What Child Is This

William Chatterton Dix, 1867
Addressed to one another
What child is this, who, laid to rest,Matt. 13:55
   on Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,Luke 2:13–14
   while shepherds watch are keeping?Luke 2:8
This, this is Christ the King,Matt. 2:2
   whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
haste, haste to bring him laud,Luke 2:16
   the babe, the son of Mary.Mark 6:3; Gal. 4:4
Why lies he in such mean estate,Luke 2:7
   where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear; for sinners here
   the silent Word is pleading.Matt. 3:15; Rom. 8:3
Nails, spear, shall pierce him through;Ps. 22:16; Zech. 12:10; John 19:34
   the cross be borne for me, for you:Heb. 10:10
hail, hail the Word made flesh,John 1:14
   the babe, the son of Mary.
So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh;Matt. 2:11
   come, peasant, king, to own him;Matt. 2:8
the King of kings salvation brings,Matt. 1:21
   let loving hearts enthrone him.Ps. 61:7; 1 Pet. 3:15
Raise, raise the song on high,
   the virgin sings her lullaby:
joy, joy for Christ is born,Luke 2:10
   the babe, the son of Mary.

This hymn puts into words a suitable wonder at the ironies of Christ’s nativity. The child is little: he’s laid to rest, sleeping, on a lap. And yet he is simultaneously the King, greeted with angelic anthems. We must not let the subdued tone of Christmas Eve services mislead us into thinking of the opening question as a mild inquiry, like that of a schoolteacher learning the class roster: “now, which kid is this?” It is instead an expression of awe rather like the disciples’ “What sort of man is this?” after Jesus rebuked a storm (Matt. 8:27). Most striking is the hymn’s use of meter and rhyme to prepare this irony.

The rhythm of the poem, perfectly iambic throughout its first four lines, modulates significantly at the beginning of line 5 to make the repeated word “this” emphatic.

scansion of line 5

After the preceding lines of eight and seven syllables, the shortness of this line comes as a surprise.

The first four lines of the poem set up a metrical pattern of antecedent, consequent, antecedent, consequent. That is, we’ve come to hear the eight-syllable line as an antecedent and the seven-syllable line as a consequent. What are we supposed to make of the shortness of line 5, which has merely six syllables? It arrests what to this point had been a regular pattern. Now come eight syllables in line 6 and six syllables again in line 7, so that the consequent-function established for the seven-syllable lines earlier in the stanza (with their falling end-rhythms: sleep-ing, keep-ing) is now put off until the very end (Mar-y). By delaying the return of the seven-syllable rhythm until the last line, the asymmetrical stanza structure ( enhances the finality of it—a line that summarizes the incongruity of the scene. We hasten to laud a “babe,” identified neither as the Son of God nor even as the son of some king or lord but merely as the son of Mary. The last line serves as the hymn’s refrain. The rhyme scheme, too, builds to a sense of the last line’s strangeness. Lines 2 and 4 rhyme to form a quatrain. The pivotal line 5 rhymes with line 6 to form a couplet. But the last two lines lack rhyme altogether. How satisfying, then, to discover subsequently that one kind of parallelism across stanzas (refrain) compensates for the lack of parallelism within the stanza (rhyme).

The ironies of the first stanza are tame compared to those of the second. After all, in the normal course of the world’s affairs, babies are in fact sometimes lauded, especially those of celebrities and royal families. When required by the rules of primogeniture, a baby can even be a king, like Henry VI of England. No, the ironies of Christ’s nativity are less social than moral. As amazing as the incarnation is, its purpose is the most amazing thing about it: to save sinners. The only proper response to such an irony of ironies is “fear.” (Note how the internal rhyme occurring in the third line of the stanza highlights this word.) At his nativity, the Word, reduced to inarticulate baby sounds, was nevertheless pleading—that is, living a life of righteousness that could be imputed to sinners. Later he would lay down his life for those same sinners. The emphatic rhythm at the beginning of line 5 now coincides with “nails, spear.”

GREENSLEEVES, being one of the most celebrated folk tunes of all time, needs no defense from us of its musical excellence. It will suffice, first, to point out how well its understated ending matches the sense of the poem’s refrain. And, second, to point out how well the contrast in range between the beginning of measure 9 and the end of measure 12 reflects the contrast between the quietness of Christ’s humiliation and the exuberance of joy that it should elicit:

GREENSLEEVES measures 9–12