Friday, December 19, 2014

In the bleak midwinter - Christina Rossetti

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.

Scenes of Christ's Nativity, apart from being popular subjects in art and music, are common topics for Christmas poems.  This famous one by Christina Rossetti gains its strength through the contrast of the setting (bleak midwinter) and the joyousness of the event (Christ's arrival) and the lowliness of his arrival, a quiet miracle.  It is supposed to render us incredulous that "a stable place sufficed The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ."

The poem is also concerned with our own reaction to the Nativity.  "What can I give him, poor as I am?"  How are we to worship this newly come Lord into our lives, this manifestation of the Divine on earth?  Each of us gives what we can, from shepherds, to Wise men, to the lowliest, giving our heart, which like the stable place, suffices.  We give what we can, and it's just as valuable as any other gift the child Christ could receive.  There's a real warmth and beauty in those lines.

This is a popular piece to set for choir, and I leave you with one of my favorite settings.  While it omits one verse, I think it captures the beauty of the text well, and communicates it much better than I just have.

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