Advent Calendar Day 23: In The Bleak Mid-Winter (Holst)

This carol is purely wishful thinking on my part.  The forecast for today is for 39°C – appallingly hot for December – and a bit of frosty wind feels as though it would be very welcome just now.  Especially as I still have to do all my Christmas baking!

I’ve loved this carol for years, not so much for the tune (which is simple and lovely, but not out of the ordinary), but for Christina Rosetti’s lyrics, which are wonderfully evocative.  I especially love the third verse, with the breastful of milk and the manger full of hay, and the fourth verse, with Mary worshipping the infant Jesus with a kiss (it’s so easy to picture Mary cuddling her baby and kissing the top of his head, as I’ve seen my friends do with their babies over the years).

Here is the poem, so that you can appreciate it:

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,
A 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, would I bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, would I do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him… give my heart.

 

I’ve had so much trouble finding the perfect version of this carol.  I don’t think it exists, outside my head – every time I find an arrangement I really like, it turns out to be missing one of my favourite verses.  This one, for example, has a glorious descant for the angels and archangels, but skips verse three.  The setting by Harold Darke, which I actually prefer musically (especially, I admit, when the tenor solo is sung by Ian Bostridge), skips the fourth verse!  And then I also really like the setting by Michael John Trotta, but it skips *both* my favourite verses, which I feel is truly unfair – really, the first verse is lovely poetry, and the second and fifth verses are fairly standard carolling material, but the third and fourth verses express the humanity of the infant Jesus in a way not many carols do, and it seems truly a shame to miss this.

(And we won’t even go into the recordings by Julie Andrews, Sarah McLachlan, or Split Enz, among many, many others.  I don’t think this song was ever meant to be sung as a folk song.  Though I’d love more versions with a solo or two in them…)

 

 

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