23 December 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/52

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.


Civic Center said...

"Bring me flesh, and bring me wine," immediately made me think of a William Burroughs quote that was featured on "Jeopardy' the other night: "naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork."

Merry Christmas.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I will now associate this Christmas carol with both Jeopardy and William Burroughs, so thank you, because that is some awesome randomness

Sibyl said...

I think this has fallen out of favor because you cannot, as with so many carols, simply know one verse and a chorus and have the thing make sense. This carol takes commitment. (I was thinking really hard about your perhaps-difficult-Christmas with especial empathy, as my mother died Dec. 8. I would have posted Tennyson's Crossing the bar for her, except she taught American Lit, and we seldom saw eye-to-eye about written works. Anyway, I hope your holiday has been brighter than subdued, and I deeply appreciate that you have kept posting cool works by poets whom I can then appropriate).

Patrick J. Vaz said...

That's a good point about needing to follow Wenceslas and page all the way out into the snow for the thing to make sense, but aren't there other story-songs where that is also the case? To pick one random example, the loathsome Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. . . .

Very sorry to hear about your mother; I hope you have the sense that she is now at peace. Thanks for your kind words and I'm glad you've enjoyed the poets -- I've found that the weekly poem gives me a certain structure, as well as great pleasure; there are lots of things I've attended that I wish I'd been able to write up in a more timely manner, but the poems have been and will be forthcoming weekly.