The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Shepherds

For Christmas Eve

Words: Henry Vaughan (1621-1695)

Source: Henry Vaughan (1621-1695), Silex Scintillans: or Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations. (London: Blackie and Son, 1650, 1905), pp. 187-189 (1905 ed.)


Sweet, harmless lives! 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 there first shown to you?

'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 Bethlem's humble cotes above them stept,

    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.

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 sheep, 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.


This poem is widely reprinted, with some alterations. Compare: The Shepherds (By Henry Vaughan; Alternate Title: Silex Scintillans; From Rickert)

The following note is from A. H. Bullen, A Christmas Garland (London: John C. Nimmo, 1885), p. 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."


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