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John Greenleaf Whittier's "The Mystic's Christmas"

Updated on November 25, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

John Greenleaf Whittier

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "The Mystic's Christmas"

John Greenleaf Whittier's "The Mystic's Christmas" features 12 quatrains; each quatrain consists of two rimed couplets. The poem dramatizes the true significance of the Christmas celebration through dialogue between rejoicing monks and a silent brother.

The Mystic's Christmas

“All hail!” the bells of Christmas rang,
“All hail!” the monks at Christmas sang,
The merry monks who kept with cheer
The gladdest day of all their year.

But still apart, unmoved thereat,
A pious elder brother sat
Silent, in his accustomed place,
With God’s sweet peace upon his face.

“Why sitt’st thou thus?” his brethren cried,
“It is the blessed Christmas-tide;
The Christmas lights are all aglow,
The sacred lilies bud and blow.

“Above our heads the joy-bells ring,
Without the happy children sing,
And all God’s creatures hail the morn
On which the holy Christ was born.

“Rejoice with us; no more rebuke
Our gladness with thy quiet look.”
The gray monk answered, “Keep, I pray,
Even as ye list, the Lord’s birthday.

“Let heathen Yule fires flicker red
Where thronged refectory feasts are spread;
With mystery-play and masque and mime
And wait-songs speed the holy time!

“The blindest faith may haply save;
The Lord accepts the things we have;
And reverence, howsoe’er it strays,
May find at last the shining ways.

“They needs must grope who cannot see,
The blade before the ear must be;
As ye are feeling I have felt,
And where ye dwell I too have dwelt.

“But now, beyond the things of sense,
Beyond occasions and events,
I know, through God’s exceeding grace,
Release from form and time and space.

“I listen, from no mortal tongue,
To hear the song the angels sung;
And wait within myself to know
The Christmas lilies bud and blow.

“The outward symbols disappear
From him whose inward sight is clear;
And small must be the choice of days
To him who fills them all with praise!

“Keep while you need it, brothers mine,
With honest seal your Christmas sign,
But judge not him who every morn
Feels in his heart the Lord Christ born!”

Reading of Whittier's "The Mystic's Christmas"

Commentary

First Movement: Silence Amid Merriment

“All hail!” the bells of Christmas rang,
“All hail!” the monks at Christmas sang,
The merry monks who kept with cheer
The gladdest day of all their year.

But still apart, unmoved thereat,
A pious elder brother sat
Silent, in his accustomed place,
With God’s sweet peace upon his face.

The narrator sets the scene by announcing that the Christmas bells are ringing, and the monks are singing and making cheerful banter. It is for them a happy time of year; they enjoy the festivities and celebrations involved in marking the birth of Jesus.

Contrasting with the younger monks gaiety and merriment, an elder monk sits in silence. He is a brother of true piety, and his countenance reveals "God's sweet peace."

Second Movement: The Taunting Impetuousness of Youth

“Why sitt’st thou thus?” his brethren cried,
“It is the blessed Christmas-tide;
The Christmas lights are all aglow,
The sacred lilies bud and blow.

“Above our heads the joy-bells ring,
Without the happy children sing,
And all God’s creatures hail the morn
On which the holy Christ was born.

“Rejoice with us; no more rebuke
Our gladness with thy quiet look.”
The gray monk answered, “Keep, I pray,
Even as ye list, the Lord’s birthday.

Uncomprehending the older monk's silence, the younger brothers accost them, asking why he is just sitting there when it is celebration time. They then describe the festive atmosphere with Christmas lights glowing, beautiful lilies, symbol of Christ decorating the halls, bells ringing in joyfully, while outside children are singing.

Then they command the elder monk to get up and make merry with them. They take his own stilll quietude for a rebuke of their noisy "gladness." They seem not to comprehend his meditative position. The impetuousness of youth often feels that it must taunt its elders into behavioral submission, even alas in a monastery!

Third Movement: "Let heathen Yule fires flicker red"

“Let heathen Yule fires flicker red
Where thronged refectory feasts are spread;
With mystery-play and masque and mime
And wait-songs speed the holy time!

“The blindest faith may haply save;
The Lord accepts the things we have;
And reverence, howsoe’er it strays,
May find at last the shining ways.

“They needs must grope who cannot see,
The blade before the ear must be;

The elder monk's reply demonstrates that he is, in fact, the better benefactor of the grace-giving nativity whose season is in celebration. With kindness, he asserts that they may celebrate as they wish, that all the "heathen Yule fires," "refectory feasts," and "mystery-plays" are acceptable ways to mark the birth of Christ.

The elder monk has no word of denigration for these customs, for even the smallest and most eyeless bit of faith is pleasing to the Lord, who recognizes that His children must behave with what they possess. Thus the elder monk tell them that God accepts any celebration and recognition from His children.

Fourth Movement: As Wisdom Prevails

As ye are feeling I have felt,
And where ye dwell I too have dwelt.

“But now, beyond the things of sense,
Beyond occasions and events,
I know, through God’s exceeding grace,
Release from form and time and space.

“I listen, from no mortal tongue,
To hear the song the angels sung;
And wait within myself to know
The Christmas lilies bud and blow.

“The outward symbols disappear
From him whose inward sight is clear;
And small must be the choice of days
To him who fills them all with praise!

“Keep while you need it, brothers mine,
With honest seal your Christmas sign,

The older monk because of his the experience that comes with age comprehends truths that the younger men have not yet learned. Although he used to see things the same way they do, he now understands owing to his discipline and training the true nature of Christ-Consciousness.

This older, more experiences brother has learned that true Christ-Consciousness live within, that is, in his own soul, and not in the outward decorations and celebratory aspects of Christmas.

The elder monk knows that God's grace does not reside in form, nor with in the confines of "time and space." He instructs the young monks that it is within his own soul that one must listen to the songs of Angels and sense the lilies that grown within the soul. He tells them that all things on the physical, "outward," level soon vanish into nothingness, when the soul knows itself.

Then there is nothing but praise and that praise fills the soul everyday, not just when the calendar indicates the date for a holiday. But then the old monk also tells them to continue their merrymaking as long as it honestly reminds them of Christ.

Fifth Movement: True Purposes

But judge not him who every morn
Feels in his heart the Lord Christ born!”

The monk reveals not only the true significance of Christmas celebration but also the true purpose of monastic life: "The outward symbols disappear / From him whose inward sight is clear." This monk realizes that whether he celebrates outwardly or not, he is united with the Divine.

The older brother fills all of his days with praise of Christ, making one day of celebration fairly redundant, even small, by comparison. Again, he asserts that they must, "Keep while you need it, brothers mine, / With honest seal your Christmas sign." But he adds an important warning, "But judge not him who every morn / Feels in his heart the Lord Christ born!" This elder monk realizes Christ inwardly every day, not just at the calendar's call to celebrate.

Flight into Egypt

Source

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
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      Linda Sue Grimes 2 years ago from U.S.A.

      Thank you for your response, mactavers. Any change in the speaker's background would likely have resulted in a different poem. Nevertheless, I would suggest that Whittier's background as a Quaker probably most influenced the atmosphere and focus of this poem.

    • mactavers profile image

      mactavers 2 years ago

      Thanks for the great Hub. It's so true that there are many ways to celebrate Christmas that honor the birth of Jesus. I wonder if the poem would have been different if the "speaker" would have had a family?

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