Poems to celebrate Christmas

carollersIt’s Christmas, and what better way to get the festive feelings going than by reading some Christmassy poems? I’m looking forward to hearing Simon Callow reading ‘The Night Before Christmas’ on CBeebies (yes, I know) this evening, and I have a list of other poems I’ll read today. But poems about Christmas are often somewhat conflicted: what does Christmas mean to us – poet and reader? What are we celebrating? John Betjeman’s poems capture this conflict, especially ‘Advent 1955‘ and my particular favourite, ‘Christmas‘. This seems to both celebrate and slightly mock the things we enjoy about Christmas:

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.

Typically, for Betjeman, the poem satirises class, society, popular culture – and yet points out that the meaning of Christmas is (for the poet, and indeed for me) a religious one: the things we love about Christmas, such as being with family, the carols, the cosiness and comfort of it all, are significant but are part of a greater truth:1m

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

The Burning Babe‘ by Robert Southwell is a much earlier, and much stranger, visionary poem which also points to the Christian origins of Christmas, in a hallucinatory style in which the babe is aligned to the angels which appeared announcing the birth of the Christ child: ‘A pretty Babe all burning bright did in the air appear’. This is a mystic, fierce poem which emphasises the reason for Christmas: the redemption of souls. The poem was itself forged in the furnace of religious conflict; Southwell was a Catholic priest who was executed for his faith during the reign of Elizabeth I, and the fervour of his belief which sustained him is evident in this unusual poem.

Nativity-Scene-300x187W H Auden’s poem ‘At the Manger Mary Sings‘ offers a rather different perspective: this is the view of the new mother, Mary, manifesting an anxiety perhaps familiar to all new parents, and torn between reflecting on the perfect beauty and innocence of the infant Jesus and the future which lies ahead of him:

Why was I chosen to teach his Son to weep?
Little One, sleep.

In fact this poem is part of a much larger poetic work, ‘For the Time Being’, which explores in remarkable poetic language the significance of the Incarnation – the concept of God made Man.

John Milton’s ‘Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity‘ also dramatises the Christmas story, in a very Miltonic way, with the grandeur of language and occasional opacity of form which makes Milton’s poetry so splendid. Combining classical and biblical references, juxtaposing power and weakness in the form of a baby (‘Our Babe, to show His Godhead true, Can in His swaddling bands control the damnèd crew’), Milton’s poem is both a form of worship and a devotional reminder of the joy of Christmas, free of the consumerist conflicts which trouble Betjeman. medeival0_2435981b

Noel: Christmas Eve 1913‘ by Robert Bridges is a poem weighted with subsequent historical events for the modern reader. The speaker sees Christmas from his own simple, rural perspective, yet relates it to the birth of Christ in his own way, suggesting that we all have our ways of marking the birth of Christ. This is the poem that first introduced me to Bridges, perhaps one of Britain’s less memorable Poet Laureates, but for his precise, perfect turns of phrase (‘mad romping din’, for example), well worth reading. Enjoy!

A frosty Christmas Eve when the stars were shining
Fared I forth alone where westward falls the hill,
And from many a village in the water’d valley
Distant music reach’d me peals of bells aringing:
The constellated sounds ran sprinkling on earth’s floor
As the dark vault above with stars was spangled o’er.
Then sped my thoughts to keep that first Christmas of all
When the shepherds watching by their folds ere the dawn
Heard music in the fields and marveling could not tell
Whether it were angels or the bright stars singing.
Now blessed be the towers that crown England so fair
That stand up strong in prayer unto God for our souls
Blessed be their founders (said I) an’ our country folk
Who are ringing for Christ in the belfries tonight
With arms lifted to clutch the rattling ropes that race
Into the dark above and the mad romping din.
But to me heard afar it was starry music
Angels’ song, comforting as the comfort of Christ
When he spake tenderly to his sorrowful flock:
The old words came to me by the riches of time
Mellow’d and transfigured as I stood on the hill
Heark’ning in the aspect of th’ eternal silence

If you’re feeling inspired, here are some other Christmas poems:victorianchristmastree

T S Eliot, ‘The Journey of the Magi

Christina Rossetti, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter

Robert Herrick, ‘Ceremonies for Christmas

S T Coleridge, ‘A Christmas Carol

Walter Scott, ‘Christmas in the Olden Time

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!


