He has put on the garment of the world


A god has chosen to be shaped in flesh.
He has put on the garment of the world.
A blind and sucking fish, a huddled worm,
he crouches here until his time shall come,
all the dimensions of his glory furled
into the blood and clay of the night’s womb.
Eternity is locked in time and form.

Within those mole-dark corridors of earth
how can his love be born and how unfold?
Eternal knowledge in an atom’s span
is bound by its own strength with its own chain.
The nerve is dull, the eyes are stopped with mould,
the flesh is slave of accident or pain.
Sunk in his brittle prison-cell of mud,
the god who once chose to become a man
is now a man who must become a god.


(Judith Wright: “Myth”)



This is the child

This is the child. He has not yet put out leaves.
His bare skin tastes the air; his naked eyes
know nothing but strange shapes. Nothing is named;
nothing is ago, nothing not yet. Death is that which dies,
and grief has yet no meaning and no size.
Where the wild harebell grows to a blue cave
and the climbing ant is a monster of green light
the child clings to his grassblade. The mountain range
lies like a pillow for his head at night,
the moon swings from his ceiling. He is a wave
that timeless moves through time, imperishably bright.

(From Judith Wright's “The World and the Child”)

Death and a maiden

About this day two years ago, I posted Judith Wright's poem “Woman to Child.” Pregnant myself, I found it fit for remembering Christ's birth and conjecturing what Mary's meditations on the subject might have been. This Christmas, three more Wright poems seem to me to resonate with the grand and tender mystery of the Incarnation. Here's the first one: “Woman's Song”, which precedes “Woman to Child” in the original sequence. It speaks to that dark and intimate bond a mother has with her unborn child, and the wonder tinged with fear that attends her expectation of birth. All births are both a losing and a finding, a looking forward to life as well as death, but especially this one; especially this day, this sunrise.

O move in me, my darling,
for now the sun must rise;
the sun that will draw open
the lids upon your eyes. 

O wake in me, my darling.
The knife of day is bright
to cut the thread that binds you
within the flesh of night. 

Today I lose and find you
whom yet my blood would keep —
would weave and sing around you
the spells and songs of sleep.  

None but I shall know you
as none but I have known;
yet there's a death and a maiden
who wait for you alone;
so move in me, my darling,
whose debt I cannot pay.
Pain and the dark must claim you,
and passion and the day.

Star-led wizards

Have I saved the best for last? Depends how much you like Milton I suppose. I like his poem “On the Morning of Christ's Nativity” chiefly because it is so far a cry from plastic gyrating Santas and erratic lurid lights entwined about inane scenes of snowy European twee. Milton's heavenly muse is at work here, as in Paradise Lost, to lend grandeur, gravitas, mystery, and even fantasy to the familiar story. Instead of a humble, homely tale, the nativity here is a matter of thrones, dominations, princedoms, virtues, powers. The stage is cosmic, the event cataclysmic. The characters are kings and their squadrons, wizards and ancient sages. The birth of Christ is a sacred and solemn compact among the hosts of heaven. It's only four stanzas, but it feels like an epic.

This is the month, and this the happy morn
Wherein the Son of Heav'n's eternal King,
Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring;
For so the holy sages once did sing,
That he our deadly forfeit should release,
And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.

That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable,
And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty,
Wherewith he wont at Heav'n's high council-table,
To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,
He laid aside, and here with us to be,
Forsook the courts of everlasting day,
And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.

Say Heav'nly Muse, shall not thy sacred vein
Afford a present to the Infant God?
Hast thou no verse, no hymn, or solemn strain,
To welcome him to this his new abode,
Now while the heav'n, by the Sun's team untrod,
Hath took no print of the approaching light,
And all the spangled host keep watch in squadrons bright?

See how from far upon the eastern road
The star-led wizards haste with odours sweet:
O run, prevent them with thy humble ode,
And lay it lowly at his blessed feet;
Have thou the honour first thy Lord to greet,
And join thy voice unto the angel quire,
From out his secret altar touched with hallowed fire.

Amid dark wings of storm

Laurence Housman (1865-1959), younger brother of AE, was a prolific playwright and illustrator who made beautiful art nouveau illlustrations for writers like Christina Rossetti and George Meredith. He also wrote a somewhat scandalous nativity play - apparently depicting biblical characters on the stage was one of the Victorians' many, many taboos - and this lovely poem for the Feast of the Nativity: “A Disputation between Christ and the human form.” It's a little bit Herberty, and a little bit more like one of Andrew Marvell's dialogues between Body and Soul, but I like it mostly because of the very unusual meter and rhyme scheme.

If I'm right, the scheme looks something like this:


I can't see a pattern, but then I don't have the sort of brain that finds patterns easily. My only thought about how it works is a vague one about poetic form itself as a metaphor for the incarnation: the incarnation of Christ fills, exceeds and even plays jazz riffs on the human form - stretching its possibilities, sounding notes it never knew it possessed. Also, the sixth stanza contains the only unrhymed line ending - 'Christ'. Perhaps a discord suggesting that although Christ comes in peace, he and the world do not, cannot, rhyme. 

Comest Thou peaceably, O Lord?
‘Yea, I am Peace!
Be not so fearful to afford
Thy Maker room! for I am the Reward
To which all generations of increase
Looking did never cease.

‘Down from amid dark wings of storm
I set My Feet
To earth. Will not My earth grow warm
To feel her Maker take the form
He made, when now, Creation’s purpose meet,
Man’s body is to be God’s Mercy-seat?’

Lord, I am foul: there is no whole
Fair part in me
Where Thou canst deign to be!
This form is not Thy making, since it stole
Fruit from the bitter Tree.
‘Yet still thou hast the griefs to give in toll
That I may test the sickness of man’s soul.’

O Lord, my work is without worth!
I am afraid,
Lest I should man the blissful Birth.
Quoth Christ, ‘Ere seas had shores, or earth
Foundations laid,
My Cross was made!’

‘Naught canst thou do that was not willed
By Love to be,
To bring the Work to pass through Me. No knee
Stiffens, or bends before My Sov’reignty,
But from the world’s beginning hath fulfilled
Its choice betwixt the valleyed and the hilled.
For both, at one decree,
My Blood was spilled.’

Yet canst Thou use these sin-stained hands?
‘These hands,’ quoth Christ,
‘Of them I make My need:
Since they sufficed to forge the bands
Wherein I hunger, they shall sow the seed!
And with bread daily they shall feed
My Flesh till, bought and bound, It stands
A Sacrifice to bleed.’

Lord, let this house be swept and garnished first!
For fear lest sin
Do there look in,
Let me shut fast the windows: lest Thou thirst,
Make some pure inner well of waters burst:
For no sweet water can man’s delving win—
Earth is so curst.
Also bar up the door: Thou wilt do well
To dwell, whilst with us, anchorite in Thy cell.

Christ said ‘Let be: leave wide
All ports to grief!
Here when I knock I will not be denied
The common lot of all that here abide;
Were I so blinded, I were blind in chief:
How should I see to bring the blind relief?

Wilt Thou so make Thy dwelling? Then I fear
Man, after this, shall dread to enter here:
For all the inner courts will be so bright,
He shall be dazzled with excess of light,
And turn, and flee!
‘But from his birth I will array him right,
And lay the temple open for his sight,
And say to help him, as I bid him see:
“This is for thee!”’