Benjamin Britten in his Ceremony of Carols set the last four stanzas of this startling poem to startling music, startlingly for women’s voices, accompanied of all things by a martially plucked harp, and employing echo in the stanza beginning “His camp” to effect pitched battle. It is one of my very favorite Christmas pieces ever. Some might find it odd, but are we not, this year, and every year, in a battle? And yet it is a battle best won through love and joy. Merry Christmas!
New Heaven, New War
Come to your heaven, you heavenly choirs,
Earth hath the heaven of your desires;
Remove your dwelling to your God,
A stall is now his best abode;
Sith men their homage do deny,
Come, Angels, all their fault supply.
His chilling cold doth heat require,
Come, Seraphins, in lieu of fire;
This little Ark no cover hath,
Let Cherubs’ wings his body swath;
Come, Raphael, this Babe must eat,
Provide our little Tobie meat.
Let Gabriel be now his groom,
That first took up his earthly room;
Let Michael stand in his defence,
Whom love hath link’d to feeble sense;
Let Graces rock when he doth cry,
Let Angels sing his lullaby.
The same you saw in heavenly seat,
Is he that now sucks Mary’s teat;
Agonize your King a mortal wight,
His borrowed weed lets not your sight;
Come, kiss the manger where he lies,
That is your bliss above the skies.
This little Babe so few days old,
Is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake,
Though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak, unarmed wise,
The gates of hell he will surprise.
With tears he fights and wins the field,
His naked breast stands for a shield;
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows made of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns cold and need,
And feeble flesh his warrior’s steed.
His camp is pitched in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall;
The crib his trench, hay stalks his stakes,
Of shepherds he his muster makes;
And thus as sure his foe to wound
The Angels’ trumps alarum sound.
My soul with Christ join thou in fight,
Stick to the tents that he hath dight;
Within his crib is surest ward,
This little Babe will be thy guard;
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
Then flit not from the heavenly boy.