Saturday, December 26, 2009

Tread Now In Them Boldly (Day Two)

Today's carol is generally considered to be a Christmas one, but the story told in it actually takes place on December 26, St. Stephen's Day, and there's no reference to the the Nativity (though Christ is present in metaphor, I believe). It's also a carol generally only known by its first stanza - could you sing the other four from memory?

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about,
Deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night,
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
Gathering winter fuel.

“Hither, page, and stand by me,
If you know it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence,
By Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me food and bring me wine,
Bring me pine logs hither,
You and I will see him dine,
When we bear them thither.”
Page and monarch, forth they went,
Forth they went together,
Through the cold wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather.

“Sire, the night is darker now,
And the wind blows stronger,
Fails my heart, I know not how;
I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page,
Tread now in them boldly,
You shall find the winter’s rage
Freeze your blood less coldly.”

In his master’s steps he trod,
Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
Which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christians all, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing,
You who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

John Mason Neale, 1853; alt.

Swedish carol from Piae Cantones, 1582
adapt. Thomas Helmore, 1853

The king not only extends his charity to a poor subject, but his footprints give warmth to his following servant.

This carol was first published in Carols for Christmas-tide (1853), a collection by our old friend
John Mason Neale and his musical collaborator Thomas Helmore, though it gained more recognition through its later inclusion in Christmas Carols New and Old (1871) by John Stainer and Henry Bramley, which was a hugely popular collection. This carol (the first stanza, at least) is probably the best known original work of Neale, who was much better known for his translations of Latin and Greek hymns. Neale had previously written the story of Wenceslas in his book Deeds of Faith (1849), a collection of children's stories originally told to his daughter Agnes (perhaps the reason for the inclusion of “Saint Agnes' fountain” in the carol, a fatherly wink of sorts).

There was a historical
Saint Wenceslas (not a king), a tenth-century Duke of Bohemia called Vaclav who is the patron saint of the modern Czech Republic (his feast day, September 28, is also celebrated as Czech Statehood Day). Vaclav was converted to Christianity and became known for his charity. His statue pictured below is in Wenceslas Square in Prague.

While collections of carols frequently include this one (the illustration above is from
Carols Old and Carols New, a 1916 collection of 751 carols for various seasons compiled by Charles Hutchins), books about carols don't think very highly of it.

Elizabeth Poston, in The Penguin Book of Christmas Carols (1965) calls it “(the) product of an unnatural marriage between Victorian whimsy and a thirteenth-century dance carol.” and goes on to say “Unfortunately Dr. Neale also felt the urge to express himself, though it is debatable whether the bizarre results would have become so well known in the present care, but for the doubtful service of their populations by Bramley and Stainer.”

William Studwell, in The Christmas Carol Reader (1995) piles on with “the lyrics are, quite honestly, on the horrible side, and have even received negative epithets such as 'doggerel.'”

As we have seen, however, the pronouncements of “learned” men and women don't always bear much weight when it comes to popularity. People will probably be singing of Good King Wenceslas for some time to come, doggerel or not.


Anonymous said...

In the olden days when music like this could be sung in schools, we teachers and their students knew all the verses and the Spring Carol as well. No more.

C.W.S. said...

Welcome, Anonymous. I'm not sure whether you're the same Anonymous that posted the day before. Hope you'll consider assuming a particular posting identity.