“For the Nativity” by John Heath-Stubbs + choral setting

Shepherds, I sing you, this winter’s night
Our Hope new-planted, the womb’d, the buried Seed:
For a strange Star has fallen, to blossom from a tomb,
And infinite Godhead circumscribed, hangs helpless at the breast.

Now the cold airs are musical, and all the ways of the sky
Vivid with moving fires, above the hills where tread
The feet—how beautiful!—of them that publish peace.

The sacrifice, which is not made for them,
The angels comprehend, and bend to earth
Their worshipping way. Material kind Earth
Gives Him a Mother’s breast, and needful food.

A Love, shepherds, most poor,
And yet most royal, kings,
Begins this winter’s night;
But oh, cast forth, and with no proper place,
Out in the cold He lies!

This poem is published in Collected Poems 1943–1987 by John Heath-Stubbs (Carcanet Press, 1988) and is reprinted here by permission of David Higham Associates.

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John Heath-Stubbs (1918–2006) was an English poet, translator, critic, and anthologist whose lifelong fascination with world history and literature was borne out in his career. He translated poetry from Greek (Sappho, Anyte, Anacreon), Latin (Horace, Catullus), Persian (Hafiz, Omar Khayyam), Italian (Dante, Giacomo Leopardi), and French (Paul Verlaine) and wrote many verses of his own influenced by classical myths, including an Arthurian epic, Artorius.

Described by friends as a “devout” and “committed” Christian, Heath-Stubbs sometimes turned to the lives of Christ and the saints as subjects for his poetry, as in “‘Through the Dear Might of Him That Walk’d the Waves,’” “Dionysius the Areopagite” (on a pagan’s response to the eclipse during the Crucifixion), “Canticle of the Sun” (on the Resurrection), “Alexandria,” “Maria Aegyptiaca,” and “Virgin Martyrs,” to name a few. In his introduction to his Collected Poems, he wrote that he was interested in “the reaffirmation of orthodox religious themes in the poetry of TS Eliot and Charles Williams and others.”

Among other distinctions, Heath-Stubbs was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1973 and in 1989 was appointed OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire). At his death, publications celebrated his style and influence:

  • “His distinctive achievement was to forge a modern pastoral out of unlikely sources, a style which can encompass Yeatsian symbolism and dry irony.”—Poetry Archive
  • His diction was conservative, but his lyricism was always modern.—The Telegraph
  • “His finest work is to be found in his huge output of shorter poems. In their technical mastery, wry wisdom and gloriously deceptive lightness, these place him in the company of W.H. Auden and Robert Graves, a major English poet of the 20th century.”—The Independent

Heath-Stubbs was nearly blind from age three, his eyesight progressively worsening until he lost it completely at age fifty-nine. But rather than regard his blindness as a disability, he regarded it as a gift. “As a poet, I have found that blindness actually tends to stimulate the imagination,” he said.

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First published in 1965, “For the Nativity” by John Heath-Stubbs is an ode to the infant Jesus—to he who is Hope, Seed, Star, and Love.

The first stanza is a loose paraphrase of the Annunciation to the Shepherds in Luke 2:10–13, in which an angel tells a group of Jewish night workers that Emmanuel, God-with-us, has been born. Heath-Stubbs uses horticultural imagery: Jesus was planted in Mary’s womb, and now he breaks through into air, blooming for all the world to see. Foreshadowing future events, the “tomb” refers not only to the cave he was born in but also to the cave he’d be buried in. He’d be seeded once again (in death), and again (in resurrection) he’d flower forth with new life. The fourth line embraces the paradox of the Incarnation: that infinite God became a finite human being; the omnipotent Creator, an impotent babe reliant on his mother’s milk.  

Stanza two shifts speakers from angel to narrator and picks up with Luke 2:14. Dark and silent no more, the winter sky swells with music and explodes with light as the angelic choir sings the Gloria. Heath-Stubbs invokes the prophecy of Isaiah 52:7:

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

Christ did not come for the angels, but still they bend down to worship him, showing us how to welcome this most special visitor. Mary instinctively knows how to care for his material needs, offering him nourishment at her breast.

