In the bleak midwinter

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My favorite Christmas carol is “In the Bleak Midwinter.” The lyrics are by English poet Christina Rossetti and was first published, under the title “A Christmas Carol” in the January 1872 issue of Scribner’s Monthly. The poem first appeared set to music in The English Hymnal in 1906 with a setting by Gustav Holst. Holst is best known as the composer of the tone poem “The Planets.”

Harold Darke’s anthem setting of “In the Bleak Winter” was named the best Christmas carol in a poll of some of the world’s leading choirmasters and choral experts in 2008. Here are the lyrics:

In the bleak mid-winter Frosty wind made moan;

Earth stood hard as iron,

Water like a stone;

Snow had fallen, snow on snow,

Snow on snow,

In the bleak mid-winter Long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold Him

Nor earth sustain,

Heaven and earth shall flee away

When He comes to reign:

In the bleak mid-winter

A stable-place sufficed

The Lord God Almighty —

Jesus Christ.

Angels and Archangels

May have gathered there,

Cherubim and seraphim

Thronged the air;

But only His Mother

In her maiden bliss

Worshipped the Beloved

With a kiss.

What can I give Him,

Poor as I am? —

If I were a Shepherd

I would bring a lamb;

If I were a Wise Man

I would do my part, —

Yet what I can I give Him, —

Give my heart.

Rossetti opens “In the Bleak Midwinter” with a simple yet powerful description of winter. Her personification of the moaning wind gives the first line a child-like tone. Rossetti pairs up natural elements for straightforward similes: “Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.” The simple couplet rhyme scheme, which continues throughout the poem, gives us the sense that Rossetti is telling a familiar and much beloved tale. The phrase “Long ago” adds to the nursery-tale tone.

Rossetti does not introduce Christ and his human incarnation until after the first stanza. When she finally does, it clearly becomes the focal point of the poem. The second stanza encompasses the core of Christian theology: Christ must be born on earth, live and die as a human, and then be resurrected and return at the end of the Earth. In the midst of this complex theology, Rossetti includes the repetition of her opening line, “In the bleak midwinter,” as if to bring comfort to such mysterious and detached theological doctrine.

In the third verse, Rossetti contrasts the magnificent divine with the humble circumstances of Jesus’ nativity. She borrows the biblical phrases “Angels and archangels” and “cherubim and seraphim,” allowing the internal rhyme sounds to enhance the poem’s melodic meter. She emphasizes the importance of Christ’s humanity through the image of Christ’s mother kissing her baby. In this verse, Rossetti also celebrates the unique value of human love.

In the final stanza, the poet places herself in the poem by wondering what gift she would offer the baby Jesus if given the chance. Her repetition of “If I were” and “what can I give Him” in this stanza add to the child-like earnestness of the poem. In general, Rossetti limits her poetic devices to the song-like aa bb couplet rhyme scheme. However, her restraint speaks volumes about her attitude towards divine mysteries that require a child’s innocent and sincere faith. The final words in the last line suggests the poet’s decisiveness in her desire to give her heart to Jesus.

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