Friday, 30 December 2016

Finishing School for Versifiers (part 3) In the bleak midwinter.

Listening once more – as is traditional with us – to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols broadcast on Christmas Eve from King’s College, Cambridge, I was forcibly struck by the bathos of the penultimate line of Christina Rossetti’s celebrated verse, In the bleak midwinter.

It was a jolt.
Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) 
English poet, in a chalk drawing by her brother, 
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1866.

Principally, I am disturbed by the rôle of the Wise Men and the ‘part’ they play in the drama of the nativity, which for Christina Rossetti remains unstated other than that their presence at the stable was requested only to poorly serve the demands of her rhyme.

                                  If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;

Agreed, the effect of utter simplicity in choice of imagery makes this poem a favourite of children, yet, all the same, I genuinely believe our inner child feels seriously let down by the poetess’s failure to tell us what a Wise Man actually does.  I mean, of course, that the poetess’s explanation, so far as it goes, is entirely self-referential . . . like that wretched new secular Girl Guides Pledge, which instead of exacting from the novitiate the promise to ‘do my best, to love my God,’ the oath now asks no more than ‘I will do my best to be true to myself and develop my beliefs . . .’

No. I think rather more pastoral direction is due in Christina Rossetti’s peroratory exhortation to the poor that they should bring before the Christ Child their gift of Belief, when her Wise Men seem to be entirely content with poetical circumlocutions.

Penultimate Line Re-evaluated in Accordance with Christian Equitability. 

[ The entire poem, intact, save for the re-evaluated penultimate line . . . ]

                                  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 Almighty, Jesus Christ.

                                  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.

                                  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 faith impart;
                                  Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

HRH Princess Margaret
President of the Girl Guide Movement

See also Re-evaluated Elizabeth Bishop:
Finishing School for Versifiers (part 1)
Finishing School for Versifiers (part 2)

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