Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Deeply Moving Song


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

The King's College Choir sings "In the Bleak Midwinter" in
King's College Chapel, Cambridge, England.

A Deeply Moving Song

I think it would be a mistake to entirely neglect a mention of the musical settings in this midwinter blogging series.  When I first began research on “In the Bleak Midwinter,” I knew and loved the song through its Gustav Holst setting.  Therefore, I was delighted to discover that “In the Bleak Midwinter” had been named “Best Carol of All Time” by a 2008 BBC music magazine poll of choirmasters and other choral experts.  However, looking into the matter a bit further, I found that it was a Harold Darke setting—and not the Holst I knew and loved—that achieved this acclaim.  Up to that point, I hadn’t even heard the Darke music.

The results of the BBC poll still strike me as odd but I’m willing to accept this is what you get when you poll people in the choral business rather than the general public.  The songs they chose are lovely, even if rather unfamiliar:

1. In the Bleak Midwinter
2. In Dulci Jubilo
3. A Spotless Rose
4. Bethlehem Down
5. Lully, Lulla
6. Tomorrow Shall be My Dancing Day
7. There is No Rose
8. O Come All Ye Faithful
9. Of the Father's Heart Begotten
10. What Sweeter Music

I like the appreciation that Jeremy Pound, deputy editor of BBC Music Magazine, issued in defense of their #1 pick on the Christmas hit parade:  “While some of the carols nominated may seem unfamiliar, does any other song get to the very heart of Christmas as understatedly but effectively as ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’?”  Furthermore, Pound said that “In the Bleak Midwinter” was “nigh-on perfect as a carol text…  There’s the winter cold, the coming of Christ, the description of the nativity scene and, finally, that ‘What shall I give him?’ moment of self-reflection. And then there’s the music.”

The Holst setting was composed at the request of his friend Ralph Vaughan Williams for the 1906 Anglican Hymnal.  It was written as a simple hymn, not a choral arrangement, and the melody received the name “Cranham” for the town Cranham, Gloucestershire where it was written.

The original Harold Darke setting was conceived as a choral arrangement with organ accompaniment and tenor and soprano solos.  Darke composed it in 1909, a few years after Holst contributed his version to the hymnal.  Thanks to seasonal broadcasts of the King’s College Choir singing “In the Bleak Midwinter,” this arrangement has become very well known in England.  In the United States, it remains much less familiar.

Kate McGarrigle performing
"In the Bleak Midwinter."
I think both versions are great and it’s been a real pleasure compiling great performances of both arrangements on the Music Room sections of this blog.

Today’s closing selection is particularly moving.  Brother and sister Rufus and Martha Wainwright sing the Darke setting of “In the Bleak Midwinter,” accompanied by their mother Kate McGarrigle in her last public performance at the Royal Albert Hall.  She died six weeks later of sarcoma.  It’s beautiful to see this very talented family performing together, expressing their love for each other 
through the words and music of “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, and Kate McGarrigle.

The Music Room

Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, and Kate McGarrigle sing “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!)

© 2012 Lee Price

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Rossetti's Other Christmas Poems


Midwinter-blogging, essay 11 of 12 blog entries on
“In the Bleak Midwinter,” a poem by Christina Rossetti

Rossetti’s Other Christmas Poems

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their
famous Christmas tree.
Our modern Christmas was being born while Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) was growing up.  She was ten when Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol and 18 when a woodcut of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s Christmas tree went the Victorian version of viral—swiftly popularizing the Christmas tree throughout England and the States.  These two events were key in shaping the Christmas that we know and celebrate today.  The idea of Christmas as a family-centered holiday, complete with opportunities for organized gift-giving, began to take firm hold upon the public imagination.

The Rossetti family appears to have always enjoyed Christmas, mainly welcoming the occasion as a time for a quiet family reunion.  Rossetti’s Christmas poetry displays a genuine fondness for the holiday, even apart from its religious importance.  Around the same time she wrote “In the Bleak Midwinter,” she also wrote this charming little untitled verse:

Common Holly hears a berry
To make Christmas Robins merry: —
Golden Holly bears a rose,
Unfolding at October’s close
To cheer an old Friend’s eyes and nose.

Admittedly, Rossetti’s voluminous writings cover many Biblical topics, with the Christmas poetry only accounting for a relatively small percentage of the total.  In all, there are approximately 30 poems which feature strong Advent or Christmas themes.  Most are forgotten today, but two of them broke from the pack to become seasonal favorites.  Obviously one of these is our primary subject, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”  The other is “Love Came Down At Christmas,” first published without a title in Rossetti’s book Time Flies: A Reading Diary (1885) and later anthologized with the title “Christmastide” in 1893.

“Christmastide”

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

Sometime in the two decades following Rossetti’s death, someone set “Christmastide” to the Irish melody called “Gartan” and it made it into an alternative edition of the Episcopal Church’s hymnal, edited by the Rev. Dr. Charles Hutchins, in 1920.  While never achieving the wide popularity of its cousin “In the Bleak Midwinter,” it’s retained a secure place in hymnals for nearly a century.

Here’s one final favorite of mine, which showcases Rossetti’s enthusiasm for paradoxes.  “In the Bleak Midwinter” plays with the traditional Christian paradox of an infinite God present in a tiny baby.  Rossetti’s “Christmas Eve” finds a whole new set of paradoxes in the holiday:

“Christmas Eve”

CHRISTMAS hath darkness
Brighter than the blazing noon,
Christmas hath a chillness
Warmer than the heat of June,
Christmas hath a beauty
Lovelier than the world can show:
For Christmas bringeth Jesus,
Brought for us so low.

Earth, strike up your music,
Birds that sing and bells that ring;
Heaven hath answering music
For all Angels soon to sing:
Earth, put on your whitest
Bridal robe of spotless snow:
For Christmas bringeth Jesus,
Brought for us so low.


“Saint Columba Altarpiece,” central panel, circa 1455,
by Rogier van der Weyden, from the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Music Room

Tine Thing Helseth plays an instrumental version of “In the Bleak Midwinter”…


... and Jars of Clay perform  “Love Came Down at Christmas.”



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

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Off to America


Midwinter-blogging, essay 10 of 12 blog entries on
“In the Bleak Midwinter,” a poem by Christina Rossetti

Off to America

Christina Rossetti portrait by
Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
The American literary journal Scribner’s Monthly requested a Christmas poem from Christina Rossetti in 1872.  She sent them “In the Bleak Midwinter.”  As she tended to offer already-written poems when fielding requests like this, it’s difficult to determine when the poem was written.

The publication of the poem was a decidedly minor event in Rossetti’s life.  It didn’t pay much and didn’t receive much notice after it was released into the world.  Rossetti was recovering from a serious illness at the time, rarely venturing from the house or even from 
Scribner's Monthly, Dec. 1872.
her bed.  Most likely, she didn’t give much further thought to the poem after sending it off to America.

At this point in her life, Christina Rossetti had established a reputation for herself as one of England’s leading poetesses.  The very popular Elizabeth Barrett Browning had recently died and Rossetti was widely considered to be her successor.  But positive critical appreciation did not go hand in hand with financial success or commercial popularity.  She had to be content with intellectual admiration in the absence of a breakthrough work like Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, a model for a woman poet’s potential for popular success in the Victorian era.

From both a commercial and critical standpoint, Rossetti’s most popular poem was “Goblin Market,” published ten years earlier in 1862.  “Goblin Market” tells a dark fairy tale of two sisters, one of whom makes a deal with local goblin merchants and nearly dies from the experience.  Rossetti was a very Christian writer, frequently drawing from her deeply held Anglican beliefs.  But while “Goblin Market” can be read as a sort of Christian moral story, its primary fascination has always resided in its uncanny and sexualized imagery.

Title page of Goblin Market and
Other Poems,
designed and
illustrated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
“Goblin Market” is an altogether different type of poem from “In the Bleak Midwinter.”  As Rossetti’s reputation has ebbed and flowed over the past 150 years, these two poems have come to represent Rossetti in the mass culture.  “Goblin Market” has remained the critical favorite, inspiring reams of academic interpretation.  By contrast, “In the Bleak Midwinter” has received scant critical attention, but it can boast the only Rossetti lyrics that are instantly recognized far and wide.

Curiously, Rossetti never lived to see the outbreak of popularity for her little poem.  It only began to receive attention after it was published in a 1904 “Collected Works” edition a decade after her death.

Rossetti knew her work was good and expected it to last.  But if she returned today to google her poetry to see which poems people were still talking about, she probably would expect to see “Goblin Market,” “The Convent Threshold,” “Birthday,” “Remember,” and other serious poems.   I imagine she’d be surprised to see a blog dedicating 12 entries to that little poem called “In the Bleak Midwinter” 149 years after she sent it off to a far-away publisher.

The Music Room

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa 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

Monday, January 2, 2012

Christina Rossetti's Eyes

Midwinter-blogging, essay 9 of 12 blog entries on
“In the Bleak Midwinter,” a poem by Christina Rossetti

Christina Rossetti posed as Mary:  “The Girlhood of
Mary Virgin,” 1849, oil on canvas by
Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  From the collection
of the Tate Britain, London, England.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Christina Rossetti's Eyes

Using minimalist strokes in her poem “In the Bleak Midwinter,” Christina Rossetti paints a picture of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Mary is a maiden, she is transported by bliss, she feeds her baby, and she worships with a kiss.

Christina Rossetti as Mary again:
“Ecce Ancilla Domini!,” 1850,
oil on canvas by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
From the collection of the
Tate Britain, London, England.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Christina Rossetti’s brother, the great Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, had earlier depicted Mary as a character in two of his first paintings, Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Ecce Ancilla Domini!.  His model for Mary was his sister Christina, aged 18 when posing for Girlhood of Mary Virgin and 20 for Ecce Ancilla Domini.  The first painting received some acclaim when first exhibited;  the second was harshly criticized in very public forums.  During Christina’s life, both paintings were well known and the subject of growing praise.  They remain classics of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

How does it feel to be the face of Mary?  Especially for a person as devout as Christina Rossetti?

