A Christmas Carol

In the Bleak Mid-Winter
Overview
This is a lovely poem in praise of Jesus/God. Basically Rossetti tells us that God is pretty damn great and magnificent, but he was still content to come down to earth and live a very modest existence.
Stanzas 1-3Stanzas 4-5

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 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 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.

Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.

ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Originally Rossetti gave this poem the rather uninspired title of ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter’ after submitting it to Scribner’s Monthly who had requested Christmas poems.

Anyway, it was written sometime in 1871, but only published after her death in The Poetic Work in 1904 and it was adopted as a hymn in 1906 by Gustav Holst, after which it became commonly known as A Christmas Carol – only slightly better.

Have a listen/watch here:

 Themes

Not very complex here, she is just slobbering praise all over the big guy in the sky. There is also a bit of a jab at humankind with the description of earth, but I will explore that below.

Content

We start off with a description of earth, which sounds pretty miserable. Everything is dead, there is a biting wind, the ground is frozen solid as are all the rivers and lakes. All in all it is a pretty horrible scene.

Next we move on to God. His magnificence is established by saying that he is too big for heaven (who knew he had a weight problem?) and he is so powerful that everyone should be scared and run away for fear of his wrath. However, it’s okay, don’t worry! It turns out that he is actually happy living amongst humans and is even willing to sleep in a crappy barn – demonstrating his modesty and humility.

Stanza three is the same idea. He is worshiped by angels 24/7 and yet he is happy with breast milk and some hay to lay his head on. Angels worship him, but he’s happy hanging out with farm animals and camels.

Next we have the image of Jesus in his manger surrounded by all these worshiping angels, but it is only a mere human who gets to cradle and kiss him – again this demonstrates how down to earth the chap is, not a snob at all!

The final stanza starts with some rhetorical questions about potential gift options Rossetti could give him. It seems she can’t stretch to gold, frankincense or myrrh, not even a lamb! Instead she thinks that dedicating her heart is enough of a gift and Jesus will be happy with it.

Personally, I’m not convinced. I once received a potato masher as my main birthday present and I was furious; a heart would have been even worse!

Language and techniques

Let’s start with the pathetic fallacy used in the opening line. Although this is a Christmas and English Christmases are romantically characterised as being snow covered and are always pretty damn cold, Rossetti is using the season to reflect on mankind. Remember Christ came down from heaven to die for our sins and set humanity back on the right track, thus Rossetti portrays the world before Christ as being ‘bleak’, suffering from ‘frosty wind’, ‘earth hard as iron’ and ‘water like a stone’ to reflect the state of humanity prior to his arrival – emotionless, close to death, no warmth or love.

If she hasn’t already made her point she uses repetition to build up her ‘snow’ into huge mounds suggesting just how corrupt or wayward mankind has grown.

In the following stanza she builds up God as heaven ‘cannot hold Him/nor earth sustain’ suggesting that his might and magnificence knows no bounds. When she says both locations ‘shall flee away’ she is demonstrating again an awe for his power, religion is a bit two fold in appreciating power alongside fearing God’s wrath usually. However, really we have no need to fear because his earthly form, Jesus, seems quite down to earth; we all know about the lowly birth in the manger, but Rossetti emphasises this humility through words such as ‘sufficed’, ‘enough for’ (x2) and a description of his surroundings.

We should have a feeling of respect for Him being prepared to do this for our sake when at the same time he is so mighty and is worshiped and adored by the superior figures of angels – ‘angels fall-down before’; ‘angels and archangels… cherubim and seraphim throng the air’, which implies all of them are desperate just to have a glimpse of God. The contrast between his power and humility should serve to make us all the more appreciative for his efforts.

His love for humanity is also emphasised by Rossetti when she shows that the angels are left to float around and stare, while a human is the only one able to ‘worship…with a kiss’. You could say something here about gender, how women are closest to Christ and are respected above all others as mothers.

Comment on the rhetorical question. She asks ‘what can I give Him, poor as I am?’, which is meant to guide the listening in their own actions. She knows exactly what to give him, but is telling the reader exactly what God expects of us. It is not ‘lamb’ of the shepherd’ or the gifts brought by the wise men, but the humble gift of love and faith as she ‘give[s] my heart’. The whole poem emphasises the humility of Christ/God and why he came to earth in order to secure the faith and love of humanity, living their lives, however, humble in, the right way.

Structure

Remember this was written as a poem and not a hymn. We have a simple eight line stanza throughout that repeats its ABAB rhyme scheme throughout with very simplistic rhyming words. This is meant to again demonstrate the humility of Christ before mankind and the humility we should show before God.

Tone

Reverential! A word you rarely get to use!

This is all about praising the big guy and also provide a guiding message to his followers about how they can best please Him.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *