The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Shepherds

From Silex Scintillans (1650-1655)


Words: Henry Vaughan, 1622-1695

Source: Edith Rickert, Ancient English Christmas Carols: 1400-1700 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1914), pp. 279-80.

1. Sweet, harmless livers! on whose holy leisure
    Waits innocence and pleasure;
Whose leaders to those pastures and clear springs
    Were patriarchs, saints and kings;
How happened it that in the dead of night
    You only saw true light,
While Palestine was fast asleep and lay
    Without one thought of day?
Was it because those first and blessed swains
    Were pilgrims on those plains
When they received the promise, for which now
    'Twas then first shown to you?

2. 'Tis true He loves that dust whereon they go
    That serve Him here below,
And therefore might for memory of those
    His love there first disclose;
But wretched Salem, once His love, must now
    No voice, nor vision know,
Her stately piles with all their height and pride
    Now languished and died,
And Bethlehem's humble cotes above them stepped
    While all her seers slept;
Her cedar, fir, hewed stones and gold were all
    Polluted through their fall,
And those once sacred mansions were now
    Mere emptiness and show.

3. This made the angel call at reeds and thatch,
    Yet where the shepherds watch,
And God's own lodging (though He could not lack)
    To be a common rack;
No costly pride, no soft-clothed luxury
    In those thin cells could lie,
Each stirring wind and storm blew through their cots
    Which never harbored plots,
Only content, and love, and humble joys
    Lived there without all noise,
Perhaps some harmless cares for the next day
    Did in their bosoms play,
As where to lead their ship1, what silent nook,
    What springs or shades to look,
But that was all; and now with gladsome care
    They for the town prepare,
They leave their flock, and in a busy talk
    All towards Bethlem walk
To see their souls' Great Shepherd, Who was come
    To bring all stragglers home,
Where now they find Him out, and taught before
    That Lamb of God adore,
That Lamb whose days great kings and prophets wished
    And longed to see, but missed.
The first light they beheld was bright and gay
    And turned their night to day,
But to this later light they saw in Him,
    Their day was dark, and dim.


1. Sheep. Return

Also found in A. H. Bullen, A Christmas Garland (London: John C. Nimmo, 1885), pp. 106-8. He notes at page 258 "Henry Vaughan, called “the Silurist,” from the fact that he was born among the Silures or people of South Wales, is incomparably the greatest of English devotional poets. The pieces that I have quoted, fine as they are, do not give the reader a just idea of his greatness. Whoever will study Silex Scintillans as it deserves to be studied, read it through and through again and again, cannot fail to be deeply impressed by the magical beauty of the diction, the perfect success with which the most difficult metrical effects are lightly produced, the imaginative splendour and subtlety. Vaughan was no less a born poet than Shelley or Keats or Coleridge. He was born in 1621, and died in 1695. The first part of Silex Scintillans was published in 1651; the complete collection in two parts appeared in 1655. “Olor Iscanus. A Collection of some select Poems and Translations. Formerly written by Henry Vaughan, Silurist,” was published by the author’s friends in 1651; it is far inferior to the volume of sacred poems. Vaughan published nothing after 1655. Dr. Grosart has edited a complete edition of Vaughan’s writings."

Compare: The Shepherds (Henry Vaughan from Silex Scintillans)

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