In the Bleak Midwinter

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For the film of the same name, see In the Bleak Midwinter (film). For the mystery novel of the same name, see In the Bleak Midwinter (novel).
Christina Rossetti, portrait by her brother.

"In the Bleak Midwinter" is a Christmas carol based on a poem by the English poet Christina Rossetti. It was published, under the title "A Christmas Carol", in the January 1872 issue of Scribner's Monthly.[1]

The poem first appeared set to music carol in The English Hymnal in 1906 with a setting by Gustav Holst.

Harold Darke's anthem setting of 1911 is more complex and was named the best Christmas carol in a poll of some of the world's leading choirmasters and choral experts in 2008.[2]


Scribner's Monthly (January 1872)

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
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 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. The final verse shifts the description to a more introspective thought process.

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?"[3] 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).


"Cranham", by Gustav Holst

The text of this Christmas poem has been set to music many times, the most famous settings being composed by Gustav Holst and Harold Edwin Darke in the early 20th century.

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.[4][5]

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.[3] 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.[6] Darke omits verse 4 of Rossetti's original, and bowdlerizes Rossetti's "a breastful of milk" to "a heart full of mirth",[7] although later editions reversed this change. Darke also repeats the last line of each verse.

Benjamin Britten includes an elaborate five-part setting of the first verse for high voices (combined with the medieval Corpus Christi Carol) in his work A Boy was Born.

Other settings include those by Robert C L Watson, Bruce Montgomery, Bob Chilcott, Michael John Trotta,[8] Robert Walker,[9] Eric Thiman, who wrote a setting for solo voice and piano, and Leonard Lehrman.[10]

In popular culture[edit]

A version by American jazz singer Erin Bode may be found on her 2008 recording of Christmas music, A Cold December Night.[11]

The song was used as part of the main plot in the 2010 Doctor Who Christmas special, "A Christmas Carol", as sung by Welsh singer Katherine Jenkins.[12]

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.[13]

In The Crown, a small crowd of local carolers sing this as a Christmas gift to an ailing King George VI in the drawing room of Sandringham House.[14]


  1. ^ Rossetti, Christina G. (January 1872). "A Christmas Carol". Scribner's Monthly. New York: Scribner & Co. iii (3): 278. 
  2. ^ "Bleak Midwinter named best carol". BBC News. 27 November 2008. Retrieved 26 November 2014. 
  3. ^ a b Christiansen, Rupert (14 December 2007). "The story behind the carol: In the bleak midwinter". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 26 November 2014. 
  4. ^ The English Hymnal. Oxford University Press. 1916. p. 44. 
  5. ^ "Shnugget: Carols at Cranham". BBC News. 6 January 2009. Retrieved 26 November 2014. 
  6. ^ "In The Bleak Midwinter". Retrieved 2015-12-28. 
  7. ^ Wooton, Janet. This Is Our Song: Women's Hymn-Writing. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock. p. 143. 
  8. ^ "Michael John Trotta's setting", YouTube, Google 
  9. ^ [1] Archived July 24, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
  10. ^ "In the bleak midwinter (Rossetti, set by Harold Edwin Darke, Gustav Holst, Bruce Montgomery, Leonard J[ordan] Lehrman, Michael John Trotta, Mick Swithinbank, Stephen Wilkinson, Benjamin Britten)". 2014-06-16. Retrieved 2015-12-28. 
  11. ^ Bode, Erin. "A Cold December Night - Erin Bode | Songs, Reviews, Credits | AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved 14 November 2016. 
  12. ^ Cooper, Steven; Mahoney, Kevin (20 March 2011). Steven Moffat's Doctor Who 2010: The Critical Fan's Guide to Matt Smith's First Series (Unauthorized). London: Punked Books. p. 204. ISBN 0953317293. Retrieved 26 November 2014. 
  13. ^ "An Empty Field - batyalewbel - Peaky Blinders (TV)". Archive of Our Own. 2015-05-04. Retrieved 2015-12-28. 
  14. ^ Lawrence, Ben (11/02/2016). "The Crown, spoiler-free review: Netflix's astonishing £100 million gamble pays off". The Telegraph. Retrieved 14 November 2016.  Check date values in: |date= (help)

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