Whatever Christmas means to you, I hope you enjoy these poems.
The first is a well known poem of nostalgia, written in the voice of an adult wishing that he could still believe the accounts of Christmas that he was told as a child. In this case, the story is the legend that at midnight, when Christmas Eve becomes Christmas Day, all the animals kneel down, to honour the birth of the Christ child.
Thomas Hardy uses a simple structure of four-line verses, rhyming a b a b, with a regular rhythm; this is appropriate for a simple story of childhood. The atmosphere that Hardy creates is a large part of the attraction of the poem; it is one that we might all long to experience. [barton and coomb are dialect words from Hardy’s part of the country. We might say “farmyard” and “valley”.]
The Oxen – Thomas Hardy
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock. / “Now they are all on their knees,” / An elder said as we sat in a flock / By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where / They dwelt in their strawy pen, / Nor did it occur to one of us there / To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave / In these years! Yet, I feel, / If someone said on Christmas Eve, / “Come; see the oxen kneel,
“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb / Our childhood used to know,” / I should go with him in the gloom, / Hoping it might be so.
U. A. Fanthorpe wrote poems regularly at Christmas. Some of her best, it seems to me, look at the traditional story of the Nativity – the birth of the Christ child in a stable in Bethlehem, surrounded by farm creatures, laid in a manger for his bed and attended by his parents – from an unusual point of view. The two short poems that follow are examples of that.
Joseph uses – like Hardy’s poem above – a simple four-line verse structure with a regular rhythm; its rhyme-scheme is a b c b. Again, it’s essentially a simple message – it’s how Joseph feels about the birth of Jesus, who is said to have been conceived by his mother, Mary, while she was still a virgin, through the action of the Holy Spirit. Because it’s written in the first person – that is, as if it is being spoken by Joseph himself – it makes it easier for us to appreciate how he feels. Joseph could so easily have felt resentful about what had happened. There is, instead, a sadness and a determination about his response here. The final verse suggests to me the great love that Joseph has for his “foster son”, and the final line is a very compact summary of the life of Christ as traditionally told.
Joseph – U. A. Fanthorpe
I am Joseph, carpenter, / Of David’s kingly line, / I wanted an heir; discovered / My wife’s son wasn’t mine.
I am an obstinate lover, / Loved Mary for better or worse. / Wouldn’t stop loving when first I found / Someone Else came first.
Mine was the likeness I hoped for / When the first-born man-child came. / But nothing of him was me. I couldn’t / Even choose his name.
I am Joseph, who wanted / To teach my own boy how to live. / My lesson for my foster son: / Endure. Love. Give.
The second U. A. Fanthorpe poem tells the story from the point of view of one of the animals in the stable – the donkey. It includes, too, other elements of the traditional story – the shepherds and Magi (or Wise Men from the East) who came to worship Jesus when he was born, and the multitude of angels (“the heavenly host”) who told the good news to the shepherds and guided them to the stable. A cherub, by the way, is traditionally a small angelic figure, rather like a baby with wings.
What I particularly like about this poem is the sense of ownership of the stable which the donkey has, and the oblique [indirect] reference in the last two lines to the adult Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, on the back of a donkey, at the beginning of the week in which he is to be tried, found guilty and executed by crucifixion.
This poem is more free-form than those above: the lines are of uneven length and the rhyme scheme is slight, if indeed it is there at all (course – host; baby – money). The effect is to render the poem more like normal speech – an effect which is enhanced by the poem also being written in the first person, in the “voice” – or thoughts – of the donkey.
What the Donkey Saw – U. A. Fanthorpe
No room in the inn, of course, / And not that much in the stable / What with the shepherds, Magi, Mary, / Joseph, the heavenly host – / Not to mention the baby / Using our manger as a cot . / You couldn’t have squeezed another cherub in / For love or money.
Still, in spite of the overcrowding, / I did my best to make them feel wanted. / I could see the baby and I / Would be going places together.