Monday, December 19, 2011

December 20

Pre-Raphaelite Stained Glass Window, by Edward Burne-Jones

In The Bleak Midwinter
from a poem by Christina Rossetti,
musical arrangement by Robert Chilcott,

and performed by The Empire Brass and the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay

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.

Our God, heaven cannot hold him,
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When he comes to reign;
In the bleak midwinter
A stable place sufficed
The Lord God incarnate,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for him, whom Cherubim
Worship night and day
A breast full of milk
And a manger full 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 his mother only,
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.

Many years ago when I was a teenager, I made a trip to visit family in London, England. While I was there, I was determined to find the grave marker of one of my favourite poets, Christina Rossetti, who is buried in Highgate, a spectacularly beautiful Victorian cemetery just a short walk from my uncle's house. We arranged for a guided tour (the only way in which visitors may enter the property), but sadly, when I made my special request, I was told that the Rossetti plot was "off limits", at the request of the descendents. The kind tour guide did, however, take me to the end of a row of headstones, and while we stood together on the pathway, he pointed to the area in which the Rossetti family lies, while I peered furiously into the distance.

Christina was the daughter of Gabriele Rossetti, and grew up in an artistic and politically aware household. One of her brothers was Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was a painter and a poet. The other was William Michael Rossetti; a leading art critic and editor. It was William who edited her complete works in 1904, 10 years after her death.

At one stage she was engaged to painter James Collinson, who was a member of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, but the engagement was broken off in 1850. Although Christina methodically destroyed all of her correspondence during her lifetime, several "secret" poems were found after her death which suggested that she was, in fact, deeply in love with James Collinson, after all. It is thought that mental and physical health problems may have been the main reason why she did not feel able to follow through with the marriage.

Christina suffered with poor health for much of her life, and as a result, she rarely went out or received visitors. She lived, for much of the time, with her mother. A great deal of her poetry is characterised by an overwhelming sense of melancholy. It is very true that Christina struggled with depression, perhaps exacerbated by a thyroid problem. She was also a deeply pious Anglican woman, and worked tirelessly for causes that would help others.

The poems from her canon of work that I feel are most remarkable include "Goblin Market" (a cautionary tale, which is richly descriptive and paints the most incredible mental images for the reader), published in 1862, and the thoroughly entrancing "Sing-Song, A Nursery Rhyme Book", published in 1872. Notably, her short poem, "Who has seen the wind?" inspired the title of the quintessential Canadian novel, written by W. O. Mitchell, and published in 1947.

Another significant fact about Christina Rossetti is that she was a breast cancer survivor, and underwent radical surgery to prevent the disease's spread in 1892. This prolonged her life until 1894: no small feat for the medical treatment of the time.

The poem, "In The Bleak Midwinter" was written for a Christmas edition of Scribner's Magazine, in 1872. It was set to music by the great composer, Gustav Holst, in 1906. This is the familiar tune that most of us associate with the poem today.

Over the past several years, I have become an ardent fan of Robert (Bob) Chilcott, a former choir boy and choral scholar at King's College, Cambridge, and a twelve-year member of The King's Singers. Mr. Chilcott is a hugely talented and prolific composer, and has written new arrangements many traditional Christmas carols, including "O Little Town of Bethlehem", and "Remember Thou, O Man" (which was featured on this blog for two years in a row, because I love it so much).

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