December 10: O Little Town of Bethlehem. Or, For Christ is born of Mary, of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

Is it just me, or is there something a little Prufrockian about the imagery in the first verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem”?

O Little Town of Bethlehem,
Let us go and make our visit.
How still we see thee lie,
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window panes.
The hopes and fears of all the years–
I have known them already, known them all.

I probably should now abandon this doomed exercise, but it’s late and why not force the moment to its crisis, so to speak…

For Christ is born of Mary,
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels.
While mortals sleep, the angels,
Seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house and fell asleep.
I have heard the mermaids singing,
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King
Till human voices wake us and we drown.

How silently, how silently,
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea.
So God imparts to human hearts:
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
No ear may hear His coming–
Time to turn back and descend the stair.
Where meek souls will receive him still,
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
There will be time to murder and create.
Cast out our sin and enter in
Stretched on the floor here, beside you and me.
We hear the Christmas angels
Singing each to each
O come to us, abide with us,
Let us go, then you and we. 

Right. I am by no means a poet, and I don’t really think that this is a good poem. It has meter problems. It has structure problems. It has plain old sense problems. And some of the lines that don’t make sense, don’t not make sense in a meaningful way (that made sense, right?). They’re just places where I wasn’t careful enough. Right now it’s just a mishmash of alternating lines from the poem and the song. Perhaps more intralinear substitution is called for to really blend things together.

And I think that a nativity poem that doesn’t include “Do I dare disturb the universe?” in some key way has missed a major opportunity.

But if I worked harder and if I were a better poet, this could be, if nothing else, an interesting poem. I think there are echoes between these two pieces, to do with silence, and waiting, anxiety and dark twisty streets.

It’s curious to think of the nativity not in the way it’s usually told, timed like clockwork and foretold from time immemorial for those days when Quirinius was governor of Syria, but as baby Jesus hovering in the back stairs, anxious: “Should I go now? Now? OK, I’m going…but what if they don’t get it? I’m no prophet. Maybe another day.”  And to ponder the destiny of the speaker of the poem. What sort of cosmic disturbances is he supposed to be setting off right now? This exercise made me think differently about the poem and the song alike.

How long must we wait for a “The Christmas Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” Twitterbot?

At the very least, may I suggest “Found Christmas poetry” as a game or contest for your upcoming English department holiday party?

Um, in normal Christmas music news, Sarah McLachlan’s predictably ethereal version is nice:


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