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Ben Jonson’s Carol

One of the richest treasures of the Christian church and actually for Western civilization is the poetry written about the birth of Christ and the doctrine of the Incarnation it points to.  I thought that it would be interesting and, I hope, inspiring to share some of these poems during the upcoming days.

I love the traditional Christmas carols, but I’m not going to look at them (Well, I’ll try not to!), since they are so well known.  Instead, I’m choosing works by famous and not so famous poets that many of us might not be acquainted with.

The nativity stories in the Gospel of Luke are full of people and even angels bursting into poetry and singing; so I thought that I would start with a carol by Ben Jonson (1572-1637).  He would have been the greatest dramatist of his time, if it weren’t for a fellow named Shakespeare.  Jonson took being second fiddle with a bit of humor.  Commenting on an engraving of Shakespeare in his dedication to the Bard’s plays, he advised readers to “Look, not on his Picture, but his Book.”

Here is “I Sing the Birth Was Born Tonight,” which my sister introduced me to many Christmases ago.

I sing the birth was born tonight,
The Author both of life and light:
The angels so did sound it,
The angels so did sound it, so did sound it;
The like the ravished shepherds said,
Who saw the light and were afraid,
Yet searched, and true they found it,
Yet searched, and true they found it,
True they found it, and true they found it.

The Son of God, the eternal King,
That did us all salvation bring,
And freed the world from danger,
And freed the world from danger, freed from danger,
He whom the whole world could not take,
The Word which heaven and earth did make,
Was now laid in a manger,
Was now laid in a manger
In a manger, laid in a manger.

What comfort do we by Him win,
Who made Himself the price of sin,
To make us heirs of glory!
To make us heirs of glory, heirs of glory!
To see this Babe, all innocence,
A Martyrs born in our defense–
Can man forget the story,
Can man forget,
Can man forget the story,
Forget the story?
Can man forget the story?


I especially like the lines “The Word which heaven and earth did make,/Was now laid in a manger.”  “Jonson’s Carol,” as it is often called, has been to music by several different composers.   If you’d like to hear Arthur Sullivan’s (1842-1900) version sung by the Keble College choir, click on this link

Next up, Robert Browning.

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