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Good King Wenceslas


Sir. John Stainer


From Piae Cantiones

Words by J.M. Neale.


Good King Wenceslas looked out
  on the Feast of Stephen,
when the snow lay round about,
  deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night,
  though the frost was cruel,
when a poor man came in sight,
  gathering winter fuel.

"Hither, page, and stand by me,
  if thou know'st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he?
  Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence,
  underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence,
  by Saint Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine,
  bring me pine logs hither,
Thou and I will see him dine,
  when we bear them thither."
Page and monarch, forth they went,
  forth they went together,
Through the cold wind's wild lament
  and the bitter weather.

"Sire, the night is darker now,
  and the wind blows stronger,
Fails my heart, I know not how;
  I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page,
  tread thou in them boldly,
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
  freeze thy blood less coldly."

In his master's steps he trod,
  where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
  which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
  wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor
  shall yourselves find blessing.


Good King Wenceslas - arr Stainer

Created 15-Sep-08 Revised 20-Apr-09

Good King Wenceslas

"Good King Wenceslas" is about a king who goes out to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen (the second day of Christmas, December 26). During the journey, his page is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by the heat miraculously emanating from the king's footprints in the snow. The legend is based on life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia (907-935), known in the Czech language as Svatý Václav.

The source legend

The legend is an old one, but its power is such that it has persisted for more than a millennium. Considered a martyr and a saint immediately after his death, a cult of Václav grew up in Bohemia, and also in England.Within a few decades of Václav's death four biographies of him were in circulation. These hagiographies had a powerful influence on the High Middle Ages conceptualization of the ‘’rex justus’’, or “righteous king”—that is, a monarch whose power originates not merely from the unconditioned Divine Right of Kings, but which stems mainly from his great piety, as well as from his princely vigor.

Referring approvingly to these hagiographies, the chronicler Cosmas of Prague, writing in about the year 1119, states:

“But his deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.”

Several centuries later the legend was claimed as fact by Pope Pius II, who himself also walked ten miles barefoot in the ice and snow as an act of pious thanksgiving.

Although nominally only a duke, Holy Roman Emperor Otto I had (posthumously) “conferred on [Václav] the regal dignity and title”, and thus it is in the legend that he is referred to as a “king”. Václav also tends to be confused with King Wenceslaus I of Bohemia, who lived over a century later. The usual English spelling of Duke Václav's name, Wenceslaus, is occasionally encountered in later textual variants of the carol, although it was not used by Neale in his version.


The lyrics of the carol are by John Mason Neale, Warden of Sackville College, East Grinstead, Sussex (1818–1866). He may have written his carol some time earlier, since he carried on the legend of St. Wenceslas on which it is based in his Deeds of Faith (1849). Neal was known for his devotion to High Church traditions.

The tune is that of "Tempus Adest Floridum" ("It is time for flowering"), a 13th-century spring carol, first published in the Swedish/Finnish Piae Cantiones, 1582.

In 1853, G. J. R. Gordon, Her Majesty's Envoy and Minister at Stockholm, gave a rare copy of the 1582 edition of Piae Cantiones to Reverend Neale and to Reverend Thomas Helmore (Vice-Principal of St. Mark's College, Chelsea). The book was entirely unknown in England at that time.

Neale translated some of the carols and hymns, and in 1853, he and Helmore published 12 carols in Carols for Christmas-tide (with music from ‘’Piae Cantiones’’). In 1854, they published 12 more in Carols for Easter-tide. The inspirational copy of Piae Cantiones is now said to be in the British Museum.

The lyrics of Neale's carol bear no relationship to the words of "Tempus Adest Floridum" and cannot based on a translation of the latter. A text beginning substantially the same as the 1582 "Piae" version is also found in Carmina Burana as CB 142, where it is substantially more carnal.

Poetic structure of the lyrics

The lyrics consist of five quatrains in the meter trochaic heptameter. Each quatrain has the scheme AABB with feminine rhyme. The unstressed syllable of the fourth foot is abated in each line in favor of a caesura, forming the line into two hemistichs, which conveys a sense of urgency. In the accompanying common time musical score, the caesura is attained by rendering the fourth foot as a half note, while the last foot of the line effectively becomes a spondee by being realized as two half notes. Each line is thus sung in four measures.

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Metasyntactic variable".

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