Friday, 19 December 2014

More Christmas Poetry

I can't be doing with Thomas Tusser and Wynken de Worde, so following St Robert Southwell, I thought we could move on a little (chronologically - arguably backwards spiritually) to John Donne,  John Milton and George Herbert.


Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves His well-belov'd imprisonment,
There He hath made Himself to His intent
Weak enough, now into the world to come;
But O, for thee, for Him, hath the inn no room?
Yet lay Him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars and wise men will travel to prevent
The effect of Herod's jealous general doom.
Seest thou, my soul, with thy faith's eyes, how He
Which fills all place, yet none holds Him, doth lie?
Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
With His kind mother, who partakes thy woe.

John Donne


On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity

On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity
This is the month, and this the happy morn
Wherein the Son of Heav’n’s eternal King,
Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring;
For so the holy sages once did sing,
That he our deadly forfeit should release,
And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.

That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable,
And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty,
Wherewith he wont at Heav’n’s high council-table,
To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,
He laid aside, and here with us to be,
Forsook the courts of everlasting day,
And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.

Say Heav’nly Muse, shall not thy sacred vein
Afford a present to the Infant God?
Hast thou no verse, no hymn, or solemn strain,
To welcome him to this his new abode,
Now while the heav’n, by the Sun’s team untrod,
Hath took no print of the approaching light,
And all the spangled host keep watch in squadrons bright?

See how from far upon the eastern road
The star-led wizards haste with odours sweet:
O run, prevent them with thy humble ode,
And lay it lowly at his blessed feet;
Have thou the honour first thy Lord to greet,
And join thy voice unto the angel quire,
From out his secret altar touched with hallowed fire. 

John Milton


Christmas (I)

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.


Christmas (II)

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.

George Herbert


Is it me, or does this all really sound rather Protestant - and, dare I say it dull - compared with St Robert Southwell's poetry?  (Though if I'm honest, the Catholic Metaphysical Poet, Richard Crashaw, doesn't do much for me either...)

By special request...

New Heaven, New War

Come to your heaven, you heavenly choirs,
Earth hath the heaven of your desires.
Remove your dwelling to your God;
A stall is now his best abode.
Sith men their homage do deny,
Come, angels, all their fault supply.

His chilling cold doth heat require;
Come, seraphins, in lieu of fire.
This little ark no cover hath;
Let cherubs’ wings his body swathe.
Come, Raphael, this babe must eat;
Provide our little Toby meat.

Let Gabriel be now his groom,
That first took up his earthly room.
Let Michael stand in his defense,
Whom love hath linked to feeble sense.
Let graces rock when he doth cry,
And angels sing his lullaby.

The same you saw in heavenly seat
Is he that now sucks Mary’s teat;
Agnize your king a mortal wight,
His borrowed weed lets not your sight.
Come, kiss the manger where he lies,
That is your bliss above the skies.

This little babe, so few days old,
Is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake.
Though he himself for cold do shake,
For in this weak unarmèd wise
The gates of hell he will surprise.

With tears he fights and wins the field;
His naked breast stands for a shield;
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows looks of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns cold and need,
And feeble flesh his warrior’s steed.

His camp is pitchèd in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall,
The crib his trench, hay stalks his stakes,
Of shepherds he his muster makes;
And thus, as sure his foe to wound,
The angels’ trumps alarum sound.

My soul, with Christ join thou in fight;
Stick to the tents that he hath pight;
Within his crib is surest ward,
This little babe will be thy guard.
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
Then flit not from this heavenly boy.

St Robert Southwell


New Prince, New Pomp

Behold, a seely tender babe
In freezing winter night 
In homely manger trembling lies;
Alas, a piteous sight! 

The inns are full, no man will yield 
This little pilgrim bed, 
But forced he is with seely beasts 
In crib to shroud his head.

Despise him not for lying there, 
First, what he is enquire, 
An orient pearl is often found 
In depth of dirty mire. 

Weigh not his crib, his wooden dish, 
Nor beasts that by him feed; 
Weigh not his mother's poor attire 
Nor Joseph's simple weed.

This stable is a prince's court, 
This crib his chair of state, 
The beasts are parcel of his pomp, 
The wooden dish his plate. 

The persons in that poor attire 
His royal liveries wear; 
The prince himself is come from heaven;
This pomp is prized there.

With joy approach, O Christian right, 
Do homage to thy king; 
And highly prize his humble pomp 
Which he from heaven doth bring. 

St Robert Southwell

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Christmas Poems by St Robert Southwell

The Burning Babe

As I in hoary winter's night stood shivering in the snow,
Surprised I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow ;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty babe all burning bright did in the air appear ;
Who, scorchëd with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
Alas, quoth he, but newly born in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I !
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns ;
The fuel justice layeth on, and mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men's defilëd souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.
With this he vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I callëd unto mind that it was Christmas day. 

St Robert Southwell

The Nativity

Behold the father is his daughter's son,
The bird that built the nest is hatch'd therein,
The old of years an hour hath not outrun,
Eternal life to live doth now begin,
The word is dumb, the mirth of heaven doth weep,
Might feeble is, and force doth faintly creep.

O dying souls! behold your living spring!
O dazzled eyes! behold your sun of grace!
Dull ears attend what word this word doth bring!
Up, heavy hearts, with joy your joy embrace!
From death, from dark, from deafness, from despairs,
This life, this light, this word, this joy repairs.

Gift better than Himself God doth not know,
Gift better than his God no man can see;
This gift doth here the giver given bestow,
Gift to this gift let each receiver be:
God is my gift, Himself He freely gave me,
God's gift am I, and none but God shall have me.

