Monday, December 26, 2011

England in Winter

Midwinter-blogging, essay 2 of 12 blog entries on
“In the Bleak Midwinter,” a poem by Christina Rossetti

England in Winter

Winter Coast (1890) by Winslow Homer,
American, 1836-1910

The first stanza of Christina Rossetti’s poem “In the Bleak Midwinter” describes a nihilistic landscape.  If it were not for the succeeding stanzas, the location would be indeterminate.

“In the Bleak Midwinter” (first stanza)
by Christina Rossetti

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.

I see a link between the setting of the nativity in the first verse of “In the Bleak Midwinter” and her famous artist brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s involvement with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Gabriel Rossetti was one of the founders of the mid-19th century Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a movement which proposed to return art to its roots—which they defined as the art that was popular before the Renaissance achievements of Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo Da Vinci.  In practice, the Pre-Raphaelites drew much of their inspiration from 15th century Netherlandish art, which tended to indulge in exquisite precise detail alongside a fairly primitive depiction of perspective.

The Nativity (1425) by Robert Campin
Source: Wikimedia Commons
These early artists, beloved by the Pre-Raphaelites, frequently painted Bible scenes.  But they made little attempt to depict authentic Middle East landscapes or clothes.  The people looked Dutch, they wore contemporary Dutch clothes, and the green rolling landscapes looked more Dutch than Palestinian.  They anchored their Bible stories in their own familiar world.

Christina Rossetti achieves a similar effect in the first verse of “In the Bleak Midwinter.”  Her opening stanza paints a bleak picture that could easily be an English winter.  Although Bethlehem can get cold in December, the deep freeze of the poem—complete with layers of snow—is highly unlikely.  The words conjure a landscape more suggestive of northern Europe than the Middle East.  But the poem’s real emphasis is not on an ambiguous geographical location but on the implied psychological and theological location.

Before Christ is born, the entire world is frozen.  Christina Rossetti carefully works metaphors of both microcosm and macrocosm.  As the world is frozen without Christ, our souls are frozen without Christ.  The poem opens at a low point of the world, hushed and expectant, lifeless as it awaits the thawing effect of Jesus’ birth.

Robert Campin, Gerard David, Rogier Van Der Weyden, and other early Dutch masters, practicing their art in those 15th century pre-Raphaelite days, would have understood Rossetti’s intention.  She was taking her own familiar home landscape and rendering it universal.

In this sense, “In the Bleak Midwinter” is a Pre-Raphaelite poem, taking an ancient story and staging it on a Victorian lawn.

Here’s a gem from Rossetti’s book of children’s poems SingSong (1872) that also poetically captures the English winter, with the last two lines featuring a charming steal from “In the Bleak Midwinter”:

January cold desolate;
February all dripping wet;
March wind ranges;
April changes;
Birds sing in tune
To flowers of May,
And sunny June
Brings longest day;
In scorched July
The storm-clouds fly
Lightning torn;
August bears corn,
September fruit;
In rough October
Earth must disrobe her;
Stars fall and shoot
In keen November;
And night is long
And cold is strong
In bleak December.

The Music Room

Chanticleer, a classical vocal ensemble, 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

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