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A Short Analysis of the Christmas Carol ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks’

‘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. Read the rest of this entry


The Advent Calendar of Literature: Day 23

Staying in the seventeenth century, where we found ourselves for yesterday’s advent calendar fact, we’re off to hear another Christmas carol today. Not a bad way to spend Christmas Eve Eve, after all! The Christmas carol we’re concerned with on this penultimate day of our Advent Calendar posts is one of the classics, which has an interesting connection with poetry.

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks’ is a popular carol and has been for over three hundred years. But what is Nahum Tatenot widely known is that the words to the carol were written by an early Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom.

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.

And tomorrow, we come to the end of our literary advent calendar. Each fact until now has shared something with the previous day’s fact, but tomorrow’s – being the conclusion of the calendar – is a special standalone fact that relates specifically to Christmas Eve. We hope you’ll join us for that tomorrow. Ho ho ho!

Image: ‘Song of the Angels at the Nativity of our Blessed Saviour’, better known as ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks’, from A New version of the Psalms of David : fitted to the tunes used in churches, Wikimedia Commons.