Christmas and New Year’s Poetry
by Claudia Willetts
Verses of The Poets Laureate: From John Dryden to Andrew Motion, tells us that Nahum Tate, who was the first Poet Laureate 1692-1715, was one of the most prolific, but perhaps one of the worst. Though literary historians can find little good to say of him, churchgoers have reason to think more fondly of him. Tate’s best-known work is “While shepherds watched their flocks by night”, though few people could name him as its author.
Tate’s predecessor Thomas Shadwell began the custom, which lasted over one hundred years, of writing an ode to mark the New Year. Tate’s successor, Nicholas Rowe’s “Ode for the New Year 1716”, was addressed to King George I following the collapse of the first Jacobite rebellion. It ended by grandly addressing the King “Thou great Plantagenet, immortal be thy race!”
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Poet Laureate 1850-1892, during most of the reign of Queen Victoria, gave the position new status and significance. After the death of her husband the Prince Consort, the sorrowing Queen found solace in compiling an album consolatium, according to Stanley Weintraub’s Victoria: An Intimate Biography. The most underlined passages in this album, were those from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”, Victoria’s favourite work by the Laureate. Elegy 106 from this poem is composed of eight verses in parallel style beginning:
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky. Ring out the old, ring in the new,
The flying cloud, the frosty light; Ring, happy bells, across the snow.
The year is dying in the night; The year is going, let him go;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Verses of the Poets Laureate later mentions that “Noel: Christmas Eve, 1913, Pax hominibus bonae voluntatus”, a laureate poem by Robert Bridges, was greatly admired by King George V.
King George VI closed his 1939 Christmas radio broadcast by quoting from a prose poem “God Knows”, to warn his listeners of “the dark times ahead of us”, according to John Wheeler-Bennett in King George VI: His Life and Reign.
I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year,
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown’.
And he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way’.
An article in This England Winter 1985, tells us that the author Marie Louise Haskins, a Bristol lady, had printed the poem privately in 1908, and then forgotten about it. Through a series of circuitous circumstances, years later it came into the hands of the King on a card sent by a Christmas well-wisher.
Much later, Douglas Keay records in Elizabeth II: Portrait of a Monarch, these words from the poem formed a part of the King’s second funeral in 1969. The first funeral in 1952, had been hurried because of the suddenness of the King’s death, and no provision had been made at the time for a permanent tomb. The reinterment was in a small chantry attached to St George’s Chapel in the presence of the Queen, the Queen Mother and all the Royal Family. The words of the poem that the King had haltingly spoken in his wartime Christmas broadcast, and which will always be associated with him, were recited at the close of the prayers and hymns. The quotation from the poem was given further immortality, by being worked into the wrought-iron gates that guard the King’s tomb.