Come guard this night the Christmas-Pie,
That the Thiefe, though ne’r so slie,
With his Flesh-hooks, don’t come nie,
To catch it
From him, who all alone sits there,
Having his eyes still in his eare,
And a deal of nightly feare
To watch it.
When I first read this poem, I felt a shudder of astonishment at the term “Flesh-hooks,” which I thought a Herrickian metaphor for hands. The joining of cold hard metal to soft warm flesh turned Hardy’s thief into a clever cyborg. But “fleshhook” is actually a Biblical term: “And the priests’ custom with the people was, that, when any man offered sacrifice, the priest’s servant came, while the flesh was in seething, with a fleshhook of three teeth in his hand; And he struck it into the pan, or kettle or caldron, or pot; all that the fleshhook brought up the priest took for himself (Samuel 2:13-14 KJV). Is Herrick, vicar of Dean Prior in Devon, author of His Noble Numbers, implying that, if not carefully watched, the priest will take the Christmas-Pie for himself? Will he pull the meat out of the mince?
Attentive to this worry the guard in Herrick’s poem has “his eyes still in his eare.” What a wonderful description of the auditory nature of a midnight vigil. The instinct up, our ears as eyes, we drink to the dregs our “deal of nightly feare.” And indeed, how many of us as kids listened more intently on Christmas night than any other night of the year! For hoofs, for bells, for the wanted intruder and the rustle of paper . . .
As a childless adult it can be a challenge to recapture that magic. In my poem of Christmas, “The Yield,” (from my 2009 book Clampdown) my seasonal disaffection is disrupted by a Hardy-esque experience: the sight of a small industrious mouse preparing to weather an oncoming storm.
Cold to the Christmas bluster,
which I believed “all bloated commerce,”
I morning-gazed not half-awake
out the low distorting window panes
scarcely secured in the rotting casements
of this old Sears catalog bungalow.
I was careless of the scene I watched.
It spoke, I thought, a dreary death,
aloft, monotonous cottony white,
below, twig-littered lifeless brown—
before the impending pinch,
a snow-portentous silent stillness
in a maddeningly quiescent landscape.
A thumb of silvery fur ensnared
my visual stupor, it was a mouse
scooting across the perilous ground
that lay between the rustic lean-tos
of brittle nut-brown maple leaves.
Image-gripped, but how to name it,
this will to live in little things?
Upon such monumental nerve
Wholly unaware of me with cup
of tepid tea, well-fed antagonist
needled toward wonderment
by the pertinacious gathering
of this tiny attic resident, who,
apropos my fancy, went about
his fretful setting up of store
while seeming to mutter under
his breath “a big storm’s coming!”
He was right. Come midnight
and the ribboned pine-wreaths
hung upon the wooden doors,
this artless morning theater
was dressed foot-high in drifts
of blue-tinged starlit snow.
Today as I harbor in that same bungalow, bracing for several more “weather events” many of those “rotting casements” have been replaced by efficient vinyl windows, and many of our “attic residents” have been exiled as a result of new insulation. What hasn’t changed is the power of snow to enchant the dreary theatre of winter. Born and raised in Southern California, I don’t think I’ll ever stop being seduced by the beauty of Maine’s snowy vistas.