Friday 18 December 2015

A Merry Christmas To You All! - Celia Rees

I have a confession. I don't very often read poetry but there are certain times when only a poem will do and, for me, Christmas is one of those times. 

The approach of the Solstice takes me always to John Donne's poem, A Nocturnal upon St Lucy's Day.

St Lucy by Cosimo Rosselli

St Lucy's name means light. Her day in the Julian calendar was 13th December, the Solstice, 'the year's midnight'. This day is still celebrated in the northern countries of Scandinavia: Norway, Sweden and Finland with their long, dark winters. St Lucy, the light bringer, is the Christian manifestation of the age old and ancient, long pre-christian celebration to mark the day the year turns from darkness back towards the light.

Winter Solstice Stone Henge

A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day

By John Donne

'Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world's whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar'd with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin'd me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that's good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
I, by Love's limbec, am the grave
Of all that's nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown'd the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light and body must be here.

But I am none; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all;
Since she enjoys her long night's festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year's, and the day's deep midnight is.

The other poem I look to at this time of year couldn't be more different. John Betjeman's Christmas evokes a very British Christmas. A modern Christmas. It speaks to the ordinary, the everyday and is as true now as when it was written in the mid twentieth century. Although nowadays the Christmas season starts well before the coming of Advent, the rest of what Betjeman describes is very much the same: the streaking December rain, the scudding clouds of the darkening days; the shopping, gift buying and gift giving; the evergreens, lights, paper chains and banners, tinsel and silver bells decorating churches, towns, pubs and people's homes. Then he asks the question: And is it true? For behind, or beyond it all, so often forgotten and ignored, lies the simplicity of the Nativity and all the astonishing, awesome and numinous implications it carries with it. 

Christmas by John Betjeman

The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
'The church looks nice' on Christmas Day.

Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says 'Merry Christmas to you all'.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children's hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say 'Come!'
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

Adoration of the Magi after Hieronymus Bosch

To quote the bunting in the red Town Hall

 Merry Christmas To You All!

Celia Rees


Joan Lennon said...

Luscious - many thanks for these!

Clare Mulley said...

Lovely, I'm a Donne and Betjeman fan too. Have a wonderful Christmas!

michelle lovric said...

Merry Christmas, Celia!
Currently redrafting a novel with Saint Lucy at its core. I take your post as a good sign. xm

Celia Rees said...

Merry Christmas to you all, too. Glad you liked the post!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Lovely post, thanks! I haven't read either of those poems before, though I do have quite a few volumes of verse on my shelves. Must get back to them.

Sue Bursztynski said...

And have a great festive season! My Christmas Day will be spent on the beach, with a picnic lunch and a book.

Celia Rees said...

Yes, need to make the effort to read more poetry. Make it a poetry book, Sue.

Leslie Wilson said...

Love that Donne poem, though it's terribly sad, of course. I always think of it at the Solstice. But I didn't know about St Lucy: why it was her day, even though I recited the first two lines to my husband on Monday. We are expecting the family for secular Christmas today but had worship and reflection at annual Quaker carols and reading event after Meeting on Sunday and last night at home.