History of Hymns: “In the Bleak Midwinter”

by C. Michael Hawn

"In the Bleak Midwinter"
Christina Rossetti
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 221

Christina Rossetti

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.

Christina Georgiana Rossetti (1830-1894) gives us one of the most beloved Christmas hymns. The author of three collections of mostly religious poetry and four devotional books, she came from a family steeped in the arts. Her deep faith is thought to be partially the result of the solace that she found in writing as a result of her poor health from age sixteen.

Christina’s father, Gabriele Rossetti, was a professor of Italian at King’s College, London, living in exile in England. Her brothers Dante Gabriel and William Michael gave birth to a nineteenth-century art movement, the Pre-Raphaelites, for which the beautiful Christina often served as a model (see the photo), especially for portraits of the Madonna. Among the family friends was Charles Dodgson, who, under the pseudonym of Lewis Carroll, authored the famous Alice in Wonderland. An ardent Anglican, Christina rejected one suitor because he was Roman Catholic.

Her most famous hymns are the Christmas texts, "Love Came Down at Christmas" composed in 1885 (UM Hymnal No. 242) and "In the Bleak Midwinter," the latter first published as the poem "A Christmas Carol" in Scribner’s Monthly in January 1872. It first appeared as a hymn in The English Hymnal (1906), where it was paired to a tune by the famous English composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934). Now, over 100 years later, we sing this hymn in virtually the same form as it appeared in 1906.

In the first memorable stanza, Rossetti creates a dreary and desolate image of the world into which the infant Jesus appeared by drawing on the experience of a British winter. She is not suggesting that it literally snowed in Bethlehem, but is drawing on a long-established literary idea of associating snow with Christ's birth. The famous seventeenth-century poet, John Milton, used the winter imagery in his poem, "On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity," as a pure covering to hide the sin of the world.

 

It was the Winter wilde,
While the Heav'n-born-childe,
All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;
Nature in aw to him
Had doff't her gawdy trim . . .

 

 

Rossetti exploits this metaphor in the opposite way in her opening stanza. The Incarnate One, the Light of the World, brought warmth into the most forlorn and dreary of sinful situations.

The second stanza uses the device of antithesis to make the point that the eternal One whom "heaven could not hold" nor "earth sustain" appeared during the "bleak winter" of human existence where "a stable place sufficed." This paradox of the eternal One born in a humble setting is a primary theme of many hymns of this season.

An omitted third stanza explores the intimacy of the manger scene.

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.

 

The fourth stanza once again contrasts the heavenly glory of gathered "Angels and archangels" and "cherubim and seraphim" with the mother who alone "worshiped the beloved with a kiss."

The final stanza is perhaps one of the most endearing to singers of Christmas hymns. Yet, as British hymnologist J. R. Watson observes, "The final verse is strangely interesting."

 

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.

 

Watson cites an article by British hymn writer Elizabeth Cosnett (b. 1936) who provides a social commentary that may shed light on this stanza. She notes that, "when a woman wrote these words women were largely excluded from the professions and from higher education." Like the shepherds, she was not employed; like the wise men, Rossetti held no degree. Watson concludes that this reading of the final stanza "does not invalidate the more general reading of the verse; but it gives a special sharpness and poignancy to the last verse for those who wish to find it."

The writer invites us to offer our own gift to the Christ Child just as the shepherds and wise men did. Rather than the present of a lamb or expensive gifts, however, we offer the most important gift -- our hearts.

 

 

 

Dr. Hawn is distinguished professor of church music at Perkins School of Theology. He is also director of the seminary's sacred music program.

Categories: History of Hymns, Reflections/Articles

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