Thursday, December 16, 2010

Auntie Knickers’ Advent Storytime: Day 15

Tonight we have a couple of poems which are more serious. One is short, one longer; one written by a late Victorian (Thomas Hardy, ) and the other by a twentieth-century British poet (John Betjeman, 1906-1984). One commentator in Wikipedia noted that “Unlike Thomas Hardy, who disbelieved in the truth of the Christmas story, while hoping it might be so, Betjeman affirms his belief even while fearing it might be false.” (The commentator was obviously comparing these two poems.)

oxen kneeling The first poem is Thomas Hardy’s “The Oxen.” Written in 1915, in the second year of the Great War, and when Hardy himself was in his 70s and seeing change all around him, the poem aches with loss. There’s a very good essay on it here. In the last stanza there are a couple of words from Dorset dialect, “barton” – usually meaning a farmyard, but in Dorset also referring to outbuildings on a farm – and “coombe,” a narrow valley between two steep hills. farm in valley Just yesterday I found a musical setting of this poem performed by the Swingle Singers; the setting is by one of the singers, Jonathan Rathbone (Before Straight No Chaser, before Manhattan Transfer, there were the Swingle Singers, and they continue today.)

John Betjeman (1906-1984) flunked out of Oxford (his tutor, whom he detested ever after, was C. S. Lewis) but ended his days as England’s Poet Laureate. He described himself as a “poet and hack” in Who’s Who. His poem “Christmas” is beloved by many and widely anthologized. I found a beautifully calligraphed and illuminated version in Images of Christmas, which also contains “Oxen” and some of the other poems I’ll be reading. A used copy can be found for as little as 73 cents (plus shipping) and would be well worth seeking out. A few of Betjeman’s allusions may be unfamiliar to American readers/listeners, so I looked them up.

A tortoise stove tortoise stove is a small coal-burning stove, suitable for heating a hall or a single room; the name probably comes from the round/cylindrical form. Crimson Lake and Hooker’s Green are Betjeman having a little fun; of course both are colors:crimson lake

hookers green although he seems to suggest that they are locations. Crimson Lake was the color used on certain railroad cars in London, and Hooker’s Green is said to be the color of English foliage.

Yew, with which I associated death because of its frequent occurrence in English murder mysteries, is used for Christmas decorating too and this picture shows why: yew

And the Dorchester Hotel remains to this day a residence for “shining ones”; the least expensive room available for Christmas Eve through Boxing Day this year, if purchased as part of a “Festive Shopping Package” will run you 255 British pounds a night.dorchester

Amazingly, the Swingle Singers also recorded “And Is It True?”, the last three stanzas of Betjeman’s poem, to music by Ben Parry.

If you’re looking for a children’s story, in 2007 I recorded A Letter from Santa Claus, by Eleanor Estes, from one of her stories about the Moffat family. Since it’s set during World War I, John McCutcheon’s “Christmas in the Trenches” seemed an appropriate choice to go with it.

Individual Files for Mac Users

Introduction Dec 15 2010 The Oxen Surprise 1 Christmas Surprise 2

Introduction Dec 15 2007 Surprise A Letter from Santa Claus

Self-Extracting Zip Files for the Rest of Us

December 15 2007 December 15 2010

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