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Christina Rossetti and "In the Bleak Midwinter," a Victorian Christmas carol
- Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his sensual paintings of women
One of the most beautiful painters of women over the centuries is Dante Gabriel Rossetti who lived during the Victorian Age in England and was an English painter and poet. His given name at birth was Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti, but when he...
Christina Rossetti 1830 - 1894
One of the most poignant and melodic yet melancholy of Christmas carols I have ever sung is "In the Bleak Midwinter," words written by Christina Rossetti, one of England's finest Victorian poets. She was second only to Elizabeth Barret Browning. I sang this carol with Voices of Naples, the premiere community choir in Naples, FL. We sing this song at Christmas time and as you will see and hear, it is an endearing yet haunting Christmas song of Christ's birth. Midwinter is the longest, and usually the coldest day of the year, an it is at this time of the year our Savior was born.
And who best of express this poignant happening to the world -- Christina Rossetti. Rossetti is an English poet who wrote a variety of romantic, devotional and children's poems during the Victorian Period. Her best known works are the narrative poem, "Goblin Market," her sonnet, "Remember," and her words to the Christmas carol, "In the Bleak Midwinter."
She was born in 1830, in London to Gabrielle Rossetti, a poet and political exile from Vasto, Abruzzo (Italy) and Frances Polidori, a sister of a good friend to Lord Byron, the poet. Rossetti had two brothers and a sister. Her older brother Dante became an influential painter and poet. William and Maria also became writers. The entire family was artistic and talented.
Rossetti was a lively child who was educated at home by her mother. She dictated her first story to her mother before she could write. Her mother had her study religious works, classics, fairy tales and novels. She enjoyed works by Keats, Byron and was influenced in her writing by Dante Alighieri and Petrarch, among other Italian writers who filled the home library and would have a deep impact on her later writing. The Rossetti home was open to visiting Italian scholars, artists and revolutionaries, all expressing their view on the open ears of Christina Rossetti.
As Rossetti became older her family experienced severe financial difficulties and her father died. Her mother took a teaching position to support the family and her brothers and sisters were away from home studying. At the age of fourteen she suffered a nervous breakdown and suffered from bouts of depression and related illnesses followed.
During this time, she became deeply interested in the Ango-Catholic movement that developed in the Church of England and her devotion to religion played a major role in Rossetti's life. She also turned down three suitors for marriage in her late teens, mostly for religious reasons. She also worked as a model for her brother, Dante's most famous paintings.
She began a writing and poetry writing career around 1842 as this is when she began dating her poems. Her early pieces of poetry feature meditations on death and loss in the Romantic tradition. Her poetry is full of symbolism and intense feeling. Rossetti's first published poems appeared in Athenaeum in 1848, when she was eighteen years old.
She also contributed to the literary magazine, The Germ, under the pseudonym, "Ellen Alleyne". This was published by a group of poets called the Pre-Raphaelites, of which her brother William was a member and editor of the magazine. This was the beginning of her public career.
In 1862, Goblin Market and Other Poems, was published when she was thirty-one years old and is her most famous collection. This collection of poems had widespread critical praise and made her the main female poet of the time. Tennyson praised her work and with the death of Elizabeth Barret Browning in 1861, Rossetti was acclaimed as her natural successor.
Goblin Market, a narrative poem, is about two sister's misadventures with goblins. Critics interpreted in many different ways:
- an allegory about temptation and salvation
- a commentary on Victorian gender roles and feminism
- a work about erotic desire and social redemption
This work also is similar to Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, as both poems have religious themes of temptation, sin, suffering, and redemption. She also identified feminist themes in her poetry.
She was fiercely opposed to slavery (in the American south), cruelty to animals (in animal experimentation) and the exploitation of girls in under-age prostitution - in other words, she was a woman far ahead of her time.
Rossetti maintained a large circle of friends, was a popular poet, and continued to write and publish the rest of her life. Later in her life she suffered from Grave's Disease. In 1893, she developed breast cancer, had the tumor removed and survived the ordeal. However, in September 1894, she suffered a recurrence of the cancer and died in December 1894. She was buried in Higate Cemetery.
Although Rossetti and her poetry were quite popular during her lifetime, she and it did not approach that of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Her standing in poetry was strong even after her death but by the 20th century her popularity faded when Modernism came into vogue. Feminists have held her as a symbol of constrained female genius and a leader of 19th century poets. Her work has influenced Virginia Woolf, Gerald Manley Hopkins among a few others.
Christina Rossetti wrote this poem sometime before 1872 in response to a request by the magazine, Scribner's Monthly, for a Christmas poem. It was published posthumously in Rossetti's, Poetic Works, in 1904. It became a Christmas carol after it appeared in, The English Hymnal in 1906.
The text of the poem has been set to music many times. The most famous music and the one we sing in Voices of Naples, is the music of Gustav Holst. His is the one that was written for The English Hymnal. Holst's setting is "Cranham" - a hymn tune setting suitable for congregational singing. It has an irregular metre but a skillful and adaptable tune. It is titled after Cranham, Gloucheshire in 1906.
Ian Bradley, a Hymnologist and theologian, has questioned the poem's theology: "It is right to say that heaven cannot hold God nor the earth sustain and what about heaven and earth fleeing away when he comes to reign?"
Christina's poignant and quiet Christmas poem about the Nativity in the northern bleak midwinter has become an endearing and haunting Christmas carol for all to enjoy.
Below is the Christmas carol, "In the Bleak Midwinter," sung by the English Choirboys. Iisten for the beautiful descant of the soprano voices in this rendition of the song.
"In the Bleak Midwinter" - a Victorian Christmas carol
In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen,
Snow on snow
In the bleak mid-winter,
Our God, heaven cannot hlde 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
Enough for him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breast of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for him, whom angels;
Fall down before
The ox and ass and camel
Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and sraphim
Thronged the air --
But only his mother
In her mnaiden bliss
Worshipped and 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,
From: Once More, With Feeling! by Rupert Christiansen