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A Christmas Poem, 'Minstrels' by William Wordsworth

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Glenis studied for a B.A (Hons) in English Literature after retirement. She was awarded a degree at the age of 67.

Read on to learn all about this classic Christmas poem.

Read on to learn all about this classic Christmas poem.

Who Is William Wordsworth?

William Wordsworth was an English poet whose work focused on nature, spirituality, and the individual. Along with his friend and fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he helped inaugurate the Romantic Age in English literature through their joint publication of the book Lyrical Ballads in 1798.

Many of the poems from this book, including 'Tintern Abbey', 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner', and a series of pieces known as 'the Lucy poems', are some of the most famous examples of English Romanticism. The second edition of the book contained a preface that is considered to be a testament to the Romantic movement and Wordsworth and Coleridge's definitive poetic views.

Wordsworth was born in 1770 and by the time he entered Cambridge University, his mother and father had both passed away. These events had an important effect on his life and work. Before finishing at Cambridge, Wordsworth embarked on a walking tour through Europe and came into contact with the French Revolution. These events also colored his poetic work. For example, the experience of traveling through Europe on foot brought Wordsworth into close communion with nature.

In his Christmas poem 'Minstrels', Wordsworth displays his great skill as a nature poet. Let's now turn to the poem and read it over in full before moving on to a complete analysis of the work.

A 19th-century drawing of the English poet William Wordsworth as an aging man.

A 19th-century drawing of the English poet William Wordsworth as an aging man.

'Minstrels' by William Wordsworth (1770–1850)

The minstrels played their Christmas tune
To-night beneath my cottage-eaves;
While, smitten by a lofty moon,
The encircling laurels, thick with leaves,
Gave back a rich and dazzling sheen,
That overpowered their natural green.

Through hill and valley every breeze
Had sunk to rest with folded wings:
Keen was the air, but could not freeze,
Nor check, the music of the strings;
So stout and hardy were the band
That scraped the chords with strenuous hand.

And who but listened?—till was paid
Respect to every inmate's claim,
The greeting given, the music played
In honour of each household name,
Duly pronounced with lusty call,
And "Merry Christmas" wished to all.

Summary of the Poem

This short and simple narrative poem describes a brief moment in the Christmas period when strolling players are performing at the door of the 'voice' in the poem.

The poem was probably inspired by an actual event, since it was a widespread Christmas custom of village musicians, usually members of the parish church choir, to stroll from door to door in rural parishes during the Christmas period, providing musical entertainment and offering good wishes to householders. The local gentry sometimes paid gratuities for the performances of the musicians.

A Example of Imagery by the Great Nature Poet

Wordsworth's reputation as the Great Nature Poet is exemplified in the description in the poem of the environment in which the minstrels are performing. It is a very cold and still night, in which the lustre of the evergreen laurel bushes around the cottage is intensified by moonlight.

The evocative imagery of the poem conjures mental pictures of a cloudless frosty night and the deep silence of the countryside broken only by the screeching of fiddles and resonating voices ringing out Christmas wishes In the cold clear air.

Grasmere, England's Lake District, home to William Wordsworth, in Winter

Grasmere, England's Lake District, home to William Wordsworth, in Winter

Analysis of 'Minstrels' by William Wordsworth

  • This is a simple type of narrative poem recording a Christmas visit by carolers or wassailers.
  • The tone of the poem is informal.
  • The form of the poem is three stanzas with six lines to each stanza.
  • The end rhyme pattern of the lines is:
  1. ABABCC
  2. DEDEFF
  3. GHGHII
  • The voice of the poem, which is written in the first person (beneath my cottage eaves), is simple and direct.
  • Location—the 'voice' establishes, in line 2, that he lives in a rural environment.
  • There are eight iambs making four iambic feet in most lines, with the exception of lines 4, 6, and 12.
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First Stanza

  • The first verse establishes what is happening, when and where it is happening, and in what environmental circumstances. It is Christmas time and strolling minstrels are performing outside a cottage on a clear moonlit night
  • At the beginning of line 4, a trochee (two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable—'The/en/circ' ) breaks the established pattern rhythm.
  • Note, however, that if the poem is spoken in a colloquial voice it is possible for line 4 to revert to the rhythm pattern of the three preceding lines. Similarly, the ten iambs in line 6 can be spoken in a colloquial voice that maintains the pattern of eight iambs.
  • The trochee emphasises the three-syllable word encircling, pointing the reader to the subtle reference to a laurel wreath.
  • There are several possible explanations for the inclusion of laurels in the poem
  1. The leaves may have been worn in wreaths worn on the heads of the minstrels
  2. The poet may have been referring to laurel bushes in the garden
  3. Laurel leaves might have been crafted in wreaths used to decorate the doors of the house

Example of the rhythm of the lines:

The MIN/strelsPLAYED/ theirCHRIST/masTUNE

ToNIGHT/beNEATH/myCOTT/ageEAVES

While, SMITT/enBY/aLOFT/yMOON

The enCIRC/lingLAU/relsTHICK/withLEAVES

GaveBACK/aRICH/and DAZZ/lingSHEEN

The final line of the stanza is indicative of Wordsworth's love of nature and a view of its all-embracing power, in this instance the change effected by the moonlight on the colour of the laurel leaves.

Second Stanza

The second verse expands upon the circumstances in which the minstrels are performing. It is a still, freezing cold night but the musicians were made of stern stuff and played on strenuously, despite the weather.

Note

  • The allusion to birds at rest as the breeze rests with folded wings.
  • The assonance in line 9 of the ee consonants the first and last words
  • The alliteration of the letter S in lines 10–12

Third Stanza

In the third verse, the voice tells how everyone felt compelled to listen throughout the performance, during which every resident of the cottage was greeted by name and a tune played in his or her honour. And the performance concludes with a Merry Christmas wished to everyone.

Sources and Further Reading

  • William Wordsworth | Poets.org
    William Wordsworth, who rallied for "common speech" within poems and argued against the poetic biases of the period, wrote some of the most influential poetry in Western literature, including his most famous work, The Prelude.
  • William Wordsworth | Poetry Foundation
    William Wordsworth was one of the founders of English Romanticism and one its most central figures and important intellects. He is remembered as a poet of spiritual and epistemological speculation, a poet concerned with man's relationship to nature.
  • Lyrical Ballads | Wikipedia

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Glen Rix

Comments

Gypsy Rose Lee from Daytona Beach, Florida on December 11, 2017:

A wonderful Christmas poem. Thank for the great review on the poem and the information about the poet.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on December 10, 2017:

Your article is both educational and enjoyable. Thanks for sharing it, Glenis. It's a lovely hub for the Christmas season.

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on December 10, 2017:

That's a lovely Christmas poem. I do love William Wordsworth's poems.

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