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A carol a day: Good King Wenceslas

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This was first published on December 9, 2018.

I HAVE always thought that Good King Wenceslas was about a benevolent old gent trying to spread a little happiness. Wrong. According to the Guardian ‘it glorifies a patriarchal definition of charitable giving that belittles the value of a properly funded welfare state’.

In the spirit of Christmas I will admit that the writer seems to have been joking (funny, isn’t it?) but it is not the first time that Good King Wenceslas has had it in the neck, as I will mention in a minute.

It is an unusual carol in that it makes no reference to the Nativity (the Christmas connection is that the action takes place on the ‘Feast of Stephen’, December 26). It is based on the life Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia (907–935). He was a good Christian who gave generously to the poor but he was assassinated at the age of only 28 on the orders of his brother Boleslaus the Cruel. He is the patron saint of the Czech Republic and there is a statue of him in Prague’s Wenceslas Square.

The carol is thought to have been based on a poem about the Duke (he was posthumously promoted to King) written in Czech, German and Latin which was translated by the English priest and hymnwriter John Mason Neale and published in 1853. Here are the words:

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 knowst 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 shall 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 shall find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.’

In his master’s step 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.

Neale chose to set it to a 13th-century Finnish tune called Tempus adest floridum in praise of the spring.

This has not pleased some academics. The editors of the 1928 Oxford Book of Carols (one of whom was Ralph Vaughan Williams) wrote: ‘This rather confused narrative owes its popularity to the delightful tune, which is that of a Spring carol . . . Unfortunately Neale in 1853 substituted for the Spring carol this Good King Wenceslas, one of his less happy pieces, which E Duncan goes so far as to call “doggerel”, and Bullen condemns as “poor and commonplace to the last degree”. The time has not yet come for a comprehensive book to discard it; but we reprint the tune in its proper setting . . . not without hope that, with the present wealth of carols for Christmas, Good King Wenceslas may gradually pass into disuse, and the tune be restored to spring-time.’

Elizabeth Poston, in the Penguin Book of Christmas Carols, referred to it as the ‘product of an unnatural marriage between Victorian whimsy and the thirteenth-century dance carol’. She regrets that Neale’s ‘ponderous moral doggerel’ does not fit the light-hearted dance measure of the tune which she says ‘sounds ridiculous to pseudo-religious words’.

Oh dear.

Here is a wonderfully full-blooded performance by the choir of York Minster in 1995, though the pictures are not very good.

And here it is by Bing Crosby.

If it was good enough for the Old Groaner, it’s good enough for me.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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