Today is the darkest night of the year, Winter Solstice. It seems appropriate for the Advent season that literal darkness precedeS the light brought by the glorious birth of the Christ child of Christmas. Rossetti’s poem, famously set to music, expresses this sentiment as well as it has ever been expressed.
Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)
In the Bleak Midwinter
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.
Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)
A Christmas Carol
- The shepherds went their hasty way,
And found the lowly stable-shed
Where the Virgin-Mother lay:
And now they checked their eager tread,
For to the Babe, that at her bosom clung,
A Mother’s song the Virgin-Mother sung.II.
They told her how a glorious light,
Streaming from a heavenly throng.
Around them shone, suspending night!
While sweeter than a mother’s song,
Blest Angels heralded the Savior’s birth,
Glory to God on high! and Peace on Earth.
She listened to the tale divine,
And closer still the Babe she pressed:
And while she cried, the Babe is mine!
The milk rushed faster to her breast:
Joy rose within her, like a summer’s morn;
Peace, Peace on Earth! the Prince of Peace is born.
Thou Mother of the Prince of Peace,
Poor, simple, and of low estate!
That strife should vanish, battle cease,
O why should this thy soul elate?
Sweet Music’s loudest note, the Poet’s story,
Didst thou ne’er love to hear of fame and glory?
And is not War a youthful king,
A stately Hero clad in mail?
Beneath his footsteps laurels spring;
Him Earth’s majestic monarchs hail
Their friends, their playmate! and his bold bright eye
Compels the maiden’s love-confessing sigh.
Tell this in some more courtly scene,
To maids and youths in robes of state!
I am a woman poor and mean,
And wherefore is my soul elate.
War is a ruffian, all with guilt defiled,
That from the aged father’s tears his child!
A murderous fiend, by fiends adored,
He kills the sire and starves the son;
The husband kills, and from her board
Steals all his widow’s toil had won;
Plunders God’s world of beauty; rends away
All safety from the night, all comfort from the day.
Then wisely is my soul elate,
That strife should vanish, battle cease:
I’m poor and of low estate,
The Mother of the Prince of Peace.
Joy rises in me, like a summer’s morn:
Peace, Peace on Earth! The Prince of Peace is born!
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
Now in their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of Silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.
Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)
Ring Out , Wild Bells
From In Memoriam
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.
Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.
William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
The minstrels played their Christmas tune
To-night beneath my cottage-eaves;
While, smitten by a lofty moon,
The encircling laurels, thick with leaves,
Gave back a rich and dazzling sheen,
That overpowered their natural green.
Through hill and valley every breeze
Had sunk to rest with folded wings:
Keen was the air, but could not freeze,
Nor check, the music of the strings;
So stout and hardy were the band
That scraped the chords with strenuous hand.
And who but listened?-till was paid
Respect to every inmate’s claim,
The greeting given, the music played
In honour of each household name,
Duly pronounced with lusty call,
And ‘Merry Christmas’ wished to all.
George Herbert (1593-1633)
The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?
My God, no hymn for Thee?
My soul’s a shepherd too; a flock it feeds
Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.
The pasture is Thy word: the streams, Thy grace
Enriching all the place.
Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers
Outsing the daylight hours.
Then will we chide the sun for letting night
Take up his place and right:
We sing one common Lord; wherefore he should
Himself the candle hold.
I will go searching, till I find a sun
Shall stay, till we have done;
A willing shiner, that shall shine as gladly,
As frost-nipped suns look sadly.
Then will we sing, and shine all our own day,
And one another pay:
His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine,
Till ev’n His beams sing, and my music shine.
Image: Octave of Christmas: Cooperation with God’s Grace by Father Francis Xavier Weninger
George Herbert (1593-1633)
After all pleasures as I rid one day,
My horse and I, both tired, body and mind,
With full cry of affections, quite astray;
I took up the next inn I could find.
There when I came, whom found I but my dear,
My dearest Lord, expecting till the grief
Of pleasures brought me to Him, ready there
To be all passengers’ most sweet relief?
