James and Mary Ford, eds. Every Day in the Year. 1902.

January 7

Holy Cross Day

By Robert Browning (1812–1889)

On which the Jews were forced to attend an annual Christian sermon in Rome

  • Browning calls this poem “Holy Cross Day,” but in Evelyn’s time the sermon was preached on Jan. 7th, as the following extract from his diary shows:
  • “A sermon was preach’d to the Jewes at Ponte Sisto, who are constrained to sit till the houre is don: but it is with so much malice in their countenances, spitting, humming, coughing and motion that it is almost impossible they should heare a word from the preacher. A conversion is very rare.”

  • I.
    FEE, faw, fum! bubble and squeak!

    Blessedest Thursday’s the fat of the week.

    Rumble and tumble, sleek and rough,

    Stinking and savory, smug and gruff,

    Take the church-road, for the bells 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?

    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.

    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 courtsey—and what comes next?

    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!

    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!

    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 this 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.

    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 a change.

    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:

    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 the Christ at the end relieve our guard.

    By his servant Moses the watch was set:

    Though near upon cock-crow—we keep it yet.

    “Thou! if thou wast He, who at mid-watch came,

    By the starlight naming a dubious Name!

    And if we were 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,

    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 of 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,

    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 proofs, 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, a band

    South, east, and on the Pleasant Land!”