Monday, 21 December 2015

Christmas Poetry

Skipping lightly over the 18th and 19th centuries, on the basis that all the good Christmas poems have been set to music and are widely known, let's explore some of the byways of the 20th century. We may even end up in the 21st - but not today.

Our first today is a verse by Stevie Smith, for whom I've always had a certain fondness since seeing the play Stevie in 1977 starring, if I remember aright, Glenda Jackson. It was written by Hugh Whitemore, more famous for Breaking the Code

This is, I think, typically idiosyncratic.


A child is born, they cry, a child,
And he is Noble and not Mild
(It is the child that makes them wild).

The King sits brooding on his throne
He looks around and calls a man:
My men bring me a heavy stone.

My men bring me a purple robe
And bring me whips and iron goad.
They brought them to him where he strode.

My men bring gold and bring incense
And fetch all noble children at once
That I shall never take offence.

The men fetched the noble children away
They lifted them up and cried: Hurray.
The King sat back and clapped their play.

All noble mild children are brought home
To the wicked King who has cast them down
And ground their bones on the heavy stone.

But the child that is Noble and not Mild
He lies in his cot. He is unbeguiled.
He is Noble, he is not Mild,
And he is born to make men wild.

Stevie Smith

The next is a poem by Anne Ridler (1912 - 2001), who was a good friend of my mother, who was also called Anne. In recognition of that, the copy of her Collected Poems which she gave to my mother is inscribed with this quotation from Charles Williams, of whom both Annes were fans:

"A voice went calling by me, and e'er the voice had ceased,
The Mother of the Mother of God ascended in the East..."

Anyway, without more ado...

Christmas and Common Birth

Christmas declares the glory of the flesh:
And therefore a European might wish
To celebrate it not at midwinter but in spring,
When physical life is strong,
When the consent to live is forced even on the young, 
Juice is in the soil, the leaf, the vein,
Sugar flows to movement in limbs and brain.
Also, before a birth, nourishing the child,
We turn again to the earth
With unusual longing - to what is rich, wild,
Substantial: scents that have been stored and strengthened
In apple lofts, the underwash of woods, and in barns;
Drawn through the lengthened root; pungent in cones
(While the fir wood stands waiting; the beech wood aspiring,
Each in a different silence), and breaking out in spring
With scent sight sound indivisible in song.

Yet if you think again
It is good that Christmas comes at the dark dream of the year
That might wish to sleep ever.
For birth is awaking, birth is effort and pain;
And now at midwinter are the hints, inklings
(Sodden primrose, honeysuckle greening)
That sleep must be broken.
To bear new life or learn to live is an exacting joy:
The whole self must waken; you cannot predict the way
It will happen, or master the responses beforehand.
For any birth makes and inconvenient demand;
Like all holy things
It is frequently a nuisance, and its needs never end;
Strange freedom it brings: we should welcome release
From its long merciless rehearsal of peace.

   So Christ comes
At the iron senseless time, comes
To force the glory into frozen veins:
   His warmth wakes
Green life glazed in the pool, wakes
All calm and crystal trance with living pains.
   And each year
In seasonal growth is good - year
That lacking love is a stale story at best;
   By God's birth
All common birth is holy; birth
Is all at Christmas time and wholly blest.

Anne Riddler

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