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

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