December 1945: “vacant chairs at the table and empty seats in the church”

I meant to post this yesterday but I was unexpectedly overtaken by a long nap. It’s Edgar Odell Lovett’s Christmas message from 1945, his last year as president of the Rice Institute and the year that saw the end of World War II:

I think everyone is familiar with A Christmas Carol, but probably not with the Bridges poem. I  knew of him only dimly as the person responsible for the posthumous publication of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ work but it seems that Dr. Lovett was right–his work is good.

Noel: Christmas Eve 1913

Robert Bridges, 18441930

Pax hominibus bonae voluntatis

A frosty Christmas Eve 
   when the stars were shining
Fared I forth alone 
   where westward falls the hill,
And from many a village 
   in the water’d valley
Distant music reach’d me 
   peals of bells aringing:
The constellated sounds 
   ran sprinkling on earth’s floor
As the dark vault above 
   with stars was spangled o’er.
Then sped my thoughts to keep 
   that first Christmas of all
When the shepherds watching 
   by their folds ere the dawn
Heard music in the fields 
   and marveling could not tell
Whether it were angels 
   or the bright stars singing.

Now blessed be the tow’rs 
   that crown England so fair
That stand up strong in prayer 
   unto God for our souls
Blessed be their founders 
   (said I) an’ our country folk
Who are ringing for Christ 
   in the belfries to-night
With arms lifted to clutch 
   the rattling ropes that race
Into the dark above 
   and the mad romping din.

But to me heard afar 
   it was starry music
Angels’ song, comforting 
   as the comfort of Christ
When he spake tenderly 
   to his sorrowful flock:
The old words came to me 
   by the riches of time
Mellow’d and transfigured 
   as I stood on the hill
Heark’ning in the aspect 
   of th’ eternal silence.


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1 Response to December 1945: “vacant chairs at the table and empty seats in the church”

  1. Mark Williamson says:

    While the Bridges poem may not be widely read, it survives as the lyrics to a song of the same title that was recorded by John Denver on his Christmas album with The Muppets. It’s a lovely song. Many of the rest of the songs on the album are silly, but it’s a favorite in our family.

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