08 December 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/50

A Carol

Oh hush thee, my baby,
Thy cradle's in pawn:
No blankets to cover thee
Cold and forlorn.
The stars in the bright sky
Look down and are dumb
At the heir of the ages
Asleep in a slum.

The hooters are blowing,
No heed let him take;
When baby is hungry
'Tis best not to wake.
Thy mother is crying,
Thy dad's on the dole:
Two shillings a week is
The price of a soul.

Cecil Day-Lewis

Years ago I heard John Harbison's cantata The Flight into Egypt (actually, I think I was at the world premiere). He said at the time that he chose that subject because he wanted to focus on the suffering side of the Christmas story: on refugees, and those without homes. That was his reaction to the mean-spirited Reagan years in America. Here's a British poem, written during the Great Depression, that does the same thing. It's an acerbic lullaby that points to the harsh economic realities and the human misery that underlie the image (made picturesque through centuries of glorious paintings, and through our general urban uncertainty as to what exactly a "manger" is) of the Christ child born in a barn. The moral is conveyed through wit, and much of the wit comes from the constant tension between language reminiscent of traditional Christmas carols (particularly Away in a Manger) and contemporary ways of describing poverty. So on the one hand, playing off "the stars in the heavens / look down where he lay/ the little Lord Jesus / asleep in the hay" from the old song we have "the stars in the bright sky / look down and are dumb / at the heir of the ages / asleep"-- only to be brought short by the reminder that the child is in a slum. "The hooters are blowing" has I think "the cattle are lowing" in its background. I assume the hooters are noise-makers or Christmas crackers for the holidays; lowing is the moo-ing sound of cattle, so in both instances there is noise that might wake a baby: in the carol, the point is that the infant Jesus is too angelic to start crying; here, the hope is that the baby won't wake and realize how hungry he is. Two shillings must have been the amount of government assistance per child: it's a meager amount of money, considering that a soul is priceless.

I took this from Christmas Poems, selected and edited by John Hollander and JD McClatchy, in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poet series.


Unknown said...

Hooter is British slang for nose. It would be funny is that's what was meant.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I don't know if I should be proud or embarrassed, but until you mentioned "hooter" as slang for "nose" (where did you get that? Downton Abbey? "The duchess is always looking down her hooter at me, and I won't have it, I tell you!") I totally forgot that "hooters" was slang for a woman's breasts -- or, in this context, boobs or tits. And I just found out via Google that in the UK the Hooters Restaurants are sometimes called "breasturants."

OK, this is quite far afield from the poem. Class, let's go back to discussing social injustice!