Jolly Old St. Swithin Up on the Rooftop

Jolly Old St. Swithin Up on the Rooftop

200px-Stavanger_Domkirke_-_StSvithunYears 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.


7 Responses to Jolly Old St. Swithin Up on the Rooftop

  1. I too have never heard of this day. Isn’t it interesting that we still find thing awesome about our dear Jane. I cannot she wrote this while she was ill.

  2. Thanks for this wonderful post, Rebecca! I never knew about this, and it’s such a comfort to think she was herself right to the end, and still found the strength to think happy thoughts and write a humorous poem. What a lady!

  3. I enjoyed this post. My twin sister and I were born on St.Swithin day. It pored and that same night . We always expect rain on that day,but it does not always rain. For some reason the Catholic calendar no longer lists St. Swithin Day. Our friend even mentioned that to us. Needless to say I was very interested in this post..
    Thank You

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