Oh Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,
Wrapt in night’s mantle, stole into a manger;
Since my dark soul and brutish is Thy right,
To man of all beasts be not Thou a stranger:
Furnish and deck my soul, that Thou mayst have
A better lodging, than a rack, or grave.
Image: Vintage Christmas Card
We are all familiar with the story of the Magi, or the Wise Men, journeying from the east following a star, and bearing gifts of gold for the newly born Christ child. T. S. Eliot’s version, however, slants the familiar story in a direction not usually considered though obviously a part of the backstory. Here is a poem about the actual journey from the east and the naturally occurring unpleasantnesses attendant in such circumstances at that point in history. It also is a poem, as the speaker says directly, about death as much as it is about life. In line 31, the climax of the difficult journey, the seeing and worshipping of the baby Jesus is recorded in colorless understatement: “Finding the place; it was (you may say)/ satisfactory.” Make of it what you will.
T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)
Journey Of The Magi
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.Then the camel men cursing and
And running away, and wanting their
liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the
lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns
And the villages dirty and charging high
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears,
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of
With a running stream and a water-mill
beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped in
away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with
vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for
pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no imformation, and so
And arrived at evening, not a moment
Finding the place; it was (you may say)
All this was a long time ago, I
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had
seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different;
this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like
Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these
But no longer at ease here, in the old
With an alien people clutching their
I should be glad of another death.
Henry Vaughan (1621-95)
Peace? and to all the world? sure, One
And He the Prince of Peace, hath none.
He travels to be born, and then
Is born to travel more again.
Poor Galilee! thou canst not be
The place for His nativity.
His restless mother’s called away,
And not delivered till she pay.
A tax? ’tis so still! we can see
The church thrive in her misery;
And like her Head at Bethlem, rise
When she, oppressed with troubles, lies.
Rise? should all fall, we cannot be
In more extremities than He.
Great Type of passions! come what will,
Thy grief exceeds all copies still.
Thou cam’st from heaven to earth, that we
Might go from earth to heaven with Thee.
And though Thou foundest no welcome here,
Thou didst provide us mansions there.
A stable was Thy court, and when
Men turned to beasts, beasts would be men.
They were Thy courtiers, others none;
And their poor manger was Thy throne.
No swaddling silks Thy limbs did fold,
Though Thou couldst turn Thy rays to gold.
No rockers waited on Thy birth,
No cradles stirred, nor songs of mirth;
But her chaste lap and sacred breast
Which lodged Thee first did give Thee rest.
But stay: what light is that doth stream,
And drop here in a gilded beam?
It is Thy star runs page, and brings
Thy tributary Eastern kings.
Lord! grant some light to us, that we
May with them find the way to Thee.
Behold what mists eclipse the day:
How dark it is! shed down one ray
To guide us out of this sad night,
And say once more, “Let there be light.”
Photo: DF-09134 Nativity , May 18, 2006 Photo by Jaimie Trueblood/newline.wireimage.com To license this image (9139053), contact NewLine: U.S. +1-212-686-8900 / U.K. +44-207 659 2815 / Australia +61-2-8262-9222 / Japan: +81-3-5464-7020 +1 212-686-8901 (fax) firstname.lastname@example.org (e-mail) NewLine.wireimage.com (web site)
So stick up ivy and the bays,
And then restore the heathen ways.
Green will remind you of the spring,
Though this great day denies the thing.
And mortifies the earth and all
But your wild revels, and loose hall.
Could you wear flowers, and roses strow
Blushing upon your breasts’ warm snow,
That very dress your lightness will
Rebuke, and wither at the ill.
The brightness of this day we owe
Not unto music, masque, nor show:
Nor gallant furniture, nor plate;
But to the manger’s mean estate.
His life while here, as well as birth,
Was but a check to pomp and mirth;
And all man’s greatness you may see
Condemned by His humility.
Then leave your open house and noise,
To welcome Him with holy joys,
And the poor shepherd’s watchfulness:
Whom light and hymns from heaven did bless.
What you abound with, cast abroad
To those that want, and ease your load.
Who empties thus, will bring more in;
But riot is both loss and sin.
Dress finely what comes not in sight,
And then you keep your Christmas right.