Christina Rossetti, “A Christmas Carol”

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

On December 5, 1830, Christina Rossetti was born in London, one of four children in a devout and very arts-oriented family. Her father was the poet Gabriele Rossetti, and her brother was Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a well-known poet and a painter who helped form an arts community called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Home-schooled by her Anglican mother, Rossetti declined two offers of marriage and remained single, devoting her life to family, faith, writing, and charitable work. Here is a portrait of Rossetti done by her brother Dante:

Portrait by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Rossetti’s first poems were written in 1842 and printed by her grandfather’s private press. In 1850, she contributed seven poems under a pseudonym to The Germ, the Pre-Raphaelite journal founded by her brother. Rossetti is best known for her ballads and mystic religious lyrics, distinguished by symbolism and intense feeling. Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862) established Rossetti as a significant voice in Victorian poetry and has given rise to much feminist and other scholarly commentary in this century. The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems appeared in 1866, followed by Sing-Song, a collection of verse for children, in 1872.

By the 1880s, Graves’ disease had turned Rossetti into an invalid, but she continued to write works including A Pageant and Other Poems (1881) along with religious prose like Seek and Find (1879), Called To Be Saints (1881), and The Face of the Deep (1892). Rossetti died of breast cancer in London in 1894, and her Complete Poems was not released until 1979. Sometimes compared to her American counterpart Emily Dickinson, she is increasingly being reconsidered as a major poet of the Victorian era. [Summarized from www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/christina-rossetti. See also this long but interesting article discussing Rossetti’s life and works: www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/christina-rossetti.]

Today’s poem, sometimes published under the title “In the Bleak Midwinter,” is perhaps better known as a song often lauded as one of the best-loved carols of all time. Rossetti first published it in the January 1872 edition of Scribner’s Monthly. “In the Bleak Midwinter” became widely known after her death, when it was set as a Christmas carol in 1906 by Gustav Holst and then by Harold Darke in 1911. Here is a short article about the poem being set to music, and here is another that offers both the Holst and Darke versions for comparison. According to the latter article, Darke’s arrangement “is the one that has stolen . . . choir directors’ hearts,” in part “because each verse has a slightly different melody—a variation on the one that came before—that just makes it really fun to sing.” If you can’t get enough of this beautiful carol, here are three more versions to listen to, this one by the Choir of Kings College, Cambridge, this one by Alexander Armstrong, and one more, by Annie Lennox.

Besides being a beloved carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter” is a classic nativity poem, centered on the birth of Jesus and featuring iconic images associated with that story: the manger, the hay, the farm animals, the Wise Men, the angels, the babe in the manger, and the Virgin Mary, whose gift of a “kiss”—just like the speaker’s humble offering of “my heart”—outshines all the gold and frankincense the Wise Men can carry. In verse I, Rossetti describes the weather in Victorian England in December, a metaphor for the bleak spiritual world into which Christ was born in Bethlehem. Some churches apparently hesitate to present this carol because of its meteorological inaccuracy (it does not snow in Bethlehem). To this I respond with a hearty “hogwash!” Poems are meant to tell the truth, yes, but not to accurately report facts (or weather).

Verse II contrasts Christ’s second with his first coming. The third verse describes the manger scene, its simple surroundings in a humble stable attended by farm animals. In verse IV, Rossetti draws another contrast, this time between the bodiless angels attending Christ’s birth and Mary’s corporeal ability to render affection. The final verse shifts to introspection as the speaker considers what she herself can offer.

The first stanza is the one most people know by heart:

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.

What makes these opening lines so affecting and effective? Perhaps the first strategy to notice is the simplicity of diction, “midwinter” being the only word longer than two syllables. Like all the language in this plain-spoken poem, its meaning is clear: We are in the heart of winter, in the time just before solstice when days are dark and long. Another thing that keeps the language simple is its lack of embellishment; only two adjectives are used, “hard” and “bleak.” Repetition is what burnishes these lines, the phrase “in the bleak midwinter” recurring after its first use in the title and the word “snow” appearing five times (most remarkably in the repeated “snow on snow”) in a single line. We also hear repetition at the phonemic level, in initial alliterative consonance (“made moan” and “wind, and water”) together with terminal alliterative consonance (the nasal ‘-n’ sounds of “winter,” “wind,” “moan,” and “stone”). The passage resonates, too, with repeated vowel sounds (assonance), notably the long ‘o’ of “snow,” “moan,” “stone,” and “ago.” A last but important source of sound repetitions is the poem’s formal end-rhyme scheme (aabbccdd) and its many internal rhymes. “Stood hard” in line 4 is one internal slant rhyme, and an especially resonant example is line 9’s triple slant rhyme in “Him, whom cherubim.” Interestingly, “winter” is itself a portmanteau word combining the sounds of two others—”wind” and “water”—also found in the first stanza. These sonic strategies are employed throughout the poem.

