This story was first published with “The Conversion of St Wilfrid” in The Delineator in January 1910. It is listed in ORG as no 950.
- Rewards and Fairies (1910)
- Songs from Books (1913)
- Inclusive Verse (1919)
- Definitive Verse (1940)
- The Sussex Edition vols xv and xxxiv (1939)
- The Burwash Edition vol xv (1941)
- Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Pinney, p. 689
In “The Conversion of St Wilfrid” Eddi is at first a sceptic, seeing seals as demons. However, he and his master the archbishop, and their friend Meon, are stranded at sea on a rock at peril of their lives. They are rescued by Padda, Meon’s tame seal, who brings them fish and goes for help. Eddi calls a blessing on the creature: ‘God sent him out of the storm to humble me, a fool’.
The poem celebrates Eddi’s new belief in the sacredness of all living creation. He plans a Christmas service in his chapel, and though no-one comes but an ox and an ass, he is glad to welcome and serve them. It reflects the ancient tradition, which does not appear in the biblical accounts, that an ox and an ass had been present in the stable at the Nativity of Jesus.
Some critical comments
Peter Keating (p.167) notes:
Running throughout the poems in Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies is the perennial human need to acknowledge the existence of a higher supernatural power. Eddi, the Catholic priest ignored by the pagan Saxons, celebrates Christmas with a service for the only two living creatures willing to attend, an ox and an ass.
After discussing “The Conversion of St. Wilfrid”, J M S Tompkins (p..217) considers the poem:
In the preceding ballad the fellowship of all created things before their Creator is acknowledged when Eddi preaches in his empty chapel on Christmas Eve to an old marsh donkey and a weary bullock that shelter there:
“How do I know what is greatest,
How do I know what is least?
That is my Father’s business”,
Said Eddi, Wilfrid’s priest.
Notes on the Text
Eddi Eddius Stephanus, a Kentishman who was choirmaster and biographer of Wilfrid, Archbishop of York. His biography is available in the Penguin Classics Lives of the Saints, trans. J. F. Webb (1965). He is a major character in the accompanying story, “The Conversion of St. Wilfrid”.
AD 687 The year following Wilfrid’s return to York from exile in Sussex, where he had converted the South Saxons to Christianity. See Donald Mackenzie’s notes on “The Conversion of St. Wilfrid”.
Manhood End a real hamlet in the neighbourhood of Selsey, West Sussex. It was granted to Wilfrid by Ethelwald, King of the South Saxons.
Christmas December 25th was the great pagan feast of Yuletide to celebrate the Winter Solstice, when the days start to get longer again. The Saxons did not of course call it Christmas; the Church gave it that name when it took over the feast and Christianised it as the birthday of Jesus.
guttering of a candle, melting away rapidly by becoming channelled on one side (OED). This happens in a draught; here the door is open to the wind (Verse 5)
yoke-weary a yoke is a wooden beam on an animal’s neck to harness it to a cart or plough. The bullock has been working all day.
My Father’s business cf. – for the phrasing if not the content – Luke 2, 49: ‘How is it that ye sought me ? Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?’.
three are gathered together cf. Matthew 18, 20: ‘For when two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’.
a manger…. in Bethlehem when Jesus was born he was laid in a manger – a trough in a stable for feeding animals – in the little town of Bethlehem. (Luke 3,7). The Ox is not mentioned in the Biblical narrative but is a traditional witness of the birth.
a Rider …To Jerusalem when Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday he rode on an ass (Matthew 21,5-8).
the chancel the part of a Christian church near the altar, reserved for the clergy and choir, and typically separated from the nave by steps or a screen.
©Philip Holberton 2017 All rights reserved