One of my favorite Christmas carols is “In the Bleak Midwinter.” The verses are by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), an English poet. They were set to music by Gustav Holst in 1906. The Pre-Raphaelites, of whom Rossetti was a part, strove for the simplicity and directness characteristic of artists before the Renaissance (therefore before the artist Raphael). Rossetti’s poem illustrates that simplicity.
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.
In her day, Rossetti was compared to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, because, of course, they were both girls. Critics disputed who was the superior lady poet. In the 20th century, she was still considered subordinate to her older brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who earned more space in the textbooks. My old Norton Anthology opines, “England, the birthplace of poets, has produced few women poets of note, but of these few Christina Rossetti is perhaps the finest.” Nice of them to say so.
Others have lavished less attenuated praise. In the 1930s, for example, the essayist Basil de Sélincourt called her “probably in the first twelve of the masters of English verse.” Since the 70s or so, Rossetti has undergone an even greater revival, like a lot of women artists. I suspect this renaissance might have encouraged Annie Lennox and Cyndi Lauper (in a lovely straightforward rendition) to record the song.
Here is a more traditional, very beautiful version, by a small chorus called Tenebrae.
What’s your favorite Christmas music?