Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Feast of Saint Stephen and "Good King Wenceslaus"

John Mason Neale composed this carol for St. Stephen's Day, Good King Wenceslas. According to this site:

Today, Dec. 26, is the Feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr of the Christian church.

But while this is an interesting and doubtless profound commemoration in the calendar of the liturgical churches, the day is better known by the reference in the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas,” written by the Rev. John Mason Neale and published in 1853. It is a very odd sort of song in a number of ways. The tune appears in popular culture even more often than the words do and is played in the background to almost every film set at Christmas time that I have ever seen.

In the first place, it is not a traditional carol, a song sung by generations in honor of Christmas, although Neale published it in a book titled “Carols for Christmas.” It was entirely composed in Victorian England and was set to the tune “Tempus adest floridum,” which is an Easter song that dates to the 13th century with entirely different lyrics. The Latin title means “The time is near for flowering.” The subject of the song, King Wenceslas, who immortalizes St. Stephen’s Day, was not even a king, nor was he English, and he actually died a rather nasty death in Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic. It is a song immortalizing a medieval Catholic saint, written by an Anglican clergyman in Protestant England. . . .

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
Gath'ring winter fuel.

"Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know'st 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 flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither."
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude 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 thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
Freeze thy 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, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

No comments:

Post a Comment