Not much is known about the English hymn writer William Chatterton Dix but he is the author of a couple of well-known Christmas carols. Born in Bristol on 14th June 1837, Dix was named after the poet Thomas Chatterton who Dix’s father, John Dix, had written a biography. Dix was sent to Glasgow to develop a mercantile career, eventually becoming the manager of a maritime insurance company.
Alongside his career, Dix wrote hymns and carols. Most of his hymns have fallen out of favour, however, two of his carols remain popular favourites: As with Gladness Men of Old and What Child Is This?
As with Gladness is an Epiphany hymn, which Dix wrote on 6th January 1859 whilst unwell in bed. Dix was frequently unwell and suffered a nearly fatal illness at the age of 29, followed by long bouts of depression. Suprisingly, he managed to live until the age of 61, dying on 9th September 1898 in Cheddar, Somerset.
As with Gladness is based upon the visit of the magi in the Nativity. Using Matthew 2:1-12 as the theme, Dix’s carol describes the journey of the magi to visit Jesus, emphasising that it is not the gifts they bought that are important but their adoration of the Christ child. The first verse mentions the star that guided the magi (“Did the guiding star behold”) and the second describes the place of Jesus’ birth (“To that lowly manger bed”). The third verse mentions the gifts (“As they offered gifts most rare”) and the fourth references Jesus’ purpose (“Holy Jesus, every day/Keep us in the narrow way”). This is the only Epiphany hymn that does not use the words “magi” or “king” in the lyrics, nor does it allude to how many visited the child.
What Child is This? was also written when Dix was unwell. In 1865, whilst recovering in bed, Dix underwent a spiritual renewal, which led to the composition of this carol that was subsequently set to the tune of Greensleeves. The carol was originally part of a longer poem called The Manger Throne but Dix only felt three of the stanzas were suitable for singing. The first verse begins with a rhetorical question, which is answered in the second verse. Subsequently, the second verse asks another question, which is answered in the third. Unlike As with Gladness, which focuses on the magi, What Child is This? is about the shepherd’s visit and the potential questions they may have had when they met him.
Unfortunately, little else is known about William Chatterton Dix.
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon