History of Hymns: “What Child Is This”
"What Child Is This"
William C. Dix
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 219
What child is this who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherd’s watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary.
GREENSLEEVES, the tune for which this text was probably written, is one of the most beautiful and beloved melodies of the season.
Though not exclusively a Christmas tune, its association with this season goes back to at least 1642, where it is paired with the Waits’ carol, “The old year now away is fled.” Shakespeare refers twice to GREENSLEEVES in his play Merry Wives of Windsor, helping to date it in the 16th century.
William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898), an Anglican layman, was the son of a surgeon in Bristol, England. He spent most of his life as a businessman, working as a manager for the Maritime Insurance Company in Glasgow, Scotland. We know of his church affiliation only through his hymns that were published in Altar Songs, Verses on the Holy Eucharist, and A Vision of All Saints.
Hymnologist Albert Bailey notes that some of Dix’s hymns are “horribly sentimental,” but on the whole says, “his hymns are simple, reverent, sincere, imaginative, not above the average comprehension, and two of them at least have proved to be continuously serviceable.” In addition to “What child is this,” Dr. Bailey is referring to “As with gladness men of old,” an Epiphany hymn that does not appear in The United Methodist Hymnal.
Stanza one, influenced by the Romantic poets of his day, perhaps skirts the edges of sentimentality. Beginning with a rhetorical question, “What child is this?” the poet condenses Luke 2:8-16 into a single stanza, painting a picture of a classic Nativity scene with the Christ Child sleeping on “Mary’s lap” while angels sing “anthems sweet” and shepherds “watch are keeping.”
Stanza two makes fleeting reference to the less than ideal conditions—“mean estate”—under which the idyllic scene of the previous stanza is situated. Like stanza one, the poet begins with a rhetorical question, “Why lies he in such mean estate?” In essence, he asks why the Christ Child should be in such a humble setting “where ox and ass are feeding.” The original second half of this stanza, not found in the hymnal, provides a more complete response to this question:
Nails, spear shall pierce him through;
The cross he bore for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The babe, the Son of Mary!
Dix’s answer to the reason for the “mean estate” under which Christ was born lies in his future suffering on the cross. Possibly Dix knew the Waits’ New Year’s carol mentioned earlier. The second stanza of this carol written over a century earlier also alludes to the suffering of Christ:
The name day now of Christ we keep,
Who for our sins did often weep;
His hands and feet were wounded deep,
And his blessed side with a spear. . .
In the final stanza, the poet expands the circle of those attending this humble scene. Drawing from the Epiphany season and the gifts brought by the magi, we take our place at the manger, bringing metaphorical gifts of “incense, gold, and myrrh.” This is a setting that defies the conventional class structures of the time; the invitation is open to both the “peasant” and “king.” In a sentiment that is very common in hymnody, “the King of kings” will be “enthrone[d]” in “loving hearts.”