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Poem of the week: Christmas (I) by George Herbert

Worldly hospitality becomes an image of divine benevolence in a 17th-century sonnet that will resonate with exhausted December shoppers

This week, the first of George Herbert’s pair of Christmas poems, published in his posthumous collection, The Temple, provides a pause for reflection in the season of frantic shopping and “frost-nipt sunnes”. Christmas (I) tells the Nativity story from an innovative angle, and realigns one of Herbert’s favourite tropes for denoting the relationship of God and the soul, that of kindly host and needy guest.

In their physicality of design, reference and voice, Herbert’s poems have a mysterious power of yielding themselves to contemporary experience and interpretation. Shoppers and partygoers alike might sympathise with the exhausted rider (“quite astray”) evoked at the beginning of Christmas (I). The unexpected opening modifier, “After all pleasures,” contains an important ambiguity. The preposition “after” suggests both a following in time, and an actual pursuit. Herbert’s speaker, seemingly, is exhausted both by the pleasures experienced and by the process of chasing them, as if unsatisfied pursuit and unsatisfied consumption were as crazily embroiled in the 17th century as the 21st.

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