Last year around this time I featured some Random Favorite Christmas Songs, and so this season I thought we’d do a slight twist on that idea, a Christmas Song and Poetry Mash-up. It fits the theme of this place better to bring poetry into it, and songs and poems are sort of sister arts anyway. I know there are various opinions on this, but personally while some lyrics stand up beautifully on their own, most song lyrics actually require the music in order to feel and sound complete. One non-accompanied reading of Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It” should make that argument for me.
Poems have an internal music of their own, born not necessarily through traditional rhyme and meter, but through the natural human rhythm of the spoken word, as well as through internal rhyme, assonance, consonance, alliteration. Sometimes, as in most “prose poetry,” the sheer metaphor and natural rhythm may be enough to give the work a music that rises above common prose.
But maybe all of that is for another discussion. Some of the songs I will present in this little series (and really I barely have any idea of what I’ll put together yet; I’m kind of making this up as I go along) up until Christmas will have very poetic lyrics, or lyrics that were first written as poetry before they were put to music. Some of the poems might be very musical in the classic sense. Some will be mashed together because they seem made for each other, while others will be thrown side-by-side because I am delighted by their contrast.
My friend Jon Balaya has been posting his 25 Carols of Christmas, and one being “sung” by Monks of silent order caught my fancy. The delightful video John shared can be found below. But first, the poem by John Greenleaf Whittier. Now Whittier was never one of my favorite poets, not that I dislike him in any way. I mean how can you dislike someone whose middle name is “Greenleaf?” It’s just that his is not a name that comes up when people ask me which poets I love the most. All of us were required to read “Snow Bound” in school, were we not?
And by the way, I think I just got the idea for my second Mash-up. Since JGW hasn’t gotten much press on my blog, perhaps we’ll allow him two appearances in this series. In any case he deserves mention as one of the favorite “Fireside Poets,” and Saint Nicholas knows we need as much warmth as we can get as we approach the darkest night of the year.
I am not traditionally religious although I come out of a religious tradition, so don’t misunderstand my reasons for liking this poem. Like the Hallelujah Chorus video, the poem is populated with Monks. And in the poem one Monk decides to remember Christ’s birth in his own way, aside from the trappings of Yuletide festivities. He even points out to the other robed boys the pagan origins of much of their holy celebration. While they begin by chiding him for not joining in the festivities (I doubt he went shopping on Thanksgiving either), the mystic monk ends up schooling the young men in the ways of the spirit. I simply love how he respectfully wraps up his case in the final stanzas. It’s a great little portrait of a man “worshiping as he sees fit.”
Twelve quatrains of rhymed couplets makes this a very traditional poem and one that could be easily set to music. In fact the Christian Science Hymnal published an adaptation of the poem in its 1932 edition. Be sure to “listen” to the Monks of the silent order afterwards as they present what John accurately calls an “extremely well choreographed” rendition of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.”
The Mystic’s Christmasby John Greenleaf Whittier
‘All hail!’ the bells of Christmas rang,
‘All hail!’ the monks at Christmas sang,
The merry monks who kept with cheer
The gladdest day of all their year.
But still apart, unmoved thereat,
A pious elder brother sat
Silent, in his accustomed place,
With God’s sweet peace upon his face.
‘Why sitt’st thou thus?’ his brethren cried.
‘It is the blessed Christmas-tide;
The Christmas lights are all aglow,
The sacred lilies bud and blow.
‘Above our heads the joy-bells ring,
Without the happy children sing,
And all God’s creatures hail the morn
On which the holy Christ was born!
‘Rejoice with us; no more rebuke
Our gladness with thy quiet look.’
The gray monk answered: ‘Keep, I pray,
Even as ye list, the Lord’s birthday.
‘Let heathen Yule fires flicker red
Where thronged refectory feasts are spread;
With mystery-play and masque and mime
And wait-songs speed the holy time!
‘The blindest faith may haply save;
The Lord accepts the things we have;
And reverence, howsoe’er it strays,
May find at last the shining ways.
‘They needs must grope who cannot see,
The blade before the ear must be;
As ye are feeling I have felt,
And where ye dwell I too have dwelt.
‘But now, beyond the things of sense,
Beyond occasions and events,
I know, through God’s exceeding grace,
Release from form and time and place.
‘I listen, from no mortal tongue,
To hear the song the angels sung;
And wait within myself to know
The Christmas lilies bud and blow.
‘The outward symbols disappear
From him whose inward sight is clear;
And small must be the choice of clays
To him who fills them all with praise!
‘Keep while you need it, brothers mine,
With honest zeal your Christmas sign,
But judge not him who every morn
Feels in his heart the Lord Christ born!’