At the Dickens Fair this year, I saw this poem performed with a brilliance that brought its every image and emotion to life. Reading the text by itself cannot, of course, deliver the same experience, but nonetheless it is a joy to read. I know nothing of this Frank Sidgwick, but his poem sounds like something Lewis might have written, or at least approved of.
[UPDATE: Mark Lewis, the performer I saw, has kindly provided a link to his recording of the poem. Listen to it here.]
It is about what happens when the wild Greek god Pan encounters the Christ Child on the first Christmas. I suspect, but am not sure, that it may allude to the reported death of Pan, which legendarily occurs at the time of Jesus’ birth. Yet apart from this bit of legend, the poem still has power. When a created being, however mysterious and magnificent, meets its Creator, what can it do, but weep? Tears of joy or of fear, or of both mingled with the latter triumphant.
A Christmas Legend
Abroad on a winter’s night there ran
Under the starlight, leaping the rills
Swollen with snow-drip from the hills,
Goat-legged, goat-bearded Pan.
He loved to run on the crisp white floor,
Where black hill-torrents chiselled grooves,
And he loved to print his clean-cut hooves,
Where none had trod before.
And now he slacked and came to a stand
Beside a river too broad to leap;
And as he panted he heard a sheep
That bleated near at hand.
“Bell-wether, bell-wether, what do you say?
Peace, and huddle your ewes from cold!”
“Master, but ere we went to fold
Our herdsman hastened away:
“Over the hill came other twain
And pointed away to Bethlehem,
And spake with him, and he followed them,
And has not come again.
“He dropped his pipe of the river-reed ;
He left his scrip in his haste to go ;
And all our grazing is under snow,
So that we cannot feed.”
“Left his sheep on a winter’s night?”
Pan folded them with an angry frown.
“Bell-wether, bell-wether, I’ll go down
Where the star shines bright.”
Down by the hamlet he met the man.
“Shepherd, no shepherd, thy flock is lorn!”
“Master, no master, a child is born
Royal, greater than Pan.
“Lo, I have seen ; I go to my sheep ;
Follow my footsteps through the snow,
But warily, warily see thou go,
For child and mother sleep.”
Into the stable-yard Pan crept,
And there in a manger a baby lay
Beside his mother upon the hay,
And mother and baby slept.
Pan bent over the sleeping child,
Gazed on him, panting after his run :
And while he wondered, the little one
Opened his eyes and smiled;
Smiled, and after a little space
Struggled an arm from the swaddling-band,
And raising a tiny dimpled hand,
Patted the bearded face.
Something snapped in the breast of Pan;
His heart, his throat, his eyes were sore,
And he wished to weep as never before
Since the world began.
And out he went to the silly sheep,
To the fox on the hill, the fish in the sea,
The horse in the stall, the bird in the tree,
Asking them how to weep.
They could not teach they did not know;
The law stands writ for the beast that’s dumb
That a limb may ache and a heart be numb,
But never a tear can flow.
So bear you kindly to-day, O Man,
To all that is dumb and all that is wild,
For the sake of the Christmas Babe who smiled
In the eyes of great god Pan.