Friday, December 11, 2009

"Christ Climbed Down" poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti -- and a High School Poetry Critique and Analysis Essay

“Christ Climbed Down” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti


Note on the poet: Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born on 24 March 1919, in Yonkers, NY, the youngest of five sons of Charles S. (an auctioneer) and Clemence. His father, an Italian immigrant, had shortened the family name upon arrival in America. Lawrence restored the family name in 1954. He served in the U.S. Naval Reserve and was a commanding officer during the Normandy invasion in World War II. Known for his novels, short stories, plays, screenplays and poetry, Ferlinghetti won numerous awards for his writing, and there is a street in San Francisco named in his honor.


CHRIST climbed down
from His bare Tree this year
and ran away to where
there were no rootless Christmas trees
hung with candycanes and breakable stars

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree this year
and ran away to where
there were no gilded Christmas trees
and no tinsel Christmas trees
and no tinfoil Christmas trees
and no pink plastic Christmas trees
and no gold Christmas trees
and no black Christmas trees
and no powderblue Christmas trees
hung with electric candles
and encircled by tin electric trains
and clever cornball relatives

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree this year
and ran away to where
no intrepid Bible salesmen
covered the territory
in two-tone cadillacs
and where no Sears Roebuck creches
complete with plastic babe in manger
arrived by parcel post
the babe by special delivery
and where no televised Wise Men
praised the Lord Calvert Whiskey

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree this year
and ran away to where
no fat handshaking stranger
in a red flannel suit
and a fake white beard
went around passing himself off
as some sort of North Pole saint
crossing the desert to Bethlehem
Pennsylvania
in a Volkswagen sled
drawn by rollicking Adirondack reindeer
with German names
and bearing sacks of Humble Gifts
from Saks Fifth Avenue
for everybody's imagined Christ child

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree this year
and ran away to where
no Bing Crosby carollers
groaned of a tight Christmas
and where no Radio City angels
iceskated wingless
thru a winter wonderland
into a jinglebell heaven
daily at 8:30
with Midnight Mass matinees

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree this year
and softly stole away into
some anonymous Mary's womb again
where in the darkest night
of everybody's anonymous soul
He awaits again
an unimaginable and impossibly
Immaculate Reconception
the very craziest
of Second Comings


Critique and Analysis of “Christ Climbed Down”
By Virginia Quarrier for a 1979 High School English Assignment


The underlying theme of Ferlinghetti’s “Christ Climbed Down” is that the modern Christmas is too secular for Christ, and that he disdains it. Each verse delves into what Christmas has become with Santa Claus, artificial Christmas trees, plastic crèches (nativity scenes), plastic Bible salesmen, Bing Crosby carolers and Radio City angels. Christmas has become a commercial season instead of the worship of a newborn savior. In fact, the first official Christmas was only a substitute for Saturnalia, only now it had a Christian name because Emperor Constantine had declared Christianity the state religion. People still lived it up and got soused.


The day that Christ was born was much different from even that. He was born n a smelly old stable. The magi brought him gold, incense, and myrrh. Christ is calling believers today to bring their gold (symbolizing their lives), their incense (symbolizing Christ revealing himself through us), and myrrh (a balm symbolizing that we are to be a healing ointment to the broken people of the world).


In each verse, Ferlinghetti says that: “Christ climbed down from his bare tree this year and ran away (or softly stole away)…” The Bible clearly shows that Christ does not run away from the problems of the world. He faced our sins on the cross, and surely he can face a commercial Christmas. It must break his heart, though. Instead of running away, he calls believers to spread the good news of what Christmas really is – and that’s not just a good spirit, helping each other, and giving. Christ calls his believers to worship him and focus on him, and not to take so much thought about material gifts, but to concentrate on the greatest gift: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). The cross is inseparable from the manger.

In the last verse, Ferlinghetti says, “Christ climbed down from His bare tree this year and softly sole away into some anonymous Mary’s womb again…” Again, I disagree. Christ did not steal softly away. He rose in glory, and ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father in glory. He is awaiting the time appointed for him to come again and take up his believers. Signs show that this time is coming soon.


Ferlinghetti goes on to say: “where in the darkest night of everybody’s anonymous soul…” Christ does not await his coming in everybody’s anonymous soul, but only in those who have asked him into their hearts as told in Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to him…” And if the believer is obeying the Word of God, his soul will not be anonymous. “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations…” commands Matthew 28:19. “For we are ambassadors for Christ…” declares 2 Corinthians 5:20. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to everyone that believeth…” announces Romans 1:16.


I do agree with Ferlinghetti when he says that Christ’s second coming will be “the very craziest of second comings.” How many people come again through the clouds with trumpets, clothed in glory? Who else comes so unexpectedly, “like a thief in the night”?

4 comments:

  1. I absolutely love your analysis and critique of Ferlinghetti's poem. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thank you for your kind words! It's been 35 years since I wrote that!

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  2. Wow, you read and analyzed Ferlinghetti in high school! That would not fly in today's sterile Common Bore textbooks that cannot offend the sensibilities of a Texan audience (think the ostracized English teacher in The Last Picture Show). Furthermore, statistically most of today's h.s. students don't have the attention to get past the first few lines of the poems, if they can even get that far. Most of today's capable youths have been coopted by the corporate technocracy (which Ferlinghetti was reacting to) to pay much heed to Ferlinghetti. You were ahead of your time and are actually still more youthful than many of today's essentially cybernetic screenagers. I concur, though. Sometimes, Ferlinghetti writes with a rather glib iconoclasm, especially regarding Christianity. That's not exactly the case in this poem, which is more reverent than Yeats' famous and ultramodern "second coming" poem (I've never known what to make of that one). Rilke, another modernistic poet, also made humanistic characterizations of Christ. I don't think L.F., who is more mystical, is quite as atheistic or modernistic as these other poets. Ferlinghetti does fall in with a tradition, though. Larry Ferlinghetti does make a connection to theodicy and John of the Cross in citing the phrase "the darkest night." Even the Bible can be rather strange and comical, the images of "Moses seeing God's hind quarters" or Jonah and the whale. Famous Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has also lashed out against the consumerism and materialism in similar fashion to what Ferlinghetti is doing. It is, after all, vanity fair (think John Bunyan). Powerful stuff and not irreconcilable with Christian nor with non-Christians.

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    1. Thank you for such an informative comment!

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