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What Child is This?
The lyrics of the carol “What Child is This?” are taken from a poem written by William Chatterton Dix in 1865. At the time, Dix was working as the manager of an insurance company. He was afflicted by an unexpected and severe illness that resulted in him being bedridden and suffering from severe depression. His near-death experience brought about a spiritual renewal in him while he was recovering. During this time, he read the Bible comprehensively and was inspired to author hymns like "Alleluia! Sing to Jesus!" and "As with Gladness Men of Old". The precise time in 1865 when he wrote the poem "The Manger Throne" is disputed. While the St. Petersburg Times details how Dix penned the work after reading the Gospel for Epiphany that year (Matthew 2:1–12) recounting the journey of the Biblical Magi; Singer's Library of Song: Medium Voice contends that it was actually authored during the Christmas of 1865.
Although written in 1865, "What Child Is This?" was only first published six years later in 1871, when it featured in Christmas Carols Old and New, a "prestigious" and "influential" collection of carols that was published in the United Kingdom. The hymnal was edited by Henry Ramsden Bramley and John Stainer; even though it is not known with certainty who paired the three stanzas from "The Manger Throne" with the music from "Greensleeves".
"Greensleeves" is a traditional English folk song. A broadside ballad by this name was registered at the London Stationer's Company in September 1580 and the tune is found in several late-16th-century and early-17th-century sources.
The context of the carol centers on the Adoration of the Shepherds, who visited Jesus during his Nativity. The questions posed in the lyrics reflect what the shepherds were possibly pondering to themselves when they encountered him, with the rest of the carol providing a response to their questions.
Lyrics by William Chatterton Dix