Welcome to our Cotton Famine Christmas Countdown! To get us in the festive (sort of) spirit, we’ll feature a seasonal Cotton Famine Poem every day in the run up to our special Christmas event with Jennifer Reid on 20th December. Free tickets for the event are available here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-twelve-cotton-famine-poems-of-christmas-tickets-52954230529
Since the Cotton Famine brought misery to thousands of Lancashire folk, it might seem odd that it produced so many poems at Christmas, a time we tend to associate with joy (and, these days at least, plentiful consumption!) However, we only need to think of that most loved of Christmas stories, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, to remember that Christmas has also long been a time of charity and love. Cotton Famine Poetry highlighted religious and moral obligations upon the wealthy to help those in need during the festive season, which after all also coincided with the darkest, coldest months during which poverty could be hardest to bear.
Today’s poem is appropriately titled ‘Christmas is Coming’, by ‘M.I.H.’. It was published in the Ormskirk Advertiser on December 15th, 1864. The poem is accompanied by a commentary written by Charlotte Harris, a student on the ‘Poetry and Politics’ module in the Department of English at the University of Exeter. The poem, along with Charlotte’s commentary and a reading by Jennifer Reid, will be added to the poetry database in 2019.
CHRISTMAS IS COMING!
FOR THE “ADVERTISER.”
Christmas is coming! But not as of yore:
Changed is the aspect that once it wore,
Dimmed is the lustre of heart and eye,
Silent is the lone hearth’s melody.
Hushed is the music sweet voices made,
Still is the room where the children played,
All joyous and glad, round the Christmas tree,
Filling each heart with their mirthful glee.
Vacant the places around the board,
Absent the guests when the wine is poured,
While the yule log around sheds its ruddy glare
To show that our loved ones no more are there.
Christmas is coming! with memories dear,
To hang round the couch of the dying year;
They linger around us, and will not sever,
But, like ivy, cling to the heart for ever.
Christmas is coming! but one star yet
Still shines o’er our path – ‘twill never set, –
‘Tis Bethlehem’s Star, whose radiant gleam
Illuminated the lonely shepherd’s dream.
It points our eye to our home above
An unbroken circle of light and love,
Where reunited friends never sever,
But dwell in that land of bliss for ever.
This festive poem is written in six quatrains with a regular rhyme scheme of rhyming couplets. The line lengths vary between nine and ten syllables.
The poem recounts the particular sadness that Christmas brings when you are grieving or when remembering those you have lost. The sense of change appears to refer to the circumstances of the Cotton Famine. The poem uses traditional Christmas imagery (e.g. ‘Christmas Tree’, ‘yule log’, ‘ivy’ and ‘star’) but in a less traditionally positive way to highlight what has been lost. The personification of the yule log shows that the paraphernalia of Christmas takes the place of those who were once there. The repetition of the titular line ‘Christmas is coming!’ as the opening line of three stanzas within the poem gives a sense of urgency, and highlights that festivities, and life more generally, cannot be put on hold by loss. This is reinforced by the use of the exclamation mark and emphasised by its increasing frequency in the second half of the poem.
The poem ends on a hopeful and peaceful note. Regardless of circumstance, Christmas is a time to celebrate those you love, both with you at home, and in ‘our home above’.
Charlotte Harris, University of Exeter