Stanza four presents another paradox: Jesus is both peasant and king. He’s poor, like the shepherds, but like the wise men, he comes from great wealth, and has a throne to inherit. And yet he enters our world rejected, “cast forth,” a bastard child born in a borrowed room, and not yet weaned before Herod seeks him out to kill him. This casting forth will characterize his ministry, coming to a head on one fatal Passover. The final line of the poem is biting—an accusation, really: “Out in the cold He lies!” This is how humanity treats its savior.

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In 1966 English composer Peter Dickinson (born 1934) set “For the Nativity” to music: an a cappella choral work with four voice parts. He first met Heath-Stubbs in 1962 when they both taught at the College of St. Mark and St. John in Chelsea, London, and they soon became friends. In addition to setting his nativity poem, Dickinson also commissioned him to write an opera libretto for The Unicorns; this project was never completed, but a six-movement suite, using three song texts by Heath-Stubbs, was developed and recorded.

I don’t have a recording of “For the Nativity” to post, but I did get permission from the music’s publisher to provide a one-page sample of the score. The full eight pages are available for purchase from sheet music outlets (e.g., Presto Classical).

"For the Nativity" carol
First five bars of “For the Nativity,” a carol for SATB (unaccompanied) by Peter Dickinson, words by John Heath-Stubbs. Reprinted by permission of Novello & Co Ltd.

Dickinson’s setting opens with a monophonic texture in the first measure, but then the voices stagger, forming separate rhythms and creating a more complex, layered texture.

In measure five Dickinson uses pitch range to express a theological truth: “Star,” sung only by the sopranos, is a G5, the highest note in the piece, and the notes following on “fallen” drop drastically, hinting at the distance Christ spanned in his descent from heaven to earth. As the sopranos continue on in the text, the altos sustain the syllable “fall”—melismatically—for two full measures, calling attention to a word that’s ripe for meditation.

After some dissonant exchanges, the four voices come together in a harmonious, fortissimo C major chord on “peace.” The phrase “how beautiful!” echoes softly, five times in the upper two voices (twice in the bottom two), overlaying the mention of “sacrifice.” In this way beauty is made to describe not only the gospel messengers but the gospel itself.

The last three bars are my favorite—those elegiac, bare-fifth chords on “cast forth.” Chilling! This word pair forms the epicenter of the poem, and Dickinson emphasizes it through repetition, choosing to end the piece with it.

Implicit in this carol, resonating in the final chord, is an exhortation: Don’t leave Jesus out in the cold this Christmas. Hold him close. Listen to the gospel the angels preached that night, and behold their message embodied in the poor little baby, the King of Kings.

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“For the Nativity” is one of many works Peter Dickinson has composed over his prolific career, which in addition to vocal works also include instrumental works for a variety of ensembles, from solo instrument to quartets to full orchestra. Dickinson grew up in the Methodist church, and therefore his earliest exposure to music was to Wesleyan hymns. After attending the University of Cambridge as an organ scholar of Queens’ College, he did graduate work at Juilliard, where he became enamored with the work of experimental composers like Charles Ives and John Cage. While in America he also developed an interest in some of the country’s native genres of music, such as ragtime, blues, and jazz.

A lover of poetry, Dickinson has set a number of modern poets besides Heath-Stubbs, including E. E. Cummings, W. H. Auden, and Dylan Thomas (not to mention one of my favorite poets, the Victorian Gerard Manley Hopkins). Several of his works are religious, among them the musical drama The Judas Tree (with Thomas Blackburn) and A Mass of the Apocalypse. For a full list of works and recordings, see his website: www.foxborough.co.uk.

Dickinson has enjoyed an illustrious career not only in composition but also in piano performance and musicology. For twenty-five years he performed with his sister, the mezzo Meriel Dickinson—for recitals, broadcasts, and recordings. As a scholar, he has written or edited dozens of books, including ones on Sir Lennox Berkeley, John Cage, Aaron Copland (all of whom he knew), Lord Berners, and Samuel Barber. He is also widely published in periodicals and music journals. Earlier this year, in celebration of Dickinson’s eightieth birthday, Boydell Press published Peter Dickinson: Words and Music, a retrospective of his life and work that brings together tributes as well as many of his own articles, and Heritage Records released a CD of seven of his orchestral works.

(Related post: “‘i thank You God for most this amazing’ by E. E. Cummings”)

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