Monday, December 21, 2015

Christmas Poems 2015

It’s been quite a while since I did a topical poetry post, but I decided to do this one after my pastor quoted Love Came Down at Christmas, by one of my earliest poetic loves, Christina Rossetti. I’ve finally finished the Christmas gigs, and have a quiet evening by myself while my wife tends the sick at the hospital, so why not look up some interesting Christmas poems in honor of the season. 

I’ll start off with Christina Rossetti, who captured my youthful heart when I was still a child. While I eventually came to consider Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson to be my very favorite poets; and even after discovering other favorites in my 30s, such as Ranier Maria Rilke, Rabindranath Tagore, and Seamus Heaney, I still find that Rossetti speaks to me. Her devotional poems often sound simple, but on further reflection, they reveal a depth of passion and devotion which resonates with those of us who find faith to anything but simple.

Love Came Down at Christmas

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and to all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

Rossetti always shows tremendous mastery of form, so this poem is intriguing. Throughout, she uses a 3-4-3-4 pattern, with a feminine ending on the odd numbered lines. So, one could almost say she was approaching a standard four foot line in each case, but with a half of a foot missing in the odd numbered lines.

The theme, though, is even more intriguing. What is to be our sign as Christians? “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Rossetti’s final stanza is a more poetic way of stating this. A lovely and profound poem.

Now, to switch gears entirely, there is Ogden Nash. Known today largely for his humorous rhymed couplets (“two-liners”?), his style was, shall we say, a bit tongue in cheek. This poem about the unpleasant child who refused to believe in Santa - and behaved likewise as if there was to be no consequences - ends with one my favorite comeuppances.

The Boy Who Laughed At Santa Claus

In Baltimore there lived a boy.
He wasn't anybody's joy.
Although his name was Jabez Dawes,
His character was full of flaws.

In school he never led his classes,
He hid old ladies' reading glasses,
His mouth was open when he chewed,
And elbows to the table glued.
He stole the milk of hungry kittens,
And walked through doors marked NO ADMITTANCE.
He said he acted thus because
There wasn't any Santa Claus.

Another trick that tickled Jabez
Was crying 'Boo' at little babies.
He brushed his teeth, they said in town,
Sideways instead of up and down.
Yet people pardoned every sin,
And viewed his antics with a grin,
Till they were told by Jabez Dawes,
'There isn't any Santa Claus!'

Deploring how he did behave,
His parents swiftly sought their grave.
They hurried through the portals pearly,
And Jabez left the funeral early.

Like whooping cough, from child to child,
He sped to spread the rumor wild:
'Sure as my name is Jabez Dawes
There isn't any Santa Claus!'
Slunk like a weasel of a marten
Through nursery and kindergarten,
Whispering low to every tot,
'There isn't any, no there's not!'

The children wept all Christmas eve
And Jabez chortled up his sleeve.
No infant dared hang up his stocking
For fear of Jabez' ribald mocking.

He sprawled on his untidy bed,
Fresh malice dancing in his head,
When presently with scalp-a-tingling,
Jabez heard a distant jingling;
He heard the crunch of sleigh and hoof
Crisply alighting on the roof.
What good to rise and bar the door?
A shower of soot was on the floor.

What was beheld by Jabez Dawes?
The fireplace full of Santa Claus!
Then Jabez fell upon his knees
With cries of 'Don't,' and 'Pretty Please.'
He howled, 'I don't know where you read it,
But anyhow, I never said it!'
'Jabez' replied the angry saint,
'It isn't I, it's you that ain't.
Although there is a Santa Claus,
There isn't any Jabez Dawes!'

Said Jabez then with impudent vim,
'Oh, yes there is, and I am him!
Your magic don't scare me, it doesn't'
And suddenly he found he wasn't!
From grimy feet to grimy locks,
Jabez became a Jack-in-the-box,
An ugly toy with springs unsprung,
Forever sticking out his tongue.

The neighbors heard his mournful squeal;
They searched for him, but not with zeal.
No trace was found of Jabez Dawes,
Which led to thunderous applause,
And people drank a loving cup
And went and hung their stockings up.

All you who sneer at Santa Claus,
Beware the fate of Jabez Dawes,
The saucy boy who mocked the saint.
Donner and Blitzen licked off his paint.

Yup, I’m a bit irreverent myself, I’m afraid, and find Nash delicious.

If Ogden Nash had his tongue surgically grafted inside his cheek, Gerard Manley Hopkins instead embodies the tradition of introspection and self-doubt. I love his poetry because of its often lacerating honesty - and also for its unusual use of rhythm and language. Hopkins seems torn between his calling as a Jesuit and his other calling as a poet. (There is some evidence as well that he was gay, and that his sexuality found its only legitimate - for a priest - expression in his poetry.) In any case, his passion and devotion is no less evident than that of Christina Rossetti, who was one of his key influences.

Moonless darkness stands between

Moonless darkness stands between.
Past, the Past, no more be seen!
But the Bethlehem-star may lead me
To the sight of Him Who freed me
From the self that I have been.
Make me pure, Lord: Thou art holy;
Make me meek, Lord: Thou wert lowly;
Now beginning, and alway:
Now begin, on Christmas day.

