The road was gone, our first steps reverent, slow,
Like steps of those upon a newfound shore
Broke through the glassy ice upon the snow,
And cut a road where none had walked before.
The stars as steady signposts, stately stood.
All well known marks on earth were hid from view
Except the bending river and the wood.
We’d walked a while when whirling snow-clouds blew,
And cast across the moon and stars a veil.
No more I heard the music from the hall,
But only in that dark the wild wind wail.
I tripped and drenched my tunic in the fall
One summer, swimming cross the river, past mid-stream
(And I was crossing at the point most wide)
So far away the other bank did seem
My heart feared, “I’ve not strength to reach that side;”
But near me swam a friend, to him I called
And he my sinking heart then pulled to shore,
And it was but a short way I was hauled,
For fear made little distance seem much more.
So on this stormy night it seemed that we,
Far from the poorman’s forest hut we sought,
Did starless wander on a frozen sea,
And weaker now the snow-thick wind I fought.
And as I strove, the king drew farther off,
Enfolded by the darkness wind and snow.
Out of the wind I fell into a trough.
I called to him. He came my plight to know.
He raised my heart, “The wood’s not far at all.”
He set me on the path his footsteps broke.
“Now mark you well the place my footprints fall,
And boldly tread in them” to me he spoke.
I marked his steps, and boldly in them trod,
And with him sang a carol above the storm,
For spring’s returning flowers, praising God.
And like the dawn of spring my heart grew warm.
Ivan Bilibin, 1902
This poem is of course based on John M. Neale’s carol ‘Good King Wenceslas’. This poems reflects my imaginations of the carol and many of the lines in the poem are built directly from a line in the carol (Example – “We’d walked a while when whirling snow-clouds blew, And cast across the moon and stars a veil.” is expanding on “Sire the night grows darker now” ). At the same time I’ve tried not to say the exact same things as the carol but, if you’ll accept them, give some new visions of the settings and thoughts of the people and places in the carol. For example instead of copying verbatim Wenceslas’ ‘Bring me flesh and bring me wine’, I’ve imagined his thoughts (not from the carol) and then had the servants hear him call. The poem’s narrator is the page, but any time it goes into quotes it is the voice of the king.
For any doubters about the page’s memory of swimming, from medieval art we know that people did swim in the middle ages! (Unless those medieval pictures that look like people swimming are really people drowning with style.)
The biggest change is the end in which the miracle is underplayed. Instead I seem to have made up something totally unrelated to the carol about them singing. This, however, is not unrelated to the carol. The tune to which we sing ‘Good King Wenceslas’ is the old latin spring carol ‘Tempus adest floridum’ which I think is well described as a carol “For spring’s returning flowers, praising God.”. So, while I couldn’t jolly well have them singing ‘Good King Wenceslas’, the page and monarch finish their journey singing the next closest thing. Here’s a translation of Tempus adest floridum
My imagination of the carol is deeply affected by John Wallner whose illustrated ‘Good King Wenceslas’ I got for Christmas when I was four, or thereabouts.