‘What child is this, who, laid to rest, / on Mary’s lap is sleeping’ … the Holy Family by Giovanni Battista Pittoni, the Altar Piece in the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
As part of my spiritual reflections for this Christmas season, I am thinking about an appropriate carol or hymn each morning. This morning (2 January 2015), I am reflecting on ‘What child is this, who, laid to rest,’ written in 1865 by William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898).
This hymn appears in both the Irish Church Hymnal (No 202) and the New English Hymnal (No 40), and its popularity has been helped by its setting to the traditional English folk melody, ‘Greensleeves,’ for which the hymn was written.
William Chatterton Dix was born in Bristol on 14 June 1837, the son of John Dix, a surgeon and writer. His middle name came from the poet Thomas Chatterton, of whom his father was the biographer.
Dix was educated at Bristol Grammar School and spent most of his working life in Glasgow, where he was the manager of an insurance company. But at the age of 29 he was struck with a near fatal illness and spent many months confined to his bed. During that time he was severely depressed, but wrote several hymn and carols, including ‘To you, O Lord, our hearts we raise,’ and ‘Alleluia! Sing to Jesus,’ and this morning’s hymn, ‘What child is this?’ Another Epiphany hymn, ‘As with Gladness Men of Old,’ is my choice for reflection next Sunday morning.
Throughout his life, Dix was a pious and devout Anglican who was deeply influenced by the Tractarian movement. His hymns are found in many collections, including Hymns Ancient and Modern, Saint Raphael’s Hymnbook (1861), Lyra Eucharidica (1863), Lyra Messianica (1864), Lyra Mystica (1865), The People’s Hymns (1867), The Hymnary (1872), and Church Hymns (1871).
Many of his contributions are renderings in metrical form of translation from the Greek by the Revd Dr Richard Frederick Littledale (1833–1890) in his Offices … of the Holy Eastern Church (1863). Littledale, who was born in Dublin and educated at Trinity College Dublin, was a leading writer in the Oxford Movement, and worked closely with the hymn-writer John Mason Neale.
Dix died at Cheddar in Somerset on 9 September 1898 and was buried at the local parish church.
This hymn is generally linked with the tune of the traditional English folk song, Greensleeves. There is a persistent myth that Greensleeves was composed by Henry VIII for his lover and future queen consort Anne Boleyn. She allegedly rejected the king’s attempts to seduce her and this rejection may be referred to in the song when the writer’s love “cast me off discourteously.”
However, the piece is based on an Italian style of composition that did not reach England until after Henry’s death, making it more likely to be Elizabethan in origin.
From as early as 1642, the tune was associated with Christmas and New Year texts. By the 19th century, almost every printed collection of Christmas carols included some version of words and music together, most of them ending with the refrain "On Christmas Day in the morning." One of the most popular of these is this morning’s hymn,‘What child is this?’
Ralph Vaughan Williams composed his Fantasia on Greensleeves in 1934, basing it on the ‘Greensleeves’ melody. Initially it was used in the third act of his opera Sir John in Love, inspired by Shakespeare’s ‘Merry Wives of Windsor.’
Vaughan Williams once commented: “The art of music above all arts is the expression of the soul of the nation.” In this piece, he skilfully captures the very essence of England in music. The serene, pastoral sounds evoke images of bucolic bliss, with lyrical string writing and particularly descriptive flute passages. However, the title of his Fantasia is in some ways misleading: the work is neither long enough nor complex enough to deserve the description; instead, it is a rather faithful setting of the original.
The Fantasia on Greensleeves uses not only the traditional tune but also the melody ‘Lovely Joan,’ which Vaughan Williams came across in Suffolk. In 1934, under the watchful eye of the composer, Ralph Greaves arranged Vaughan Williams’s music into the version we most commonly hear today.
Leonard Cohen released an interpretation of the song with altered lyrics and an additional verse titled ‘Leaving Greensleeves’ on his 1974 album New Skin for the Old Ceremony.
What child is this, who, laid to rest, by William Chatterton Dix
What child is this, who, laid to rest,
on Mary’s lap is sleeping,
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
while shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
haste, haste to bring him laud,
the babe, the son of Mary.
Why lies he in such mean estate,
where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear; for sinners here
the silent Word is pleading:
nails, spear, shall pierce him through,
the cross be borne, for me, for you:
hail, hail, the Word made flesh,
the babe, the son of Mary.
So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh,
come, peasant, king, to own him.
the King of kings salvation brings:
let loving hearts enthrone him.
Raise, raise the song on high!
The virgin sings her lullaby:
joy, joy, for Christ is born,
the babe, the son of Mary.
Tomorrow: ‘As Joseph was a-walking’