Such a simple poem, and yet the internal rhymes and cross rhythms are fascinating. It gets better with each read-through. Hopkins, in everything he writes, seems to turn inward. He has a keen eye for nature, and these observations make many of his other poems. But even in those, his heart reflects and changes what he sees, so that the inner and outer life become interwoven. As one who shares Hopkins’ love for creation and his introversion, I find this interconnectivity to reflect my own feelings.

The final selection is by a living poet, Richard Wilbur. He was the US Poet Laureate from 1987 to 1988, and may be best known for his lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. I’ll also note his work in translating Moliére.

Wilbur is a “formalist,” so his poems tend to have traditional rhyme and meter. A Christmas Hymn is no exception. The refrain of “And every stone shall cry” is repeated at interesting intervals. Three lines, then six, six, six, then three at the end. Wilbur uses two ideas to tie the entire poem together. First is the stars. Or perhaps the “worlds” which shall be reconciled. The second is that of the stone which paves the highway, made straight in the desert, for our God. From the close up of the rock, to the vastness of the stars, the poem shifts perspective while drawing the connection that unites both.

Like Rossetti’s poem, Wilbur’s also notes the descent of God to the world of mankind, with Love as the motivation and purpose.

A Christmas Hymn

A stable-lamp is lighted
Whose glow shall wake the sky;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
And straw like gold shall shine;
A barn shall harbor heaven,
A stall become a shrine.
This child through David’s city
Shall ride in triumph by;
The palm shall strew its branches,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
Though heavy, dull, and dumb,
And lie within the roadway
To pave his kingdom come.
Yet he shall be forsaken,
And yielded up to die;
The sky shall groan and darken,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
For stony hearts of men:
God’s blood upon the spearhead,
God’s love refused again.
But now, as at the ending,
The low is lifted high;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
In praises of the child,
By whose descent among us,
The worlds are reconciled.

Although these poems may seem disparate in mood, theme, and construction, I believe they all connect through an idea. God reached out to man, and left us with a decision. What shall our response be? Rossetti suggests that Love is to be our sign - the sign of our encounter with Love Incarnate. Hopkins seeks that he may commune with the Divine. Wilbur suggests that the worlds are reconciled, even though some refuse Love. And Nash, in his own irreverent way, reminds us that those who choose to mock the idea of Love, choosing instead the harming of others and the mockery of virtue, may just, perhaps, be licked by a reindeer.

Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! And may God bless us, everyone!


  1. The first and last poems spoke to me the most. Although we ourselves are not Christmas celebrators (we regard not the day, Rom. 14), I can appreciate the thoughts represented, especially that love is our sign if we are followers of Christ. Does it puzzle you sometimes why so many who claim Christ can't grasp that? love serve one this shall all men know that ye are my disciples...a new commandment...that ye love one another as I have loved you...he that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love. And I could go on. How can we miss the point so often?

    I did some interesting reading on Christina Rossetti, by the way. I want to read more of her poetry too. Thanks for bringing her to my attention. In thinking about it, I tend to favor female poets. :-)

    My favorite poet is Annie Johnson Flint. I have quite a collection of her poems and have been in the process of posting them online over the last years. It's a point of great pleasure to me that her page is the most accessed page on my entire web site! :-) I think the internet has been a good thing for poetry. If you're interested, here's the link:

    1. The internet at least has enabled the few of us who still care about poetry to discover each other more easily :)

      Rossetti is well worth exploring. Every time I read her poems, I am struck again by her tremendous technical skill, and her powerful and deep thinking. She and Dorothy Sayers would be invitees to my fantasy dinner party. I'd say Emily Dickinson, but she wouldn't come, and probably wouldn't talk if she did. Oh well.

      I too share your puzzlement over the failure to grasp the law of love. This election season has been particularly brutal in that regard, but it seems widespread. Particularly troubling to me is that anyone who deviates on a doctrinal point gets immediately jumped on and dismissed from the faith, but nobody blinks an eye at truly hateful and unloving things. It makes me sad.

      I'll have to take a look at the link.

    2. A few years ago we heard a speaker in our church make a profound statement. He said something to the effect that the *main* purpose/work of the church is not preaching the Gospel. The main purpose or work is that we love one another, and the preaching of the Gospel will be a natural outflow of that. It was a very rare thing to hear coming from a Independent Baptist pulpit, which is probably one reason we still attend that church!

      It's rather bizarre how Christian love "doesn't apply" to so many subjects, especially politics.

      I should warn you that I am heavy handed about making my pages decorative on my web page. I'd be hard put to determine whether colors, flowers or words was a first love.

      Oh, and I apologize for inundating you with comments yesterday. :-) I blame it on my SAD and my innate tendency to say too much or too little depending on my mood.

  2. Turns out one of my favorite poems that my Gramma Hoover used to quote to us was by Christina Rossetti. Guess I've liked her for a long time after all. :-)