Thursday, December 8, 2011

Christmas Hymnody: Theology and History (6)

Combining a bit of sentimentality (common in so many Christmas carols) with rich theology, "What Child is This?" celebrates the Incarnation, carrying us from the stable to the cross, from the innocent child in the manger to the exalted King of kings worthy of the worship and praise of all nations and peoples. The lyrics were penned by William Chatterton Dix in 1865 while he was recovering from a serious illness and a bout with depression.

What child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping,
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring Him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary!

Why lies He in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
The Cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word Made Flesh,
The babe, the son of Mary!

So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh;
Come, peasant, king, to own Him!
The King of Kings salvation brings;
Let loving hearts enthrone Him!
Raise, raise the song on high!
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy! joy! for Christ is born,
The babe, the son of Mary!

In some hymnals, the last four lines of the second and third stanzas are omitted and the last four lines of the first stanza are repeated as a refrain. This is unfortunate, in that it dilutes much of the hymn's profound message.

While the story behind the lyrics is pretty clear cut, the obscure origin of the tune most often associated with this hymn is far more intriguing. "Greensleeves," a traditional English folk song, is often attributed (incorrectly) to King Henry VIII. The first appearance of a song entitled, "A New Northern Dittye of the Lady Greene Sleeves," is the registry at the London Stationer's Company, September 1580. Four years later, "A New Courtly Sonnet of the Lady Green Sleeves. To the new tune of Green sleeves" appeared in the songbook, A Handful of Pleasant Delights. The original lyrics are the lamentations of a spurned lover. According to legend, Henry VIII wrote them after being initially rejected by future wife Anne Boleyn. However, the style of composition, Italian in origin, was not in use in England until after Henry's death. The song was most likely written during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Alas, my love, you do me wrong,
To cast me off discourteously.
For I have loved you well and long,
Delighting in your company.

Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleeves was my heart of gold,
And who but my lady greensleeves.

Your vows you've broken, like my heart,
Oh, why did you so enrapture me?
Now I remain in a world apart
But my heart remains in captivity.


I have been ready at your hand,
To grant whatever you would crave,
I have both wagered life and land,
Your love and good-will for to have.


If you intend thus to disdain,
It does the more enrapture me,
And even so, I still remain
A lover in captivity.


My men were clothed all in green,
And they did ever wait on thee;
All this was gallant to be seen,
And yet thou wouldst not love me.


Thou couldst desire no earthly thing,
but still thou hadst it readily.
Thy music still to play and sing;
And yet thou wouldst not love me.


Well, I will pray to God on high,
that thou my constancy mayst see,
And that yet once before I die,
Thou wilt vouchsafe to love me.


Ah, Greensleeves, now farewell, adieu,
To God I pray to prosper thee,
For I am still thy lover true,
Come once again and love me.


The mysterious "Lady Green Sleeves," from which the tune derives its name, is an obscure figure, to say the least. She is believed by some to have been a prostitute; the word "green" having sexual connotations at the time. Others suggest she was not a prostitute, but mistaken for one based on her wardrobe. The fact that she rejected her suitor "discourteously" would seem to support this latter interpretation. Whatever the case, the prominence of the woman's "green sleeves" appears to have been a major factor in her suitor's being drawn to her. Nevill Coghill states in his translation of The Canterbury Tales that "green was the colour of lightness in love. This is echoed in 'Greensleeves is my delight' and elsewhere."

Was the Lady Green Sleeves a hard to please prostitute, a fun loving flirt who loved to break men's hearts, or merely a naive young girl who was unschooled in the fashions of the day? That is a question to which we will likely never find a suitable answer.