Wednesday, December 28, 2011

White on White, White on White

Midwinter-blogging, essay 4 of 12 blog entries on
“In the Bleak Midwinter,” a poem by Christina Rossetti

White on White, White on White

A haunting image of impending death in the snow:  “Fox Hunt” (1893)
by Winslow Homer from the collection at
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In Christina Rossetti’s poem “In the Bleak Midwinter,” mention of snow in the fifth line prompts a memorable incantation of endless snowfalls.

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.

The repetition of “snow on snow/Snow on snow” has long been my favorite moment in the entire poem.  These are not the pretty snowflakes of Christmas cards.  This snow is defined by the context:  the bleak winter, the frosty winds, the frozen ground, the ice.

Snow is the final ingredient added to the wintry mix.  It coats Rossetti’s bleak landscape in whiteness.  White is a tricky color in art.  There’s one set of traditional imagery that places the good guys in white and the bad in black, but that’s not Rossetti’s way.  The whiteness of her landscape is a frigid blankness.

Rossetti was probably unfamiliar with the work of her American contemporary Herman Melville, who published Moby-Dick in 1851.  Nevertheless, her bleak use of white reminds me of Melville’s exploration of whiteness in Chapter 42 of Moby-Dick, “The Whiteness of the Whale.”  Melville writes:

An illustration by A. Burnham
Shute from an 1892 edition of
Source: Wikimedia Commons
“Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?”

Many years before I read Moby-Dick, I learned about this horrific view of whiteness when reading a book called Horror in the Cinema by Ivan Butler.  In discussing the weird early sound movie Vampyr (1932) by Carl Dreyer, Butler references Melville in his discussion of a nightmarish scene where a doctor becomes trapped in a flour mill.  White eerily predominates in the scene as the character disappears under blankets of flour.  With Melville in mind, Butler suggests that a pervasive whiteness can be more terrifying than the dark.

I think this is the white-upon-white/snow-upon-snow effect that Rossetti summons up in the opening stanza of “In the Bleak Midwinter.”  It’s the vast whiteness of “heartless voids and immensities” and of “a colorless all-color of atheism from which we shrink.”  It is Rossetti’s image of the world without God—infinite, frozen, and devoid of color.

The evil doctor is buried alive in the flour mill in Carl Dreyer's
Vampyr (1932).
The Music Room

Allison Crowe performs “In the Bleak Midwinter” on her live television special Tidings

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


  1. Oh, that's a wonderful interpretation of the end of "Vampyr!" I'm not a fan of "Moby Dick," but I did always like Melville's reading of the horror of endless, indefinite white.

    I'm really enjoying this series!


  2. Thanks, Jesse! I still haven't watched the latest Criterion presentation of "Vampyr," which I hear is far better than any previously released version. I know I gotta get to that! In putting this together, I was surprised by Melville's atheism comment--it's hard to imagine a time when people would have a visceral response to the idea of atheism.