In a lovely short poem entitled Epiphany the poet and economist Jeffery Wheatley gives thanks for some of the added details of the Christmas story which we find in Christmas Carols. (The first two verses of the poem are illustrated here).
Each year I find something new strikes me from a carol – an insight, or a curious phrase…
The Sunday after Christmas Day can be something of a ‘low Sunday’ after all the excitements of Carol Services, Christmas masses and so on. Its a Sunday when often some of the ‘leftover’ carols appear. At St C’s on this day we also like to bring forward an unusual or different Carol from the past. This isn’t so much that we try to rescue a carol heading towards oblivion. Rather its to gave an airing to something a bit different – singing a seldom heard carol that we think is worth hearing, although not necessarily often, or at big events.
This year at St Chrysostom’s we sang Christopher Smart’s hymn Where is this stupendous stranger? at Mass on the Sunday after Christmas. Christopher Smart (1722 – 1771) was a curious and interesting man, with a very active and at times disturbed mind. So disturbed at times that he was obliged for a time to live in seclusion in an asylum, (with his cat Jeoffry) and while there he wrote this hymn.
I was intrigued by the hymn and explored further. The Oxford edition of Smart’s poems gives verses understandably, but sadly, missing from hymn books. There is also editing of some of the obscurities of the poem. “Swains of Solyma, advise” is replaced by ‘Prophets, shepherds, kings, advise;’ – The ‘swains of Solyma’ being the shepherds…
What I found particularly interesting was Smart’s emphasis on the birth of Christ being for the whole of creation. Smart firmly believed in the value of all creation and here he puts into verse a less anthropocentric view of the incarnation than many Carols. The ‘birds on box and laurel’ listen to the angels. ‘Spinks and ousels’ sing of their Saviour. Spinks being chaffinches and ousels, blackbirds. Creation delights in the birth of the son of God.
Thank you Christopher Smart for your querky yet profound poem – a treasure, for me, from Christmas 2020. May the spinks and ousels continue to sing sublimely.