Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Poem for the 12 Days of Christmas

Midwinter-blogging, essay 1 of 12 blog entries on
“In the Bleak Midwinter,” a poem by Christina Rossetti

A Poem for the 12 Days of Christmas

Portrait of Christina Rossetti by her brother
Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The wind is moaning outside.  Through my office window, I can see there’s frost on my car windshield.  As I write this introduction to Christina Rossetti’s beautiful poem “In the Bleak Midwinter,” it is the morning following the longest night of the year.

In the Bleak Midwinter
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.

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.

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,
Give my heart.

The twelve days of Christmas begin today.  On the first day, December 25, we celebrate the birth of Jesus in a manager, as told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  In the western tradition, Christmas continues for twelve days, concluding with the celebration of the arrival of the Magi (the Three Kings).

At the Methodist church I attend, we sing “Joy to the World” on Christmas Eve to usher in the first day of Christmas.  Then on the Sunday following January 6, we sing “We Three Kings” to close our Christmas celebrations.

“In the Bleak Midwinter” is appropriate for contemplation during the twelve days of Christmas.  The first four stanzas focus on that first day.  The last stanza raises the great question posed by the arrival of the Magi on the last day:  How should I respond?  In the words of Christina Rossetti, “What can I give him,/Poor as I am?”  The twelve days of Christmas conclude with her answer lingering in the air, “Give my heart.”

In another Christmas poem, “The Shepherds Had an Angel,” Rossetti explores the nature of this gift further.  These are the final three stanzas of the nine-stanza poem:

My life is like their* journey,
Their star is like God's book;
I must be like those good Wise Men
With heavenward heart and look:
But shall I give no gifts to God?
What precious gifts they took!

Lord, I will give my love to Thee,
Than gold must costlier,
Sweeter to Thee than frankincense,
More prized than choicest myrrh:
Lord, make me dearer day by day,
Day by day holier;

Nearer and dearer day by day;
Till I my voice unite,
And sing my 'Glory glory'
With angels clad in white;
All 'Glory glory' given to Thee
Through all the heavenly height.

* The Magi’s

Betty Bronson as Mary and Winter Hall as Joseph in Ben-Hur:  A Tale
of the Christ
The Music Room

Julie Andrews singing “In the Bleak Midwinter” from her 1973 Christmas special…  

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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