Sunday, December 25, 2016

'Pax hominibus bonae voluntatis...'

This atmospheric Christmas poem was written just over a century ago by Robert Bridges, in his first year as Poet Laureate:

Noel: Christmas Eve, 1913 — Robert Bridges.
Pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.

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 sprinking 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 marvelling could not tell
Whether it were angels
   or the bright stars singing.

Now blessed be the tow'rs
   that crown England so fair
That stand up strong in prayer
   unto God for our souks:
Blessed be their founders
   (said I) an' our country folk
Who are ringing for Christ
   in the belfries to-night
With arms lifted to cluctch
   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.

Gerald Finzi used these very English words in his Christmas cantata In Terra Pax, though the third stanza is replaced by words from the second chapter of Luke's Gospel :

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.  And the angel said unto them,

Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.   For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
Luke 2:8-14 (KJV)

Finzi's decision to quote Luke where he does leaves the identity of 'the same country' satisfyingly ambiguous.  For Bridges' words are set unmistakeably in England — perhaps Oxfordshire, known to both Finzi and Bridges — and the words from Scripture seem to follow the poem seamlessly, as if it had been on the same hill that both poet and the shepherds had stood.  Thus the composer leaves undisturbed that unspoken myth, once wished-for and half-believed by everyone in England, and perpetuated by such carols as 'In the Bleak Midwinter' or Warlock's Bethlehem Down, that Christ must have been born somewhere in England, preferably in the Home Counties, perhaps enfolded by a chalky Sussex woodland or a wooded Surrey dene.  After all, where else could He have been born?

Ah, what shall we do with the incorrigible English?  Well, today's not the day to worry about that.  Glory to God in the highest, peace to people of goodwill, and a merry Christmas to all readers.

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