Thursday, December 20, 2018

Carol's carol

The Bee Carol

Silently on Christmas Eve,
the turn of midnight’s key;
all the garden locked in ice —
a silver frieze —
except the winter cluster of the bees.

Flightless now and shivering,
around their Queen they cling;
every bee a gift of heat;
she will not freeze
within the winter cluster of the bees.

Bring me for my Christmas gift
a single golden jar;
let me taste the sweetness there,
but honey leave
to feed the winter cluster of the bees.

Come with me on Christmas Eve
to see the silent hive —
trembling stars cloistered above —
and then believe,
bless the winter cluster of the bees.

(Carol Ann Duffy)
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This is the text for this year's Radio 3 Christmas Carol competition (the winner was John Merrick). It comes from The Bees (2011), Carol Ann Duffy's first collection as poet laureate, a role in which she has been as vilified as most incumbents are, but with that extra bit of venom reserved for women.

Since both queen and workers are female, Carol deftly proposes a Christmas Eve incarnation myth that is also an image of sisterly solidarity.

A poem like this isn't really about God and Jesus, it's about things that lie deeper than that. It's, let's say, about the life and values of those elderly churchgoers who now sing carols; their love of their gardens, their retirement contemplation of nature, their abundant experience of  joys and sorrows, their awareness of their own deaths drawing closer. Carol's poem reaches into that nexus of values and just brushes it, like a hand on a harp. We can say a genuine Yes to her injunction to "believe", without knowing precisely what we do believe.

According to the radio there were "hundreds" of entries, so in addition to John Merrick's there now exist hundreds of other choral settings of this poem. But it wasn't written for music, and the poem already contains within its words, as well as its title, the suggestion of a carol: for example, such archaic devices as inversion ("but honey leave"), rhetorical imperative ("Bring me") and invitation ("Come with me"). And to suggest music the poem makes quite elaborate use of sound:  full rhymes, half rhymes, and subterranean developments like "clusters" / "cling" / "cloistered".

And yet it's also unlike most carols. Compare "O come all ye faithful", an exhortation certainly but a communal one, part of a shared ritual in which we exhort ourselves and each other. There is no "I" in such carols. Though admittedly there is precedent for it in the final stanza of Christina Rossetti's "In the Bleak Midwinter", which also began life as a poem (a poem originally titled "A Christmas Carol" (January 1872)).

Christmas, we say, is about spending time with the family. That means something different as you grow older, and may find yourself spending quite a lot of the Christmas season, apart from the "big day" itself, on your own. Or listening to Radio 3.

It's out of that precious loneliness that the poem seems to speak: such epiphanies as this of going out to the hive late at night, beneath those chilly stars, are essentially  solitary ones, though we long to share them with others. "Come with me on Christmas Eve" has a pleading note, and not perhaps less so if we imagine that the one addressed is a sister, a partner, a child or a grandchild.

("Come with me on Christmas Eve" is also aware of the invitation hypothetically made to the author in Thomas Hardy's "The Oxen". Christmas Eve is a time of miracles -- "So hallowed and so gracious is the time." This poem's contention is that the winter bees beneath the winter stars are also a kind of miracle, even though they aren't  miraculous in the same sense as the kneeling oxen in the folk-legend.)



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