We’ll be spending Christmas in Greece this year, about which I have mixed feelings. Christmas is not a big holiday in Greece or the Eastern church generally, which has its upside (a little less commercialism, though that is changing every year). Easter is what Greeks do best. So I guess I am more inclined to homesickness of a sort. There are things I miss about Western Christmas—mostly the carols. I’ll definitely be getting down to St. Paul’s Anglican church Christmas Eve for the carol service. Meanwhile, I have been cracking open my ancient book of carols from piano lessons of Christmas Past. It was always of course the melancholy ones that appealed to me, the minor keys and the modal tunes. I used to love “We Three Kings” (perfume/gloom/tomb), "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman" (which never really sounded merry, and which I suppose I associate in some way with the black & white version of A Christmas Carol that used to frighten me a little as a child), and best of all the Coventry Carol, which always gets me (whether it is the lilting lullaby or the slaughter of the innocents I’m not sure… but what a combination.) Likewise with Christmas poems, it is the poems that explore the juxtapositions of the season—pagan and Christian, birth and winter, darkness and starlight, hope and doubt—that attract me, “the uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor,” “I had seen birth and death, but had thought they were different,” “I should go with him in the gloom/ Hoping it might be so.”
I have long loved Edward Thomas’s much-anthologized “The Owl.” It seems a simple enough poem, but it is a hard-won Classical simplicity, of proportion, of diction, of parallelism, of syntax and rhetoric (how the three needs of hunger, cold, and weariness are repeated and varied and balanced with the remedies of shelter--sustenance, warmth, and rest—beautifully portioned out across line and enjambment—the three physical needs that must be met before any spiritual ones, such as happiness, can be addressed).
Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved,
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.
Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl's cry, a most melancholy cry
Shaken out long and clear upon the hill
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.
And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered too, by the bird's voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.
It is of course a World War I poem (Thomas was killed by a shell at the Battle of Arras in 1917), which remains both timeless and painfully topical.
Though it was apparently written in late February of 1915, yet it seems a sort of Christmas poem to me (and arguably a Christian one, in the sense which Ange discussed here); indeed it would make a very fine carol. The elements are all there—the darkness, the cold, seeking room at the inn, thoughts of those still out “under the stars”—the soldiers and the poor, themselves important to the story; and then, though negated, the suggestion nevertheless of “merriment,” and that last word upon which the poem hinges, “rejoice.”
A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...