“On the Swag” by R. A. K. Mason

His body doubled
    under the pack
    that sprawls untidily
    on his old back,
    the cold wet dead-beat
    plods up the track.

The cook peers out:
    oh, curse that old lag—
    here again
    with his clumsy swag
    made of a dirty old
    turnip-bag.

Bring him in, cook,
    from the cold level sleet:
    put silk on his body,
    slippers on his feet;
    give him fire
    and bread and meat.

Let the fruit be plucked
    and the cake be iced,
    the bed be snug
    and the wine be spiced
    for the old cove’s night-cap—
    for this is Christ.
Schmalz, Timothy_When I Was a Stranger
Timothy P. Schmalz (Canadian, 1969–), When I Was a Stranger, 2016. Bronze, 42 × 23 × 39 in. Basilica of San Lorenzo (Saint Lawrence), Lucina, Rome.

R. A. K. Mason (1905–1971) was one of New Zealand’s preeminent poets. Written around 1932, his poem “On the Swag” was inspired by Matthew 25:31–46, where Jesus says that our treatment of the poor redounds to him. That is, if we ignore the cries of the poor or even directly reject them, we are effectually ignoring or rejecting Christ—but if we welcome the poor into our homes and lives and endeavor to meet their needs, it is as if we welcome Christ himself.

In New Zealand and Australia, “swag” refers to a pack of personal belongings, and to “go on the swag” is an informal expression meaning to become a wandering foot-traveler, lacking a permanent residence and steady work. So in the poem a homeless man, hunched over in exhaustion and with his meager bag of possessions in tow, is passing down a neighborhood lane. A house cook sees him through the window and in vexation complains about what an eyesore he is, stinking up the streets and making the city look bad. She has seen him in these quarters before and wishes him good riddance.

(Related posts: “The Seven Works of Mercy”; “Advent, Day 19”)

But in the next two stanzas a more compassionate voice intervenes—probably the master or mistress of the house, or otherwise an intrusive narrator. This voice orders the cook to bring the man inside and to lavish him with the finest foods and dress, and then to make up a warm bed for the “old cove.” (“Cove” is an old-fashioned British word meaning “fellow.”) The last line tells us what impels this loving and urgent hospitality: “this is Christ.”

Whenever you encounter an outstretched hand or a dejected face, how might seeing it as the hand or face of Christ impact your response?

Copyright credit: “On the Swag” by R. A. K. Mason was originally published in 1932 in Kiwi: The Magazine of the Auckland University College and more recently has appeared in R. A. K. Mason: Collected Poems (Victoria University Press, 2014). It is reproduced here by permission of Hocken Library Uare Taoka o Hakena, University of Otago, Dunedin, the holder of Mason’s papers.