It is not reasonable to suppose that man will ever, in his highest artistic striving, approach the divine harmony, the majestic melody, which burst from the night sky upon the awestruck shepherds that night two thousand years ago. But probably no other religious theme has so often inspired artistic creation as this eternal one of the First Advent of the mighty Son of God. It is the golden thread among the browns and crimsons, the blues and greens of the merely earthly scene, a thread which, in English letters, runs from the earliest expression of Anglo-Saxon religious fervor to the intellectually taut, dry lines of W. H. Auden’s After Christmas. In between these two artistic and chronological extremes lies a great bulk of lyrics, dramas, epics, odes, each reflecting the temper and spirit of its own day.

Light in the Gloom

For the pagan Anglo-Saxon, the chief significance of the Christian message was that it shed light in the stern and gloomy atmosphere of pagan ignorance. Many readers will no doubt recall the famous passage in Bede’s eighth-century Latin Ecclesiastical History, in which he describes the introduction of Christianity into Northumbria. King Edwin had called a council of the chief men of the kingdom to hear the strange news, and one of the eldest spoke: “The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and retainers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.”

The instinctive reverence in the Anglo-Saxon temperament for the Hero, the Conqueror, found its perfect outlet in the story of the Divine Victor over the powers of darkness and hell. As the Beowulf poet records with solemn triumph: “The truth is made known, that the mighty God has always wielded the affairs of mankind. The Holy God, the Wise Lord, decided war victory; the ruler of the heavens decided it aright.”

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Even the more melodic and more sensuous poem called Christ, believed by many to be the creation of the great poet Cynewulf, has a tone of dignity and high seriousness. The fragment is incomplete, and the first words are the last of an incomplete sentence: “… to the king. Thou art the cornerstone, which the builders rejected from the work. It befits thee well that thou shouldst be head of the glorious temple, and frame the wide walls, the unbreakable flint, with firm joint, so that all things with gazing eyes … may marvel forever at the Lord of Glory.”

And he puts words of vision and grandeur, not merely those of gentle, maternal care, in the mouth of Mary, who is made to say: “What is the amazement with which ye wonder, and sorrowing lament with grief? Ask ye in curiosity how I have kept my maidenhood and yet become the mother of the glorious Son of God? Wherefore that hidden thing is not revealed to men, but Christ made known in David’s dear kinswoman that Eve’s sin is all done away, the curse cast off and womanhood exalted. O rising Sun, most radiant of beings sent to men upon earth and true beam of the sun bright beyond the stars … the mighty Child of the Lord doth dwell together in concord among men. Wherefore we can ever utter thanks to the Lord of victory for his deeds, because he was pleased to send us himself.”

The Intimate and Tender

Turning to the Middle Ages, we are overwhelmed by the sheer bulk of religious works, including numberless treatments of the Nativity story. Although the Norman invasion snuffed out the unique, stark grandeur of Old English literature for several centuries, there was available all the richness and subtlety of the French tongue and of European culture to draw upon.

Outstandingly, one finds that medieval Nativity poems deal with the more intimate and tender aspects of the Bethlehem scene. The Infant King is more the Babe in his mother’s arms now, less the Mighty Conqueror of the dark powers. From among hundreds of lyrics, one may be selected to give a hint of the gentle simplicity and the artful directness of the best poems. One must not be deceived by what seems to be naivete, for it is rather a directness of vision which transcends the clutter of the fragmentary and has fixed its gaze upon the One who embraces the many. I quote only a fragment; and, at a loss of some of the original flavor, I have modernized some of the vocabulary. The poem dates about 1450, and is usually titled “I Sing of a Maiden.”

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I sing of a maiden that is matchless. King of kings as her Son she chose.
He came as still where His Mother was as dew in April that falleth on the grass.
He came as still to His Mother’s bower as dew in April that falleth upon the flower.
He came as still where His Mother lay as dew in April that falleth on the spray.
Mother and Maiden was never—none but she; well may such a lady God’s Mother be.

