Good King Wenceslas
Written By: John Mason Neale
The extremely popular Christmas carol 'Good King Wenceslas' had
its lyrics written in 1853, by the English hymn writer John Mason
Neale. Neale wrote the lyrics with his music editor Thomas Helmore.
The carol first made an appearance in Carols for
Christmas-Tide, 1853. The lyrics of this carol were set to 13th
century tune called 'Tempus adest floridum'. Despite being
set to 'Tempus Adest Floridum', Neale's 'Good King Wenceslas has no
lyrics which are the same as those in 'Tempus Adest Floridum'
John Mason Neale published 'Good King Wenceslas' in 1853,
however, he may have written his carol much earlier. The evidence
of this is that he carried on the legend of St. Wenceslas in his
Deeds of Faith which was published in 1849. This formed the basis
of the story within Neale's carol.
The carol 'Good King Wenceslas' is about a king who gives alms
to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen. The Feast of Stephen is
the second day of Christmas, the date of this is December 26. The
song is actually meant to be based on the life of Saint Wenceslaus
I, who was Duke of Bohemia (907-935).
The popularity of Wenceslas has led to him being labelled both a
martyr and a saint immediately after his death. Within just a few
passing decades since his death, there were already four
biographies of him circulating. Although, during his lifetime, he
was only a duke, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I posthumously
"conferred on [Wenceslas] the regal dignity and title". As a
result, this is why he is referred to as a "king". However this
Wenceslas is not to be confused with King Wenceslaus I of Bohemia.
Wenceslas is usually spelt as 'Wenceslaus' however, Neale does not
write it in this way.
This festive classic has received a variety of positive and
negative comments, one notable was is that from Elizabeth Poston,
who in the Penguin Book of Christmas Carols, referred to 'Good King
Wenceslas' as "product of an unnatural marriage between
Victorian whimsy and the thirteenth-century dance carol". One
academic, H. J. L. J. Massé heavily criticised the carol
'Good King Wenceslas' and went to the extent of claiming that it
was not and never has been a Christmas carol, but instead, it is
just an Easter hymn.
Good King Wenceslas Lyrics
Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath'ring winter fuel
"Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know'st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes' fountain."
"Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither."
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind's wild lament
And the bitter weather
"Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly."
In his master's steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing