In the bleak midwinter
Source: Singing the Faith: 204
Words: Christina Georgina Rossetti
Music: “Cranham” by Gustav Holst
Ideas for use
There is a sense of human fragility and Christian humility underpinning this hymn that sits in contrast to a God that “Heaven cannot hold… nor earth sustain”. This might be reflected by having a soloist sing the opening verse alone (preferably unaccompanied). Likewise, the final, highly personal verse lends itself to a solo voice – though this is to rob the other members of a congregation of the opportunity to make their personal commitment to the Christ child.
The theme of offering in the hymn suggests that it may serve as a response to the offertory within worship, or following prayers of praise and confession.
Note from Philip Baldwin: Does anyone else ever use 2 tunes for one hymn ? It solves the problem of ‘why didn’t you play the other tune’! I use Gotts will machen for the first and last verses of Father hear the prayer we offer and Sussex for the middle verses. The two tunes for In the bleak midwinter by Holst and Darke go together very well …although you really have to concentrate on the third line as it is very easy to slip from one into the other!
See also Peter Thurston’s reflection on this hymn: Ms Rosetti’s Christmas carol
Christina Rossetti, sister of the pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, never intended that this poem (published following her death) be published, like Love came down at Christmas (StF 210), as a Christmas carol. The rhythm of the original lines don’t easily lend themselves to the regular metre that Gustav Holst imposes on them in his tune ”Cranham”. (The verse beginning “Heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain” (v.2) is a variation from the original “Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain”.)
In The Daily Telegraph (14 December 2007) Ian Bradley questions the poem’s theology: “Is it right to say that heaven cannot hold God, nor the earth sustain, and what about heaven and earth fleeing away when he comes to reign?” In response, a Wikipedia article on this hymn notes that Solomon’s prayer of dedication of the Temple (I Kings 8.27) asks: “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you.” It also points to apocalyptic passages in the New Testament that support the phrase “heaven and earth shall flee away” (v.2). E.g. 2 Peter 3. 10-11: “The heavens will disappear with a roar, the elements will be destroyed by fire… That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.”
Many hymn editors (including of Singing the Faith) omit one verse altogether, perhaps because of a certain nervousness about Christina Rossetti’s intimate reference to the Christ-child breastfeeding:
Enough for him, whom Cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay:
Enough for him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel