‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ by Christina Rossetti, one of Rossetti’s most well-known poems, was written at the behest of the editor of Scribner’s Monthly for the January edition of the publication in 1872. It was eventually to become one of the most loved English Christmas carols.
The poem is made up of five stanzas, divided into sets of four lines, or quatrains. Each of these quatrains follows a simple rhyming pattern of AABB CCDD, and so on.
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Summary of In the Bleak Midwinter
The poem begins with the speaker describing the state of a specific evening. It is a “bleak midwinter” day, the air is frosty, and it seems as if the Earth is frozen solid. The snow has been falling ceaselessly for hours. It becomes clear in the next stanzas that this is the day of Christ’s birth.
As the speaker continues she describes the manger into which Christ was born and how even though it was poor and cold, it was enough for him. He did not long for more. There were many who came to see him but the most important person of all was his mother who, “with a kiss,” worshipped him.
In the final stanza, the speaker asks of herself what she could possibly bring to the Christ child as she is so poor. She is no “Wise man” or “shepherd” who could bring a lamb. In the last line, she realizes that all she would need to give is her heart.
Analysis of 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.
In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins by describing the scene in which she is surrounded. It is clear from the title and the first line that the place the speaker is viewing and experiencing is deeply cold and “bleak.” There is not light to speak of, or warmth on the horizon. The wind is “moan[ing]” around her and the Earth seems to be completely frozen like “iron” or “stone.”
Snow has been falling for hours and just keeps piling up on top of the previous layer. It seems unending.
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 Almighty, Jesus Christ.
In the next line, the speaker introduces the religious backbone that holds this piece together. The power and glory of God, the reason that this piece commissioned, is the greatest theme throughout the poem.
She speaks of God as being a force that is not solely contained in Heaven or on Earth. He is more than the sum of both and all will “flee away when He comes” again to Earth “to reign. “
Even though all of these things about God are true, his power is great, “a stable place” was enough for Christ when he was born. The final line of this stanza is meant as a line of direct worship to God.
Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.
In the third quatrain of ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, the speaker continues the thought that she had begun at the end of the second. She carries on telling her listeners how the “stable” was “Enough for Him” who is worshiped “night and day” by “cherubim.”
He was not born into luxury or brilliance, but into a stark and humble world. When he was born he had “milk” and a “mangerful of hay” in which he was able to find comfort. This, she states, was enough for him. She is implying in these lines that any who complain about their own situation should remember that Christ was born into this physically destitute place.
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.
In the fourth stanza, the speaker describes the scene after he was born. It was in this manger that “Angles and archangels” gathered to get a glimpse of his visage. There were “Cherubim and seraphim” in the air around him.
Although many are there to worship him, the only person that truly mattered to the infant Christ at this time was his mother. Who worshipped him in her own way, “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 the final quatrain of ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ the speaker directly asks the reader, and herself, what is it she could possibly give to God in an effort to show him what he means to her. She is “poor” and unlike a “shepherd,” she cannot bring a “lamb.” Neither is she able to “do [her] part” as a “Wise Man” would be able.
In the final line, she comes to the conclusion that the only thing she is able to give “Him” is “[her] heart.”
About Christina Rossetti
Christina Rossetti was born in London in 1830. As a young girl, she enjoyed studying classics, as well as novels and fairy tales. Her writing career began when she was twelve years old, and she published her first poems in 1848l when she was 18. Her most famous collection, Goblin Market and Other Poems, was published in 1862 and was widely praised.
She became known as the greatest female poet of her time, with much of her critical acclaim coming from the title piece of the book, Goblin Market and Other Poems. As well as being known for her writing, her political and social beliefs made her even more notorious. She was openly opposed to slavery, which was still being widely practiced in the American South, as well as cruelty to and experimentation on animals. Rossetti developed breast cancer in 1893 and died in 1894. Her grave can be found in Highgate Cemetery in London.