Lord of our Hearts: An Analysis of Chesterton's "A Song of Gifts to God" Pt. 1
The Advent Season is a time of anticipation, a time where we look forward to the coming of Christ into the world. But who is this Christ, and why does the world wait for his arrival? I hope to answer this question by offering an analysis of G.K. Chesterton's poem "A Song of Gifts to God" (The full text of the poem can be found here). Chesterton was a masterful wordsmith, notable for his ability to turn phrases in new and astounding ways. This earned him the nickname 'The Prince of Paradox'. This poem, for me, shows Chesterton at the top of his game, spinning the familiar imagery of the Magi story into vivid and stunning new images. Let me take you on a guided tour of this poem, following the Wise Men to the stable to see the newborn Jesus. By the end, we will see not just a helpless babe, but the Messiah who came to save the world.
Before I begin breaking down the poem, I'd like to talk about the structure of the poem as a whole. Each stanza of the poem consists of a rhyming triplet, or three lines that end with a rhyme. In verse 1, the lines end with "rolled", "gold" and "cold", in verse 2, "another", "brother" and "mother", etc. This rhyming scheme is consistent throughout the poem, which creates a reassuring effect on the reader - by the time you're halfway through, you subconsciously know what to expect, and the poem doesn't surprise you by suddenly breaking the trend somewhere down the line. In this sense, the poem echoes something of the fulfilling of the Wise Men's hope - they have journeyed to find the newborn king, and have found what they traveled so far to see.
Another thing worth mentioning is the composition of each line. The poem is written in iambic septameter, which, when translated into English, means that each line consists of seven iambs, or pairs of syllables where the second syllable is stressed or emphasized. For our analysis, all we need to know is that this gives us 14 syllables in each line (go ahead and count if you don't believe me).
This is interesting because these lines are longer than those in say, Shakespeare's verses, where each line usually has 10 syllables. So why the long lines? Since the majority of the poem is taken up by the speech of the Wise Men (especially the third one, "the wisest of the three"), I think this deliberately slows down the poem so that it gives the speaker a learned, reflective quality. Think of the Jedi Knights from Star Wars - Chesterton imbues the Magi with some of that same calm, measured aura by stretching out these lines.
With that out of the way, let's get down to the poem itself!
When the first Christmas presents came, the straw where Christ was rolled
Smelt sweeter than their frankincense, burnt brighter than their gold,
And a wise man said, “We will not give; the thanks would be but cold.”
Already in the first stanza, so many of our expectations are flipped on their heads. The Gifts of the Magi are described as "the first Christmas presents". If you're anything like me, reading this for the first time is pretty jarring, in the 'hey, I never thought of it that way' sense. I never connected the practice of giving gifts at Christmas with this Gospel story. But maybe I'm just weird. But The real paradox, I think, comes from the fact that these gifts are judged to be 'poor'. The Nativity story is usually told as a story of poverty, the Son of God renouncing his glory to take on flesh. But perhaps we sometimes forget that in the end, he is still… God. The Jesus presented here is not bereft of his glory, outshining even the handsome gifts of the Wise Men - "The Wisdom of God is wiser than the foolishness of men" (1 Cor 1:25)
I also find it interesting that the first Wise Man feels inadequate when faced with the glory of the Christ-child. "We will not give; the thanks would be but cold." Isn't this a relatable scenario? We often find that we could not ever possibly live up to the standards of our Faith, that even though we try so hard we only have sub-par offerings or, even worse, failures to bring before God. The first of the Magi can quite possibly be seen as the personification of Catholic Guilt.
“Nay,” said the next, “To all new gifts, to this gift or another,
Bends the high gratitude of God; even as He now, my brother,
Who had a Father for all time, yet thanks Him for a Mother.
The second Magi gets his turn to speak, and his view is a little more measured. God won't spurn us for our gifts, and of course He will be grateful. Bear with me for a while, but I believe there's some literary magic at work in this verse as well, that will add another dimension to this gratitude that God feels. If you painstakingly count out the syllables in this stanza, you'll notice that this is one of two times the poem breaks the iambic septameter format I talked about earlier. The first line has 15 syllables, the second 16, and the third 15.
So what do we make of this? Notice that the last sentence of the first line is 'another'. This could refer to another extra syllable in the line, but more likely refers to the additional syllable of the second line, whose two extra syllables from one word: brother. Is a brother added on to the story in some way? To answer that, let's take a look at the last two lines together. 8 syllables in each line - there this is what literature nerds call a caesura, and or normal people call a pause or stop. I'm talking about the semicolon in the second line, and the comma in the third. These pauses divide each line for a total of four half-sentences.
Now, look at the most outstanding words in each of these half-sentences. At a glance, I immediately see the words God, brother, Father and Mother. God and Father are found on the same side, and equating the two is a no-brainer for anyone who has had any exposure to the Christian tradition. On the opposing side, however, we have Mother and brother, which are definitely not equal terms. Mother, in the context of the Nativity, definitely refers to Our Blessed Mother. If God = Father, then we have three terms: Father, Mother and brother. The common theme that is drawn out from here is family. Through the actions of Jesus and Mary, we have become adopted sons and daughters of God. That is why our gifts, however unworthy, earn God's gratitude - a loving parent will never turn down a gift from His child.
”Yet scarce for Him this yellow stone or prickly-smells and sparse.
Who holds the gold heart of the sun that fed these timber bars,
Nor any scentless lily lives for One that smells the stars."
Even though he knows God will accept his gifts, the second Wise Man still agrees that the gifts they brought are sub-par. I like the image of the Christ-child holding the Sun like a toy, the very Sun that grew the trees the stable was made out of. It's quite clear at this point that the gifts of the Magi are stand in for the lives of the Followers of Christ, or at least, the various aspects of them. And that's understandable. Even if we believe that God will accept us for who we are, we still wish that we could do the best we can for Him.
Then spake the third of the Wise Men; the wisest of the three:
“We may not with the widest lives enlarge His liberty,
Whose wings are wider than the world. It is not He, but we.
The third and last Magi speaks, and this stanza is another inversion - it changes the way we see things. There is an abundance of 'W' sounds in this stanza, mostly variations of 'wise' and 'wide', which are very similar sounding. Wisdom implies depth, and in addition to the references to widening, becoming wiser and wider implies that the message of the poem is becoming more dimensional in it's message. The 'W' alliteration just serves to reinforce that.
Another thing to notice is that the first word of the second line is the same as the last word of the third: We. The first usage of the word seems negative, as if the last Magi simply affirms the inadequacy felt by his fellow Wise Men. But just as the two "We's" are diagonally opposite to each other, the second “we” is a reflection of the first: “It is not He, but we”. All this time the poem has been going on about wanting to do something for God, when instead our focus should have been on what God wanted to do for us.
This part of the poem should invite some self-reflection. Were we so arrogant to think that God needed us to gratify Him? Why were we so blind as to not see how much we needed His help? So far, the poem has been presented as a conversation between the Wise Men at the stable, speculating on what they must have felt upon seeing the Christ-child. Part 2 of this article will use more familiar biblical imagery in new ways, showing how Jesus makes all things new. Stay tuned!
© 2019 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng