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A Short Analysis of Christina Rossetti’s ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’

A reading of a classic Christmas poem

‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ is probably Christina Rossetti’s most famous poem, though not the one that’s most recognisable as being a Christina Rossetti poem. Indeed, many who are familiar with it perhaps don’t realise that it is a poem; it’s better-known as a song, or carol, these days. But then that’s appropriate given that Christina Rossetti first published it under the title ‘A Christmas Carol’, and the poem has a songlike quality to it. Here is ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, to which we’ve appended some words of analysis.

In the bleak midwinter, 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 midwinter, 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 midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, 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.

Like ‘God Save the Queen’, how many people can quote from memory any but the opening stanza of ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’? Those opening lines remain world-famous, but the rest of Rossetti’s poem is more obscure. First, some background on the poem: it was published in the January 1872 edition of Scribner’s Monthly, having been commissioned by the editor of that magazine. Rossetti reportedly earned £10 for the poem – not a bad sum in those days for a single poem, although a payment that is dwarfed by the £1,000 Tennyson received for a poem of just three stanzas that was published in the New York Ledger.

in-the-bleak-midwinter-landscapeBut enough of such things: to the poem itself. ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ (as it is now universally known) is, of course, a nativity poem, focusing on the birth of Jesus Christ, and featuring many of the images and icons we associate with the nativity story: the manger, the hay, the oxen and other animals, the Wise Men. But for Rossetti chief among all of these figures – after Christ himself – is the Virgin Mary, singled out in that fourth stanza:

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

And just as the Virgin Mary’s simple ‘gift’ of a kiss outstrips all the gold and frankincense the Wise Men may have to offer, so the speaker’s own humble offering of ‘my heart’ is a purer and more valuable gift than any riches. This is apt because Jesus is depicted as being content with simple comforts:

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

But we’ve skipped a fair bit of the poem here: that snowy opening stanza, for one. What makes those opening lines so striking?

In the bleak midwinter, 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 midwinter, long ago.

Partly it is the simplicity of the words: ‘midwinter’ is the only word longer than two syllables, and that is hardly ‘reticulated’ or ‘snollygoster’. Its meaning is plain. Repetition, too: of the phrase ‘in the bleak midwinter’, of the word ‘snow’ (five times), ‘snow on snow’, and of the vowel sounds (the ‘o’ of ‘snow’ in ‘moan’, ‘stone’, ‘ago’: a fine example of assonance). Even ‘wind’ and ‘water’ partake of this, these elemental words coming at us like a dispersal of the very sounds of ‘winter’ into ‘wind’ and ‘water’. Such effects may not all be conscious on Rossetti’s part, and it’s certainly not essential that we register them consciously, but they reinforce the musicality of the poem – the poem’s status, from the start, as a song, albeit one awaiting its music – and the interplay of these cold elements: wind, water hardened into ice, snow.

‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, like many of Christina Rossetti’s poems, uses simple language and has a simple message, though her use of language and the places where she puts the emphasis of that message are often surprising. Although it’s most familiar to us being sung by a choir at Christmas, it’s worth bearing in mind the beautiful words that inspired the famous Christmas carol we know and love.

Learn more about Christina Rossetti’s fascinating life here.

Image: In the Bleak Midwinter by Russel Wills, via geograph.org.uk.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on December 23, 2016, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

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