07 December 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/49

A Christmas Carol

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
    Throng'd 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.

Christina Rossetti

In the first stanza, Rossetti immediately creates a striking view of a cold, hard world: the wind is frosty, and moans; earth is hard as iron, water frozen solid, like a stone. The description is elemental: wind, earth, water; iron and stone. Everything is unyielding; there are no plants or birds or animals providing warmth or life. The snow had fallen, suggesting that it has stopped, so there is a stillness in the scene; the only movement now (but perhaps it is more of a sound?) is the moaning wind – even the labile liquids are like rocks. Rossetti rather daringly repeats snow on snow twice (those two lines have nine words, five of which are snow), giving a slightly hypnotic and numbing effect. The words softly pile up like the snow, giving us a sense of being buried under the feathery accumulation. The repeated sn and  long o (moaning like the wind) of Snow had fallen, snow on snow, / snow on snow bring a hint of softness, perhaps, at least when compared to the sharper sounds of frost and iron, but they also connect back to the s and o of stone. The first line of the stanza – in the bleak mid-winter – is scene-setting, almost a stage direction, transformed into an emotional reality through a daringly minimalist use of a few words, their sounds, and their repetition,

The timeless quality of the scene is qualified in the stanza's last line, when we are told that this bleak mid-winter was long ago. Given this information, in conjunction with the title, it's not a surprise that the poem focuses on the Nativity – but perhaps it is a bit of a shock when we immediately fly away into the Universe and contemplation of a God too vast and powerful to be held by either Earth or Heaven, and we then vertiginously swing back to the bleak mid-winter and a small, dirty stable. This will be Rossetti's method in the next three stanzas: she will evoke the celestial grandeur of Godhead adored by various rank of angels (she will again use repetition in evoking angels, cherubim, and seraphim; you get the sense of them ranked endlessly around) and then immediately contrast the golden glories with the humble but touchingly human realities of the Nativity scene. Angels worshiped him round the clock, but as the infant Jesus he is content with the worship of dull domestic animals like the ox and ass (they are traditional in Nativity scenes, referring back to Isaiah 1:3: The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib).

The camel might seem like an exotic touch, but it could be considered typical for a Middle Eastern scene, though there is little else in the poem that conjures up a sense of ancient Palestine. It would also remind us of the visit of the Three Wise Men, though they themselves do not appear, nor does the Star that guided them. Rossetti strips away some of the more picturesque and even extravagant trappings of the narrative in order to sharpen the contrast between God's heavenly power and might and the lowly intimacy of the incarnation. In this regard the breastful of milk is a particularly striking expression, giving an unexpectedly physical sense of the incarnated God as a regular human child, in need not just of nourishment in the form of food but also in the form of his mother's love. She makes another, fuller appearance in the next stanza, worshiping the child with a mother's kiss. These two appearances, brief as they are, give Mary the most powerful human presence in this stripped-down, even stark, poem.

The most powerful human presence: until the final stanza, when the narrator speaks to us directly. Until then, this has been a fairly impersonal poem, opening with an invocation of a frozen world, followed by essentially theological comparisons between Heavenly power and the humblest things of earth. One reason we have such a strong sense of Mary here, even though the first reference is an indirect one (the breastful of milk), is that there simply isn't much human presence otherwise. But in the final stanza the poem becomes intensely personal: What can I give him? The speaker's first impulse is a generous one: to give something to the baby. She feels that she too is one of the humble things of the earth. Rossetti again deftly invokes the traditional nativity story with fleeting references to the shepherds and the wise men. She cannot join in their offerings, given her poverty. So she offers the one thing she does have: her heart; that is, the qualities of love and compassion (connecting back perhaps to the maternal love expressed earlier in the nurturing figure of Mary). The first stanza, with its frozen, sterile, impersonal world, is contrasted with and answered by the final stanza, with its personal choice of generosity and love.

This lyric has been set to music by several composers and has become quite popular. The text here is from the Penguin edition of The Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by R W Crump and with an introduction and notes by Betty S Flowers.

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