image by Jansen Fenstermacher

This week’s featured poem, A Child of the Snows, is by G.K. Chesterton. It is a 1926 Christmas poem that gripped me long ago and has never let go. The fact that it has stuck with me for so long is a surprise because as I read it for the first time I did not understand it, I found myself confused and unmoved until I read the last line. After reading the closing phrase, I still did not understand the poem but I was helplessly drawn in by the image I found there.

Ever since that experience, I have kept returning to the poem; reading it again and again and researching its words and phrase. Now it has become a small rich part of my Christmas tradition. Discovering it’s unique connections to Charles Dickens, unquenchable joy, our ancient redeemed past and our promised future fellowship in Christ has added more wonder to this season. I invite you to read the poem, soak in it awhile. Then perhaps you will want to explore the poem a little more as well. To get you started, I offer you some of my notes and references. Come join me in the joy of unravelling some of the mysteries within, A Child of the Snows.

Please share your own comments, impressions, and discoveries as well.

A Child of the Snows

There is heard a hymn when the panes are dim,
And never before or again,
When the nights are strong with a darkness long,
And the dark is alive with rain.

Never we know but in sleet and in snow,
The place where the great fires are,
That the midst of the earth is a raging mirth
And the heart of the earth a star
 
And at night we win to the ancient inn
Where the child in the frost is furled,
We follow the feet where all souls meet
At the inn at the end of the world. 

The gods lie dead where the leaves lie red,
For the flame of the sun is flown,
The gods lie cold where the leaves lie gold,
And a Child comes forth alone.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton

My Notes:

Stanza #1

Charles Dicken’s Lost Hymn

There is heard a hymn when the panes are dim,
And never before or again, 
From an artical on website Hymns and Carols of Christmas:

It is believed that Chesterton wrote this poem in order to fulfill a need outlined in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In Stave Three, near the end of the Crachet Family Christmas dinner, we read:

All this time the chestnuts and the jug went round and round; and by-and-bye they had a song, about a lost child travelling in the snow, from Tiny Tim, who had a plaintive little voice, and sang it very well indeed.

Unlike his specific reference to “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” in Stave One, this reference to a song about a lost child travelling in the snow is a mysterious one. No such song has so far been found in any collection of Christmas carols. Michael Patrick Hearn, in The Annotated Christmas Carol, wrote “G. K. Chesterton apparently realized this omission; in his Poems (1926) he included a verse, ‘A Child of the Snows,’ which might stand for Tiny Tim’s song until another might be found.” (New York, Avenel Books, 1976, 1989, p. 126, note 47). <https://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Poetry/a_child_of_the_snowschesterton.htm>

The Contrasts Begin
When the nights are strong with a darkness long 
the dark is alive with rain.

Throughout this poem, GKC shows us many contrasts. He is drawing us into winter, for the darkness of the nights are long but the darkness is not dead, it is alive with rain.

Stanza #2

Contrast Teaches and Reveals

Never we know but in sleet and in snow,
The place where the great fires are,
It is often only in hardship that we search out and find what we really need. It is in the cold that we search out and find where the great fires are.
The Great Hidden Mirth of God
That the midst of the earth is a raging mirth
From GKC's book, Orthodoxy:
And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos* was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt* silence or impetuous* isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.
*
Pathos: the quality or power in an actual life experience or in literature, music, speech, or other forms of expression, of evoking a feeling of pity, or of sympathetic and kindly sorrow or compassion.
Abrupt: characterized by or involving action or change without preparation or warning : sudden and unexpected
Impetuous: of, relating to, or characterized by sudden or rash action, emotion, etc.; impulsive: an impetuous decision; an impetuous person.
Mirth: gladness or gaiety as shown by or accompanied with laughter
The Center of things, The Star
And the heart of the earth a star.
The metaphor of the Star as the center of things brings up two wonderful images for me:
  1. The Christmas Star drawing the wise men and all wise men to the central point of history, the manger and the birth of Christ
  2. And Christ himself referred to as The Morning Star in Revelations 22:16  “…I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”

Christ is the great fire that warms the world, the central point of history, and the source of all our joy – the raging mirth of the world!

Stanza #3

We are back again at the Manager – our past and our future

And at night we win to the ancient inn
Where the child in the frost is furled,

Our Christmas Past – On Christmas night we “win” (to succeed in reaching [a place, condition, etc.], especially by great effort) to the place where our saviour if wrapped in swaddling clothes. If we leave night connected with the sleet and the snow, the trials of life, then we make our way (win – with great effort) to the true source of our great help, all the time but often only felt in our time of need (where the great fires are), to Jesus.

We follow the feet where all souls meet
At the inn at the end of the world.

He is not only our source in the past and present but will be always until the end, the end of the world. The place where Jesus is and he has gone to prepare a place for us that where he is we may be also. And that place is an inn of great joy, of raging mirth! And those souls that remain, that are saved in the end, they will all meet there in that inn.

Here again, when we dig deeper for GKC’s meaning for these verses we find he is connecting us again with Charles Dickens and Dickens’ view of our journey’s end, the tavern (inn) at the end of the world.

But this at least is part of what he (Dickens) meant; that comradeship and serious joy are not interludes in our travel; but that rather our travels are interludes in comradeship and joy, which through God shall endure forever. The inn does not point to the road; the road points to the inn. And all roads point at last to an ultimate inn, where we shall meet Dickens and all his characters: and when we drink again it shall be from the great flagons in the tavern at the end of the world.

Charles Dickens (1906)

Stanza #4

Paganism Fulfilled In Christ’s Coming

The gods lie dead where the leaves lie red,
For the flame of the sun is flown,
The gods lie cold where the leaves lie gold,
And a Child comes forth alone.

Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien all expressed the idea that Christ coming to earth, dying and rising again fulfilled the longing of ancient man expressed in their mythology.  Many good articles are easily available on this subject through the internet. Here is an excerpt of one that sheds light on what GKC is expressing in this last stanza.

The theme of the god who dies and rises again is recurs in their literature. When Lewis acknowledged the historicity of Christ’s life, he saw in the Incarnation the fulfillment of that longing which dwelled in the Pagans. With Christ man’s dream had become a fact. As Chesterton writes, “Pan died because Christ was born [10] […] The place that the shepherds found […] was a place of dreams come true. Since that hour no mythologies have been made in the world. Mythology is a search.” [11] Pagan poetry was permeated by a sense of sadness because they lacked the revelation that would prove their dream true. But that very sense of emptiness was a pointer to the One who could fill it and change their mourning into gladness. 

[10] Chesterton, G.K., The Everlasting Man, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), p.160.
[11] Ibid., p.175.

When all the light that the ancient pagan gods can give has run out, it is Fall and the leaves have dried up and lost their green life, the days are short and the nights are long, and we are keenly aware of our need, the Christ child walks out of history alone – with the answers, the comfort, the joy, and the salvation we have been searching for.

Yes, A Child of the Snows, this is one of those poems that is a challenge to understand but well worth the study it takes to pull out the treasure that is there hidden there – in the snow.  Upon reading this poem for the first time I was left moved but perplexed. The journey to discover it’s meaning has added yet another layer to my appreciation, gratitude and love for Christmas and the Christ child who walked out of Heaven and into our history for me.   I hope you have enjoyed that journey too.

Merry Christmas!