The festive season approaches, whether you’re ready or not. For those of you in Tier 2 or even, like me, in the dreaded Tier 3, I commend to you this most festive of all festive poems, by our former laureate. Enjoy.


A Christmas poem by Carol Ann Duffy

The King’s Cook had cooked for the King a Christmas Pie,

wherein the Swan,
once bride of the river,
half of for ever,
six Cygnets circling her,
lay scalded, plucked, boned, parboiled,
salted, peppered, gingered, oiled;

and harboured the Heron
whose grey shadow she’d crossed
as it stood witness,
grave as a Priest,
on the riverbank

Now the Heron’s breast was martyred with Cloves.

Inside the Heron inside the Swan –
in a greased cradle, pastry-sealed –
a Common Crane,
gutted and trussed,
smeared with Cicely, Lavender, Rose,
was stuffed with a buttered, saffroned
golden Goose.

Within the Goose,
perfumed with Fruits, was a Duck,
and jammed in the Duck, a Pheasant,
embalmed in Honey
from Bees
who’d perused
the blossoms of Cherry trees.

Spring in deep midwinter;
a year in a pie;
a Guinea-Fowl in a Pheasant;
a Teal in a Fowl.

Nursed in the Teal
Partridge, purse to a Plover;
a Plover, glove to a Quail;
and caught in the mitt of the Quail,
a Lark –
a green Olive stoppered its beak.

The Christmas Pie
for the good King, Wenceslas,
was seasoned with Sage, Rosemary, Thyme;
and a living Robin sang through a hole in its crust.

Pot-herbs to accompany this;
Roasted Chestnuts, Red Cabbage,
Celery, Carrots, Colly-flowre,
each borne aloft by a Page
into the Hall,
where the Pie steamed on a table
in front of the fire;

and to flow at the feast,
mulled Wine, fragrant
with Nutmeg, Cinnamon, Mace,
with Grains of Paradise.
The Lords and Ladies
sat at their places, candlelight
on their festive faces.

Up in the Minstrels’ Gallery,
the King’s Musicians tuned the Lute
to the Flute
to the Pipe
to the Shawm, the Gemshorn, the Harp,
to the Dulcimer
to the Psaltery;
and the Drum was a muffled heart
like an imminent birth
and the Tambourine was percussion as mirth.

Then a blushing Boy stood to trill
of how the Beasts, by some good spell,
in their crude stable began to tell
the gifts they gave Emmanuel.

Holly, Ivy, Mistletoe,
shredded Silver,
hung from the rafters

and the King’s Fool
pranced beneath
five red Apples,
one green Pear,
which danced in the air.

Snow at the window twirled;
and deep, crisp, even,

covered the fields
where a fox and a vixen curled in a den
as the Moon scowled
at the cold, bold, gold glare of an Owl.

Also there,
out where the frozen stream
lay nailed to the ground,
was a prayer
drifting as human breath,
as the ghost of words,
in a dark wood,
yearning to be

But Heaven was only old light
and the frost was cruel
where a poor, stooped man
went gathering fuel.

A miracle then,
fanfared in,
that the King in red robes, silver crown,
glanced outside
from his wooden throne
to see the Pauper
stumble, shiver,

and sent a Page to fetch him

Then Wenceslas sat the poor man down,
poured Winter’s Wine,
and carved him a sumptuous slice
of the Christmas Pie …
as prayers hope You would, and I.

  • Wenceslas: A Christmas Poem by Carol Ann Duffy with illustrations by Stuart Kolakovic, is published by Picador (£5.99).

To order a copy for £4.49 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to

Poems previously published on this page can be found in the ARCHIVES section of the website.