-Cross Day" reflects the attitude of the corrupt mediaeval Christians and Jews toward each other. The prose preceding the poem gives the point of view of an imaginary Bishop's Secretary, who congratulates himself upon the good work the Church is doing in forcing its doctrine on the Jews in the Holy-Cross Day sermon, and effecting many conversions. The poem shows that the Jews regard this solicitude on the part of the Christians with hatred and scorn, and that their conversions are in derision of their would-be converters. The sarcasm of the speaker reaches a pinnacle of bitterness when he accuses the Christian bishops of being men he had helped to their sins and who now help him to their God. From scorn toward such followers of Christ, he passes, in the contemplation of Rabbi Ben Ezra's death song, to a defence of Christ against these followers who profess but do not act his precepts, and a hope that if the Jews were mistaken in not accepting Christ, the tortures they now suffer will be received as expiation for their sin.

Holy-Cross Day is September 14. The discovery of the true cross by Saint Helen inaugurated the festival, celebrated both by Latins and Greeks as early as the fifth or sixth century, under the title of the Exaltation of the Cross and later in commemoration of the alleged miraculous appearance of the Cross to Constantine in the sky at midday. Though the particular incidents of the poem are not historical, it is a fact (see Milman's "History of the Jews'') that, by a Papal Bull issued by Gregory XIII in 1584, all Jews above the age of twelve years were compelled to listen every week to a sermon from a Christian priest.

52. Corso: a street in Rome

67. Rabbi Ben Ezra: or Ibn Ezra, a mediaeval Jewish writer and thinker, born in Toledo, near the end of the eleventh century.

III. Ghetto: the Jew's quarter. Pope Paul IV first shut the Jews up in the Ghetto, and prohibited them from leaving it after sunset.

Robert Browning's poem: Holy-Cross Day