Portrait by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1848)
Our attention today turns to the poetess Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), author of the well-known and lovely Christmas texts In the Bleak Midwinter and Love Came Down at Christmas. Rossetti was a master of lyrical verse, devotional verse, and children’s poetry—a wide span for any author to achieve. She also labored under the universally difficult circumstances of being a female author during the Victorian Age. Her family background aided her in meeting this challenge. The youngest of four children, she was raised by an Italian father, a specialist in Dante, who fled to England due to his political activity and, once there, married a half-Italian younger woman who deeply valued education.
Try to imagine this household which rebounded with the texts of Dante and Petrarch and a lively, continuous focus on the arts. As would have been customary, only her two brothers received higher education in mathematics and science, but all four of the siblings ended up as published authors. Conversations around the dinner table must have been marvelous.
The family was not affluent, though. As its financial fortune careened, alternate strategies for recovery fared poorly. The presumption became that the two girls would work as governesses, a fate which dismayed Christina and one she swore to avoid. Rossetti also spurned multiple suitors, choosing instead to draw herself into her writing. As she aged, she developed an inner religious life associated with the blossoming of Anglo-Catholicism. She died with a life fulfilled, and a fame that had spread from England to America. In fact, she is frequently assessed by scholars as the equal, or better, of her prominent contemporary Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
With all of this, though, Rossetti can be presented as a kind of greeting-card poet—an incorrect assessment which would have displeased her. Her prodigious output expressed cutting-edge trends of European Romanticism as well as the ideas of a fascinating group of English artists known as “The Brotherhood of Pre-Raphaelites” whose seven founders included her two brothers Dante and William. The Pre-Raphaelites were devotees of Classicism and admirers of the detail of nature. They cherished fifteenth-century art and the writings of critic John Ruskin. We are reminded of the aesthetics of Pre-Raphaelite artists through the often-seen canvas, Proserpine, painted in 1874 by Rossetti’s brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Rossetti’s best-known poem is Who has Seen the Wind which begins:
Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
Let us turn, though, to two of Rossetti’s seasonal poems, both of which illustrate the aesthetics of the Pre-Raphaelites. From the opening lines of the hauntingly beautiful In the Bleak Midwinter, we meet her signature style: traditional structure, details of nature well used, idealized imagery, rich emotional texture, fondness for word repetition, and immediacy of access for the reading public.
In the bleak midwinter, 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 midwinter, long ago.
The poem also has one of the tenderest final quatrains in all English poetry:
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 the Bleak Midwinter, like so much poetry of the 19th-century, appeared in a literary journal–the January 1872 issue of the American journal Scribner’s Monthly. The poem later was collected in 1875 into volume called Goblin Market, the Prince’s Progress, and Other Poems.
Most people find it, though, not in a compilation of poems, but through the hauntingly beautiful musical setting composed by a pair of renown English composers Gustav Holst and Harold Darke. Few texts are more beautifully set to music than this one which has become a standard Christmas Carol.
A second seasonal poem by Rossetti, shorter and more intense, appeared thirteen years later in 1885 under the title Love Came Down at Christmas
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.
Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine,
Worship we our Jesus,
But wherewith for sacred sign?
Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.
We find this text set to a traditional Irish tune known as Gartan in many hymnals. The poem’s beauty, though, has led other composers to create musical settings, such as this one for chorus by Leo Sowerby (1895-1963), a prolific American composer and organist whose music is concise, reflective, and piercing in intensity.
For a different feeling, we can move into the sound world of a wildly popular contemporary English composer named John Rutter (b. 1945). For decades. Rutter has wowed choirs and audiences with his clean, winsome, sometimes profound settings of beloved texts, both sacred and secular. His version of Love Came Down at Christmas appeared in 1971.
In contrast to the large choral setting, let this intimate, economical, yet sumptuous setting by Canadian composer Eleanor Daley (b. 1955), pristinely performed by the English ensemble Gesualdo Six, delight your ear.
Encountering a single poem can open a door to a room full of surprises. These days, Rossetti’s name is on the rise again, as her role as a seminal writer of 19th-century English poetry is heralded. Her complete poems, initially prepared for publication in 1904 by one of her brothers, finally were published in 1979.
But this publication has come at the right time. In a world of increasing crudeness, unbridled vulgarity, and slipshod standards, what better antidote is there than to take refuge in the strength, purity, and sublimity of Rossetti’s writings? Her poetry fueled her life and brought the blossoms of light into her often troubled soul. The power of her words has not changed and is especially welcome for us at this moment in time.
Reprinted with permission. www.professorcarol.com.