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Christina Rossetti and "In the Bleak Midwinter," a Victorian Christmas carol

Sketch of Christina Rossetti.

Sketch of Christina Rossetti.

Sketch from "Goblin Market."

Sketch from "Goblin Market."

Christina's brother

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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.

Bleak midwinter.

Bleak midwinter.

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.

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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,

Long ago.

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

Jesus Christ

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

Which adore.

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


Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on January 01, 2015:

Devika: This is one of my favorite carols and even though it is melancholy and sad, I think it is beautiful. It captures complete that time in winter when the season is at its bleakest, coldest and whitest. Thanks so much for reading this and I appreciate your visit as always.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on December 30, 2014:

I voted up! You certainly have your unique style in writing. A beautifully thought of hub.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on December 24, 2014:

Thank you Nell and I am glad you enjoyed this. I love this carol.

Nell Rose from England on December 23, 2014:

I came back for another read, and this time I did listen to the video, amazing story and lovely music, nell

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on November 30, 2014:

Hendrika: This Christmas carol is so beautiful yet haunting. I have always loved it and enjoyed singing it. Thanks so much for reading this and I am so glad you enjoyed this lovely Christmas carol also.

Hendrika from Pretoria, South Africa on November 29, 2014:

This is the first time I heard it and it is beautiful. So what if the theology is not completely right, the feeling and reverence makes up for it.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on December 21, 2013:

anndango: I am so pleased you enjoyed reading this hub. I love this melancholy Christmas carol also. It is haunting yet beautiful. I am in Ohio right now and we have bleak mid-winters also so I can relate! LOL Thanks so much for you insightful comments. Merry Christmas and keep warm up there in Canada.

anndango on December 21, 2013:

Thanks for sharing this. "In the Bleak Midwinter" is my favourite carol. Even just reading it again in your hub, made me my hair stand on end. Maybe because it truly is bleak here today - snowy, grey and -30 Celsius (-21 F)! Anyway, thanks, thanks, thanks! Your hub warmed my heart!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on December 21, 2013:

Blossom: Thank you so much for your interesting and lovely comments. This has always been one of my favorite carols. That is so interesting about Israel. I have often wondered if it ever got cold there or was warm year round. Now I have my answer. Your have led such an interesting life and traveling all over the world. You and your family is truly blessed. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

PS I always forget that 'down under' you have Christmas in the summer.

Bronwen Scott-Branagan from Victoria, Australia on December 20, 2013:

It's lovely to learn more about Christina Rosetti. 'In the Bleak Midwinter' is my favourite carol, especially the last verse. We used to think that in Israel, which is so hot in summer, it would not be bleak and there would be no snow, but we found out differently when we visited there and travelled to the Sea of Galilee with a picnic one day in winter. It snowed and the sea was really rough, too.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on December 20, 2013:

Imogene: Thanks so much for reading this and I am glad you enjoyed it! Have a Merry Christmas!

Imogen French from Southwest England on December 20, 2013:

I always loved this carol, but didn't know the words were by Christina Rosetti. Thanks for an interesting read.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on December 20, 2013:

Ashok: You indeed know much about world literature. Christina Rossetti is considered a minor English Victorian poet. She is not studied as much as the other poets you mention in your comments. I just happen to love this Christmas carol that comes from her poem. I am amazed at the depth of your literature knowledge. I think you are very well read!

Ashok Rao from Mumbai, India on December 20, 2013:

I am getting a feeling that I am a stranger to the world literature. I have never heard of Christina Rossetti. I think her selfless devotion towards her religion should have made her a sought after poet. What I understand is she was very depressed and that brought her close to her religion. Isn't that something to ponder about. She is an inspiration for people who think life has been cruel to them. I definitely want to know more about her. Poetry doesn't end with Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, Yeats. Eliots, Sylvia Plath, Blake ...! That's what I thought. I am grateful to you for introducing me to her works. Thanks!!!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on December 20, 2013:

Jamie: So glad you enjoyed reading this. I love this haunting carol. I appreciate your comments and your visit, as always!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on December 20, 2013:

Audrey: Mine, too! Thanks so much for reading and for your comments. Most appreciated.

Jamie Lee Hamann from Reno NV on December 19, 2013:

I enjoyed Goblin Market very much, back when I read it. I am excited to be introduced to the author of this poem in more detail. Thank you for this great informational hub. I am embarrassed to say that I thought Goblin Market was written by anonymous. Jamie

Audrey Howitt from California on December 19, 2013:

One of my all time favorite pieces!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on April 15, 2013:

Blossom: Thank you so much. That means a lot coming from a fellow teacher. I love this poem and Christmas carol also. The choir is sing with in Naples sang this at Christmas time a year ago. I just love it. The video is so precious - those boys sing it wonderfully and I just had to include it. When I researched her, I didn't realize what a contribution she made to English literature and women's literature and plight. She is so interesting. We didn't study her literature at all in high school and just passing in college. I'm glad to have researched her and learned more about her. Thanks so much for your visit and I'm glad you enjoyed this.

