Posted by: rcottrill | December 23, 2013

Good King Wenceslas

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Words:
John Mason Neale (b. Jan. 24, 1818; d. Aug. 6, 1886)
Music: Tempus Adest Floridum (The Time Is Near for Flowering), a 13th century spring carol called The Flower Carol, first published in 1582.

Links:
Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: John Mason Neale is best known as a translator of Greek and Latin hymns into English. (O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and Good Christian Men Rejoice are two of these, both Christmas carols.) But in this case, Neale took a story about real-life Wenceslas of Bohemia (circa AD 907 to Sept. 28, 935) and used the excellent melody of The Flower Carol for it. In English translation, the latter song begins:

Spring has now unwrapped the flowers,
Day is fast reviving,
Life in all her growing powers
Towards the light is striving:
Gone the iron touch of cold,
Winter time and frost time,
Seedlings, working through the mould,
Now make up for lost time.

Since Neale’s 1853 carol does tell a story, it’s best not to drop any of the stanzas when it is used. (Though I have managed with CH-1, 3 and 5.) To vary this, one or more stanzas might be read, or sung by a soloist. It might make a worthwhile number for a Christmas program or pageant. Check the Cyber Hymnal link to see all five stanzas.

This carol has been savaged by the critics over the years. In a footnote, The Oxford Book of Carols (p. 271) calls it a “rather confused narrative,” and quotes others referring to it as “doggerel” (which the dictionary defines as rude and crude), and “poor and commonplace to the last degree.”

In defense of Dr. Neale, I see nothing particularly confusing about the narrative. The story is told in a simple, straightforward fashion. And if it’s not a factual account of a specific incident, it does fit what we know of this Christian duke from long ago. Whether it is rude and crude, is a subjective assessment with which I don’t agree. (These pedants are likely the same ones that criticize many gospel songs that have blessed the people of God for many years.)

In a sense, this is a Boxing Day song. “The feast of Stephen–St. Stephen’s Day–falls the day after Christmas. It was the practice in ancient times, after the Christmas feasting, to give the left-overs and other gifts to servants (who had worked especially hard during the season) and to the poor as well. How different from our modern, materialistic buying-bonanza on Boxing Day!

Granted that there is almost nothing of Christian doctrine here. But, just as the Lord Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:30-37) which encourages love for one’s neighbour, a similar message is presented in this carol. In that sense, this song is something of a parable. The message comes in the last lines of the fifth stanza (and yes, it applies to both “men” and women):

Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

If we are in a position to help those less fortunate, or those in a crisis of need, we should do so. And when we do, we’ll find that we ourselves are enriched in special ways. This is certainly a biblical message. The Lord Jesus promised:

“Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you” (Lk. 6:38). And the book of Acts adds, “Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:35).

Reminders to care for the poor are scattered through the Old Testament (e.g. Deut. 15:9-10; Prov. 19:17; 22:9; Ecc. 11:1). And as Christians we are assured:

“Let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work” (II Cor. 9:7-8).

CH-1) 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, gathering winter fuel.

CH-2) “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.”

CH-3) “Bring me flesh and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither,
Thou and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither.”
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together,
Through the rude wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.

Questions:
1) Would you ever make use of this carol? (In what situations?)

2) What could you do, in the coming week, to aid someone in need?

Links:
Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


Responses

  1. The Robert Shaw Chamber Singers (part of the Robert Shaw Chorale) have a very nice recording of this song on their Christmas CD, “Songs of Angels.” Of 3 Christmas CDs that I have by the RS Chorale, this one is my favorite. In “Good King Wenceslas,” the parts of the king and the page are sung by soloists.


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