Beloved Christmas Carols: In the Bleak Midwinter

in the bleak midwinter“In the Bleak Midwinter,” text by Christina Rosetti, is just about the only well known Christmas carol that I can think of with a text by a woman. She also wrote “Love Came Down at Christmas.” No combination of keywords I could think of yielded any other titles.

Christina (1830-1894) Rosetti was part of an artistic family. One brother, poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti, was among the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite movement; another William Michael Rosetti, soon joined the movement, but mostly as editor and critic. Their sister Maria Francesca Rosetti published at least one important essay. Their father, an Italian in exile, taught Italian at King’s College.

The text

Rosetti wrote “In the Bleak Midwinter” for the American magazine Scribner’s Monthly, where it appeared in January 1872. She called it simply “A Christmas Carol.” It did not appear in any of the collections she published in her lifetime, but her brother William included it in a posthumous collection he issued and edited in 1904, The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rosetti.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
Christina Rosetti

Portrait of Christina Rosetti / Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1866)

Although Rosetti never married, her poem captures a motherly tenderness like no other. Hymnals have been too squeamish to include her third verse.

Scripture implies that Jesus was born in springtime, not in winter, but we celebrate Christmas in December, and the imagery is at least less jarring than “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In”! In fact, a well-established tradition associated snow with the sinfulness Jesus came to conquer.

In John Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” the snow served as a covering to hide sin. Rosetti used the bleakness of winter to set up the coming of light with the birth of Christ and highlight the paradox of God Incarnate born in such humble circumstances.

The second stanza looks past Jesus’ earthly ministry to paint a glorious picture of his triumphant return, which will be marked with a new heaven and earth. The last two verses contrast the angelic worship, a mother’s tenderness, and the only suitable human response to Jesus since he demonstrated who he is.

Unlike most hymn texts, “In the Bleak Midwinter” has an irregular meter. Rosetti clearly did not have a musical setting in mind, and no tune will fit it except one composed especially for it.

The music

Statue of Gustav Holst

Statue of Gustav Holst near Cheltenham, his birthplace

Gustav Holst, one of the most renowned English composers of his generation, composed a setting of “In the Bleak Midwinter” for The English Hymal in 1906.

It immediately became popular. Perhaps in part because it was composed to be suitable for congregational singing, it remains by far the best-known setting.

Holst gave his tune the name “Cranham,” after a village in Gloucester where he once lived. His mother played harmonium at the village church, St. James the Great. Holst love to walk, and the church is now the starting point of a 35-mile walk in his memory.

Gustav Holst tune

At least two of Holst’s contemporaries composed their own settings. The better known, by Harold Darke (1909), is most suitable for choir. He set each verse a little differently, with solos for both soprano (first verse) and tenor (third verse, the one not used in hymnals). The organ accompaniments (different for each verse) do not support the soloists with the melody at all. The choir sings the second and fifth verses (Darke omitted the fourth) unaccompanied except for a brief overlap with the concluding organ coda.

Harold Darke tune

A setting by Thomas B. Strong appeared in Carols Old and Carols New (edited by Charles Lewis Hutchins, published in Boston in 1916). I haven’t located a performance of it. Benjamin Britten is among several later composers who have set Christina Rosetti’s text.

A Christmas Carol. Alternate Title: In the Bleak Midwinter / The Hymns and Carols of Christmas
Christina Rosetti: Poems Summary and Analysis. “In the Bleak Midwinter” (1904) / GradeSaver
History of Hymns: In the Bleak Midwinter / Discipleship Ministries, The United Methodist Church
Richard Atkins Visits Cranham Church – the Start of the Gustav Holst Way / Richard Atkins (BBC News)

Picture credits:
Snow storm. Some rights reserved by Eugene Birchall.
Christina Rosetti. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Gustav Holst statue.© Copyright Philip Halling. Wikimedia Commons.

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