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Christmas Carol by Sara Teasdale

“Christmas Carol” by Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) is a ballad that re-tells the birth of Jesus Christ rhythmically and compellingly. Teasdale lyrically paints the biblical story and uses strong imagery to ignite the reader’s imagination. Sara Teasdale’s early childhood days were often marked by her poor health, and so, she fell into the art of poetry naturally. Her poetry is often remarked to be rhythmic, well-crafted, and based on changing feminine perspectives as one journey through life. The story of “Christmas Carol” takes place after Jesus was born to Virgin Mary in Bethlehem, and how the blessed birth had made kings, shepherds, sages, and angels alike come together and celebrate in joy and hope of a prosperous future.

  • Read the full text of “Christmas Carol” below:
Christmas Carol
by Sara Teasdale

The kings they came from out the south,
   All dressed in ermine fine;
They bore Him gold and chrysoprase,
   And gifts of precious wine.
 
The shepherds came from out the north,
   Their coats were brown and old;
They brought Him little new-born lambs—
   They had not any gold.
 
The wise men came from out the east,
   And they were wrapped in white;
The star that led them all the way
   Did glorify the night.
 
The angels came from heaven high,
   And they were clad with wings;
And lo, they brought a joyful song
   The host of heaven sings.
 
The kings they knocked upon the door,
   The wise men entered in,
The shepherds followed after them
   To hear the song begin.
 
The angels sang through all the night
   Until the rising sun,
But little Jesus fell asleep
   Before the song was done.

- from Helen of Troy and Other Poems (1911)
Analysis of Christmas Carol by Sara Teasdale


Summary

The poem “Christmas Carol” is a beautifully crafted re-telling of the biblical story of Jesus Christ’s birth. The poet narrates the events when in the hilly, open fields of Bethlehem, the shepherds, the kings, the sages, and the angels all congregated to sing in harmony and joy. They bestowed many gifts upon Jesus, each of them giving whatever they could- “gold,” “chrysoprase,” “wine,” “little lambs,” etc., to express their gratitude and joy.

The poet creates an image of the wise men from the east side of the world, who followed a star leading them to the miraculous event. Factual history and mythology are sweetly bound together when the poet narrates that angels descended from the clouds and the “host of heaven” was singing harmoniously like in a choir.

Amid all this celebration, where the whole world around Jesus seemed to know about the miracle of this birth except the baby himself- the poet ends the piece in an intelligent and wonderful contrast where baby Jesus falls asleep even before the song and celebration could end.

Form, Rhyme Scheme, & Meter 

Form

“Christmas Carol” is a ballad- a form of poetry that tells a story using strong imagery. A ballad usually has quatrains – a metered verse usually following the rhyme scheme ABCB. The tone of this piece is celebratory and joyous. Teasdale wrote this poem from a third-person perspective. The speaker’s voice is pristine, which gives a magical and almost mythical feel to the entire poem.

Rhyme Scheme

The rhyme scheme of the overall poem is ABCB. It means the second and fourth lines end with the same rhyme in each quatrain. For instance, in the first stanza, the rhyming pair of words is “fine” and “wine.”

Meter

The poem is written in iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter alternatively. In an iamb, a stressed syllable is preceded by an unstressed syllable. Let’s have a look at the metrical scheme of the first quatrain:

The kings/ they came/ from out/ the south,

   All dressed/ in er/-mine fine;

They bore/ Him gold/ and chry/-so-prase,

   And gifts/ of pre/-cious wine.


Poetic Devices 

Teasdale uses techniques of allegory, assonance, symbolism, etc., to enhance the poetic piece. There are a number of poetic devices used to elevate the story-telling. These are: 

  • Alliteration: The use of similar sounds like “And they were wrapped in white;” and “heaven high.”
  • Allusion: Use of indirect references like; “chrysoprase” – an apple-green gemstone that is often regarded to heal broken hearts and to bring a future of happiness, growth, and success; “wine,” which in the Bible symbolizes joy and celebration. 
  • Assonance: The repetition of similar vowel sounds occurs in “ermine fine,” “bore Him gold,” “with wings,” etc.
  • Imagery: The poet uses imagery to draw upon the five senses and create a fuller story; for example, “All dressed in ermine fine,” “Their coats were brown and old,” “And they were wrapped in white,” “And they were clad with wings,” “The angels sang through all the night/ Until the rising sun,” etc. 
  • Symbolism: The poet uses symbolism tactfully in many places. For example, ermine fur was frequently worn by rank-holders and people of authority. Its winter coat symbolizes purity and moderation; chrysoprase is an emerald-colored gemstone that is believed to give the wearer emotional stability and heal their broken heart. It is also considered to symbolize happiness, empathy, forgiveness, and growth. 


Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis & Explanation

Stanza One

The kings they came from out the south,

   All dressed in ermine fine;

They bore Him gold and chrysoprase,

   And gifts of precious wine.

The main themes of “Christmas Carol” are religion, spirituality, and togetherness. All the characters in the poem come together from all directions to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Teasdale has done a marvelous job in highlighting the miraculous event with powerful imagery.

The first stanza sets the tone for a magical, mythical and otherworldly tone. Teasdale uses rhymes like “fine-wine” to set a lyrical pattern in the poem, and words like “ermine fine,” “gold,” “chrysoprase,” and “gold” evoke a rich and regal sense among the readers.

Stanza Two

The shepherds came from out the north,

   Their coats were brown and old;

They brought Him little new-born lambs—

   They had not any gold.

In the second stanza, the poet uses contrasting imagery like brown and old to show how everyone from different walks of life was reunited to celebrate Christ’s birth. She goes on to show how even though the shepherd did not have money, they gave them “new-born lambs,” which were considered a luxury for the shepherds.

Stanza Three

The wise men came from out the east,

   And they were wrapped in white;

The star that led them all the way

   Did glorify the night.

This has to do with the belief that sages and saints that lived in the East saw a star shining so brightly that they decided to follow it, thinking it could be an omen, and were led to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born.

Stanza Four

The angels came from heaven high,

   And they were clad with wings;

And lo, they brought a joyful song

   The host of heaven sings.

This verse adds the mystique factor in the poem – showing that birth was so important that angels themselves descended upon earth and brought along a joyful song, a celebration from the “host of heaven.”

Stanza Five

The kings they knocked upon the door,

   The wise men entered in,

The shepherds followed after them

   To hear the song begin. 

The fifth verse steers the story towards an ending, where people from all directions and walks of life have finally congregated for one purpose. By making the kings knock upon the door, this shows the humility present in the kings and how they were followed by the wise men and the shepherds- a wonderful reunion.

Stanza Six 

The angels sang through all the night

   Until the rising sun,

But little Jesus fell asleep

   Before the song was done.

In the last quatrain, the poet ends the poem in a sweet contrast – how the miracle and joy of this birth have overwhelmed the people from all walks of life around him, but the baby, not understanding, falls asleep. This is a beautiful climax and a wonderful end to this re-telling of the Biblical story.

Historical Context

Jesus was conceived in Nazareth, and during this time, his mother, Mary, and her husband, Joseph, were living under the Roman Empire. The Roman Emperor at the time had ordered all the citizens to return to where their families were originally from to register for a Census so that they could pay taxes. Thus, Mary and Joseph set out for Bethlehem, but there was no accommodation left in Bethlehem because of the overcrowding for registration. It was common in those days for people to have places for animals to sleep, given most of them were shepherds. This is how Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable, where the animals slept. The rest that followed has been wonderfully penned down in Sara Teasdale’s “Christmas Carol” and numerous other works.

Questions & Answers

What is the poem “Christmas Carol” by Sara Teasdale about? 

Sara Teasdale’s “Christmas Carol” is a re-telling of the story of the birth of Jesus Christ.

What defines a Christmas carol?

A Christmas Carol is a song composed on the theme of Christ’s birth or Christmas.

What is the main theme of “Christmas Carol”? 

The main theme of the poem is religion, spirituality, and togetherness.

What is the poetic form of “Christmas Carol”? 

“Christmas Carol” is written in the form of a ballad. It means the rhyme scheme of the poem is ABCB. The text is written using a combination of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter.

What poetic devices has Sara Teasdale used in “Christmas Carol”? 

The poetic devices used in the poem are alliteration, assonance, imagery, allusion, and symbolism.


Similar Poems 

Poems similar to “Christmas Carol” by Sara Teasdale, which follow a historically enriched theme and a compelling writing style, are as follows:

  • “[little tree]” by E. E. Cummings — This poem is about a little Christmas tree that is freshly brought from the forest.
  • “Talking in their Sleep” by Edith M. Thomas — This metaphorical poem draws attention to the winter’s impact on nature.
  • “Across the Border” by Sophie Jewett — This piece captures a speaker’s reaction after crossing the border between the mundane and a heavenly realm.


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