Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Paradoxes

Midwinter-blogging, essay 5 of 12 blog entries on
“In the Bleak Midwinter,” a poem by Christina Rossetti

The Paradoxes

Mosaic mural depicting the Nativity by Manuel Perez Paredes in the
Nuestro Señor del Veneno Temple on Carranza Street in Mexico City.
Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Christina Rossetti establishes the bleak setting in the first stanza of “In the Bleak Midwinter.”  The next three stanzas all play with a central paradox that obviously delights Rossetti:

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.
“In the Bleak Midwinter,” stanzas 2-4
                        Christina Rossetti

Each of these stanzas contrasts the infinity of heaven with the cramped poverty of a stable.  More to the point, they contrast the incomprehensible vastness of the nature of God with the tiny newborn baby.  This is Rossetti’s favorite paradox:  the Lord God Almighty—omnipotent and omniscient—compacted into a fragile child.

Many poets have explored this Christian paradox.  My favorite is John Donne, the 16th century English metaphysical poet perhaps best known for his famous sermon line, “No man is an island…”  Donne loved paradoxes and frequently worked his poems around them.  He wrote a 21-sonnet series called “La Corona” which includes a sonnet focused on this particular paradox inherent in the nativity.

Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves his welbelov'd imprisonment,
There he hath made himself to his intent
Weak enough, now into our world to come;
But Oh, for thee, for him, hath th'Inne no roome?
Yet lay him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars, and wisemen will travel to prevent
Th'effect of Herod's jealous general doom;
Seest thou, my Soul, with thy faith's eyes, how he
Which fills all place, yet none holds him, doth lie?
Was not his pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss him, and with him into Egypt goe,
With his kind mother, who partakes thy woe.
                        John Donne

While Rossetti is content to contrast the infinite nature of God with the stable, Donne goes even further by starting with the infinite inside the womb.  Once Jesus is in the stable, Donne continues to stress God’s nature “Which fills all place…”  This is the exact same paradox that Rossetti embraces when she envisions a God so great that even “Heaven cannot hold him.”

To use a modern metaphor that would have been completely alien to both Donne and Rossetti, the baby is like the image of an unimaginably compacted universe in the instant before the big bang.  The power within is infinite.  The size infinitesimal.

Detail of "Crucifixion, Nativity, Annunciation," unknown artist,
possibly made in Padua, Italy, circa 1320-30, from the collection of
the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The Music Room

Norwegian a capella group The Funka sing “In the Bleak Midwinter,” including Norwegian lyrics…

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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