Thursday, December 15, 2016

Bethlehem 1915

German Christmas card, 1915

What does the holy season of Christmas have to do with war? Egbert Sandford’s poem “At Bethlehem—1915” re-imagines the nativity in ways more typically found in a gothic horror film or a war propagandist’s appeal. We are invited to see the nativity with fresh eyes: it is no less than a cataclysmic invasion.

British Christmas card, 1915
Courtesy of the National Archives
At Bethlehem—1915.
The travelers are astir—
        Bearing frowns for incense,
Scorns for myrrh.

War flings its sign afar—
        There’s blood upon the Manger,
Blood upon the Star.

Dear Lord:
        Who fain would find the Saviour
Find the Sword.
            --E.T. Sandford

Just where is the Prince of Peace in this manger scene? The three kings have been elbowed aside by angry, scornful troops moving towards battle, and the glow of glory from above has been smeared with blood. Is the poem’s last verse a prayer to the Lord or a challenge to his people? What might it mean to search for the Christ-child with a sword or to find deadly weapons in Bethlehem’s stable?

Sandford, a government-employed warehouse manager at Plymouth, described himself as “just an ordinary working man.” His chief literary influences were the poets William Blake and Francis Thompson, and he credited “a literary class at Blackheath” for having given him the encouragement and inspiration to write. Sandford asserted that the primary aim of his poetry was to “take the common things of life and weave them into song.”* His poem “Bethlehem—1915” may be one of the most unusual Christmas carols ever composed.
*From the introduction to his book Brookdown & Other Poems, 1916. 

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