"Christmas Carol" by May Probyn

May Probyn as an individual has so far received little critical attention, but her humor and satire, which break the sentimental stereotype of Victorian women's poetry, and her astute commentary on the position of women deserve to be rediscovered.



May Probyn



May Probyn, Christmas CarolLacking samite and sable,

Lacking silver and gold,

The Prince Jesus in the poor stable

Slept, and was three hours old.

As doves by the fair water,

Mary, not touched of sin,

Sat by Him, — the King's daughter,

All glorious within.

A lily without one stain, a

Star where no spot hath room —

Ave, gratia plena,

Virgo Virginum.

Clad not in pearl-sewn vesture,

Clad not in cramoisie,

She hath hushed, she hath cradled to rest, her

God the first time on her knee.

Where is one to adore Him?

The ox hath dumbly confessed,

With the ass, meek kneeling before Him,

" Et homo factus est. "

Not throned on ivory or cedar,

Not crowned with a Queen's crown,

At her breast it is Mary shall feed her

Maker, from Heaven come down.

The trees in Paradise blossom

Sudden, and its bells chime —

She giveth Him, held to her bosom,

Her immaculate milk the first time.

The night with wings of angels

Was alight, and its snow-packed ways

Sweet made (say the Evangels)

With the noise of their virelays.

Quem vidistis, pastores?

Why go ye feet unshod?

Wot ye within yon door is

Mary, the Mother of God?

No smoke of spice ascending

There — no roses are piled —

But, choicer than all balms blending,

There Mary hath kissed her Child.

Source of the poem: Pansies. A book of poems by May Probyn. London: Elkin Mathews, 1894, p. 635.

* * *

May Probyn (12.04.1856 -  29.03.1909) was born in Wales or in France. Her parents were British and she had three younger siblings after the family returned to England. She was educated in Brussels. 

Her work wasn't popular and therefore little is known about her. In 1881 the "Westminster Review" reviewed her "Poems" (1881) and wrote 'Who May Probyn may be we know not'. Her poems show a witty social criticism and is different from the often sentimental poetry that other female poets from the Victorian era wrote. Her poem "Is it nothing to you" was included in the "Oxford Book of English Verse" (1939 edition).

May Probyn was a friend of W.B. Yeats. She died in 1909 was buried at the Roman Catholic Cemetery in Mortlake, London. The inscription on her grave reads: "That, being dead to this world, she may live to thee".

Sources: Meller, Hugh & Brian Parsons, London Cemeteries, Ann Illustrated Guide & Gazetteer, 4th Edition, This History Press, Chalford, Gloucestershire, 2008.

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