Pre-Raphaelites in The City: Poetry Analysis: ‘Christmas Eve’

Dinah Roe

Poetry Analysis: ‘Christmas Eve’ by Christina Rossetti

It is a well-known fact that Christina Rossetti is very good at writing about Christmas (see ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’). Like her contemporary Charles Dickens, she realises that the power of the season does not come from jolly elves and the purchasing of shiny objects.

For the devout Rossetti, the true appeal of Christmas lies in the acknowledgement of its darkness, both material and spiritual. After all, the birth of Jesus Christ contains the seed of his horrific demise. What Rossetti understands is that the dark heart of Christmas makes Christ’s sacrifice and mankind’s salvation shine even brighter.

Also, it should not be forgotten that this poet was a morbid so-and-so. If anyone was going to come up with a Christmas Eve poem to turn your mince pie to ashes in your mouth, it would be Christina Rossetti. So without further ado, the poem:

Christmas Eve

Christmas hath a 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.

Building on the ironies inherent in the idea that the ‘season of light’ occurs during the darkest days of the year, Rossetti begins her poem with a striking paradox. A paradox is a statement that seems self-contradictory, and as such, is a particular favourite with poets. Why? As Cleanth Brooks writes in The Well-Wrought Urn, paradox is ‘the language appropriate and inevitable to poetry’ because poetry works ‘by contradiction and qualification’ using ‘necessary overlappings, discrepancies, contradictions.’ (See also Keats’s famous discussion of ‘negative capability’ for more on this idea).

In her poem’s first stanza, Rossetti’s paradoxical claim is that the ‘darkness’ of Christmas is ‘brighter’ than ‘blazing noon’ while the wintry season’s ‘chillness’ is ‘warmer’ than ‘June’. On the face of it, this certainly seems contradictory, but it is here that poetic language takes over and makes sense of things.

As you have probably guessed, we are not talking about literal brightness, but metaphorical light. Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ, ‘the light of the world’. As Christ explains, ‘Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’ (John 8:12) The possibility of salvation for all mankind transforms the wintry ‘darkness’ of Christmas into the brightest light possible. Similarly, the warmth created by the light of Christ’s wintry birth is warmer than any summer.

Rossetti uses paradox here to make us rethink our own logic and reasoning, to re-examine the rules of the world as we know it. In a miraculous transformation that echoes the miracle of Christ in the world, darkness becomes bright and chilliness becomes warm. The language of paradox also reminds us of the biblical language of parables, which often rely on contradiction, metaphor and allegory to convey Christian lessons.

A quick note about originality: Rossetti is the kind of poet who can rhyme ‘noon’ and ‘June’ without resorting to clichés about lovers and the moon, etc. And note the carefully-deployed archaism, ‘hath’, which here does not serve the lazy function of making the poem sound ye olde-worldee and quaint. Rather, it saves the line from the disastrous juxtaposition of the words ‘ChristmAS’ and ‘hAS’. This on-the-nose assonance would focus our attention on the inelegant ‘ass’ sound, which would be reinforced by the sibilance concluding lines 1 and 3 (‘darkness’, ‘chillness’).

Just in case we haven’t cottoned on that the poet is referring to Christ, lines 7-8 let us know in no uncertain terms: ‘For Christmas bringeth Jesus / Brought for us so low’. Here, the line has a double-meaning, depending on whether we think ‘low’ refers to ‘us’ or to ‘Jesus’. In one sense, Jesus has idiomatically been ‘brought low’ by appearing in the world, and will be ‘brought low’ by his humiliating and painful crucifixion. At the same time, ‘low’ refers to the position of ‘us’, lowly, fallen mankind.

Rossetti’s second stanza turns our attention upward, directing our gaze to ‘birds’ and ‘heaven’ and opening our ears to the music that earth is told to ‘strike up’. Fittingly, the stanza’s first four lines are the poem’s most musical, with perfect end-rhymes (‘music’ / ‘music’; ‘ring’, ‘sing’) which echo in the internal rhyme of line 10 (‘sing’; ‘ring’).

Having covered light and sound. Rossetti moves on to colour: the ‘whitest / Bridal robe of spotless snow’. Rossetti is referring to the allegory of Christ as the bridegroom of the Church, and white symbolises purity and innocence. White is symbolic here in another sense. It may seem at first glance colourless, but in fact white is the combination of all colours in the visible spectrum.
Like whiteness which combines all colours, ‘Christ is all, and in all’ (Colossians 3:11). 

This poem suggests that the power of human perception, how we see, feel and experience the world and the things of the world shapes our ability to transform our doubt into faith, giving us the opportunity to locate the miraculous in the ordinary. Poetry itself helpfully enacts this practice for us. Christmas may have a darkness, but in the end, Rossetti argues, it only serves to make the light shine brighter.

This poem was originally published as the entry for 24 December in Rossetti’s devotional prose work, Time Flies: A Reading Diary which contains a meditation or a poem for each day of the Christian Year. You can read it online at the Internet Archive. While you’re at it, you might consider giving a seasonal donation to this excellent free resource.

 

 

Responses

  1. Hey, hi! Quite a long time since your last post .... But, yes, I fully agree with your analysis of Rossetti’s poem. Also, it would be interesting to remember the tremendous impact the Oxford Movement had on her, the revival of analogy and the sacramental system, all of which was summarized by Newman, whom she called “champion of the cross” in a sonnet. Newman wrote: “These were based on the mystical or sacramental principle, and spoke of the various Economies or Dispensations of the Eternal. I understood
    these passages to mean that the exterior world, physical and historical, was but the manifestation to our senses of realities greater than itself. Nature was a parable: Scripture was an allegory.” (Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Pages
    43-44)

    Throughout her life, Christina Rossetti tried to conform her daily practices to the principles espoused by the so-called Anglo-Catholic revival. Both the mystical and the sacramental views inform her devotional poems and often spill over into her secular ones. And in that same book you mention, Time Flies (1885), she tells us why we need these comparisons, or analogies:
    “any literal revelation of heaven would appear to be over spiritual for us; we need something grosser, something more familiar and more within the range of our experience.” (p.42)

    Finally, it’s not that hard to see why her poems are deemed too melancholy by so many people who want to spare themselves the troubles of self-analysis, especially at this time of year. She even says that “Christians need a a special self-sifting”(p2), and many of those who see themselves as good Christians will often “exhibit the religion of love as unlovely”. The release of the torture report gives plenty of food for thought. More disturbing is the silence that greeted it among the educated classes.
    And she adds:“Their good poem has become unpoetical” (p2).

    Christina Rossetti certainly lived up to Milton’s admonition that the poet’s life should itself be a true poem.
    Marcos David de Paula
    Rio
    Brazil

    Marcos David de Paula responded at 11:35am on 02/02/2015

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Pre-Raphaelites in the City

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This blog explores the thriving Victorian cities which inspired the Pre-Raphaelites, and were shaped by them in turn. While the Pre-Raphaelites produced poetry and art praising the natural world, most were born and raised in urban environments, and their work retained a cosmopolitan sensibility. Although this blog will sometimes take excursions into the countryside, its focus will remain on city life. If you want more information on images or sources, please get in touch.