Bronwen Scott-Branagan from Victoria, Australia on April 14, 2013:

I've just been browsing the hubs you've written, they are great, set out so well and so informative. With this one, you've chosen one of my very favourite carols from a much admired writer and I love the video.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 20, 2012:

Yes, I try and usually use two or three sources on my articles. This actually came about from the choir I sing with in Naples. We sang this beautiful carol and I just love it and knew that Christina Rossetti had written the words, so one thing lead to another and this article came about out of it. Thanks so much for your comments and input - most appreciated!

mckbirdbks from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas on September 19, 2012:

You continue putting together interesting and informative articles. I can't see that the research could have come from one sourse. Thank you for the introduction to Christina Rossetti.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 18, 2012:

Nell: Well, sorry you couldn't hear the video. It is working now as I'm listening to it as I write this. There are sometimes glitches in HP. I love this so much too, Nell. I just have heard it in the last year - we sang it in Voices of Naples and it instantly became a favorite of mine. I love singing it. It does go with the English winters - the words and music capture it so well. Thanks for reading and try the video again sometime!

Nell Rose from England on September 17, 2012:

Fascinating read suzette, sadly I couldn't get to hear the video as it said the video was too small? This is my favorite Christmas song, it really makes it feel like Winter and Christmassy, if you know what I mean, wonderful hub, nell

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 13, 2012:

Eiddwen: Thanks so much for reading this and I'm glad you enjoyed it. I appreciate your comments.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 13, 2012:

Amy: Can you imagine coming from such an artistic and talented family. What genes. I an so glad you enjoyed this one Amy. I agree with you, isn't it sad that so many talented and artistic people suffer from depression so much. She seemed to fare better than Sylvia Plath. Christina got over her depression and went on to a full and vibrant life in the poet's circle in Victorian England. I had forgotten about her, but remembered her through this Christmas carol we sing in Voices of Naples. It is hauntingly beautiful and one of my favorites to sing. Yes, the medical field did know about cancer before Christina's time and were able to diagnose it as such. I found it amazing she had the tumor removed too, but died a year later. It is sad, but this was so close to the turn of the century and I think radiation had been already discovered by Madame Curie. Christina was a woman ahead of her time in being conceerned about social issues - but how sad we are still grappling with those same social issues today. Amy it is just wonderful that you appreciate what I write about. It makes me so happy and if you were the only person to read these it would certainly be enough inspiration for me to write. This is what I know about and love and you are certainly the better poet than I am. Thanks so much for the visit and your insightful comments.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 13, 2012:

Frank: So glad you have discovered this Christmas carol - it is beautiful. Thanks so much for reading and visiting - most appreciated!

Eiddwen from Wales on September 13, 2012:

Such a wonderful read and thanks for sharing.


Amy Becherer from St. Louis, MO on September 12, 2012:

Christina Rossetti's genetic background is astounding. It appears her whole family was blessed in the arts. It always strikes me funny that each generation thinks they have the market cornered on ideas that go back much further than I realized. I admire Rossetti's unrepressed ideologies and the courage to express her ideas as a feminist, against slavery, mistreatment of animals and underage sex trade. I was surprised to read that she had surgery for breast cancer that she survived, but took her a year later, because, frankly, I didn't realize that cancer detection occurred in 1893, although it was probably advanced by the time she knew. It seems that so many of the finest poets suffered depression and "nervous breakdowns" (the term sounds antiquated and still puzzles/scares me.) The Christmas song lyrics are beautiful (I wasn't able to play the video, but I'll find it on YouTube in a larger format.)

Thank you, Suzette, for broadening my horizons with these beautiful and interesting articles on artists I would otherwise never know.

Frank Atanacio from Shelton on September 12, 2012:

First I've heard of this carol what a wonderful share :) Bless you

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 12, 2012:

molly: I'm glad to hear you read her in college. We didn't and I wish we had. I don't think she should be overlooked when studying Victorian poetry. I'm so glad you enjoyed the carol and it is one of my favorites too. Thanks so much for commenting - most appreciated.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 12, 2012:

Hi Mhatter: I'm glad you found this interesting. I'm not sure what your question is, but if you are saying all would enjoy the carol/song on some level, I agree with you 100%. The words are so beautiful and then the music is perfect for the words. This is one of my favorite Christmas carols. Thanks for the visit.

Mary Strain from The Shire on September 12, 2012:

We read Rosetti in college and I loved her work. Goblin Market is a work of genius. And "In the Bleak Midwinter" is one of my favorite Christmas carols, partly because it is haunting and lovely. Thanks for the sketch of a great poet.

Martin Kloess from San Francisco on September 11, 2012:

Absolutely fascinating. Thank you. Note, who e all relate to the song at some level?

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 11, 2012:

Thanks Bill. She is a more obscure poet today although she was very popular during her time. I never read her in high school or college, but have read about her. This song/poem she wrote is just beautiful and I love singing it, so I wanted to hightlight her and the song. Thanks so much for reading and listening!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 11, 2012:

Honestly my friend, I have never heard of her; I'm a little stunned to say that quite frankly. Great introduction to her works, thanks to you, and a beautiful song. Well done!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 11, 2012:

Carol: So glad you enjoyed this and found it informative. I had forgotten about Christina Rossetti's poetry, but had remembered the Christmas carol because I love it so. Thanks for the visit.

carol stanley from Arizona on September 11, 2012:

This is a lovely story about someone I didn't know. I enjoyed following her life and works through the hub. Thanks for sharing this. Voted up.

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