Years ago, while studying Jane Austen’s Christmas celebrations, I read that Jane had written a poem that was something like the famous “Night Before Christmas.” Since then, I have wondered about this poem and occasionally searched for it. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if I could blog about this poem at Christmastime?
Well, I finally found said poem, and it has nothing to do with Christmas, or winter, or St. Nicholas. It does, however, have a saint standing on a roof. The saint in question is St. Swithin, the patron saint of Winchester Cathedral, which stood near Austen’s home and is also where she was laid to rest. According to legend, if it rained on St. Swithin’s day (July 15), it would rain for the next forty days.
She wrote this poem on July 15, 1817, three days before her death, and it just goes to show that Jane had a bit more spunk than most people gave her credit for. Here she was on her death-bed, and she wrote a humorous poem about horse racing. It’s also interesting that she wanted the races to continue, despite her ill-health and the noisy crowds the races would bring to town.
When Winchester races
When Winchester races first took their beginning
It is said the good people forgot their old Saint
Not applying at all for the leave of Saint Swithin
And that William of Wykeham’s approval was faint.
The races however were fixed and determined
The company came and the Weather was charming
The Lords and the Ladies were satine’d and ermined
And nobody saw any future alarming.–
But when the old Saint was informed of these doings
He made but one Spring from his Shrine to the Roof
Of the Palace which now lies so sadly in ruins
And then he addressed them all standing aloof.
‘Oh! subjects rebellious! Oh Venta* depraved
When once we are buried you think we are gone
But behold me immortal! By vice you’re enslaved
You have sinned and must suffer, ten farther he said
These races and revels and dissolute measures
With which you’re debasing a neighboring Plain
Let them stand–You shall meet with your curse in your pleasures
Set off for your course, I’ll pursue with my rain.
Ye cannot but know my command o’er July
Henceforward I’ll triumph in shewing my powers
Shift your race as you will it shall never be dry
The curse upon Venta is July in showers–‘.
*Venta is the old Roman name for Winchester.