In the bleak midwinter

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.

This most traditional of Christmas hymns was written by Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-94). Published posthumously in her Poetical Works (1904), it was said to have been written ‘before 1872’. It was first used as a hymn in The English Hymnal (1906). The poem depicts the pictoral and human attributes of the Incarnation. The imagery of winter follows the example of Milton’s ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ (‘It was the Winter Wilde’). It also follows the tradition, used by Milton, that at Christ’s birth, the earth was covered with pure white snow. Verse 2 contrasts the first and second coming, whilst verse 4 emphasizes the need for a personal response to the Christmas massage. Christina Rossetti was the daughter of Gabriele Rossetti, an Italian refugee who was Professor of Italian at King’s College, London. This hymn was published by her brother, William Michael Rossetti, ten years after her death. Christina was a devout Anglican who was engaged to James Collinson, a member of the Pre- Raphaelite Brotherhood. He agreed to leave the Catholic church in order to marry her, but later re-joined, causing her to break off the engagement.

Tune - Cranham

Gustav Theodore (von) Holst (1874-1934) wrote the tune CRANHAM for this hymn in The English Hymnal, where the metre of the hymn is described as ‘peculiar’. In the last line of words for verse 1, (‘Long ago’), it is assumed that Holst wanted it phrased Long (2 beats) a- (2 beats) go. However, the practice is now, generally, to sing Long (3 beats) a- (1 beat) go. The name of the tune refers to Holst’s birthplace, near Cheltenham. Holst was English on his mother’s side and Swedish on his father’s side. Until World War I, his family name included a ‘von’. Trained as an organist and a trombonist, Holst was a major figure in secondary and higher music education in London, and also organised music for the YMCA in army camps in Salonika and Asia Minor during the last year of World War I. His ashes are buried in the north transept of Chichester Cathedral.

Nigel Day
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 28th November 1997