In The Bleak Midwinter – Poem and Hymn

22 Dec

“Jordin sous la neige” or “Effect of Snow” by Paul Gauguin

It’s funny how you think that Christmas, for once, is going to be a perfectly relaxing affair and you plan to put your feet up, enjoy people and watch movies; and then it’s upon you and suddenly you have more to do than you were expecting. This seems to happen to me every year and every year I cherish the same delusion that this one will be the relaxing one. It’s a very comforting delusion. But since it always remains a delusion, I have decided to take a brief vacation from blogging and return on the 31st, in time to prepare for the new year. Before I take my vacation, however, I wanted write about one of my favorite poets and also one of my favorites Christmas carols: “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

I have always liked Christina Rossetti (I think partially because we share a first name, which is a superficial reason), because her poems always seemed especially poignant and evocative to me. I have a habit (not a very discerning one) of judging a poem by how well it makes me see or feel what it is describing. Christina Rossetti always comes out on top for me.

The poem was written in 1872 for the journal, Scribner’s Monthly. Most of the issues of the journal are available online and I set out to locate, if I could, the original issue of the poem. I was initially stymied, until I read somewhere that “In the Bleak Midwinter” was originally published under the less evocative and more generic title of “A Christmas Carol.” Then I was able to locate it instantly and the original printing of the poem in the journal, along with its accompanying illustration, can be viewed here.

Sam Leith, in The Telegraph, writes of the poem “The simplicity of her words and the rhythmic artfulness of her short lines make it one of the most haunting and intimate of all Christmas poems. The entrancing repetition – “Snow had fallen, / Snow on snow / Snow on snow” – conjures snowfall not so much by description as by imitation.” The song has always represented, for me, a wonderful juxtaposition of stillness, quiet and humility of setting with the glory and magnificence that is contained in the Lord.


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 words have become so wedded in my imagination with the arrangement by Gustav Holst that I cannot read the poem without hearing music inside. The melody was evidently inspired by his visits to Cranham, in Gloucestershire. When he was asked to set the poem to music for a new hymnal, there were woods in Cranham that in winter that reminded him of the poem. His arrangement was published in 1909 and remains, probably the most familiar setting of the poem.

There is, however, an alternate arrangement, by Harold Darke, published in 1911. It begins with a soloist and the melody varies with each verse. It is this version that is supposed to be the most well-thought of by choral masters and I have been a little surprised at the vehemence of some of the comments on youtube regarding which version is better. Some people take this debate quite personally. The arrangement by Holst, which was meant to be sung in church, is a little easier for a congregation to sing and the arrangement by Darke is more technically challenging and probably more fun for a choir to sing (technically challenging is always more fun to sing, quite regardless of whether it is more fun to listen to).

I still hear Holst’s version of the song when I read the poem, but both versions are beautiful. I’ve always thought that Christmas music really is at its best in choral arrangements and these two songs represent some of the most lovely settings of any text and provide a contemplative moment during the extreme Christmas busyness that we all have.

I hope you all have a wonderfully lovely Christmas!

1 Comment

Posted by on December 22, 2014 in Music, Poetry


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