Monday, December 27, 2010

In the Bleak Midwinter

Listening to the Arctic wind wuthering around our house last night, the words that came to my mind were the first words of the poem by Christina Rossetti that became a lovely but mournful Christmas carol after her death.
Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) was the younger sister of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti for whose early pictures she often modeled. Like many of her Victorian sister poets (Elizabeth Browning and Emily Dickinson to name but two), she was in poor health for much of her life and rarely went out or received visitors. The fainting couch seems to have been a source of inspiration (or at least of peace and quiet) for these women who between them produced some of the most memorable and innovative poetry of the 19th century.
Rossetti’s poem was first set to music in 1906 by Gustav Holst in a version known as “Cranham.” This was the version I sang with my Scottish schoolmates in our annual carol concerts in the 1960s, with the word “iron” in the first verse being pronounced with two distinct Scottish syllables – “eye-ron.”
As an adult living in London, I sang for a while in a choir that participated in several annual Christmas concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. That’s when I became enamored of the other version of the carol – the hauntingly lovely arrangement written by the composer Harold Darke in 1909. More complex than the Cranham, it is interesting because the melody varies from verse to verse.  
I love both versions equally. Both evoke the deep unavailing chill of winter when it seems that the earth will never thaw and the sun will never be seen again. And yet every year the ground does thaw and the sun emerges from the grey and the earth is resurrected.  Can’t come too soon for me.

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,
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 his mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshiped 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.