This little Babe

Our Patrick Henry Chorale did a Christmas program, a “Lessons & Carols” service, which consists of Bible readings interspersed with Christmas songs, held at the local Episcopal church. They did splendidly. One of their numbers was from Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, a musical version of Robert Southwell’s “This Little Babe.” Southwell was a 17th century metaphysical poet of the sort I specialize in, but I had forgotten this poem:

This little Babe so few days old is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak unarmèd wise the gates of hell he will surprise.

With tears he fights and wins the field, his naked breast stands for a shield;
His battering shot are babish cries, his arrows looks of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns Cold and Need and feeble Flesh his warrior’s steed.

His camp is pitchèd in a stall, his bulwark but a broken wall;
The crib his trench, haystacks his stakes; of shepherds he his muster makes;
And thus, as sure his foe to wound, the angels’ trump alarum sound.

My soul, with Christ join thou in fight, stick to the tents that he hath pight.
Within his crib is surest ward, this little Babe will be thy guard.
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy, then flit not from this heavenly Boy.

This has inspired me to post some more Christmas literature over the next weeks of Advent, so watch for those.

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  • I really enjoyed singing Benjamin Britten’s piece. The text has wonderful imagery of the purpose of the coming of the Christ Child.
    I look forward to reading more such posts.

  • sandi

    Thank you for this post.
    Last night our family attended a Christmas production presented at one of our local ‘mega’ churches (in a California beach community). I was down fallen as I left. I try to attend these sorts of things without being critical, but it’s become impossible. The decorations alone could have fed several villages in Rwanda. The performance included a garbage can drum group, decked out in mechanics overalls. The show opened with 3 electric guitarist deck in “rock star” outfits… I tried to talk myself into some notion of cultural relevance, but I kept thinking about Christ, He seemed to be missing. Thank you for letting me know that there is still a remnant out there.

  • I love that piece! My husband has done it several times over the years with his children’s choirs. Thanks for calling it to mind!

  • Bruce Gee

    What does “pight” mean?

  • Bruce (@4), I guessed from context, but I had to look it up to confirm that it’s the perfect passive participle of the word “pitch”. (+4 alliteration points) Clearly archaic now. Instead of “hath pight”, we’d say “has pitched”.

  • Peter Leavitt

    What I love about this poem is the ultimate strength of a humble babe born in a manger to overcome evil.

    “This little Babe so few days old is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
    All hell doth at his presence quake though he himself for cold do shake;
    For in this weak unarmèd wise the gates of hell he will surprise.”

    In this season when we celebrate the birth of our Lord, the incarnate Son of God, we may take reasonable comfort among the hard realities and indeed evil that surrounds us. We understandably despair at times, though the combination of brilliant and sensitive men as Robert Southwell and Benjamin Britten provides fine comfort. I’ll take this over Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer any day.

  • Christina Roberts

    This fabulous text made it into the 1969 Worship Supplement – Hymn 717 (they even had a little * to tell you that pight meant ‘pitched, set up’.) It uses a tune by the same name by Melchior Vulpius. I am guessing since Vulpius and Southwell were contemporaries this might be an original text/tune association.

  • Our middle school is singing This Little Babe tomorrow. Our 7th grade son almost played the accompaniment, but ran out of practice time. Have loved the theology of the cross in it since I first heard it.

  • William Broderius

    I like easy reading, this made me stop and think every other line. Not sure if liked the reading or not!!!