Saturday, December 31, 2011

Give My Heart

Midwinter-blogging, essay 7 of 12 blog entries on
“In the Bleak Midwinter,” a poem by Christina Rossetti

Give My Heart

Rozhdestvo (Christmas), a 1996 short film by Russian animator
Mikhail Aldashin.

Here’s the fifth and final stanza of Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

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 the Bleak Midwinter,” fifth stanza
                        Christina Rossetti

Each of the poem’s five stanzas has eight lines.  The second and fourth lines rhyme, as do the sixth and eighth.  In most cases, each of the first seven lines receives three stresses;  a few lines depart from this structure and have four.  The meter is largely driven by trochee—the poetry term for a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable.  (The trochee is the reverse of the iamb favored by Shakespeare.)

I find it hard to read the poem without falling into the rhythms of the popular music setting.  But it’s good to remember that these rhythms are not necessarily Rossetti’s.  I think the last stanza nicely demonstrates how the popular Gustav Holst melody alters the way we hear the poem’s original built-in music.

Stained glass from
L'eglise Notre-Dame
de l'Assomption,
Eymet, Dordogne,
In the original poem, the line “What can I give him” receives three stresses:  What, I, and him.  But in the familiar music setting, the first word “What” is drawn out into two syllables, transforming it into a trochee.  This changes the rhythm, resulting in the stresses falling on:  What, can, give (also sung as if it were two syllables with the stress falling on the first), and him.

This isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with the music setting.  The melody is beautiful and the new stresses do no damage to the poem’s meaning.  The only difficulty is in attempting to recover a reading of the line the way Rossetti wrote it—with the stress on the word “I.”

There’s a good reason for the stress to fall on the word “I.”  This concluding stanza takes off in a new direction from the four that precede it.  It collapses the centuries, placing the author on the holy ground of the nativity, forcing her to confront the question:  How should I respond?  It’s a personal question that requires introspection.

When Rossetti writes in the first person in her poems, she frequently deploys a fictional narrator—the “I” is not necessarily Rossetti.  With “In the Bleak Midwinter,” you can’t tell if this is meant to be the case.  The “I” might be Rossetti or might not be.  Personally, I like to think that this really is Rossetti speaking in the first person:  that the question is, “What shall I, Christina Rossetti, give the Christ child?”

The shepherd can give a lamb.  The wise man will give something appropriate (perhaps myrrh, frankincense, or gold if we associate wise man with magi).  Notice how both of Rossetti’s examples are men.  Now we turn to Christina Rossetti.  Growing up middle class in Victorian England, professions were largely closed off to her.  Educational opportunities were limited.  She had little money of her own.  She literally had very little to give, except for the volunteer time that she gave to serving the Anglican church and its missions and, of course, her poetry.

The line “Give my heart” closes the poem, even as it completes her gift of poetry to the child.

"Virgin and Angels Adoring the Christ Child," glazed earthenware,
circa 1460s-70s, by Luca Della Robbia (1400-1482). Frame attributed
to Andrea Della Robbia (1435-1525). From the collection at the
Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Music Room

James Taylor sings “In the Bleak Midwinter”…

Reference Sources

Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by William M. Rossetti
Selected Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by Marya Zaturenska
Christina Rossetti: A Writer’s Life by Jan Marsh
The Achievement of Christina Rossetti, edited by David A. Kent
Christina Rossetti (Bloom’s Major Poets), edited by Harold Bloom
Christina Rossetti’s Faithful Imagination by Dinah Roe
Christina Rossetti: Faith, Gender and Time by Diane D’Amico
Genius by Harold Bloom
The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford
The Pre-Raphaelites by Andrea Rose
Victorian Painting by Christopher Wood
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

© 2011 Lee Price

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