Sunday, 26 December 2010

Of burning babes and gin-haired strangers

Well, here it is, the Second Day of Christmas, otherwise known as Boxing Day, but we eschew that questionable Canadian tradition of braving the box stores for bargains and plan to spend the day treasuring our love offerings.

I could, if I chose, indulge in a David Tennant frenzy. Not only is the Space Channel showing a marathon of Doctor Who specials (which, until this evening's Canadian premiere of Matt Smith's first Christmas special are all "Tennanted"), but I got a Tennantude of wonders: People Like Us, the wincingly funny mockumentary from Chris Langham (before he, rightly or wrongly, became a pariah); A CD of Shakespeare's sonnets (DT being among the readers) and an audiobook version of How to Treat a Dragon's Curse by Cressida Cowell, narrated by you-know-Who.

However I also received not one, but two books with 366 poems each, one for each day of a leap year. Eagerly I opened one to see the poem for December 25.


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, scorchéd 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 defiléd 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 calléd unto mind that it was Christmas day.

Evidently a poem for one with Catholic tastes, this one is by Robert Southwell, priest, something like sixth cousin to William Shakespeare. Southwell was eventually imprisoned, subject to a variety of tortures by Richard Topcliffe (sadist, rapist, and Member of Parliament) then, of course, butchered on the gallows in that delightful Elizabethan way. He was canonized in 1970.

A little shaken, I turned to the other anthology, and for Christmas Day, found a poem better suited to December 28, but which also fits in spookily with nativity by Peter Anderson, the play I saw at the National Arts Centre earlier this week:

Who's that knocking on the window,
Who's that standing at the door,
What are all those presents
Lying on the kitchen floor?

Who is the smiling stranger
With hair as white as gin,
What is he doing with the children
And who could have let him in?

Why has he rubies on his fingers,
A cold, cold crown on his head,
Why, when he caws his carol,
Does the salty snow run red?

Why does he ferry my fireside
As a spider on a thread,
His fingers made of fuses
And his tongue of gingerbread?

Why does the world before him
Melt in a million suns,
Why do his yellow, yearning eyes
Burn like saffron buns?

Watch where he comes walking
Out of the Christmas flame,
Dancing, double-talking:

Herod is his name.

This poem, by Charles Causley, was written during a Cold War Christmas and bears marks of the Flanders and Swan ditty "Twenty Tons of TNT" (even though that may have been written later):

Children have no need of sharing;
At each new nativity
Come the ghostly Magi bearing
Twenty tons of TNT

I discovered that Causley's poem has been put to music by folk-musician A Show of Hands. There's a YouTube video set to this. I'm not a great fan of anime, but it's the clearest recording I could find:

So, as usual, even in the glowing haven of Christmas, the world will keep barging in. Well, never mind, this family is wrapping itself up in the Twelve Days of Christmas. I'm off to ferry the out-of-town presents down to their rightful place under the Christmas tree, where we'll gradually enjoy them until January 5th.

Take that, you gin-haired stranger.


Volly said...

All of those are great in their own special way.

The Southwell poem evokes the emotional welling that was mine way back in the late 1980s, having just become a Christian. That sort of imagery was enough to keep me going with the faith for 15 years, and I suspect it works the same for countless believers down through history to the present day.


Nimble said...

The Herod poem is quite something. Made the hair on the back of my neck rise.

Rob said...

As you observed, we coincided over Charles Causley on our respective blogs. More amazing yet, I had never heard the Flanders & Swann piece. A marvel.

Persephone said...

"Twenty Tons of TNT" is, I believe, one of their later songs. I now am the proud owner of a full CD collection of Flanders and Swann, my mother having introduced me to them and Tom Lehrer. My life has been enriched for it, I must say. Let's see if this "Poem A Day" thing has the same effect. Promising (if a tad disturbing) so far...