More Paradoxes of “This Little Babe”

By | December 29, 2014

Robert SouthwellThere is another great Robert Southwell poem in Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols (for the first, see www.jubalslyre.com/the-paradoxes-of-this-little-babe). Although this movement is entitled “In Freezing Winter Night” (click here for a recording), the poem’s original title was “New Prince, New Pomp.” Interestingly, Southwell’s original title parallels the title of the poem from which “This Little Babe” is taken: “New Heaven, New War.” With deep insight, vivid imagery, and compelling metaphors both poems explore the mystery, wonder, and remarkable paradoxes of the birth of Christ.

Below you will find the complete poem. Although the spellings have been modernized, a few archaic words have been retained since they are essential to the structure of the poem and there is no easy equivalent in modern English. Note that Britten sets all but two of the stanzas and that his title is actually the second line of the poem.

New Prince, New Pomp

Behold, a sely1 tender Babe,
In freezing winter night,
In homely manger trembling lies;
Alas, a piteous sight!

The inns are full, no man will yield
This little pilgrim bed;
But forc’d He is with sely beasts
In crib to shroud his head.

Despise not Him for lying there,
First what he is enquire;
An orient pearl is often found
In depth of dirty mire.

Weye2 not His crib, His wooden dish,
Nor beasts that by Him feed;
Weye not his mother’s poor attire
Nor Joseph’s simple weede.3

This stable is a Prince’s court,
This crib His chair of state;
The beasts are parcel of his pomp,
The wooden dish His plate.

The persons in that poor attire
His royal liveries wear;
The Prince Himself is come from heaven,
This pomp is prizèd there.

With joy approach, O Christian wight,4
Do homage to thy King;
And highly prize His humble pomp
Which He from heaven doth bring.

Father Robert Southwell (c. 1561-95)

N.B. For Southwell’s original text, click here.

  1. Southwell’s original word is shown here. In Middle English “sely” can mean “blessed, happy, or fortunate,” but also “weak, helpless, defenseless, and poor.” Considering the nature of the poem, the latter meaning is more likely the intended one. Occasionally, as in Britten’s music, this word is spelled “silly,” which is also correct since in Middle English, “silly” can mean “helpless, pitiable, deserving of compassion, simple, unsophisticated, ordinary,”
  2. Sometimes incorrectly transliterated as “weigh,” “weye” is an archaic word that means “to deceive.” What Southwell is really saying in this verse is “Do not be deceived by His crib, His wooden dish, the beasts, or His mother and father’s clothes.”
  3. In the context of this phrase, “weede” means “garment” or “clothes.”
  4. A “wight” in Old and Middle English is a “living human being, someone able to perceive and feel.”