Man alter'd was by sin from man to beast;
Beast's food is hay, hay is all mortal flesh;
Now God is flesh, and lies in manger press'd,
As hay the brutest sinner to refresh:
Oh happy field wherein this fodder grew,
Whose taste doth us from beasts to men renew!

St Robert Southwell

Another Medieval Poem

This is not a Christmas poem, but I thought it interesting anyway. In particular, I noticed that although Eve gets a passing mention in the first stanza, the devil deals directly with Adam.

In the vale of Abraham
Cryst hym self he made Adam,
And of his rybbe a fayr womman,
And thus this seemly word began.

‘Cum, Adam, and thou xalt se
The blysse of paradis that is so fre;
Therein stant an appil-tre,
Lef and fruit growit thereon.

Adam, if thou this appil ete,
Alle these joyis thou xalt forsete,
And the peynis of helle gete.’
Thus God hym self warnid Adam.

Quan God was fro Adam gon,
Sone after cam the fend anon;
A false tretour he was on,
He tok the tre and krep thereon.

‘What eylyt the, Adam, art thou wod?
Thi lord hast tawt the lytil good, 
He wolde not thou understood
Of the wyttes that he can.

Take the appil of the tre,
And ete thereof, I bidde the,
And alle hese joyis thou xalt se,
Fro the he al hedyn non.’

Quan Adam hadde that appil ete,
Alle hese joyis wern forsete,
Non word more must he speke,
He stood as nakyd as a ston.

Then cam an aungil with a swerd,
And drof Adam into a disert;
Ther was Adam sore aferd,

For labour coude he werkyn non.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Medieval Christmas Poetry (v)

I know I said I probably wouldn't post any more medieval Christmas poems, but I have changed my mind - not least having discovered an online copy of Songs and Carols from a Manuscript in the British Museum of the Fifteenth Century.

This has some real gems, including one of my favourites, which I am astonished to find I have not already posted:

Adam lay i-bowndyn,
bowndyn in a bond,
Fowre thowsand wynter
thowt he not to long

And al was for an appil,
an appil that he tok.
As clerkes fyndyn wretyn
in here book.

Ne hadde the appil take ben,
the appil taken ben,
Ne hadde never our lady
a ben hevene quen.

Blyssid be the tyme
that appil take was!
Therefore we mown syngyn

Deo gratias!

That 'Blessed be the time' sounds almost heretical, until one recalls the Easter Exsultet: O felix culpa, quæ talem ac tantum méruit habére Redemptórem! (O happy fault, that won for us so great and glorious a Redeemer!)

As so often with me, part of the favouritism is because I used to sing it, in those dim and distant days when I was a boy chorister... This is the setting by Boris Ord, sung by a rather good choir from the Other Place.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Medieval Poetry (iv)

I think that this will be the last of the medieval poems I post.

This poem exists in various translations - some so different that I wonder if there are two different sources, but that is proving hard to determine.

I use the translation that was made famous by John Rutter: he sets it in his Magnificat.

Of a Rose, a lovely Rose,
Of a Rose is all my song.

Hearken to me both old and young,
How this rose began to spring;
A fairer rose to mine liking,
In all this world ne know I none.

Of a Rose, a lovely Rose,
Of a Rose is all my song.

Five branches of that rose there been,
The which be both fair and sheen;
The rose is called Mary, heaven’s queen.
Out of her bosom a blossom sprang.

Of a Rose, a lovely Rose,
Of a Rose is all my song.

The first branch was of great honour:
That blest Marie should bear the flower;
There came an angel from heaven’s tower,
To break the devil’s bond.

Of a Rose, a lovely Rose,
Of a Rose is all my song.

The second branch was great of might,
That sprang upon Christmas night;
The star shone over Bethlem bright,
That man should see it both day and night.

Of a Rose, a lovely Rose,
Of a Rose is all my song.

The third branch did spring and spread;
Three kinges then the branch gan led,
Unto our Lady in her child-bed;
Into Bethlem that branch sprang right.

Of a Rose, a lovely Rose,
Of a Rose is all my song.

The fourth branch it sprang to hell,
The devil’s power for to fell:
That no soul there-in should dwell,
The branch so blessed fully sprang.

Of a Rose, a lovely Rose,
Of a Rose is all my song.

The fifth branch it was so sweet,
It sprang to heaven, both crop and root,
Therein to dwell and be our bote:
So blessedly it sprang.

Of a Rose, a lovely Rose,
Of a Rose is all my song.

Pray we to her with great honour,
She that bare the blessed flower,
To be our help and our succour,
And to shield us from the fiendes bond.

Of a Rose, a lovely Rose,
Of a Rose is all my song.

Veni, veni Emmanuel

As part of our Advent ritual, we always sing O Come, O Come Emmanuel around our Advent wreath.

The hymn is of course a metrical adaptation of (five of) the Great O Antiphons; the Magnificat antiphons for Vespers for the week preceding Christmas.

The Great O Antiphons start tomorrow, which is why I thought today a good day to post on them.

I was going to blog about both the O Antiphons and the hymn, but find that the Wikipedia entries on both cover all that I was going to say, and indeed more than I knew.

The entry on the Great O Antiphons is here; there is only one thing I would argue with, and that is the suggestion that the reverse acrostic, Ero Cras, is a coincidence. There is no place for coincidence in my theology...

The entry on O Come, O Come Emmanuel is here. I was fascinated to read Neale's original version; I had only known the Ancient and Modern version.

The O Antiphons (in German) have been set wonderfully by Arvo Pärt: