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In The Bleak Midwinter – Poem and Hymn

800px-Winter_landscape_Paul_Gauguin

“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!

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2014 in Music, Poetry

 

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Larceny Inc. (1942) – A Gangster Christmas Film

larceny-inc-movie-poster-1942-1020417894Larceny Inc. isn’t officially a Christmas movie, it isn’t specifically about Christmas, but it takes place during the Christmas holiday with the finale occurring on Christmas Eve, so I think it should count. Sometimes, I get a little tired of watching the same Christmas films every year, so it was refreshing this year to watch some unconventional Holiday films. That, and I would watch Edward G. Robinson in anything.

It is the story of three crooks who become small time business owners in their attempt to rob a bank and quite accidentally make a success of their business. Edward G. Robinson is J. Chalmers “Pressure” Maxwell, a crook just released from prison and determined to go honest. He wants to buy into a dog racing track in Florida. The only problem is that he has no money and the bank won’t loan him any (he has no securities). So, he has brainwave: in order to go legitimate, he will first rob the bank.

He notices that there is a luggage shop right next door to the bank and he and his two friends, Jug and Weepy (Broderick Crawford and Edward Brophy), discover that the basement shares a wall with the bank vault. Pressure buys the shop (acquiring money through illegal means) and they begin a tunnel that will go under the alarm systems in the wall and come up in the vault, using the luggage to hide the dirt in.

Barbara Jo Allen (lingerie lady), Broderick Crawford, Edward Brophy, Edward G, Robinson, Jack Carson and Jane Wyman

Barbara Jo Allen (lingerie lady), Broderick Crawford, Edward Brophy, Edward G. Robinson, Jack Carson and Jane Wyman

Of course, Pressure has no use for real costumers and is always trying to discourage them, wrapping luggage badly, being rude, hurrying them out of his shop, selling everything for a flat rate of $9.75. Meanwhile, the street that his shop is on is a very friendly street of small time business owners who want to welcome him and enlist his aid in getting the torn-up streets repaired quickly so that shoppers will return to the street in time for the Christmas season. The lady who owns the lingerie shop is particularly friendly, asking him to come over some time and take a look at her lingerie. As he hustles her out, he replies that he will and she should stop by again sometime and take a look at his trunks.

Pressure’s girlfriend, Denny, is played beautifully and humorously by Jane Wyman. They have a somewhat platonic relationship, really. He’s her ‘daddy,’ but he’s always so busy that he’s also hustling her out of the shop and into the arms of luggage salesmen, Jeff Randolph (Jack Carson), who proposes after fifteen minutes of acquaintance because he believes in saving all that time of wooing, misunderstanding, and expenses (she refuses). But when Denny realizes that Pressure is trying to break into the bank, she and Jeff work together to concoct all sorts of advertisement and publicity stunts to keep the shop full of people, so Pressure and his cohorts can’t drill in the basement. To add to Pressure’s complications, they picked the very same bank that fellow crook, Leo (Anthony Quinn), was trying to interest them in robbing while they were both in prison.

But despite all his best (or worst intentions) the shop does prosper and he earns the gratitude and friendship of his neighbors, whether he wanted it or not. He even begins to think that there’s more money to be made in expanding his business than in robbing banks. There is a big showdown with Leo, which takes place on Christmas Eve, where at one point Pressure dresses up as a cigar smoking Santa.

Edward G. Robinson and Edward Brophy

Edward G. Robinson and Edward Brophy

I thoroughly enjoyed this film. I have a weakness for comedic gangster films and Robinson – known for playing mean gangsters – has excellent comedic timing and actually made at least four spoofs of his own comedic image. He is a tough, but a quick-talking con artist in this one. He literally wheedles the suit off the back of the prison warden and talks Jug and Weepy into doing all sorts of crazy stuff for him. Jug is the less-than-brilliant brawny stooge of the group who gets to do most of the digging while Weepy gets to come out for air more often (he steals a drill and hides it in a Christmas tree) and gradually gets turned into a salesmen and finds himself a girlfriend on the street.

And what is hilarious is that despite his repeated intentions to become honest, Pressure will probably always remain a crook at heart. He just can’t help himself, even if he does help people or make friends or try to do the right thing; it’s how he operates and thinks. In fact, that is true for all the criminals encountered in the film. It is highly illustrative that at the beginning, all the crooks in prison are waiting for their sentence to be over so they can pick up where they left off, planning their crimes and making contacts before they are even out. Prison, for them, is just a temporary hiccup to an ingrained way of life. It actually strikes Pressure as a brilliant idea when it first occurs to him to borrow money from the bank (not that it works) instead of trying some form of larceny. They are incorrigible.

 
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Posted by on December 17, 2014 in Movies

 

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