How to Celebrate National Tree Week

I’ve recentIMG_1540.JPGly discovered that it’s National Tree Week from 29th November to 7th December. I’m not usually that keen on things like this which artificially emphasise something, but actually, I think trees are really important (and when I was younger I used to actually hug them, something my toddler is now doing too). And the colours of the trees have been so beautiful this Autumn that they’re good for the soul as well as the planet. The point of Tree Week is that it’s at the start of the winter planting season, and emphasises how much we need trees, as homes for birds and animals, for their ability to absorb carbon dioxide and excrete oxygen, for the things we can make out of their byproducts, and for the fact that they even help create rainfall. And, of course, they’re beautiful.
Ancient woodlands are not only beautiful, they are historical, and sites of established natural habitats. They are often, as the Woodland Trust emphasises, threatened.
Poetry celebrates many of these aspects of the natural world. Kipling’s poem ‘The Way througIMG_1539.JPGh the Woods’ asks us to think about woods as a historic place, where echoes of the past remain but nature almost obliterates it, keeping its own secrets. A E Housman’s poem about the cherry tree reflects on the passing of time and life as he looks at blossom. And let’s not forget Christmas trees, as ee cummings describes on her poem ‘little tree‘. Finally, there is the magnificent, ancient yew tree of which Wordsworth writes, dwarfing all around them and suggesting a permanency of nature against the temporal humans who see it. Sylvia Plath’s ‘I am Vertical’ (below) shows how trees can even show us more about ourselves.
So in celebration of National Tree Week, and of the beautiful trees which grow in Britain, read a poem about the beauty of trees, hug a tree, scuffle through some fallen leaves, and admire the beauty of an ancient oak. Better still, get involved – find out what local events are running for National Tree Week.

‘I am Vertical’ by Sylvia Plath
…But I would rather be horizontal.
I am not a tree with my root in the soil
Sucking up minerals and motherly love
So that each March I may gleam into leaf,
Nor am I the beauty of a garden bed
Attracting my share of Ahs and spectacularly painted,
Unknowing I must soon unpetal.
Compared with me, a tree is immortal
And a flower-head not tall, but more startling,
And I want the one’s longevity and the other’s daring.

Tonight, in the infinitesimal light of the stars,
The trees and flowers have been strewing their cool odors.
I walk among them, but none of them are noticing.
Sometimes I think that when I am sleepingIMG_1537.PNG
I must most perfectly resemble them–
Thoughts gone dim.
It is more natural to me, lying down.
Then the sky and I are in open conversation,
And I shall be useful when I lie down finally:
The the trees may touch me for once, and the flowers have time for me.


Rhymes and Reasons: Poetry for children

downloadSmall children love poetry. Most adults, sadly, don’t. What happens in between? There seems to be a popular assumption that if you really like poetry (like me), you must be academic, a bit geeky, probably rather weird (like me). I don’t believe this; I think that too many people are put off poetry at school, perhaps by assumptions made by others around them that it’s ‘boring'; perhaps by exposure to a limited range of poems; perhaps by lacklustre teaching. But this is such a shame – I won’t go into why poetry is important, beautiful, necessary etc here (if you want more on this, read ‘How Poetry can Change Lives‘, which says it better than I can). When I’m teaching poetry to undergraduates, I often hear students say ‘I don’t understand it’. Often, it’s true, poetry doesn’t say things in the same straightforward way that prose does, but poetry is a lot more than just its projected ‘meaning’. I know this because my son, pre-verbal at less than a year old, loved me reading poetry to him; he heard a lot of Tennyson, Rossetti and Shakespeare (and anything else I had memorised) before he had any idea what words were, let alone how to interpret a poem. Of course he loved it – the rhythm, the sounds of the words in your mouth and in the air are hypnotic. How can you not be drawn in by Byron’s ‘The Destruction of Sennacharib’? If you don’t believe me, read it aloud.

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.images

What about Tennyson’s ‘Locksley Hall’?

When the centuries behind me like a fruitful land reposed;
When I clung to all the present for the promise that it closed:
When I dipt into the future far as human eye could see;
Saw the Vision of the world and all the wonder that would be.—
In the Spring a fuller crimson comes upon the robin’s breast;
In the Spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest;
In the Spring a livelier iris changes on the burnish’d dove;
In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.

