‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks’ is one of the most famous Christmas songs in the English language, and unlike many Christmas carols we know who wrote this one: a Poet Laureate, no less. So next time you’re singing ‘while shepherds watched their flocks by night’ (or, depending on company, washed their socks by night), you can bask in the knowledge that you’re taking in a bit of literature.
But what were the origins of this favourite Christmas carol? ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks’ deserves closer analysis…
While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shone around.
‘Fear not!’ said he, for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled mind;
‘Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and all mankind.
‘To you, in David’s town, this day
Is born of David’s line
A Saviour, who is Christ the Lord,
And this shall be the sign:
‘The heav’nly Babe you there shall find
To human view displayed,
All meanly wrapped in swathing bands,
And in a manger laid.’
Thus spake the seraph and forthwith
Appeared a shining throng
Of angels praising God on high,
Who thus addressed their song:
‘All glory be to God on high,
And to the Earth be peace;
Good will henceforth from heav’n to men
Begin and never cease!’
‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks’ focuses, of course, on the visit from the Angel of the Lord to announce the birth of Christ. The carol was almost certainly written by Nahum Tate (1652-1715), who became Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom in 1692; it was published in Tate and Nicholas Brady’s 1700 supplement to their New Version of the Psalms of David in 1696.
Interestingly, ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks’ was the only Christmas hymn which the Anglican Church authorised to be sung, and before it was published, only the Psalms of David were allowed. So ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks’ is one of the first ‘official’ Christmas carols we have in English literature.
Nahum Tate (1652-1715 – he was born Nahum Teate) held the post of Poet Laureate between 1692 and his death. Tate was Irish and moved to London in his twenties, quickly becoming known as a dramatist and poet. Tate was the man who rewrote Shakespeare’s King Lear to give it a happy ending: he omitted the character of the Fool altogether and ended the play with the marriage of Edgar and Cordelia. He also collaborated with John Dryden (who was an earlier holder of the Laureateship, until his Catholicism put an end to his tenure) on the second half of Dryden’s long poem Absalom and Achitophel. Tate also wrote the words to Henry Purcell’s famous opera Dido and Aeneas. Not a bad crop of achievements there, but Tate remains one of the least-known (and least-read) Poets Laureate.