I am almost never asked for reading suggestions. This is either because my taste is deplorable or because my wisdom is intimidating, like an oracle’s. I would love it if people asked me every December, ‘Erik, would you direct me to some interesting Christmas poems I’ve never seen before?’ I would like it the first time, anyway, because I really only have one recommendation to make, the one I am making now.
I can say with confidence that ‘Hans Breitmann’s Christmas,’ by Charles Godfrey Leland (1824–1903), is a lost classic of American light verse. It helps to know some context about the project, of which this poem is but one part: a sequence of more than fifty long character poems written throughout the 1860s and collected by Leland as The Breitmann Ballads (1869). The hero of these poems is an irrepressible immigrant from Bavaria named Hans Breitmann, who is caught up in, as good characters are, the great events of his times, including the Civil War.
Breitmann’s prototype, according to Leland’s publisher, Nicholas Trübner, was a particular German officer in the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry, ‘a man of desperate courage whenever a cent could be made, and one who never fought unless something could be made.’ This mercenary gallantry is everywhere evident in the poems. For example, the only reason Breitmann goes to church at any point in the Ballads is because he learns that the ‘Rebs’ have hidden whiskey there. Exquisite reasoning!
When we join Breitmann and his men at Christmas, they are in their pomp. They have won famous victories in the field. And if the editor (redakteur) of a tabloid (Schwein-blatt) who is also at the Christmas party in the local village hall accuses Breitmann of being a liederlich (reckless) commander, well, his soldiers have an answer to that! The answer is in bilingual punning, written on a transparency, or a thin banner (mistakenly called, for humorous effect, a ‘serenity’):
Und vhile dere vas a Schwein-blatt whose redakteur tid say,
Die Breitmann he vas liederlich: ve ant-worded dis-a way,
Ve maked anoder serenity mid ledders plue und red:
‘Our Leader lick de repels! N.G.’ (enof gesaid.)
All of the ballads are written in this singular, rich, poetical pidgin, which Trübner calls ‘the droll broken English (not to be confounded with the Pennsylvanian German) spoken by millions of—mostly uneducated—Germans in America.’
It is probably due to instructions given in this same inconstruable speech that the local sign-painter renders the desired words ‘La Germania,’ to go on the heavily German unit’s big Christmas banner, as ‘Lager Mania.’
This, I believe, is one of the great jokes of nineteenth-century American poetry. Endlessly stupid, completely unexpected, and thus endlessly fresh.
It is important to note that Charles Godfrey Leland was not an ‘uneducated German’ but a Princeton man who spent his life abroad on the Continent, and made up the language that the Breitmann poems are written in. This is easily seen in a stanza, like the following one, that mixes the high and the low effortlessly:
Denn next Beethoven’s Sinfonie, die orkester tid blay;
Ve sat in shtill commotion so dat a bin mighdt drops,
Und de deers roon town der Breitmann’s sheeks, mitwhiles he vas trinkin’ schnapps.
Anyone might mention Beethoven, but to understand the structure of one of his ‘Sinfonien’ suggests an education, or at least a good few minutes spent reading New York concert programmes. On the other hand, perhaps the narrator is all bluster and cheap quotation, or mistaken attribution, or lucky guessing, and he is over-dignifying the Christmas party’s music. This, too, is a possibility. Leland opens these possibilities up to us by being who he was: a polyglot, a cosmopolitan, and a very sensitive writer of dialect.
That is my interpretation of Leland’s dialect, anyway. I find it endlessly inventive, and far, far better than his work in ordinary English. (An exception in ordinary English is ‘The Fall of the Trees.’) I can imagine, though, the other opinion: that Leland’s slapstick, pastiche Denglish is a horror. That if his warm accounts of a German protagonist are not xenophobic, that they are demeaning. That it all mings of ethnic and language privilege, to say nothing of class privilege.
I can only say that having read as much Leland as I have now, I think that he has done a favour to his subjects, the ultimate favour. He has created a real character. Not the sort of character that you’d create to either offend or flatter. A living one. One that he thought would go unrecorded if he didn’t write it down himself. If you read ‘Hans Breitmann’s Christmas,’ you will see Hans brought up and down in all the details: when he is dancing like a stud with Mina Schmitz, when he is quipping in the ‘shplendid shtyle dat all de laties dake,’ and when he must suffer being pranked by his arsehole mates, who give him a toy crib with a baby ‘Hans’ in it for a present in front of all the women he is flirting with.
In any case, that ‘Hans Breitmann’s Christmas’ is about a party makes it infinitely more relatable than other Yuletide poems that are about mice and stockings or hearing some bells.
I suspect that Hans Breitmann may be a secret original for some of the dialect effects pursued by Berryman in The Dream Songs, if you throw in a bit of Joel Chandler Harris (e.g., ‘Licker talks mighty loud w’en it gits loose from de jug’) to Americanise it. Breitmann talks about himself in the third person, like Henry. He is also a pisshead and a lothario, like Henry. And he has the rare ability to make the dreadful aftereffects of drinking sound like part of the joy of the spree:
I’fe schvimmed in heafenly droonks before—boot nefer von like dis;
De morgen-het-ache only seemt a bortion of de pliss.
The ability to tell such a profound lie convincingly should be respected in all times and places. It is one of the true purposes of poetry.
Have a happy Christmas, everyone!
* * *
My copy of The Breitmann Ballads was, in fact, given as a Christmas present in 1889, as a new book in the year that this edition was published.
It was given to Edith A. Radford, probably of Wellington, New Zealand. I think it’s nice that we know that, and it’s nice that whoever has my book after me may get to know that fact, too.
And in that spirit, have a happy new year!