In the Bleak Midwinter
"In the Bleak Midwinter" is a Christmas carol based on a poem by the English poet Christina Rossetti written before 1872 in response to a request from the magazine Scribner's Monthly for a Christmas poem. It was published posthumously in Rossetti's Poetic Works in 1904.
The poem became a Christmas carol after it appeared in The English Hymnal in 1906 with a setting by Gustav Holst.
In verse one, Rossetti describes the physical circumstances of the Incarnation in Bethlehem. In verse two, Rossetti contrasts Christ's first and second coming. The third verse dwells on Christ's birth and describes the simple surroundings, in a humble stable and watched by beasts of burden. Rossetti achieves another contrast in the fourth verse, this time between the incorporeal angels attendant at Christ's birth with Mary's ability to render Jesus physical affection. This verse is omitted in the Harold Darke setting. The final verse shifts the description to a more introspective thought process. Darke repeats the last line in his setting.
Hymnologist and theologian Ian Bradley has questioned the poem's theology: "Is it 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?" However I Kings 8.27, in Solomon's prayer of dedication of the Temple, says: "But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you." Regarding "heaven and earth fleeing away", many New Testament apocalyptic passages use such language, principally Revelation 20. 11 "And I saw a great white throne, and Him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them" (KJV). Similar language is used in II Peter 3. 10-11: "The heavens will disappear with a roar, the elements will be destroyed by fire... That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells" (NIV).
Four verses arranged for congregational singing.
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Holst's setting, "Cranham", is a hymn tune setting suitable for congregational singing, since the poem is irregular in metre and any setting of it requires a skilful and adaptable tune. The hymn is titled after Cranham, Gloucestershire and was written for the English Hymnal of 1906.
The Darke setting, written in 1909 while he was a student at the Royal College of Music, is more advanced and each verse is treated slightly differently, with solos for soprano and tenor (or a group of sopranos and tenors) and a delicate organ accompaniment. This version is favoured by cathedral choirs, and is the one usually heard performed on the radio broadcasts of Nine Lessons and Carols by the King's College Choir. Darke served as conductor of the choir during World War II.
Benjamin Britten includes a setting for chorus in his work A Boy was Born. Other settings include those by Robert C L Watson, Bruce Montgomery, Bob Chilcott, Michael John Trotta, Robert Walker, Eric Thiman, who wrote a setting for solo voice and piano, and Leonard Lehrman.
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
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,
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
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.
In popular culture
In the BBC TV drama series Peaky Blinders, mobster and war veteran Thomas Shelby mumbles 'in the bleak midwinter' to himself before he shoots his war-ravaged battle buddy, Danny. He also murmurs the phrase to himself as his last words before his near-execution in the series two finale episode. The poem and the phrase were popular among soldiers of the First World War.
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|Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
- In the Bleak Midwinter for SATB (sheet music), Cantorion (free).
- In the Bleak Midwinter for SATB (Harold Darke setting) (sheet music), Choral Public Domain Library.