A Christmas Present to Society

One of the books in the Chapter Library contains a collection of ‘Poems upon Christmas-Day’, which were published anonymously by a friend of the author because he believed that the writings would do so much good for those who read them.

A Virgin’s Son is Born: This Rising Sun,
The Worlds inthralling darkness over-runs;
A Child to us is Born, whose Innocence,
Our Natures spot and stain doth purge and cleanse;
His Wounds, our Cure; his Bonds, our Liberty,
His Death becomes our Life, our Victory.
And this is he, whose Birth we Celebrate,
And from this Day our Happiness do Date.

Once did he give thee Being from the dust,
And for that only Being, ‘twere but just
To pay thy utmost self: But when once more
Thy Being, and they Bliss he did restore
By such a means as this, it doth bereave
Thy Soul of hopes of recompence, and leaves
Thy Soul insolvent. Twice to him this day
Thou ow’st thy self, yet but One self canst pay.
(Christmas 1651)

But they scarce own’d their Prince, nor can afford
No better Presence-Chamber for their Lord
But a poor stable, nor no better Chair
Of State, but what their kinder Beasts could spare,
A Manger. Blessed Lord! Such a receipt
Might have provok’t thy Glory to retreat
To Heaven again, but that thy great respects
To Man’s Salvation conquer’d all neglects.
(Christmas 1659)

These are extracts of some of the seventeen Christmas poems, written between 1651 and 1668, contained in Contemplations moral and divine. By a person of great learning and judgement. [SGC RBK H.7]. The book was published in London in 1676 and contains treatises written by barrister, judge and jurist Sir Matthew Hale. In addition to the poetry, they address such subjects as the victory of faith over the world, and how best to observe the Lord’s Day.

In the preface to the main text, the publisher confesses that Hale had never intended to publish his writings. He had a regular habit of spending the time after the evening sermon and before supper each Sunday in private contemplation on Divine subjects. He wrote down the thoughts that came to him, partly to prevent his mind from wandering and partly so that he would not forget them later, but without the intention of them being anything other than a private collection.

Hale occasionally shared his handwritten notes with his children and his friends and it is in this way that they came to the attention of the publisher of Contemplations moral and divine. Hale’s writings had such a profound effect upon him that he made his own transcriptions of them and asked Hale to consider publishing them. He refused to give his consent for this. However, the publisher was so convinced of their worth that he went ahead anyway, without Hale’s consent or even his knowledge.

All of this is confessed in the preface. In fact, the publisher states that he would not approve of such an action generally, but that he and others who knew of the writings were convinced that benefit to readers would be so great that it would make an unlawful act into a commendable one and that even Sir Matthew Hale would approve.

“I knew his Goodness, Affection, and Readiness to do Good, to be such, that he could not but approve my Design, that is, to do Good; the doing whereof I knew to be a thing of greater weight with him than all his Reasons against Publication: And that much Good may be done by the Publication of these Writings, I could assure him upon my own experience of the Effects I had seen already produced by them in Manuscript.”

The publisher undertook at least to conceal the author’s name out of respect for his wish for the writings to remain private. However, while this 1676 edition of the works is published anonymously, a second edition came to print in 1699, after Hale’s death, and names him as the author of the works.

Kate McQuillian, Archivist & Chapter Librarian

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.