The festive season has produced a great deal of mushy doggerel, but plenty of beautiful poetry, too. Please write some more of the latter. Well, it's that time of year again. Last year I dodged the Christmas bullet somewhat by calling for your poems on the subject of food, but this time around I've decided to embrace the season wholeheartedly. Yes, I'm after your Yuletide verses.
There are, of course, lots of Christmas poems; having conducted a rigorous poll of one person, I've found that the most famous of them all is Twas the Night before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore. The little fat man with the white beard; the reindeer; the sleigh full of toys; the snow: this poem contains all the elements of what we have come to think of as the traditional Christmas scene, even though we actually know that this version of the festival is a Victorian invention.
However, the feast of Christmas is far older than Prince Albert, a fact that we are reminded of most forcibly by two rather wonderful 17th-century poems, Robert Herrick's Ceremonies for Christmas, with its images of food, drink and the Yule fire, and A Christmas Carol by George Wither, which adds the age-old tradition of bringing winter greenery indoors for the mid-winter festival. The vision of Christmas that is represented in these poems was remarkably resilient and enduring; there is a strong thread that links them to Wordsworth's Minstrels, a poem that dates from the very cusp of the Victorian era.... Read more
These three poems also serve to remind us that Christmastide has long been associated with music and song, and most of us will have a much-loved carol or two we like to sing along with. My own favourite is The Holly and the Ivy, with its echoes of older, pre-Christian December celebrations.
The 19th century also appears to have been the time when Christmas became associated with hearth, home and the family, as so many things did under Victoria, and this resulted in a good deal of very sentimental versification. Robert Louis Stevenson's Christmas at Sea is as maudlin as you could ask for, but, as you might expect from Stevenson, it's rather better written than most poems of its ilk. It would be all too easy to mock this slushy view of the festive season, but before you give in to cynicism, I feel I should remind you of the fate of the hero of Ogden Nash's The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus.
Many 20th century poets, including some of those who are considered difficult or elitist, wrote excellent Christmas poems. TS Eliot's Journey of the Magi is extremely well-known; perhaps less popular, but no less enjoyable, is EE Cummings's little tree, a poem that seems, to me at least, to combine Victorian sentiment with rousing singability.
Of course, the songwriters of the last century also found inspiration, and a decent source of income, in marking Christmas. Many of their songs are emblematic of the modern Yuletide, some are unbearably mawkish, others are just unbearable. But there are gems amongst them, and my personal favourite is the little-played River by Joni Mitchell.
And so I invite your seasonal poems. You may be cynical, wide-eyed, sentimental, disgusted by the rampant commercialism you see all around you, or simply exhausted from shopping. One way or another, I hope you'll feel inspired. And so it just remains for me to say, in the words of the poet, "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"