Friday, December 18, 2009

Good King Wenceslas: Favorite Carols


Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,

When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.

Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel,

When a poor man came in sight, gathering winter fuel.

"Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou know'st it, telling,

Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?"

"Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain;

Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither:

Thou and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither."

Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together;

Through the rude wind's wild lament and the bitter weather.

"Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger;

Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer."

"Mark my footsteps, good my page. Tread thou in them boldly.

Thou shalt find the winter's rage freeze thy blood less coldly."

In his master's steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;

Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.

Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,

Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.

This song is based on the legends about the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia (907-935); Wenceslaus is the English version of his original name in the Czech language, Vaclav, and though he was only a duke in his lifetime he had the title of king conferred on him after his death by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I. Wenceslaus was considered a martyr and a saint immediately after his death, and his cult grew up and was popular in Bohemia (which became Czechoslovakia) and England. The story goes that he would go about at night barefoot and give alms to widows, orphans, those in prison, and all wretched or afflicted by difficulty.

The carol "Good King Wenceslas" (which is how he spelled it) was published by English hymnwriter John Mason Neal in 1853; it may be a translation of an original Czech poem. It is set to the tune of "Tempus Adest Floridum" ("Now is the Time for Flowering"), a 13th Century spring carol (there used to be carols for every season). The Feast of Stephen is December 26.

The first time I ever really noticed the song was in Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising, where the ancient wizard Merriman Lyon and his young student Will Stanton enact the carol to travel through time, riding it to return to an earlier era. Terry Pratchett in his Discworld parody of Christmas Hogfather doesn't think much of the their version of Wenceslaus, preferring a king who would bring about the social conditions that would make charity unnecessary (which is all very well, but folks could starve to death before that happens). But the best reference to Wenceslaus to me is this exchange from Walt Kelly's Pogo:

Albert and Churchy (singing): Good King Sauerkraut- Look out!/ On your feets uneven-/While his nose just run about/ A-sniffin' and a-sneezin'!

Pogo: Hold it! Hold it! Wenceslaus is king!

Churchy: Winklehof? Winklehof is king?

Albert: What happened to Good King Sauerkraut?

Churchy: He must o' died. Take off yo' hat, boy.

Albert: Died? I didn't even know he was sick.

1 comment:

Babel said...

That's cool. I always wondered what the lyrics were. All I could ever think of when I heard the tune was from 70's commercial:
"The lymon-lemon taste of Sprite
Joins our celebration-
Sprite makes bright our holiday
and holiday occasions"
Or something to that effect.
It is amusing as life unfolds, you find out all the real versions of things you heard as parodies on commercials or Bugs Bunny cartoons!