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HomeNewsA carol a day: In the Bleak Midwinter

A carol a day: In the Bleak Midwinter

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This was first published on December 7, 2018

I WROTE this piece while on holiday in Fuerteventura, in the Canary Islands, overlooking the sparkling blue Atlantic. The sky was cloudless and the temperature a perfect 23C (73F). So it was quite hard to imagine the conditions described here:

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.

I was reminded soon enough when we got home to Lancashire. Updating this article yesterday, it was dark by 4pm, raining and cold.

In fact the climate in Bethlehem is not remotely cold. The average day temperature in December is a mild 14C, dropping to 7C at night. Frost and snow are unknown. Maybe when Christina Rossetti wrote those lines she was thinking of Lancashire.

She was born in 1830 in London to a clever and artistic family. Her father was a poet and political exile from Italy, her mother was an acquaintance of Lord Byron and Lewis Carroll, and her brother Dante Gabriel became a noted artist and leading figure in the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

In 1862 she published Goblin Market and Other Poems and in 1866 The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems, both with frontispiece and illustrations by her brother. These two collections, which contain most of her finest work, established her among the leading poets of her day. She was considered to be the natural successor to Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

In the Bleak Mid-winter was published, under the title A Christmas Carol, in the January 1872 issue of Scribner’s Monthly.

Here is the full poem:

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.

Somewhere along the line ‘mid-winter’ has been modernised to ‘midwinter’.

There are two popular settings of In the Bleak Midwinter as a carol. The first was written in about 1906 by Gustav Holst, who later composed The Planets suite. I found this lovely version from 1990 by the choir of Christ Church, Oxford, in an appropriately chilly setting. Strange to think that these choristers will be in their 40s and 50s now.

The Holst setting is considered more suitable for church congregations than the second, by composer and organist Harold Darke in 1911. This is a more complex melody and harder to sing. It was voted Best Carol in a 2008 BBC poll of choirmasters and music directors.

There are several recordings of the Darke setting by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, and I have chosen as the best this one from 2009.

Christina Rossetti was a devout High Church Anglican and rejected three offers of marriage for religious reasons. She suffered from depression throughout her life and died unmarried at 64 from breast cancer in 1894.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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