The structure is notably symmetrical—five eight-line stanzas (octets) composed of rhyming couplets, reminding me that Rossetti is known for her ability to communicate intense feeling within the forms prescribed by her era I confess to being baffled by the poem’s meter. I can say that it is iambic (rising) and that in many cases three-beat lines alternate with two-beat lines in a sort of truncated version of hymn meter. However, some lines arguably have four and even five beats, while others have only two. The task of scansion is complicated by the fact that this poem appears in different forms. The Poetry Foundation website, for example, presents the poem as five quatrains instead of octets, and, curiously, also omits the metrically important word “A” at the beginning of line 10. [http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/53216/in-the-bleak-midwinter] The format you see above is how the poem appeared when first published in Scribner’s.

I consulted the most brilliant and reliable metric mind I know, Thomas M. Cable, coauthor of A History of the English Language and professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin to confirm that the meter in this poem is, in fact, tough to pin down. Agreeing that the syllabic counts vary considerably in these lines, Cable notes at the same time that the alternation of stresses with unstressed beats within lines is quite regular, so much so that “function words” (like “in” and other prepositions), which ordinarily don’t get a beat, are promoted and given a stress as in his scansion below:

/   x      /       x    /   x
In the bleak midwinter

Cable also makes an interesting observation about the unusually large allotment of beats in some lines: “one might be tempted to say the overfull lines suggest more than adequate nourishment and comfort” for the Christ child. Finally, he explains something else that was puzzling me: why the meter feels iambic even though most lines begin with a stressed syllable. “Most of the lines start with a beat” as in trochaic meter, he notes. “Yet the poem does not have a ‘trochaic’ feel, mainly because trochaic verse requires a tight syllable count and an unfailing final offbeat.” Most lines here end on a stressed syllable or beat, not an offbeat, and that plus the loose syllabics are what keep the meter from feeling trochaic.

Described by some as a “nun of art,” the never-married but twice-proposed-to Rossetti was devoted to deep Christian conviction and a rich artistic sensibility. Both influences can be seen in this poem’s spare, even stark diction that seems to belie the intensity of its imagery and underlying religious themes. That is, the surface seems simple, but beneath lies a paradox that mirrors the deeply inexplicable religious paradox of God’s incarnation into human form. Rossetti’s poem juxtaposes simple, earthly elements like wind, water, snow, and stone against this transcendent spiritual mystery, and transmutes the speaker’s simple gift of her heart into an act of true and profound worship. The poem universalizes the biblical narrative of Christ’s birth by transferring the scene at Bethlehem to a snowy Christmas in Victorian England, while still remaining rooted in Scripture. “Our God, heaven cannot hold him / Nor earth sustain” restates 1 Kings 8:27’s “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you,” and the vision foretold in Revelations 20:11 is paraphrased as “Heaven and earth shall flee away / When he comes to reign.” Most significantly, it affirms the fundamental Christian doctrine that the best thing that can be given to God is love, something possessed by everyone, rich or poor.

One source of the poem’s appeal is the way it manages point of view, opening in a somewhat magisterial. omniscient third person, then modulating to a slightly more personal but still decidedly collective we (“our God” in line 5) before closing in the very personal first-person “I” in the last stanza. Another thing that makes the last stanza feel intimate is its syntax. While the other stanzas are constructed in declarative sentences, this one appears more tentatively, as a question. “What can I give,” the speaker wonders, clearly feeling inadequate to the task. If she were a shepherd, she could bring a lamb and if a wise man could bring her quota of precious oils. But being neither, she gives what she “can”—the humble gift of her “heart” that in the end transcends all others. “A Christmas Carol” can be appreciated secularly as well as religiously, and whether enjoyed on the page or heard as a carol, is a wonderful way to ring in the holiday this year.

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