Redirected Ardor

As we get into the sweep of the Renaissance, religious verse diminishes in quantity, though not in quality. But the ardor which had been devoted to Mary is redirected toward more mundane ladies, and the spirit of classical paganism bursts out in the Elizabethan splendor of such works as Marlowe’s Hero and Leonder and Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis. (Indeed, in the next century, the saintly George Herbert asks whether the poet has forever resolved to devote his verse to mere earthly love; is there no more “heat toward God”?) Again, from among endless profusion, I pick one poem, this time a very strange and powerful one: “The Burning Babe,” by Robert Southwell, written about 1593.

As I in winter’s night stood shivering in the snow
Surprised I was by 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.
“Alas,” quoth he, “but newly born, in fiery heats I lie,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!
My fauldless breast the furnace is, the fuel, wounding thorns;
Love is the fire, and sights 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 defiled souls.”
With this he vanished out of sight and swiftly shrank away—
And straight, I called unto mind that it was Christmas Day.

Then the youthful exuberance of the Renaissance passed into the maturity of the 17th century, and the Puritan movement built a great, gaunt cathedral of religious verse, scores of poems celebrating the Nativity, now viewed with renewed faith and with renewed emphasis on the Babe rather than His mother. The variety is endless, both within and without the Puritan impulse. There is Ben Jonson’s tender, classically polished lyric called “A Hymn on the Nativity of My Saviour”; Crashaw’s charged, hotly passionate and sensuous poem, “In the Holy Nativity of Our Lord God,” with its lovely quatrain:

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Gloomy night embraced the place
Where the noble Infant lay;
The Babe looked up and showed His face—
In spite of darkness, it was day!

Grandeur and Sweep

But set apart from all other efforts in the 17th century is the grandeur and sweep of Milton’s mighty “Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” probably (almost undoubtedly) the greatest of all English poems on the subject. Again, only an illustrative fragment—but if you have not recently re-read the entire poem, by all means do so. Listen at least to the organ roll of the beginning:

This is the Month, and this the happy morn
Wherein the Son of Heav’ns eternal King,
Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring;
For so the holy sages once did sing,
That He our deadly forfeit should release,
And with His Father work us a perpetual peace.

That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable,
And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty,
Wherewith He wont at Heav’ns high Council-table
To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,
He laid aside; and here with us to be,
Forsook the Courts of everlasting Day,
And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.

Once more, notice, the emphasis is on the majesty and kingliness of the Babe, and the poem ends, you will recall, with awed eyes raised to the encompassing circle of the night sky, where, unseen by men, there stand rank on rank of glorious angels mounting watch over their King.

The Modern Temper

Turning to the modern period, we may choose almost at random for an illustration of the 20th-century temper. Because W. H. Auden so skillfully sets the tone of modern coldness and skepticism over against the titanic implications of the Nativity, I have chosen to use a few lines from his ironic poem, “After Christmas.”

In a deliberately colloquial, under-charged tone, Auden sets the smallness of modern Christmas celebrations, with their commercialism, their raucous songs and their vulgarity side by side with hints of the real and lost meaning of the event. It begins:

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes—
Some have got broken—and carrying them up to the attic.
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed once again
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.

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The indirectness, the studied casualness of Auden’s poem stands in marked contrast to Eliot’s abstract, subtle, philosophical handling of the great theme of Incarnation in The Four Quartets. And both are utterly different from Edith Sitwell’s booming, powerful music.

But we end where we began: no words composed by men have the magic simplicity, the innate grandeur of those lines which begin: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.…”

Calvin D. Linton, A.M., Ph.D., is associate dean of Columbian College and professor of English Literature at George Washington University in the District of Columbia. He has written numerous articles in the literary field, particularly in the area of Elizabethan drama. In February he leaves to visit the libraries of Great Britain for research in 17th century Puritan concepts of freedom.

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