“When a young girl, at the time that she sat for the virgin in the picture now in the National Gallery, she (Christina Rossetti) was, as both her mother and Gabriel
have told me, really lovely, with an
extraordinary expression of pensive sweetness.”
          Mr. Watts-Dunton
          The Athenaeum
          January 5, 1895

Even though a beauty of personality comes through in many of the poems, it’s hard to find that pensive sweetness in later drawings and photographs of Rossetti.  You can see that it’s the same person who posed for the paintings but there’s a hardness to her that can intimidate even now.  The mystical beauty captured in the paintings is absent.

Now let me add one more painting to the mix now…


“The Light of the World,” 1851,
by William Holman Hunt.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
We sing Rossetti’s lyrics to “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “Love Came Down at Christmas” at our church, but there’s another very notable link to Rossetti.  In one of the church hallways, there’s a print on the wall of one of the world’s most famous paintings, William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World.  It has been reproduced millions of times—our church is one of thousands that displays it.  In the picture, Jesus stands outside the door and knocks.

Christina Rossetti was one of Hunt’s models for the face of Jesus.  In an 1898 letter to Edward Clodd, Hunt remembered: 

“As I had to have some living being for the colour of the flesh with growth of eyebrows and eyelashes, the solemn expression, when the face was quiescent, of Miss Rossetti promised to help me with some shade of earnestness I aimed at getting…” *

Other models also contributed to Hunt’s vision, but it’s generally believed that his painting of Christ’s eyes was largely inspired by Rossetti.  They may be her eyes.

Detail of "The Light
of the World."
Mary, Jesus, Christina—virgins all.  At the time she was posing, Christina would not have anticipated that she herself would remain a maiden all her life.  She did know she was going to be a poet though, and she was confident that she had the talent to succeed.  Pause to notice Jesus’ eyes the next time you pass a reproduction of The Light of the World.  They are reverent, sensitive, and unyielding—the eyes of a smart young poet perhaps?

* Accurate transcription:  Although Mr. Hunt s grammar is a bit dodgy, his main points are understandable.


An older Christina Rossetti: Christina and Her Mother," 1877, chalk
drawing by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  From the National Portrait Gallery,
London, England.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Music Room

The Indigo Girls sing “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

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Three Syllables


Midwinter-blogging, essay 8 of 12 blog entries on
“In the Bleak Midwinter,” a poem by Christina Rossetti

A fresco in Cappadocia, Turkey, circa 12th century.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Three Syllables

The last line of each stanza of Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” has three syllables, with the stresses falling on the first and third syllables.  Bump-ba-bump.  Here they are:

First stanza:  Long ago.
Second stanza:  Jesus Christ.
Third stanza:  Which adore.
Fourth stanza:  With a kiss.
Fifth stanza:  Give my heart.

All the other 35 lines are longer, most employing a three-beat rhythm as well as a couple that drop to two and a couple that stretch out to four.  The last line is always terse—just three unadorned syllables.  It can be difficult to pick up on the compactness of these lines if you have the familiar Gustav Holst melody lodged in your head.  The song lengthens each of these phrases to put them on a par with the other lines.  It’s nice, but leaves a false impression of the original.

Actually the whole poem is remarkably terse.  There are few frills.  A line like “Frosty wind made moan” is marvelously compact, as is “Earth stood hard as iron.”  Rossetti has been criticized for being too feminine in her writing—insufficiently aggressive—but that complaint seems foreign to this poem.  “Earth stood hard as iron” is lean and mean.  It gives the lie to the fool’s game of assuming gender based on style.  Most would guess the blacksmith wrote it, not the Victorian spinster.

The three kings arrive in
Rozhdestvo (Christmas), a
1996 short film by Russian
animator Mikhail Aldashin.
But nothing beats the last lines of each stanza for minimalist effect.  They close each stanza abruptly, delivering a swift punch line then falling silent.  The close of the first stanza, “Long ago,” propels us into the past (there’s nothing prior to the eighth line to indicate that the poem is taking place long ago).  The close of the third stanza, “Which adore,” conveys the purity of the worshipping animals.  The close of the fourth stanza, “With a kiss,” promotes Mary’s worship above that of angels.

And this brings us to the most important lines of the poem.  This three-syllable line is unusual in Rossetti’s writings and in poetry in general.  It does, however, allow Rossetti to construct the poem’s stanzas around the natural rhythm of “Jesus Christ.”  Each of these last lines duplicates that beat—the rhythm of the name Jesus Christ.  The very devout Christina Rossetti centers her poem on that rhythm.

This rhythm then closes the poem with Rossetti’s no-frills declaration of her gift, spoken to the rhythm of Jesus Christ, “Give my heart.”  These simple last lines exalt their subjects—the barnyard animals, Mary’s gift of a kiss, and Rossetti’s gift of her heart.

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...

That’s the buildup.  Followed by:

Give my heart.

Three syllables, leaving nothing more to be said.


“The Adoration of the Shepherds,” 1646, oil on canvas,
by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), at the
Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The Music Room

The Choir of King’s College sings the slightly less familiar Harold Darke setting of “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