Poem: Song for a Winter Birth

I’m currently reading through a poetry anthology, which gives a poem a day from Advent to Epiphany. It’s called ‘haphazard by starlight’ because, ‘like the Magi who travelled a long distance to search out and adore the infant Jesus, and who took some wrong turns on the way, we too have a journey to undertake before we find that we have ‘walked haphazard by starlight straight into the kingdom of heaven’ (U. A. Fanthorpe).’ 

Here is the poem from this morning, so I thought I’d share it here, along with an abbreviation of the commentary that accompanies it in the anthology. 

Song for a Winter Birth

Under the watchful lights
A child was born;
From a mortal house of flesh
Painfully torn.

And we, who later assembled
To praise or peer,
Saw merely an infant boy
Sleeping there.

Till he awoke and stretched
Small arms wide
And for food or comfort
Quavering cried.

A cry of attitude
Rehearsing in small
The deathless death still haunting
The Place of the Skull.

Outside, in the festive air,
We lit cigars.
The night was nailed to the sky
With hard bright stars.

Vernon Scannell

Vernon Scannell was born in Lincolnshire in 1922 to a poor family and left school at 14, later becoming self-taught in both reading and writing poetry. He used to quote with approval A.E Housman’s comment about poetry: “The business of poetry is to harmonize the sadness of this universe.” His poem about ‘a winter birth’ seems to reflect this, composed as it is in simple language with brief, almost terse lines.

There are five four-line verses, with the second and fourth lines always rhyming with the last line of each stanza, and there is frequently an uncomfortable conclusion. The Christian celebration of Christmas Day is followed immediately by painful feast days: 26 December is St Stephen’s Day, commemorating the first martyr among those who made up the early Church, and yesterday (the 28th) the Church remembered the Holy Innocents, the children massacred by Herod. Today it is the turn of Thomas Becket, who defied his king and was assassinated in Canterbury Cathedral. This makes the tone of this poem rather appropriate.

It is not easy to determine who is meant by the ‘we’ of the poem’s narration, or even whether the birth described is a contemporary event or the the nativity of the Christchild in the stable. In verse two, ‘We, who later assembled’ could be the magi, but the ‘cigars’ of the last verse suggests the modern era; and the reference to the ‘Place of the Skull’ implies a knowledge of Jesus; life and death that would not have been available to the wise men. Nevertheless, precisely because of this reference, we have to conclude that the Christchild is either the subject of the poem or is consciously called to mind by the presence of the contemporary baby. It is likely to be intentional that the reader should be thinking about both eras simultaneously.

The first stanza speaks about ‘watchful lights’; either the stars mentioned at the end f the poem, or perhaps the lights of an operating theatre, the place of a difficult birth. The atmosphere is fraught with pain. The mother’s womb is called ‘a mortal house of flesh’. There is an echo of John Milton’s description of the Incarnation in his poem ‘Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’, where he says that the Son of God ‘Forsook the courts of everlasting day,/ And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.’ Scannell’s re-use of the image, linked to painful tearing, takes us out of the realm of ponderous, formal poetry into the graphic reality of birth.

The next verse is spoken in the voice of someone who has come to see the baby, but has a certain detachment about the whole thing. The tone does not really suggest the perspective of the mage, who according to tradition travelled many miles over many months to find the one they were seeking; there is no passion here. Nevertheless, there is a sense of surprise at seeing ‘merely an infant boy’; the magi had originally looked for the child in a king’s palace. The poet’s alliterative linking of ‘to praise or to peer’ manages to suggest a whole range of reasons why would go and see a baby: from devotion to the half-hearted inspection by an unenthusiastic relation of a newborn who excuses themselves to smoke a cigar.

The central stanza has the baby suddenly waking, and crying with the ‘quavering’, fragile sound of the newborn. Evidence that the poet has personally observed the very newly born is there in the description of the sudden flinging apart of his arms that the child instinctively enacts – one of the reflexes that is tested to check a baby is developing normally. It looks rather dramatic and the child often ‘freezes’ in the post that, in the next stanza, the narrator compares with the stance of the crucified body. He expresses how the child’s attitude rehearses the ‘deathless death still haunting/ The Place of the Skull’. (The ‘place of the skull’ is the meaning of the name Golgotha, the traditional site of the crucifixion.) There is something very poignant about pointing out how the pose shows this forth ‘in small’ – this is a very tiny baby, barely arrive and already practising for his death. This poem does something that was totally traditional in medieval carols – weaving together the stories of Jesus’ birth and his violent death; Christian devotion has only relatively recently departed from this tradition.

The final verse seems to locate us in the contemporary world, in a modern gathering in response to a birth. It is as if the narrator and those with him repair outside to smoke celebration cigars, and while there they gaze at the sky. We are left with an image that is highly visual, depicting a sky that, in the clear and frosty air, is full of stars. But the arresting, violent metaphor at the end is that ‘the night was nailed to the sky’ with the stars, as Christ was nailed to the cross. The poet allows us no relief here.

In this poem, the real life events are clearly marked out by, and linked to, violence. Do you see this violence reflected in your own experiences of the world? Do you normally connect the Nativity story to violence? And, vice versa, do you connect your own experiences of the world to the possibility of the divine and to the possibility of redemption which are celebrated in the Nativity? 

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