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12. In the bleak midwinter

In the bleak mid-winter 
  Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, 
  Water like a stone”

Christina Rossetti’s opening words to the well-known Christmas carol sum up the harsh beauty of a British winter that will be easily recognised by those who have experienced one. Rosetti originally published the words under the title ‘A Christmas Carol’ in 1872 in Scribner’s Monthly, an American magazine which ran until 1939. The music we associate with the hymn was written by Gustav Holst, first appearing in a hymnal in 1906. Yet ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ was by no means Rossetti’s only contribution to poetry. The themes of her writings range from female friendship and sisterhood, to mortality and even books of nursery rhymes for children. Her time volunteering at the St Mary Magdalene Penitentiary in Highgate and contact with the women there, mainly prostitutes and unmarried mothers, further encouraged her to write about topics such as illegitimacy and illicit love. Some of these ideas about the position and role of women in nineteenth-century society may even have influenced Rosetti’s Christmas tune. The final verse, beginning “What can I give him, poor as I am?”, suggesting that the author saw herself as able to be neither a shepherd nor a wise man, may also be hinting at the exclusion of women from the professions and higher education.[1]

A 2009 performance of Rosetti’s words, to Holst’s music, by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge can be found here.

By Emily Ward

 

[1] Elizabeth Cosnett, ‘A (Female) Bookworm Reads Some Hymns’, Bulletin of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 205 (1995), 172-84.

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