Poems are meant to be read aloud, and one of the pleasures of having a small child is the reading process. Of course, it’s good for them in an educational sense, and in a bonding way too, but it is also fun. Now my son is nearly 3, we have a lot of children’s poems, including the omnipresent Julia Donaldson (my particular favourite is The Highway Rat because of my affection for Alfred Noyes’ poem), but mostly, we have A A Milne’s poems of Pooh Bear and Christopher Robin. They entertain parents as well as children; they have little morals (images (1)some of them) and are absolute nonsense (others). But what they have in common is a gentle repetition, rhymes, a steady, often galloping rhythm, and images which appeal to children. Like all the best children’s (and adults?) literature, they suggest ways in which the world might be better (‘King John’s Christmas’ opens ‘King John was not a good man’, but concludes ‘And oh! Father Christmas, my blessings on you fall, For bringing him a big, red, india-rubber ball!’) ‘The Dormouse and the Doctor‘ reminds us that other people don’t always know best (and is, in its way, a very sad poem). ‘Sneezles‘ reminds us not to get too stressed about children’s colds, while ‘Teddy Bear‘ shows us that fat can be beautiful. All good messages. Be warned, though – these are earworms of the most pernicious variety, and you will find yourself reciting them long after the children are in bed.

In the Fashion’ is Edward’s current favourite: it’s about how a little boy gets a tail because his favourite animals have them; as a result, I have had to make him his own tail (see picture). Another favourite is the completely pointless ‘Busy’, which I rather like because it exactly sums up a child’s life. We often hear Edward muttering ‘Round about and round about and round about and round about’ when he’s meant to be going to sleep:

I think I am a muffin man. I haven’t got a bell.
I haven’t got the muffin things that muffin people sell. 
Perhaps I am a postman. No I think I am a tram. IMG_1081
I’m feeling rather funny and I don’t know what I am–

Round about 
And round about
And round about I go–
All around the table,
The table in the nursery–
Round about 
And round about
And round about I go–

I think I am a traveller escaping from a bear;
I think I am an elephant
Behind another elephant
Behind another elephant who isn’t really there….

Round about 
And round about
And round about and round about 
And round about
And round about 
I go.

Grace Nichols, a judge of the Foyle Young Poets Award, wrote to the Guardian recently asking ‘Parents, pick poetry’. She points out that children are likely to get into poetry through their parents, and says that ‘a poem read aloud can hold children enthralled, awakening in them a new love of language. Poetry never forgets its roots in song. Children love the sound of words; the surprise of images; of getting their tongues around the music of vowels and consonants.’ She’s right, and perhaps if more children experienced this on a regular basis, more adults would instinctively love poetry too.

John Clare, 150 years on

20140519-031615 pm-54975528.jpgIn case you have overlooked it, I thought I’d point out that today marks 150 years since the death of the poet John Clare (1793 – 1864). Clare’s reputation and popularity has waxed and waned, both during his lifetime and since his death, and though his work is more and more subject to critical scrutiny it is still enjoyed by a fairly limited range of readers; he’s certainly not as well-known as some of his contemporaries. Yet as a man and as a poet, he is notable on several counts, and his poetry still speaks to many readers.

Clare was a labouring-class poet, a man with little formal education and one whose life and work were centred around the countryside of his birth, in Northamptonshire. Not only are his poems beautiful, evoking the countryside he feared was vanishing in times of increasing industrialisation, but he is 20140520-075919 pm-71959890.jpgimportant as a working-class poet, one whose poetic drive allowed him to overcome social deprivation in order to write, with an authentic voice which demonstrates his understanding of and feeling for poetics, in style, content and the movement of his poems. I’m not a Clare expert but I love reading his poems and discovering new ones; the immediacy and freshness of the moments captured in ‘Country Letter’, for example, or the passion for the world around him in ‘A World for Love‘ can hardly fail to move. Clare’s enthusiasm is always palpable.

He wrote not just poetry but also essays and journals with remarkable articulacy, offering modern readers a glimpse of his world. Another aspect of his life which has intrigued modern readers is his struggle with madness, ending his days in a lunatic asylum. What most moved me about this is the story of his long walk home after his escape from the asylum in Essex, searching for his lost love and the lost rural idyll of his dreams. As Jonathan Bate writes in his excellent biography of Clare, ‘No one has ever written more powerfully of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self’.

