CHRISTMAS POEMS by John Hollander


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An anthology of Christmas poetry, from Milton to Schnackenberg, that gives an appealing twinkle to many familiar ornaments by hanging them with a tasteful selection of contemporary pieces and older, often neglected works that deserve the fresh polish they receive here. The ordering of the poems according to traditional tropes of the season (Annunciation and Advent, Nativity, Christmastide, etc.) produces many rich juxtapositions. This is especially true of the section entitled —Nativity,— where the trumpet-blasts of Milton’s —On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity— find their subdued and elegiac echo in Eliot’s canonical —Journey of the Magi.— Yeats’s intensely idiosyncratic brand of theology is nowhere more apparent than in his rendering of Mary, who accepts the divine seed not with the humility of Christian tradition, but instead with an occult appreciation for —the terror of all terrors that I bore/The Heavens in my womb.— As Hollander and McClatchy note in their spare introduction, Christmas as we know and celebrate it is an invention of the latter half of the 19th century; Tennyson, Rossetti and even Thackeray receive their proper space. Less happily, however, the longest section, —Christmas Songs and Carols,— consists primarily of silly jingles, uninspired bits of Victorian sentimentality that will, in any case, be known to most already. Still, the selection is varied enough to include irreverent pieces by Morris Bishop and Phyllis McGinley, as well as a number of caustic, even dour offerings, such as Achebe’s —Christmas in Biafra— and Hill’s —Christmas Trees,— where the anti-theological theologian Bonhoeffer makes an appearance, quite as unexpectedly as a fat man in the fireplace. As with any bright scatter beneath the tree, this one has its disappointments and redundancies, but the spirit of the collection is generous and has a delightful quality of surprise.

Pub Date: Nov. 13th, 1999
ISBN: 0-375-40789-8
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 1999


NonfictionCOLLECTED PROSE by James Merrill
by James Merrill
by J.D. McClatchy