Staying with some friends down in Sheffield last week, I was treated to an impromptu performance of their daughter’s nativity play, or at least some of its carols. The one that really took me back to my school days was ‘Little Donkey’, which for some reason had really captured my imagination as a kid: I had sympathised with that poor old donkey more than anyone else in the nativity story – more than Mary or Gabriel, or even the baby Jesus, and certainly more than those wee three kings of Orient-ah.
The bit where they sing ‘Ring out those bells tonight, Bethlehem, Bethlehem’ gives me goose pimples, quite against my will – even though I know it’s a modern carol written for the age of Disney, and even when the singers are pronouncing Bethlehem, ‘Befflehem’, which youngsters in Britain these days generally will. My inner pedant is overwhelmed by sentimental nostalgia – in fact the more childish the singing, the better – it’s all of a part with the nativity linking the small and humble with the divine.
And so I drove home thinking that my Christmas blog post should be G.K. Chesterton’s celebrated The Donkey, which I remembered being about the self-same donkey as in that hokey modern carol… Only, I remembered wrong – The Donkey is an Easter poem, as any fool who reads it can see.
Nevermind. All this talk of donkeys reminds me of another poem worth showing- one that’s not especially Christmassy, perhaps, but very donkeyish. It’s more a piece of prose, really, but a very poetic one, by the Spanish poet Juan Ramon Jimenez, from his semi-autobiographical account of a man and his donkey in the pastures of Andalusia, Platero y Yo – Silver and I. This is the opening prose-poem of the book:
Platero is small, hairy, smooth – so soft to touch you’d think he were made entirely of cotton, without any bones. Only the jet mirrors of his eyes are hard, two beetles of black crystal.
I set him loose and he heads for the pasture, and gently brushes his snout, scarcely rubbing against little flowers of pink, sky blue and yellow-green. I call him sweetly, ‘Platero’, and he comes to me with a cheerful little trot, as if laughing with the ringing of some wondrous bell.
He will eat whatever I offer. He likes oranges, mandarins, Muscat grapes, everything golden, purple figs with their crystalline drops of honey.
He’s as dear and affectionate as a young boy, as a young girl; but in that strong and dry as a stone is. When he passes, on Sundays, the outlying lanes of the town, the townsmen, dressed up, clean and slow, stop to look at him:
“E‘s got steel that ‘un.”
He has steel. Steel and moonlight silver all at once.
From Platero Y Yo, translated by the blogger
Picture credit – http://blog.visitnorthumberland.com/2011/09/15/cherryburn-donkeys-say-farewell-to-bewicks-birthplace/ (the picture shows two donkeys who lived at Cherryburn, the National Trust owned house of Northumbrian engraver Thomas Bewick)