The virtual exhibition ‘John Clare 150‘ demonstrates why Clare is still so important, particularly in the ways in which his work continues to inspire. To get a taste of Clare’s long-lost rural world, I offer you an extract from May in his ‘Shepherd’s Calendar’, celebrating the month in which the world begins to blossom and children can play outside again:

COME, Queen of Months! in company
With all thy merry minstrelsy:—
The restless cuckoo, absent long,
And twittering swallows’ chimney-song;
With hedge-row crickets’ notes, that run
From every bank that fronts the sun;
And swarthy bees, about the grass,
That stop with every bloom they pass,
And every minute, every hour,
Keep teazing weeds that wear a flower;
And Toil, and Childhood’s humming joys!
For there is music in the noise
When village children, wild for sport,
In school-time’s leisure, ever short
Alternate catch the bounding ball;
Or run along the church-yard wall,
Capp’d with rude figured slabs, whose claims
In time’s bad memory have no names;
Or race around the nooky church;
Or raise loud echoes in the porch;
Throw pebbles o’er the weather-cock,
Viewing with jealous eyes the clock;

You can read more of the poem, and other works by Clare, here. The John Clare Society also has more information and runs some excellent events.

20140519-032656 pm-55616064.jpg

Wordsworth and HS2

wordsrail2At the marvellous Romantic Locations conference in Grasmere recently, I heard  paper by Helen-Frances Pilkington from Birkbeck about Wordsworth’s opposition to the Kendal and Windermere Railway (by which transport I travelled to the conference). Wordsworth conducted his own literary campaign against the railway in 1844, notably by the writing of the sonnet ‘On the Projected Kendal and Windermere Railway’ as well as other poems and a number of letters to the Morning Post. For the poet who wrote ‘The world is too much with us’, it’s not surprising that he was opposed to a railway line which would bring yet more people to his beloved Cumbria (and there is more information on the railway and its opponents on the Wordsworth Trust’s website here). This sonnet uses the emotive language familiar from his other poems which eulogise the landscape, drawing on a tradition of pastoral which seeks to conjure up an already-fading rural idyll, soon to be destroyed. Wordsworth condemns those who place a ‘false utilitarian lure’ above the ‘beautiful romance of nature’. These arguments sound all too familiar, as HS2 draws ever closer (and, as I come from the Chilterns and work in Birmingham, HS2 is something I frequently hear discussed). Some of the arguments against the building of HS2 relate to the destruction of ancient woodland and beautiful countryside, and, set against the requirements of business and commerce, it’s not difficult to imagine which side Wordsworth would take. The parallels between the building of the two railways, nearly a century and a half apart, are striking, though the situations are in many Photo046.ways different, but the conflict between the local economy and the countryside is one that is still being evoked. The nature of poetic protest is perhaps not as strong as other forms; ultimately, Wordsworth was unsuccessful (as I’m afraid the less beautiful poetic offerings on the Stop HS2 website will also be) but Wordsworth’s sonnet does, at least, give us the opportunity to think about what might be lost and what might be gained, and about the value of the countryside.

‘On the Projected Kendal and Windermere Railway’

Is then no nook of English ground secure
From rash assault? Schemes of retirement sown
In youth, and ‘mid the busy world kept pure
As when their earliest flowers of hope were blown,
Must perish;–how can they this blight endure?
And must he too the ruthless change bemoan
Who scorns a false utilitarian lure
‘Mid his paternal fields at random thrown?
Baffle the threat, bright Scene, from Orresthead
Given to the pausing traveller’s rapturous glance:
Plead for thy peace, thou beautiful romance
Of nature; and, if human hearts be dead,
Speak, passing winds; ye torrents, with your strong
And constant voice, protest against the wrong.

Christina Rossetti’s Gothic

31XvJYSEdGL__I am very excited because my monograph, Christina Rossetti’s Gothic, is published today by Bloomsbury. This book has been a long time coming: it is based on my Ph.D. research, and has been through much rewriting, rethinking and editing to get to this stage. The process of turning a thesis into a book is often a confusing one, but ultimately it has been one that I have enjoyed and learned a lot from.

