A Poem for Christmas, "Minstrels" by William Wordsworth: A Contextual Analysis
'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.
Wordsworth and his followers, particularly Keats, found the prevailing poetic diction of the late 18th century stale and stilted, or “gaudy and inane,” and totally unsuited to the expression of their perceptions. It could not be, for them, the language of feeling, and Wordsworth accordingly sought to bring the language of poetry back to that of common speech.— https://www.britannica.com/art/English-literature/The-Romantic-period
Summary of 'Minstrels' by William Wordsworth and Where to Find Primary Evidence of the Custom Wordsworth Describes
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.
It's reasonable to assume that the poem was 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. They were sometimes given Christmas gratuities for their efforts by the local gentry.
Note: Thomas Hardy writes extensively about a village quire with which he was intimately acquainted in the Preface to his most-loved story, Under the Greenwood Tree. Hardy’s own family were involved in a group similar to the one which Wordsworth wrote about in his poem; he evokes the ‘quire’ memorably in this story, which is a delight to read, or re-visit ,over the Christmas period.
Wordsworth's reputation as the Great Nature Poet is exemplified in the description in the poem on 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 countryside broken only by the screeching of fiddles and resonating voices ringing out Christmas wishes In the cold clear air.
Analysis of 'Minstrels' by William Wordsworth
- This is a simple type of narrative poem recording a Christmas visit by carolers
- 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 -
- 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.
- 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
- The leaves may have been worn in wreaths worn on the heads of the minstrels
- The poet may have been referring to laurel bushes in the garden
- 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
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.
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 strenously, despite the weather.
- 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
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.
William Wordsworth's Home and Inspiration - The English Lake District in Cumbria
In 1770 Wordsworth was born into a middle-class family at Cockermouth in Cumbria. As a young man he attended Cambridge University and after a walking tour of Switzerland and France lived for a few years in the South-West of England. He returned to his native lake land in 1799, settling first at Dove Cottage in Grassmere with his sister, Dorothy. Wordsworth had a deep affinity with nature and stayed in the Lake District for the rest of his days.
In 1802 he married a childhood friend and it 1808, when his family had expanded, he moved to Allen Bank in Grasmere. In 1813, when his financial situation had become more secure the entire family moved to Rydal Mount in Ambleside, where he continued to live until his death in 1850.
Read More About Strolling Village 'Quires' in Under The Greenwood Tree'
Old William Dewy, with the violoncello, played the bass; his grandson Dick the treble violin; and Reuben and Michael Mail the tenor and second violins respectively. The singers consisted of four men and seven boys, upon whom devolved the task of carrying and attending to the lanterns, and holding the books open for the players
Thomas Hardy, Under The Greenwood Tree (1872)
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