Toru Dutt: Poetry

Toru Dutt: Poetry Summary and Analysis of "Christmas"


The poem "Christmas" is from Dutt's A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields (1876), and is a translation of a Théophile Gautier poem. It describes the day that Jesus Christ was born. Dutt takes special care to highlight both the joyful serenity of the scene and its spare, rustic quality. For example, while the bells ring out happily and angels sing, we are situated on a farm with little to keep the infant Jesus warm. As the poem ends, the unlikely miracle of Christ's birth in this setting is underscored and celebrated with the words, "Christ is born." The theological nature of the poem, along with its history as a translation, reflects Toru Dutt's interests in Christianity and European culture.


The rhyme scheme of "Christmas" resembles the rhyme scheme of a Shakespearean sonnet, though it deviates from the sonnet form in that it has sixteen lines. Still, it has the alternating rhyme scheme associated with Shakespearean sonnets—preserved from Gautier's original text—and its body is divided into quatrains. Each of these quatrains develops a different element of the scene surrounding the birth of the Christian messiah, with each element gradually becoming more focused on interior space as the poem progresses.

We begin outside and above the manger where Christ is born, in "the sky," tracing snow as it descends. Next, we are exposed to the boundary between the outside world and the interior space in which Jesus is born, the edge of the manger in which "no curtains bright-festooned" hang and in which only "spider-webs" serve to divide outside and inside. Third, we move to the most interior spaces of the manger, with the infant Christ laying right before us "on fresh straw." Finally, we move back to the exterior realm, where angels are now singing to shepherds to commemorate Jesus's birth. This movement, from outside to inside to outside again, suggests both the significant impact of Jesus's birth (implied by the descriptions of the divine and the outside world) as well as the smallness and intimacy of the human birth which brought the son of the Christian God into the world.

This simultaneous emphasis on Jesus's humanity and cosmic power is evocative of the Christian Miracle of the Incarnation, one of the fundamental beliefs of Christianity that states the Christian God gave his son human form through the Virgin Mary's birth. This idea of incarnation is further linked by the poem's development of a mundane-divine binary, which creates tension between the humble space of the "old" "farm" where Jesus is born and the celestial purity of the scene, marked by "write wreaths of snow" and the "angel-quire." Finally, the development of the poem's refrain from "Jesus is born" in line 3 to "Christ is born" in line 16 also reflects an increasing momentum and the growing importance of Jesus's birth when the move is made from the intimate scene of the birth (where Jesus is called by his first name) back to the divine space of the heavens (where he is called "Christ," the name for the Christian messiah).

Besides this main thread, there are many other interesting elements to take stock of in "Christmas." For example, the scene of Jesus's birth is established as not just an unlikely harmony between humanity and the divine, but also between nature and humanity. It is not curtains that shield Jesus from the outside, but rather "spider-webs" which fail to do so. Though "the Virgin bends / above [Jesus]," she does not keep him warm; rather, it is the breath of "kindly oxen" that does so. Moreover, the image of the shepherd serves to link images of nature to images of the man-made and the divine: while a shepherd's job is to guide sheep, Christ's job in Christian theology is to lead the people (for example, as in Psalm 23: "The Lord is my Shepherd").

The use of color in the poem is also particularly striking. Oddly, very few things are described in terms of their hues, with just the sky's "dark" shade and the snow's "white" quality being highlighted. While the sky's color primarily is meant to evoke darkness, and the snow's whiteness is primarily meant to evoke a religious or natural purity, it is also possible that the relationship of the snow to the sky is meant to evoke the birth of Jesus. In Christian theology, Jesus himself is a pure and divine being born from the human body, a place of darkness that—though made atypical through Mary's virgin birth—is usually susceptible to profane (rather than sacred) influences.

The poem thus represents a pithy and effective aesthetic rendition of the scene of Jesus's birth. The fact that its essential spirit and formal complexity is carried over from the original French speaks to both Dutt's talent as an original poetic voice and also to her contemplation of the deeper themes that run throughout "Christmas"—humanity, nature, divinity, and the relationships between these things.