Poetry Analysis: ‘In the bleak midwinter’ [‘A Christmas Carol’] by Christina Rossetti
A beloved staple of English carol services, Christina Rossetti’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ [‘In the bleak midwinter’] was originally published in an American magazine, Scribner’s Monthly in January 1872. The poem was commissioned by the magazine’s editor, William James Stillman, husband of Pre-Raphaelite painter, Marie Spartali. The composition date is uncertain, but it must have been written before November 1871, as her brother William Michael Rossetti records this as the date that Christina received a ‘liberal payment’ of £10 ‘for the little poem’.
Christina had always dreamed of writing an important English hymn, but it wasn’t until twelve years after her death that her poem was set to music by Gustav Holst, appearing in the influential English Hymnal (1906). It was also set to music by Harold Darke in 1909, and both versions are widely performed today. Less traditional interpreters have included: Chas ‘n’ Dave, The Crash Test Dummies, James Taylor, Cyndi Lauper and Brian May, among many others.
Its musical fame makes it easy to forget that this great carol started life as a poem. This is a fact worth remembering, as our close-reading will demonstrate. So fuel yourself with eggnog and mince pie and, as my kindergarten teacher would say, put your thinking cap on.
‘A Christmas Carol’, by Christina Rossetti
* Please note that, for easy-reading purposes, I have reproduced the line breaks as they appear in more recent editions of Rossetti’s poems.
In the bleak midwinter, 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 midwinter, 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 midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.
Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, 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.
‘A Christmas Carol’
The title is worth considering here because it gives us some clue as to the content and the tone of this poem, as well providing an indication of its author’s aspirations. Rossetti did not provide the music, but she did provide a fairly large hint about her ambitions for this poem, inviting readers (and perhaps composers) to view this as a potential song. Carols are popular hymns, stressing accessibility and enjoyment, and can thus safely incorporate religious folk traditions, including events not necessarily depicted in the bible. Can you spot any of these in Rossetti’s poem?
Though carols are generally supposed to be joyous, this one sounds a typically Rossettian sombre note. This midwinter is particularly ‘bleak’, an impression reinforced by the frequent masculine rhymes tolling soberly throughout (‘moan’ / ‘stone’; ‘snow’ / ‘ago’; ‘day’ / ‘hay’; ‘there’ / ‘air’; ‘bliss’ / ‘kiss’; ‘am /’ lamb’; ‘part / heart’). The poet’s use of assonance allows us to hear the wind moaning throughout the first stanza(the ‘o’ sound in ‘moan’/ ‘stone’; ‘snow’ / ‘ago’).
The repetition of the word ‘snow’ as well as the phrase ‘snow on snow’, accumulates, enacting the gradual buildup of snowflakes that takes over the line, nearly obscuring all other words (stanza 1). The tone shifts in stanza 5 from bleak to anxious as as the speaker wonders, ‘What can I give Him?’ The speaker is excluded from this biblical scene not only by time (these events happened ‘long ago’), but by her humble status. She is so ‘poor’ that she is beneath even a ‘shepherd’, let alone a ‘Wise Man’.
It is only in the second stanza that we realize there is a speaker here, about whom we are told very little. Why then, have I assumed the speaker is female? Not (as you might suspect if you didn’t know me better), because a woman wrote this poem, but because this poem is very much about the gifts women specifically have to offer. Shepherds who proffer lambs in this bible story are male, as are of course the ‘Wise Men’, who offer wisdom and riches. However, it is none of these which thaws the frozen landscape. After all, a shepherd’s lamb is only symbolic of Mary’s much greater sacrifice of her son, while all the wisdom and material goods at the disposal of kings will not achieve the salvation of mankind.
The non-humans in this poem, while impressive, still fall short of the mark. Though ‘cherubim’ and ‘angels’ may worship the Christ child, a ‘Breastful of milk’ is ‘Enough for him.’ Poor, a woman and a virgin (see her ‘maiden bliss’), Mary has accomplished the greatest miracle on earth without male assistance, bringing true nourishment and warmth to the baby (and by extension thawing the frozen, formerly hard-as-iron world), with the simple, specifically female gifts of milk and a mother’s kiss. The speaker is quick to notice that these gifts are available from ‘His mother only’. The reference to breast brings to mind the closeness of a suckling child to a mother’s heart, a cue our speaker picks up on in the final stanza.
The speaker realises that the female heart (and by extension, a woman’s love) is a natural as well as a supernatural gift, capable of transcending the material, and here perhaps, time itself. Though the events of Christ’s birth took place ‘long ago’, the speaker can include herself among his worshippers by offering the timeless, priceless gift of her heart. Presumably, this will be ‘Enough for Him’.
The poem’s final line leads us to suspect that speaker and poet may be one and the same: ‘Yet what I can I give Him: give my Heart’. From another Victorian poet, this might come across as mawkish or overly simplistic, but from Rossetti, the offering is as authentic and sincere as the simple language in which it is delivered. This imaginative solution to the speaker’s dilemma can also be read as a celebration of female creativity. This poetic offering continues to appeal because we know Rossetti means it; poetry is Rossetti’s heart, and the most valuable gift she can think to present, both to her God and to her readers.
Not bad for a tenner.