As Christmas celebrations go, it’s modest – sixteen poems on thirty-four pages, published by the Oxford University Press, New York City, in 1945. The war was over. Exhilaration vied with austerity, especially in England. Even the cover’s color scheme, blue and black, is severe for a chapbook titled Christmas Verse. Included are poems selected from previous Oxford Books of Verse, dating from the twelfth to the twentieth century, with each set in a typographic style appropriate to its period. I’m pleased to report that nearly all of the poems are new to me. Here is a passage from “A Christmas Carroll” by George Wither (1588-1667):
“Though some Churles at our mirth repine,
Round your foreheads Garlands twine,
Drown sorrow in a Cup of Wine,
And let us all be merry.”
Christmas Verse reprints only four stanzas of Wither's poem. Online I find as many as twelve. I chose these four lines because they thumb their nose at the world’s bah-humbug characters and because I like the word churl. We hear churlish more often today, in the sense of sour, rude, surly. Churl is complicated. It started in Middle English meaning a man, a male human being. Later, a low-class man, then a serf or bondman, and still a peasant or rustic. The OED’s fifth meaning is pertinent to Withers’ poem: “a term of disparagement or contempt; base fellow, villein. In modern times usually: rude low-bred fellow.” Regardless, Wither urges us to ignore them. Too many people I know turn Christmas into an emotional endurance test, yet another excuse for wanting to get angry.
The final selection in Christmas Verse is very different in technique and tone: Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” written in 1927, the year he was baptized into the Anglican faith. The chapbook excerpts twenty-nine of the poem’s forty-three lines, including the beautiful conclusion:
“All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.”
So much weariness, so many illusions shed. Merry Christmas.