Hymn Story

What Child Is This?

Hymn lists

by book of Bible

William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898) was born in Bristol, England.  His father, a surgeon, had written a biography of the poet, Thomas Chatterton, which accounts for the middle name that he gave his son.  It also reveals the affection for poetry which the father passed on to his son.

As a young man, William moved to Glasgow, Scotland, where he pursued a career managing a marine insurance company (a company that insured ships and related interests).  However, his true passion was poetry.

Dix fell seriously ill, and was confined to his bed for an extended period of time.  He underwent a true spiritual crisis during this illness, and spent much time in prayer and the reading of Christian literature.  He came through the crisis as a true man of faith, and devoted much of his later poetry to Christian themes.  He wrote a number of hymns, at least three of which have survived to this day—the other two being “As with Gladness, Men of Old” and “Alleluia!  Sing to Jesus.”

“What Child Is This?” was derived from a longer poem, “The Manger Song.”  It was first published in 1865 in Britain, and quickly became popular in the United States as well.

The song begins in the manger with the child sleeping on Mary’s lap, accompanied by angels and shepherds.  But the second verse asks why he would be lying “in such mean estate.” It goes on to speak of Jesus’ purpose— to plead for the salvation of sinners—and alludes to the nails and the cross that he will face as a man.

The third verse moves to a joyful tone, asking us to bring Jesus incense and gold and myrrh.  The reason is simple.  The King of kings has come to bring us salvation, so we should respond joyfully in his honor.

“Greensleeves,” the tune associated with this carol, is a traditional English tune that preceded “What Child Is This?” by at least a century—probably more.  It began as a love song, and may have been used with popular drinking songs.  Today we hear it sung both as a love song and as a sacred song.

“Greensleeves” was written in a minor key, which gives it a sad feel in the first two lines.  However, while the key remains minor, the last two lines take on an enthusiastic, joyful character that contrasts nicely with the earlier lines.

Dix died in Cheddar, Somerset, England in 1898 and was buried in the church cemetery there.

Copyright 2008, Richard Niell Donovan