Richard Crashaw first published "In the Holy Nativity of our Lord God: A Hymn Sung as by the Shepherds" in 1646. When it was published again in 1652 several changes had been made to the poem, and it is that version most often anthologized. Crashaw shares his theme with notables including JoHN MILToN, as Christmas celebratory religious poems proved popular among poets. He formats his poem with speaking parts by two shepherds, borrowing from a classical tradition to name the shepherds Tityrus and Thyrsis. In his enthusiasm for his topic, Crashaw apparently saw no irony in adopting shepherds' names from a pagan era for his characters present at the birth of the Christ child. He includes all of the traditional aspects of Christ's birth, such as the baby's being born in a manger and the presence of angels announcing and attending his birth.
Crashaw's background in the Italian language and literature led him to use the format recognized during the Restoration as an oratorio. He presents three stanzas to be sung as a chorus by a group of shepherds and then breaks into individual parts extending over nine stanzas for two specific shepherds, whose statements are answered by the chorus. The final five stanzas are presented by full chorus. The format resembles that of John Dryden's later "Alexander's Feast: Or, The Power of Music." Always passionate in his presentation, Crashaw charges this piece with the joyful energy fitting its subject.
The chorus begins in an opening four-line stanza with a call to one another to gather together to celebrate their "blest sight," which encountered "Love's noon in Nature's night," planning to lift their voices in order to "wake the sun that lies too long." This begins the notion that the order of existence has been permanently altered by Christ's arrival. Night was converted to day through the "Heaven's fairer Eye," an allusion to the star that tradition stated shone above Christ's birthplace. They continue alluding to the lack of the presence of nature's sun, now replaced by a spiritual light, jovially making light of the sun's absence through Crashaw's use of the figurative language of personification. They repeat references to the sun as "him," singing, "Tell him he rises now too late / To show us aught worth looking at," continued into the third verse: "Tell him we no can show him more / Than he e'er showed to mortal sight." Finally, the chorus bids, "Tell him, Tityrus, where th' hast been; / Tell him, Thyrsis, what th' hast seen." The two shepherds then take charge of relating the story. Tityrus begins by recalling the "Gloomy night" that, when
. . . the babe looked up and showed his face: In spite of darkness, it was day. It was thy day, Sweet! And did rise, Not from the East, but from thine eyes.
Then the chorus repeats the final lines of that stanza, as it will certain others that follow. The child's power is proved by the fact that winter sent "the angry North to wage his wars," but the North forgot his duty upon seeing the child, leaving "perfumes instead of scars."
"IN THE HOLY nativity OF OUR LORD GOD: A HYMN SUNG AS BY THE SHEPHERDS" 233
The shepherds tell of seeing the child and feeling inadequate to do anything for him, ashamed that only a lowly manger had been furnished.
While Crashaw continues to impress upon listeners the fact that the natural order of the universe shifted with Christ's appearance, he also remains true to doctrine by emphasizing Christ has always been present. He calls on the image of the phoenix, a mythological bird that destroyed itself by fire every five hundred years in order to be reborn. The phoenix remained a traditional symbol of Christ, who not only reportedly arose from the dead but also promised new life to all men through redemption of their sins. The child "made his own bed ere he was born." Crashaw likely had in mind the powerful opening of the Gospel according to John in the King James (1611) translation of the Bible. It celebrates the beginning of the world, using "the Word" as a metaphor for Christ, the first line reading, "In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God." The passage continues three lines later, "In him was life: and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not."
Crashaw continues with nature imagery, as in the ninth verse Tityrus says, I saw the curl'd drops, soft and slow, Come hovering o'er the place's head, offering their whitest sheets of snow To furnish the fair Infant's bed; Forbear (said I), be not too bold; Your fleece is white, but 'tis too cold.
The term fleece used to describe snow links the imagery with that of sheep and, by extension, the shepherds themselves. Christ was often referred to as a shepherd in the Bible's New Testament, and his followers to sheep. He was also represented symbolically as a lamb, destined to be sacrificed for man's sin.
In the next stanza Seraphim, angels known for their fiery composition, appear, but the shepherd questions whether their warmth is needed. Crashaw executes a skillful riddle as in the following verse Tityrus notes that the child's "new-bloomed cheek"
Twixt mother's breasts is gone to bed. Sweet choice (said we), no way but so Not to lie cold, yet sleep in snow, referring to the virgin's snow white skin. Both shepherds repeat their observation of the light Christ gave to the world, and then the full chorus sings together:
Welcome, all wonders in one sight! Eternity shut in a span. Summer in winter. Day in night, Heaven in earth, and God in man."
Crashaw has anticipated the most powerful evidence of a new order in the world by noting nature's inversions through paradox finally to declare the greatest wonder, which is that God has appeared on earth in a human form.
In verse 14 the chorus makes clear the welcome is in earnest; although the scene lacks "gold" and "silk," the child is deserving to "more than Caesar's birthright," the reference to the Roman ruler emphasizing the divine right of kings theory introduced by King Henry vIII. Rather than earthly riches and courtly beings, the child is welcomed by "poor shepherds, homespun things, / Whose wealth's their flock, whose wit to be / Well read in their simplicity." Here Crashaw suggests the pastoral tradition, which emphasizes the simplicity and purity of rural life that resulted in a type of wisdom that city dwellers should admire. They promise in the penultimate verse to crown the child with May's "first-born" flowers, expressing their gratitude "To thee, dread Lamb! Whose love must keep / The shepherds more than they the sheep." The hymn concludes with a final blissful welcome, tempered by the realization that humans must choose to give themselves over to Christ in order to attain the purity gained through the fire of personal sacrifice:
Each of us his lamb will bring, Each his pair of silver doves, Till burnt at last in fire of Thy fair eyes, ourselves become our own best sacrifice.
Crashaw includes an additional important biblical symbol in his reference to the dove. Doves symbolized
234 "IN THIS STRANGE LABYRINTH HOW SHALL I TURN?"
peace and were used as sacrificial birds. Most important, however, according to biblical accounts, the Holy Spirit had descended from heaven in the form of a dove on the occasion of Christ's adult baptism by John the Baptist.
As a poet, Crashaw achieves his goal of a retelling of one of Christianity's most celebrated stories in song form, incorporating abundant applicable imagery and symbolism familiar to those who would be singing as well as their audience. His imagery emphasizes the importance of the moment, and his use of alliteration and repetition calls attention to crucial narrative elements. As a man devoted to God, he achieves the separate but related goal of worship, guiding a choir of individuals gathered for the specific purpose of praise through an exercise of ritual crucial to the practice of Christianity.
Was this article helpful?