Verses for Christmas

By Travis Copeland

The holiday season demands something more than prose for its full expression.

One noteworthy distinction between poetry and prose, according to poet Richard Wilbur, is that words work harder together in poetry than they do in prose. Howard Bloom remarked further in The Best Poems of the English Language that poetry “raises your consciousness of glory and of grief, of woe or wonder,” finally concluding with the words of Shakespeare that poems shape people into “wonder-wounded hearers.” Despite the beauties that poetry reveals, Americans, even many within the classical renewal movement, frequently remain uninterested in the fruit that reading and studying good poetry can bear. Poetry is too often thought of as top-shelf writing, because it requires so much attention to detail, form, and image. Too often, it constitutes only a supplement in literature classes. So how can the people of classical education recover the beauty of poetry? Christmas can help. 

Seasonal poetry concerned with spring, summer, winter, and fall is the most magnanimous and beautiful poetry; in the past several years, Christmas poetry has become a warmth and delight that has absorbed me, body and soul. Even reading to my students to start class has drawn them into the enjoyment. At one point, my juniors were asking for me to read numerous poems from a stack we were working through. In the midst of midterm exams, the imagery, emotion, and vocabulary, woven cunningly together, offer rest and hope. They quickly place the hearer off in some distant country with a vivid image, beckoning them in to both feel and understand.

At the same time, the Christmas season draws people in. Its cultural warmth pulls us into the semi-liturgical narrative presented. There is no better way to immerse ourselves in the atmosphere of the holiday than to read Christmas poetry. Even more, there is no better way to create budding poets and lovers of poetry than by reading Christmas poetry. With that in mind, I want to highlight a few wonderful but accessible poems for reading this Christmas. 

The Magi (sometimes less accurately called the Three Wise Men) are one portion of the Christmas story that has intrigued many cultures throughout history; while popular in nativities in the United States, the Magi are equally important in other countries because of their biblical appearance. They have naturally garnered attention from famous poets, such as T. S. Eliot. His Journey of the Magi recounts the arduous trek of these Gentile men, who endured, “a journey, and such a long journey,” as they were “sleeping in snatches, / With the voices singing in our ears, saying / That this was all folly.” Although their experience was like death, the Magi conclude that they “would be glad of another death.” In much the same spirit, William Butler Yeats’ poem The Magi ends with them calling the newborn baby an “uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.” Both Eliot and Yeats infuse the Christmas story with visceral imagery and tie both hardship and wonder to those depictions. They bring to life the narrative and classical pursuit of the Magi as they search for the good, true, and beautiful far from their own lands. Although foreigners, the Magi are deeply moved. Poetry, even when it feels foreign, can also move. It can impart Christmas unexpectedly, sharp and warm, as Eliot and Yeats show.

                                      ... descend
Into each wrecked unstable house; be born
In us, a Child among Your former foes.

Dunstan Thompson, Fragment for Christmas

Perhaps closer to home than Eliot or Yeats are Christina Rossetti’s In the Bleak Midwinter and E. E. Cummings’ little tree. Both give the reader an icebound feeling, offering raw images set in the dead of winter. Rossetti writes, “snow had fallen, snow on snow, on snow, / In the bleak midwinter, long ago.” Wedding the two worlds, the birth of Jesus and our modern winter, she is able to bring us into the moment with ferocity. Remaining in our living rooms, E. E. Cummings’ little tree depicts a Christmas tree like a winter flower: “when you’re quite dressed / you’ll stand in the window for everyone to see.” Rossetti and Cummings deliver the image of winter into the minds-eye of the reader. Their poems impart winter to the soul, unharmed and beautified. They draw out the contrast between the warmth of Christmas and the coldness of the season.

Wendell Berry, whose Christmas poetry is rustic and pastoral, rejecting modern notions and conventions, sketches an image of a Christmas tree cut from his own land. He writes: 

Our Christmas tree is
not electrified, is not
covered with little lights
calling attention to themselves
(we have had enough of little lights calling attention to themselves).
Our tree is a cedar cut here, one
of the fragrances of our place,
hung with painted cones
and paper stars folded
long ago to praise our tree,
Christ come into the world. 

Alongside the Magi and season itself, Advent takes a prominent place in the poetry of Christmas. Many great Advent poems exist for those who favor it; Mary Jo Salter’s Advent and Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s Advent Calendar are particularly beautiful examples of liturgical time. Salter depicts Advent as a gingerbread house, “five days until Christmas, / and the house cannot be closed.” Reflecting on her own life and Jesus’ birth, she repairs the gingerbread house with her mother. The warmth and even novelty of Advent comes afresh in their poetry. Connecting images of everyday Christmas life to the nativity, they depict the essence of human hope, joy, and suffering, and they close the gap between us and the ancients. 

Even with only a short taste of the wonders of Christmas poetry, Rossetti, Eliot, Cummings, and Yeats all present the images of Christmas anew. Fictional narratives add life to the sometimes-too-familiar story, and connect the human experience back to the birth of Jesus in the early Roman Empire. While the work of understanding harder poetry remains, keeping open secrets from those who refuse the Herculean task, Christmas poetry offers a door into the world of verse, a place to begin. The season offers a rhythm, counting-days, and imagery that make poetry accessible, and the warmth of people and their receptivity means that there is no better time to begin to explore the beauty of poetry. 

Further reading and listening: 

The Daily Poem from Goldberry Studios
Ted Kooser, Christmas Mail
Jane Kenyon, Mosaic of the Nativity
Richard Wilbur, Christmas Hymn
Luci Shaw, Mary’s Song

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Travis Copeland holds a BA in history and humanities, and is studying for an MA in history; he teaches history and Latin at Covenant Classical in Charlotte, NC. When not writing and teaching, Travis aspires to a hobbit lifestyle of poetry, gardening, baking, and conversation with good company around good food.

Merry Christmas and happy New Year from the Classic Learning Test!

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