Just in time for Christmas: Clive Wilmer’s “Sidney Carol”


Quite the man.

Readers of the Book Haven know of my special fondness for Cambridge, after my single night as a Girtonian a couple years ago (I wrote about it here). I have an additional reason for my warm feelings for the place: the poet Clive Wilmer and I have never met face-to-face, but we’ve corresponded, off and on, for years.  The poet is a fellow at Cambridge’s Sidney Sussex College, which was founded on St. Valentine’s Day in 1596 by legacy of Lady Frances Sidney, Countess of Sussex, for her nephew, the Elizabethan courtier and poet Sir Philip Sidney. What better place for a poet than a college named for one?  And where better to turn for a couple Christmas poems than Clive Wilmer? (Second installment tomorrow.)

Clive considers this poem is more an Advent Carol than a Christmas one – so I had to hurry to catch the last day of Advent before the first day of Christmas.

The poem was inspired by an Advent Carol Service in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. “The first item in that service – not at all the same as the famous Christmas Eve one that you see on TV – is a setting by Palestrina of a prose text which begins ‘I look from afar’, ‘Prospiciens a longe‘ in the original. I thought of the whole poem as trying to evoke that feeling of absence, dark and cold, but also of anticipation before some great, as-yet-unknown event.”

I’m not sure darkness and cold is part of a California Christmas – the sun is shining brightly outside my window as I patter away on my keyboard, and my black cat is lolling in the grass, reveling in the mild weather. However, a few weeks ago I was throwing bedsheets over my olive trees and orchids to keep them from freezing in the nasty cold snap and huddling over the oil heater.  See? Even Californians suffer.

Enjoy the poem and the day.

Sidney Carol

Each year it comes round again:
.       The aching chill,
.       The ashen sky,
The sunset bleeding through the fen,
The freezing of our warm good will,
.   The sense that things must die.
Each year it comes round again.

As every year, the shepherds squat
.       On bleaching grass
.       Around the fold.
Not asking if their life is what
Was always meant to come to pass
.   Or why good things grow cold,
As every year, the shepherds squat.

Sure as the stars at evening rise,
.       There are three kings
.       Who year by year
Come seeking what will make them wise:
The new life which the winter brings,
.   And which will now appear
Sure as the stars at evening rise.

In this bleak world what hope of joy?
.       The ordeal of birth
.       Has flecked with blood
A slight girl and her tiny boy.
They hear the song of peace on earth
.   And trust in human good:
In this bleak world a hope of joy.

The year runs on and there is change:
.       Not peace but war,
.       My path is lost.
And yet the power of time is strange.
The winter child comes as before,
.   Like snowdrops in the frost.
The year runs on and there is change.

Once more, a choir of angels sings,
.       As moonlight glows
.       Within the ice.
The shepherds join them, and the kings.
Let us, too, join them, while it snows,
.   To greet the new-born Christ.
Once more, a choir of angels sings.


Cloister Court, Sussex Sidney College – a poet’s college for a poet. (Photo: David Purchase)

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