Innocents’ Song

The Massacre of the Innocents - Pieter Bruegel the Elder

If there is such a thing as a ‘poem-worm’, like an ‘earworm’, this has been mine for a while.  It is as chilling now as when first read at school.  It is also dense with reference – possibly impossible to ‘get’ without an understanding of Christian theology and possibly impossible to understand without a sense of an ‘English’ Christmas, for Causley was a Cornishman, a teacher and a Christian of a certain generation. It is as relevant for us now as it was when written, not so long after the Second World War. Perhaps age and experience make me see more than I did, when we were taught that probably all the problems of the world had been solved, or were about to be, but it seems to me that the terrible trickster has even more tricks up his sleeve and that our children are still, despite all our cosseting, still at terrible risk.

Who’s that knocking on the window,
Who’s that standing at the door,
What are all those presents
Laying on the kitchen floor?

Who is the smiling stranger
With hair as white as gin,
What is he doing with the children
And who could have let him in?

Why has he rubies on his fingers,
A cold, cold crown on his head,
Why, when he caws his carol,
Does the salty snow run red?

Why does he ferry my fireside
As a spider on a thread,
His fingers made of fuses
And his tongue of gingerbread?

Why does the world before him
Melt in a million suns,
Why do his yellow, yearning eyes
Burn like saffron buns?

Watch where he comes walking
Out of the Christmas flame,
Dancing, double-talking:

Herod is his name.

Charles Causley

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