“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.

+++

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.

+++

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