Poems for December 6

December 6 is still celebrated in Eastern Wisconsin as St. Nicholas Day.  On the evening before, children still hang up stockings, in expectation of receiving the reward for good behavior.  From the St, Nicholas Center in Milwaukee, I borrow this poem of Paul Claudel.  Claudel, one of the great Christian poets of the last century, was subject to the crudest vilification from the communist and surrealist enemies of all things European, Christian, and civilized, in other words, the literary intellectual class that has destroyed literature and learning.


Saint Nicholas: A Poem

by Paul Claudel, translated from the French* by Sister Mary David S.S.N.D.

Now it is winter indeed and Saint Nicholas tramps among the pines
With two full sacks on his donkey stuffed with toys for the children’s designs.
Autumn has fallen to dust. The snow has come for good.
Yes, we surely have finished with autumn and with summer and the seasons as they stood.
(Oh, all that we have not finished and the tortuous black road of yesterday
Which wound beneath the tattered birch and the oak that scented mists of grey!)
All is white, all identical. Everything is free of stain.
The earth is fair in heaven’s robe that over its rags has lain,
Bad and good both are annulled, everything is new and starts afresh.
The absence of being lies below and overhead the shadows’ mesh.
But in a world of white only Angels can thoroughly be at their ease.
There is not a man alive in all of the diocese.
There is not a soul awake, not a single youthful admirer,
At the hour when you come in the night, O powerful Bishop of Myra!

O gauntleted Pontiff in the night! Expectation of the children at play,
Who have studied their lessons so hard, who have been so good … since yesterday!
Saint Nicholas, to whom at one stroke God gave the power to change
By a single moment’s work, this world so vexingly strange,
With a pother of twinkling stars and pendants of rose and of blue,
Into a gay paradise and a vast hall of pleasures, too,
Let us with eyes tight-closed tap three times running on your pack,
O Carrier of future things who cram all creation in your sack!
Other people may have the soldiers and the dolls and the railroad trains!
As for me, give me just this box, tight-shut, at the bottom of what remains!
I have only to make a hole to see in it small living sights:
The Deluge; the Golden Calf; the punishment of the Israelites;
A whole interior world with a sun that goes all alone;
A scene where two men are dueling while a widow is making moan;
To the bottom of the house that will be mine, with its lights and the children and my wife:
I gaze in advance through the chimney on all of its intimate life!

Voici l’hiver tout-à-fait et Saint Nicolas qui marche entre les sapins,
Avec ses deux sacs sur son âne pleins de joujoux pour les petits Lorrains.
C’est fini de cet automne pourri. Voici la neige pour de bon.
C’est fini de l’automne et de l’été et de toutes les saisons.
(O tout cela qui n’était pas fini, et ce noir chemin macéré, hier, encore,
Sous le bouleau déguenillé dans la brume et le grand chêne qui sent fort!)
Tout est blanc. Tout est la même chose. Tout est immaculé.
La terre du ciel a reçu sa robe superimposée.
Tout est annulé, mal et bien, tout est neuf et recommence de nouveau.
L’absence de tout est en bas et les ténèbres sont en haut.
Mais dans un monde blanc il n’y a que les Anges pour étre à l’aise.
Il n’y a pas un homme vivant dans tout le diocèse,
Il n’y a pas une âme éveillée, pas un petit garçon qui respire,
À l’heure où tu viens vers lui dans la nuit, puissant Evêque de Myre!

O pontiff ganté dans la nuit! Espérance des petits garçons
Qui sont tellement braves depuis hier et qui savent depuis deux jours leurs lçons,
Saint Nicolas à qui Dieu d’un seul pas a donné le pouvoir de tout changer,
Et qui sais faire d’un seul coup de ce monde mal arrangé,
Avec force étoiles naïves et pompons et pendeloques roses et bleues,
Un étrange paradis faux et une grande salle de jeux,
Laisse-nous les yeux fermé trois fois de suite taper au milieu de ta baraque,
Apporteur des choses futures qui tiens toute la Création dans un sac!
Que d’autres prennent les soldats et les chemins de fer et les poupées!
Pour moi, donnez-moi seulement cette seule boîte bien fermée :
Il suffit que j’y fasse un trou et j’y vois des choses vivantes et toutes petites:
Le Déluge, le Veau d’or et la punition des Israélites,
Tout un monde intérieur avec un soleil qui marche tout seul,
Une scène où deux hommes se battent à cause d’une femme en deuil,
Et jusqu’au fond de cette maison future qui est la mienne, pleine de lumières et de meubles et de petits enfants:
Je regarde par la cheminèe d’avance tout ce qui se passe par dedans.


December 6 is also the birthday of Osbert Sitwell, brother of Edith and Sacheverell.  The Sitwells, overrated during their liftetimes,  have endured as waxwork eccentrics.  "The Next War," in many ways a fashionably cynical expression of the spirit that destroyed England, does, nonetheless, make a point worth making.

The Next War

The long war had ended.
Its miseries had grown faded.
Deaf men became difficult to talk to,
Heroes became bores.
Those alchemists
Who had converted blood into gold
Had grown elderly.
But they held a meeting,
'We think perhaps we ought
To put up tombs
Or erect altars
To those brave lads
Who were so willingly burnt,
Or blinded,
Or maimed,
Who lost all likeness to a living thing,
Or were blown to bleeding patches of flesh
For our sakes.
It would look well.
Or we might even educate the children.'
But the richest of these wizards
Coughed gently;
And he said:

'I have always been to the front
-In private enterprise-,
I yield in public spirit
To no man.
I think yours is a very good idea
-A capital idea-
And not too costly . . .
But it seems to me
That the cause for which we fought
Is again endangered.
What more fitting memorial for the fallen
Than that their children
Should fall for the same cause?'

Rushing eagerly into the street,
The kindly old gentlemen cried
To the young:
'Will you sacrifice
Through your lethargy
What your fathers died to gain ?
The world must be made safe for the young!'
And the children
Went. . . .


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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

1 Response

  1. Harry Colin says:

    Wonderful, thanks for sharing these. Claudel is truly special; I want to have greater familiarity with his poetry, and this stimulates me to dig further into them. I am familiar with and appreciate his “Infant Jesus of Prague” poem, as I attended a parish of that name for many years.