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The hall was dress'd with holly green;
Forth to the wood did merry-men go,
To gather in the mistletoe."
Then open'd wide the baron's hall
To vassal,10 tenant,11 serf,12 and all;
Power laid his rod of rule aside,13
And ceremony doff'd his pride.14
The heir, with roses in his shoes,15
That night might village partner choose;19
The lord, underogating,17 share
The vulgar game of "post and pair."18
All hail'd, with uncontroll'd delight
And general voice, the happy night,
That to the cottage, as the crown,
Brought tidings of Salvation down.10
The fire, with well-dried logs supplied,
9. What is mistletoe? Is there anything peculiar in its habits of growth? What did they want of it? What custom is still said to follow the use of mistletoe at Christmastime?
10. A vassal was one of the followers of the baron and paid for protection or for lands he held by fighting in the baron's troops or rendering some other Service.
11. A tenant held lands or houses, for which he paid some form of rent.
12. A serf was a slave.
13. At Christmastime even the powerful were willing to cease from ruling and join with the common people.
14. Instead of grand ceremonies, everybody joined in simple amusements, without pride or prejudice.
15. Who was the heir? What was he heir to? Why did he have roses in his shoes?
16. Was he permitted to dance with village maidens at any other time?
17. Without losing any of his dignity.
18. An old-fashioned game of cards.
19. Who brought the tidings of Salvation? To whom was it brought? Who was "the crown"?
The huge hall-table's oaken face,
Scrubb'd till it shone, the day to grace,
Bore then upon its massive board
No mark to part the squire and lord.20
Then was brought in the lusty brawn,21
By old blue-coated serving-man;
Then the grim boar's head frown'd on high,
Crested with bays and rosemary.2
Well can the green-garb'd ranger23 tell,
How, when, and where, the monster fell;
What dogs before his death he tore,
And all the baiting of the boar.24
The wassail20 round, in good brown bowls,
Garnish'd with ribbons, blithely trowls.28
There the huge sirloin reek'd; hard by
20. A lord was one who had power and authority, while a squire was merely an attendant upon a lord.
21. Brawn, in England, is a preparation of meat, generally sheep's head, pig's head, hock of beef, or boar's meat, boiled and seasoned, and run into jelly moulds.
22. What are bays? What is rosemary? Why should the boar's head be called crestedt Where was it? Why was it there? Why does the poet say it frowned on high?
23. Who was a ranger? What did he do? Do you see any reason for his being green-garbed?
24. What is meant by baiting 1 Who tore the dogs? Why did he tear them? What made the monster fall?
25. Wassail (uossil): the liquor in which they drank their toasts, and which signified the good cheer of Christmastime.
26. Moves about; that is, the liquor in good brown bowls was merrily passed along the table from hand to hand.
27. What was near the sirloin? How many kinds of meat were there on the table? Is anything mentioned besides meat? Do you suppose they had other things to eat? Did they have bread and vegetables?
And carols roar'd with blithesome din;
If unmelodious was the song,
It was a hearty note, and strong.
Who lists may in their mumming see
Traces of ancient mystery;28
White shirts supplied the masquerade,
And smutted cheeks the visors made;—**
But, O! what maskers, richly dight,
Can boast of bosoms, half so light!3"
England was merry England, when
Old Christmas brought his sports again.
'Twas Christmas broach'd the mightiest ale;
'Twas Christmas told the merriest tale;
A Christmas gambol oft could cheer
The poor man's heart through half the year.
28. In the mumming or acting of these maskers could be seen traces of the ancient mystic plays in which religious lessons were given in plays that were acted with the approval of the church.
29. Did the maskers have rich costumes? What did they wear over their faces? How did they conceal their clothing?
30. Does the poet think that rich maskers would enjoy their pleasure as much as the old-fashioned Christmas merrymakers?
WRITTEN IN A COUNTRY CHURCHYARD
Note.—A mournful song written to express grief at the loss of some friend or relative, and at the same time to praise the dead person, is known as an elegy. Sometimes the word has a wider meaning, and includes a poem which expresses the same ideas but applies them to a class of people rather than to an individual. Such a poem is not so personal, and for that very reason it will be appreciated by a larger number of readers. Gray's Elegy is of the latter class—is perhaps the one great poem of that class; for in all probability more people have loved it and found in its gentle sadness, its exquisite phraseology and its musical lines more genuine charm than in any similar poem in the language.
To one who already loves it, any comments on the poem may at first thought seem like desecration, but, on the other hand, there is so much more in the Elegy than appears at first glance that it is worth while to read it in the light of another's eyes. Not a few persons find some enjoyment in reading, but fall far short of the highest pleasure because of their failure really to comprehend the meaning of certain words and forms of expression. For that reason, notes are appended where they may be needed. A good reader is never troubled by notes at the bottom of the page. If they are of no interest or benefit to him, he knows it with a glance and passes on with his reading. If the note is helpful, he gathers the information and returns to his reading, beginning not at the word from which the reference was made, but at the beginning of the sentence or stanza; then he loses nothing by going to the footnote.
THE curfew1 tolls the knell2 of parting day, The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea, The plowman homeward plods his weary way And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
HOMEWARD PLODS HIS WEARY WAY
Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight, And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight, And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;3
1. In some of our American towns and cities a curfew bell is rung as a signal that the children must leave the streets and go to their homes. Many years ago it was the custom in English villages to ring a bell at nightfall as a signal for people to cover their fires with ashes to preserve till morning, and as a signal for bed. The word curfew, in fact, is from the French, and means cover fire.
2. The word knell suggests death, and gives the first mournful note to the poem.
3. The sheep are shut up for the night in the folds or pens. What are the tinklingsf Why should they be called drowsy?