In keeping with my December tradition of posting a Christmas poem — up till now, they were T. S. Eliot’s, but I’ve finished his — I offer you this, from Robert Southwell, who was tortured and executed as a Catholic in Protestant England in the sixteenth century. (The English Protestants of the sixteenth century were unnecessarily harsh, in my view; and I, a Protestant, find the poetry of their enemies — at least in this instance — thoroughly palatable.) My favorite thing about this poem has to be the way Southwell turns each idea inside out on itself, so that we’re expecting to see the wrong side of things, the raw edges, hanging threads, and instead it seems the “right” sides were actually the wrong ones.
The Nativity of Christ
Behold the father is his daughter’s son,
The bird that built the nest is hatched therein,
The old of years an hour hath not outrun,
Eternal life to live doth now begin,
The Word is dumb, the mirth of heaven doth weep,
Might feeble is, and force doth faintly creep.
O dying souls, behold your living spring;
O dazzled eyes, behold your sun of grace;
Dull ears, attend what word this Word doth bring;
Up, heavy hearts, with joy your joy embrace.
From death, from dark, from deafness, from despairs,
This life, this light, this Word, this joy repairs.
Gift better than himself God doth not know;
Gift better than his God no man can see.
This gift doth here the giver given bestow;
Gift to this gift let each receiver be.
God is my gift, himself he freely gave me;
God’s gift am I, and none but God shall have me.
Man altered was by sin from man to beast;
Beast’s food is hay, hay is all mortal flesh.
Now God is flesh and lies in manger pressed
As hay, the brutest sinner to refresh.
O happy field wherein this fodder grew,
Whose taste doth us from beasts to men renew.
*Image comes from Fika Home, where Sarah Swenson is posting a hand-made Advent Calendar with “The whole story of Christmas — from Genesis to Revelation.” Check it out!