Choirmasters consider it the world’s greatest Christmas carol. It has been recorded by musicians ranging from the Choir of King’s College to Annie Lennox to James Taylor. Originally titled “A Christmas Carol,” the poem we know as “In the Bleak Midwinter” by Christina Rossetti (1830–1894) was first published in 1872 by the American journal Scribner’s Monthly. It wasn’t set to music until 1906, 12 years after Rossetti’s death, when it appeared in The English Hymnal.
Described by some critics as a “nun of art,” the never-married Rossetti was devoted to two seemingly opposing forces: deep Christian conviction and rich artistic sensibility. Both of these influences permeate “In the Bleak Midwinter”:
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 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 stark language of the poem belies the intensity and complexity of its imagery and feeling. Indeed, beneath a deceptively simple surface, at the heart of the poem is a profound paradox. The juxtaposition of simple, earthly elements—wind, water, snow, hay—with the ineffability of the incarnation points toward the very crux of Christmas: might made humble, Word become flesh, God with us. In this poem, as in the body of Rossetti’s works, the material world of nature reveals transcendent spiritual reality. Hence the mother’s simple kiss is an act of worship of the one true God.
Plain words, echoed by resonant rhythms and sounds, serve as a foil to the brilliance of the poem’s theological insights. Even while universalizing the biblical narrative of Christ’s birth by transferring the scene at Bethlehem to a snowy Victorian Christmas, the poem remains steeped in Scripture. “Our God, heaven cannot hold him / Nor earth sustain” restate 1 Kings 8:27: “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” The vision foretold in Revelation 20:11 is repeated in the lines “Heaven and earth shall flee away / When he comes to reign.” Most significant is the biblical truth that the most important thing we can give to Christ is possessed by even the most impoverished soul.
Writing about Rossetti’s later poetry in the journal Religion and the Arts, scholar Chene Heady describes how Rossetti’s devotional verses “re-enchant a disenchanted world.” Within Rossetti’s Christian vision, formed by the liturgy of her Anglican tradition, “all existence is a long Advent.” Our earthly condition is “devoid of meaning,” Heady explains, and gains “significance only through . . . the eyes of faith.” Material objects, then, such as those that dominate the imagery of “In the Bleak Midwinter,” serve as symbols of spiritual reality. Thus Rossetti’s poems are like the parables of Jesus: “sufficiently complicated as to seem simple to the hearer who misses the point.”
Spirit of Self-Postponement
The very restraint of “In the Bleak Midwinter” forces the poem’s meaning to burst forth. The same can be said of the poet’s life, too.
Rossetti was born in England to Italian parents in a household immersed in the arts. Her father, an Italian emigrant, was a Dante scholar. Her two older brothers, Dante and William, helped form the famous arts community known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and Rossetti sat for some of their paintings. Schooled at home by her Anglican mother, Rossetti declined two offers of marriage due to doctrinal scruples and remained single her entire life. She devoted herself to her family and her faith, ministering to former prostitutes and working with the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, as well as nurturing a vibrant inner life as a poet.
Her brother described Rossetti, famously, as “replete with the spirit of self-postponement.” Yet like her American counterpart Emily Dickinson (1830–1886), Rossetti’s image as a retired, prudish spinster is belied by the intensity of her poetry. Paradoxically, as The Oxford Anthology of English Literature observes, Rossetti’s “curious literal-mindedness produces a wholly original kind of devotional poetry, astonishing historically because it gives the effect of being free from self-consciousness—and this later in the 19th century.” The volume identifies Rossetti as “superior to any other woman who wrote poetry in English before the 20th century” besides Dickinson.
Despite her apparent self-effacement, Rossetti seemed keenly aware of her sacrifice—overshadowed by her brothers, unmatched by any suitor, plagued by illness—yet chose contentment with her lot. Here are poignant words penned to her brother in 1888:
Beautiful, delightful, noble, memorable, as is the world you and yours frequent, I yet am well content in my shady crevice—which crevice enjoys the unique advantage of being to my certain knowledge the place assigned me.
The paradox of Rossetti’s life is that her “spirit of self-postponement” produced some of the finest Christian poetry written—the gift of herself, given to her Savior and received by the world.