By Joel Francis
When Scribner’s Monthly asked for Christmas poem submissions in 1872, Christina Rossette wrote “In the Bleak Midwinter.” For unknown reasons, however, the poem was never sent in and remained unread until it was published after her death in 1904. Two years later, composter Gustav Holst, best known for his symphony “The Planets,” set the words to music.
Rossette’s words paint a picture of the stark, unlikely setting in which Christ was born in which “Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.” It’s not difficult to imagine the isolation of a land where “snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow.”
Holst’s melody is subtle. There are no big crescendos or explosive choruses. Instead, the song builds gradually, like the falling snow, settling cozily on the contemplative lyrics.
In the second and third verses, Christ is born in a manger and worshipped by the animals. The final verse is the best-known. It’s lyrics are as touching as they are humble.
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 can I give Him –
Give my heart.
“In the Bleak Midwinter” never entered the top-tier Christmas pantheon like “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night.” Unlike those hymns, one can go an entire holiday season without hearing this song. It’s nice to be able to seek refuge in a song as lovely as this rather than having it incessantly pumped through speakers at the mall.