Good King Wenceslas
Good King Wenceslas looked out,
On the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about,
Deep, and crisp, and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night,
Though the frost was cruel;
When a poor man came in sight,
Gathering winter fuel.
"Hither, page, and stand by me,
If thou know'st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence,
By Saint Agnes' fountain."
"Bring me flesh, and bring me wine,
Bring me pine-logs hither;
Thou and I will see him dine,
When we bear them thither."
Page and monarch, forth they went,
Forth they went together;
Through the rude wind's wild lament
And the bitter weather.
"Sire, the night is darker now,
And the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, good my page,
Tread thou in them boldly;
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly."
In his master's steps he trod,
Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor,
Shall yourselves find blessing.
J M Neale
We'll close out this year with this Christmas carol, which seems to be falling out of favor; I have piles of Christmas music CDs, and I'm not sure it's on any of them, and if asked to recite it last week I doubt I'd have made it much past the fifth line. There's an interesting Wikipedia entry on the song, which gathers many of the less flattering assessments. There seems to be some resentment that these mid-nineteenth century words were grafted onto an actual medieval tune, much as we now decry Victorian "improvements" on simple and rough-hewn old churches. But I find this an enjoyable example of the moral improvement school of poetry, and I'm always entranced by legends of the saints. The words remind me of pre-Raphaelite stained glass or tapestry; though there is a clear attempt to recreate a medieval style, it is even more clear that you're looking at nineteenth-century work.
The beneficiary of Wenceslas' miracle is not actually the impoverished peasant, but the young page boy; the whole thing seems like an odd reflection of Victorian capitalism, in which the employee is benefited by following his benevolent master's instructions, ending up with an exhortation that the rich should do good to the poor because that ends up helping the rich. This seems like a weird but well-meant attempt to appeal to the selfishness and self-interest inherent in capitalism with the argument that ultimately benefiting others benefits the really important person – you. We still hear versions and variants of this argument today. It is left ambiguous in the song if the "blessing" referred to is in this world, as in this story, or in the next; our contemporary versions usually aim for something in the middle, as in if you help others you "have improved self-esteem" or you "feel good about yourself."
Saint Stephen is the first martyr (his death by stoning appears in The Acts of the Apostles), and the Feast of Stephen is December 26, which is the only thing in the song that makes this a specifically Christmastime story rather than just a wintertime tale. Saying the peasant lived "underneath the mountain" rather than at the foot of the mountain may be an attempt to sound elevated and archaic, but, as is often the case with such attempts, it sounds a bit ludicrous to us, as if the peasant were the Troll King.
I took this from Christmas Poems, edited by John Hollander and J D McClatchy in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poetry series.