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Hymns and Carols: In the Bleak Mid-winter

Hymns and Carols: In the Bleak Mid-winter

In Advent and Christmas this year, we are running our first Hymns and Carols series. It seems fitting to disrupt our usual publishing schedule on Christmas Eve. Today, we continue the series with Fr Richard Frith’s essay on Christina Rossetti’s poem In the Bleak Mid-winter. We’re not quite done yet: look out for the final episode next week!


I remember well a conversation I had about Christina Rossetti’s poem In the Bleak Mid-winter nearly twenty years ago. I was an earnest young Christian undergraduate reading English Literature.  I had just “discovered” Rossetti, and was planning to write my dissertation on her poetry.  Talking with another earnest young Christian undergraduate of my acquaintance, I described Rossetti as an important Victorian religious writer. “What did she write?” he asked. My first thought was to mention In the Bleak Mid-winter, probably her best-known work owing to its having been memorably set to music as a Christmas carol by Gustav Holst. But this was a mistake; there was a sudden loss of interest on my interlocutor’s part. I remember him using words like “quaint” and possibly even “sweet”, and then making his excuses. I recall feeling at the time that this judgement of Rossetti was unfair, but not quite having the language to say why. Today,In the Bleak Mid-winteris still one of my very favourite Christmas carols, and I think it is one of the greatest carol-texts written in English since the Middle Ages. In what follows, I will try to say why.

Christina Rossetti was a writer born into an extraordinarily rich cultural milieu. Her father was an Italian political exile. Her mother, half-Italian herself, was an Anglican Evangelical by upbringing, but had embraced Anglo-Catholicism as it began to take hold in London during the 1840s. Christina, born in 1830, followed her mother in embracing this faith, which was at once ascetic and richly sensuous, with a deep sense of mystery that profoundly affected the teenage poet. Her elder brother Dante Gabriel, a poet and also a painter, took from this exotic cultural and religious upbringing an aesthetic, medievalising Christianity that became a key element of the avant-garde art movement that he helped to found, known as Pre-Raphaelitism or, later, Aestheticism. Unlike his, Christina Rossetti’s faith was never “merely” aesthetic. But the siblings did share an eye for medieval colour and pictorial detail, and in her best work, she melds this with an intellectual and spiritual seriousness that can make for compelling religious poetry.

Edmund Burne-Jones.  The Nativity . Epiphany Chapel, Winchester Cathedral.

Edmund Burne-Jones. The Nativity. Epiphany Chapel, Winchester Cathedral.

The poem in question was published in 1872, and is therefore a work of her middle age. Rossetti’s own (typically modest) title for it was “A Christmas Carol”. But that first line, the title by which it is known today, brings us straight to the heart of what makes it problematic for some (like my undergraduate friend) and yet quite brilliant:

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.

One might immediately object that, if we are speaking (as we are) about the birth of Jesus, it wasn’t “in the bleak mid-winter” at all. We do not know precisely at what time of the year the story of Jesus’ birth in St Luke’s gospel is meant to be set, but the statement that the shepherds were “living in the fields” suggests that Luke did not have in mind the depths of winter. We all know this, if we think about it for a moment. But of course it does not stop us, any more than it stopped the Victorians, from sprinkling our crib scenes with fake snow. For those of us living in northern climes, the story of the nativity has become all but inseparable from the dark, cold, and (occasionally, in the UK) snowy season in which we celebrate Christmas, and Rossetti is happy to make use of this. The text is therefore referencing simultaneously two “historical” moments—a primary one in first-century Palestine, and a secondary one in modern or possibly medieval England. In this sense, Rossetti’s poem is a kind of literary equivalent of a medievalising stained glass representation of the Nativity by her brother Dante Gabriel’s friend Edward Burne-Jones. Except that for Rossetti, the cold is not just aesthetic.

In the northern Christian imagination, the cold and darkness of December have always been powerfully evocative of the darkness of the world, and so of our need of the coming of Christ which we celebrate at Christmas. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”, says St John. Rossetti’s “earth stood hard as iron | water like a stone” conveys laconically and concretely the darkness of a world under the power of sin and needing to be set free, like Narnia’s perpetual winter without Christmas.

My very favourite verse, though, is the third:

Enough for Him whom Cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him whom Angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Here Rossetti very deliberately invokes a nativity scene that is quite unbiblical. The “ox and ass” are never mentioned by Luke, but are a later import from Isaiah chapter 1).  Likewise, the Wise Men’s camels are not in St Matthew’s account of the visit of the Magi, but are brought in from Isaiah 60. And even allowing for the fact that the Christmas story of popular imagination is a composite of the gospels of Matthew and Luke, it is only in sentimental crib scenes that the shepherds and the wise men are depicted as visiting the infant Jesus at the same time. Rossetti knows all this, but her point is to contrast the popular (though essentially correct) image of the humble circumstances of the Messiah’s birth with his true Divine status, as the one “whom cherubim | Worship night and day”. The second Person of the Trinity is now a human baby, content with “a breastful of milk | And a mangerful of hay”.  (Side-note: some hymn books amend those lines to “a heartful of mirth | And a mangerful of hay” – and yet we dare call the Victorians prudish.) The conventional Christmas-card image is exploited to point to the astonishing truth of the doctrine of the Incarnation.

Still, true though all this may be, it is not quite the whole point of what Rossetti was about. Her Christmas carol has a punch-line, of the most “Victorian” kind:

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 was also a writer of children’s verse, and here she uses that idiom to devastating sentimental effect. We hear it sung most years by the choir of King’s College in Harold Darke’s heartstopping choral setting, and it brings a tear to the eye. And so it should. Because Rossetti thought of herself not as a “theological” writer but as a “devotional” one; and while the “devotional”, spiritual mode was to an extent one that women adopted to avoid treading on patriarchal toes (the serious intellectual business of theology being “men’s work”), nevertheless Rossetti believed utterly that religious poetry should be affective, and affecting. It is not enough to hold a correct doctrine of the Incarnation, any more than it is to appreciate the aesthetic appeal of a winter crib scene. Christ still wants us to give our heart.

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.

Enough for Him whom Cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him whom Angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

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.


Hymns and Carols: Five Songs

Hymns and Carols: Five Songs

Hymns and Carols: Of the Father’s Heart Begotten

Hymns and Carols: Of the Father’s Heart Begotten