In The Bleak Mid-winter

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.

In The Bleak Mid-winter was written by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), an eminent Victorian poet. It was first published as a poem in 1872 in an American literary magazine before being included in a UK anthology in 1875. After her death, in 1905 it was set to music by Gustav Holst for inclusion in The English Hymnal (1906), (a definitive collection of the best hymns from the different denominational hymn books with musical arrangements by Vaughan Williams) and then went on to become one of the modern classics. In the 1920s one of her other Christmas poems, Love Came Down at Christmas, was also set to music and subsequently it became a popular carol too.

In a poll by a BBC TV programme In The Bleak Mid-winter was both the third and fourth most popular Christmas carol! The third most popular was the version arranged by Holst and the fourth most popular was a later version arranged by Harold Darke and which is sung in the King’s College, Cambridge Nine Lessons and Carols annual service.

What sets the carol apart from many of the others is that although it references the traditional elements of the nativity scene – the stable, the angels, the shepherds, the wise men – it locates the scene in an inhospitable English winter landscape. It’s a setting we can believe, rather like the 16th century Dutch painter Pieter Breughel’s Census at Bethlehem (1566), in which a contemporary north European climate features rather than an eastern Mediterranean one.

The carol is also important in stressing to ordinary people that they don’t need to make extravagant gifts like the shepherds or wise men to show their acceptance of Christ, but can make simple declarations of love.

Portrait of Christina Rossetti, 1877, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Christina Rossetti was born into a liberal, intellectual family living in Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia. Her father was a poet and political exile from Italy working at Kings College, and her mother was the sister of one of Byron’s closest friends. She had a happy family life but when her father became ill she became anxious and depressed, and in later life experienced depression and ill health, dying from cancer aged 64. She became quite spiritual in her life and her poetry was highly acclaimed. Through her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti she was engaged with the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and sat for several paintings, and although she had relationships with various artists and writers she declined three marriage proposals, ostensibly for religious or spiritual reasons. He work was popular and she was hailed as the successor to Elizabeth Barrett Browning as the leading woman poet of the era, but later her work became unfashionable as the modernism became established in the 1920s.

However, in an ironic post-modern twist, In The Bleak Mid-winter has become a contemporary meme as the line has been spoken at different times by several of the Shelby brothers in the TV series Peaky Blinders: Tommy said it before he killed Danny, and again when he thought he was to be shot at the end of the second season; Arthur and John mumbled it when they encountered hangmen’s nooses, and the hymn was sung at both John’s funeral and Tommy’s wedding.

As the hymn was popular during the First World War, it became lodged in the Shelby brother’s memories, and the “bleak winter” was their time on the Somme when they should have died but miraculously survived. The gift of Christmas comes in many guises.

Merry Christmas

Header image: Bleak Midwinter by Rick Haigh at Deviant Art

Pieter Bruegel painting of The Census at Bethlehem, 1566

Christina Rossetti portrait by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1877

Footer image: by George Bremer at Flickr