It’s Christmas, and what better way to get the festive feelings going than by reading some Christmassy poems? I’m looking forward to hearing Simon Callow reading ‘The Night Before Christmas’ on CBeebies (yes, I know) this evening, and I have a list of other poems I’ll read today. But poems about Christmas are often somewhat conflicted: what does Christmas mean to us – poet and reader? What are we celebrating? John Betjeman’s poems capture this conflict, especially ‘Advent 1955‘ and my particular favourite, ‘Christmas‘. This seems to both celebrate and slightly mock the things we enjoy about Christmas:
The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.
Typically, for Betjeman, the poem satirises class, society, popular culture – and yet points out that the meaning of Christmas is (for the poet, and indeed for me) a religious one: the things we love about Christmas, such as being with family, the carols, the cosiness and comfort of it all, are significant but are part of a greater truth:
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
‘The Burning Babe‘ by Robert Southwell is a much earlier, and much stranger, visionary poem which also points to the Christian origins of Christmas, in a hallucinatory style in which the babe is aligned to the angels which appeared announcing the birth of the Christ child: ‘A pretty Babe all burning bright did in the air appear’. This is a mystic, fierce poem which emphasises the reason for Christmas: the redemption of souls. The poem was itself forged in the furnace of religious conflict; Southwell was a Catholic priest who was executed for his faith during the reign of Elizabeth I, and the fervour of his belief which sustained him is evident in this unusual poem.
W H Auden’s poem ‘At the Manger Mary Sings‘ offers a rather different perspective: this is the view of the new mother, Mary, manifesting an anxiety perhaps familiar to all new parents, and torn between reflecting on the perfect beauty and innocence of the infant Jesus and the future which lies ahead of him:
Why was I chosen to teach his Son to weep?
Little One, sleep.
In fact this poem is part of a much larger poetic work, ‘For the Time Being’, which explores in remarkable poetic language the significance of the Incarnation – the concept of God made Man.
John Milton’s ‘Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity‘ also dramatises the Christmas story, in a very Miltonic way, with the grandeur of language and occasional opacity of form which makes Milton’s poetry so splendid. Combining classical and biblical references, juxtaposing power and weakness in the form of a baby (‘Our Babe, to show His Godhead true, Can in His swaddling bands control the damnèd crew’), Milton’s poem is both a form of worship and a devotional reminder of the joy of Christmas, free of the consumerist conflicts which trouble Betjeman.
‘Noel: Christmas Eve 1913‘ by Robert Bridges is a poem weighted with subsequent historical events for the modern reader. The speaker sees Christmas from his own simple, rural perspective, yet relates it to the birth of Christ in his own way, suggesting that we all have our ways of marking the birth of Christ. This is the poem that first introduced me to Bridges, perhaps one of Britain’s less memorable Poet Laureates, but for his precise, perfect turns of phrase (‘mad romping din’, for example), well worth reading. Enjoy!
A frosty Christmas Eve when the stars were shining
Fared I forth alone where westward falls the hill,
And from many a village in the water’d valley
Distant music reach’d me peals of bells aringing:
The constellated sounds ran sprinkling on earth’s floor
As the dark vault above with stars was spangled o’er.
Then sped my thoughts to keep that first Christmas of all
When the shepherds watching by their folds ere the dawn
Heard music in the fields and marveling could not tell
Whether it were angels or the bright stars singing.
Now blessed be the towers that crown England so fair
That stand up strong in prayer unto God for our souls
Blessed be their founders (said I) an’ our country folk
Who are ringing for Christ in the belfries tonight
With arms lifted to clutch the rattling ropes that race
Into the dark above and the mad romping din.
But to me heard afar it was starry music
Angels’ song, comforting as the comfort of Christ
When he spake tenderly to his sorrowful flock:
The old words came to me by the riches of time
Mellow’d and transfigured as I stood on the hill
Heark’ning in the aspect of th’ eternal silence
T S Eliot, ‘The Journey of the Magi‘
Christina Rossetti, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter‘
Robert Herrick, ‘Ceremonies for Christmas‘
S T Coleridge, ‘A Christmas Carol‘
Walter Scott, ‘Christmas in the Olden Time‘
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!