Snow on Snow: Christina Rossetti's Poem of Winter and Hope

December 18, 2016

I've always loved the clean, spare lines in Christina Rossetti's Christmas poem, "In the Bleak Midwinter," beginning with the haunting words:

 

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.

 

Although I've read her poem many times, I realized this Christmas season I actually knew very little about Christina's life or how she came to write those words.

 

As I began to find out more about her, I discovered an unexpected connection to another writer: Chronicles of Narnia author C.S. "Jack" Lewis. Since I've recently written two blog posts about Lewis (here and here), I became intrigued by the connection between the two writers.

 

Here is what I learned, first about Christina Rossetti's surprising life, and then her kindred connection to C.S. Lewis.

 

Daughter of a Revolutionary

 

The first thing that surprised me is her father's life. He was an Italian scholar and...revolutionary.

 

Christina Georgina Rossetti was born in London on December 5, 1830. Her father, Gabriele Pasquale Giuseppe Rossetti, was a Neapolitan patriot who fled Italy in the early 1820s due to his strongly-expressed views. Gabriele escaped from Italy disguised as an English soldier (sympathetic British officers provided the uniform).

 

After arriving in England, Gabriele continued work as an expert on Dante and became professor of Italian at King's College, London. At the age of 43, he married Frances Polidori. Christina, the youngest of their four children, thrived in a lively, studious and gifted family.

 

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography writes that the family's home was always open to "visiting Italian scholars, adventurers, and revolutionaries...the works of Dante and Petrarch were part of their birthright."

 

Two Storms

 

Well-educated at home, Christina published her first book of poetry at the age of twelve, helped by her Polidori grandfather. As a child, Christina had a curious and fiery nature. Their father summed up the weather patterns in their home: "there were two storms—Christina and Gabriel—and two calms—Maria and William."

 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: The Day Dream. Portrait of Jane Morris

As adults, Gabriel became a celebrated painter, helping to establish a distinctive school of painting: the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Maria was an author and William, the steadiest one, had a full-time job as a civil servant to help support the family. Even so, he produced a great number of articles and books of biography and literary criticism.

 

Struggles and Depression

 

Sadly, after her happy childhood, Christina's health began to deteriorate at the age of fifteen. She was finally diagnosed with Graves' Disease, an immune system disorder that can cause muscle weakness and a rapid, irregular heartbeat, among other symptoms. Her father's long illness and death, and the family's financial trials, also led to periods of depression.

 

Christina struggled with her health for the rest of her life, but she refused to become a stereotypical Victorian invalid. Although she became more and more reclusive, she continued to work on her poetry.

 

In 1862, Macmillan & Co. published the first collection of her poetry to be released under her own name: Goblin's Market and Other Poems. She went on to publish more collections of poetry, gaining a reputation in both Britain and the United States as a poet of originality and a worthy successor to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. After 1866, her writing became mostly devotional, reflecting her Christian faith. 

 

The Best Christmas Carol

 

Physical, emotional and spiritual anxiety caused her anguish. Even so, she produced some of the most moving Christian devotional poems ever written.

 

 

"In the Bleak Midwinter" was first published as a Christmas poem in an 1872 edition of Scribner's Monthly

 

Gustav Holst set the poem to music in 1906, publishing it as a Christmas carol in The English Hymnal. Then, organist Harold Darke, while just a young student at the Royal College of Music, wrote a different setting a few years later.

 

In 2008, "In the Bleak Midwinter," using the setting by Darkewas chosen as the greatest Christmas carol of all time by choirmasters in the United States and Great Britain.

 

The published poem touched and its music influenced a young writer in the next generation. Christina Rossetti passed away just after Christmas, on December 29, 1894.

 

A Book in C.S. Lewis's Library

 

"In the Bleak Midwinter" envisions the Nativity set against a cold,

Northern landscape filled with snow on snow.

 

All his life, C.S. Lewis had a special affinity for the concept of "Northernness."

 

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

He wrote in Surprised by Joy:

 

Pure “Northernness” engulfed me: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity…and almost at the same moment I knew that I had met this before, long, long ago. …And with that plunge back into my own past, there arose at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself...

 

In C.S. Lewis's library, a volume stood on a shelf, with underlining and annotations in his own handwriting. It was Christina Rossetti's Poetical Works.

 

I imagine that Lewis again felt "Northernness" and Joy when he took the book down from the shelf and opened the volume to read Rossetti's words of winter and hope.

 

Christina Rossetti passed away just after Christmas, on December 29, 1894. C.S. Lewis was born four years later on November 29, 1898. 

 

On my own cold, frosty winter day, I took a walk on the trail around a beautiful lake and thought about Christina Rossetti. As I walked, hearing the crunch of icy snow under my shoes, I looked out over the winter trees and hills and recited Christina's poem to myself:

 

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.

 

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.

 

More to Explore

 

Photo of Hohenwerfen Castle by Sir James. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

 

In an ancient castle, high above the Austrian town of Werfen, Julie Andrews sang "In the Bleak Midwinter" for her television special, The Sound of Christmas, in 1987. Setting words to music always helps me memorize things, and on my walk, I could hear Julie Andrews' high, clear notes singing each word. See the video here>

 

Images by Linda Borromeo unless otherwise noted

 

 

After growing up in Southern California in a place of little snow, Linda Borromeo enjoys the seasons of the Pacific Northwest, where she is currently experiencing snow on snow. She is the author of Mystery Shores, a novel of secrets set along the beauty of the Pacific Northwest coast.

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