The book blurb says:

The poetry of Christina Rossetti is often described as ‘gothic’ and yet this term has rarely been examined in the specific case of Rossetti’s work. Based on new readings of the full range of her writings, from ‘Goblin Market’ to the devotional poems and prose works, this book explores Rossetti’s use of Gothic forms and images to consider her as a Gothic writer. Christina Rossetti’s Gothic analyses the poet’s use of the grotesque and the spectral and the Christian roots and Pre-Raphaelite influences of Rossetti’s deployment of Gothic tropes.

Contents: Introduction \ 1. The Spectrality of Rossettian Gothic \ 2. Early Influences: Rossetti and the Gothic of Maturin \ 3. ‘Goblin Market’ and Gothic \ 4. Rossetti, Ruskin and the Moral Grotesque \ 5. Shadows of Heaven: Rossetti’s Prose Works \ Bibliography \ Index.

I have worked on Rossetti for about six years now, and have been reading her poetry for much longer. The impetus behind my research was that so much criticism of her work considers her primarily as shadowed by the Pre-Raphaelites, or as a delicate, sentimental lady-poet whose work is rather sweet instead of fierce. ‘Goblin Market’ has attracted the most attention, of course, and that is quite a fierce p95d30/huch/1282/hk0122oem, but many of her other poems are read, or misread, as sentimental, and this is not the whole picture. Rossetti was very keen on Gothic novels as an adolescent, and these influence her early work directly, when she engages with the novels of Maturin in her poems, and then takes the aesthetics and tropes of Gothic forward into her later work, combining it with her Tractarian faith to create something quite unexpected. Ultimately, I argue in my book, Rossetti sees the world itself as Gothic, and Heaven as the ideal beyond it to which we should aim.

There are many excellent books on Rossetti available, from biographies to scholarly works which engage with particular aspects of her work, and I owe an enormous debt to these writers, though they are too numerous to name.

From my work on Rossetti springs my next project, on graveyard poetry, because through my work on Rossetti’s poetry I became interested in the interactions and relations between poetry and Gothic. I don’t think I can quite bring myself to leave Rossetti behind, however.

The book is available on Amazon.

Gray and Graveyards

20130722-095212 PM.jpgYesterday we visited St Giles Church at Stoke Poges, where Thomas Gray is believed to have written his ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’.  Gray was at school at Eton, not far from Stoke Poges, having grown up in London, and spent many months staying with his aunt and uncle at Stoke Poges. It is fabled that he wrote his Elegy under the ancient yew tree just outside the church (below), and I must admit I spent some time trying to catch the mood of his poem, but the scorching heat and brilliant sunshine seemed somehow inappropriate.

Gray is also buried at St Giles, though interestingly his tomb is unnamed. His mother and aunt are buried in one tomb, on which he inscribed his grief, and later he was interred in the same place, and it seems somehow fitting, or perhaps ironic, that the author of the ‘mute inglorious Milton’ should have been buried without a me20130722-095546 PM.jpgmorial.  However, a memorial has since been created, and quite an ostentatious one, just outside the grounds of the church. Now surrounded by a fence, it is a huge edifice topped with an urn, and with extracts from the Elegy inscribed upon it.

Gray’s Elegy is one of the most popular in the English language, apparently, which causes it to be the subject of some scorn, but it’s popularity cannot (to my mind) change its beauty and significance. Part of the school of ‘graveyard’ poetry, the poem expresses sadness at loss, the brevity of life, the passing of time, whilst also celebrating the pastoral landscape and the fleeting beauty we have around us. Significantly, Gray’s poem also celebrates those who are unknown to history, whose lives go unrecorded in the annals of time. His poem is infinitely sad, and yet his letters are often humorous, and what I have learned of him so far makes him seem an appealing character (see, for example, his ‘Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat’). A friend of Horace Walpole, he is involved in the movement towards the inception of Gothic literature, something which is evident in the Elegy and also his ‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College’. Gray’s finely-wrought melancholy is delivered with a light touch, in many ways very unlike the other poems of the graveyard variety.

Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;
Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow’r
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wand’ring near her secret bow’r,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.
Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
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You can read the rest of Gray’s Elegy here, and also visit the excellent Gray online archive, which offers a searchable archive of Gray’s prose and poetry as well as letters and other information. For further background on Gray’s life, as well as an absorbing read, I’d suggest Robert L. Mack’s Life of Gray.