Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Christmas, Part Two: "Earth Grown Old"

Christina Rossetti's best-known poem is usually sung or listened to, not read.  I suspect that many of those who sing or listen to the verses are not aware that they were written by Rossetti.  Here is the first stanza of the poem:

In the bleak mid-winter
   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 mid-winter
   Long ago.

Christina Rossetti, "A Christmas Carol," in Goblin Market, The Prince's Progress and Other Poems (1875 edition).  The lines "Snow had fallen, snow on snow,/Snow on snow" are particularly lovely, I think.

The poem was first published in a periodical in 1872.  Rossetti died in 1894.  In 1906, Gustav Holst set the poem to music.

                  Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935), "Mainstreet, Roros" (1904)

The line "Earth stood hard as iron" in the first stanza of "A Christmas Carol" seems to lead naturally to another seasonal poem by Rossetti.


Earth grown old, yet still so green,
          Deep beneath her crust of cold
Nurses fire unfelt, unseen:
          Earth grown old.

          We who live are quickly told:
Millions more lie hid between
          Inner swathings of her fold.

When will fire break up her screen?
          When will life burst thro' her mould?
Earth, earth, earth, thy cold is keen,
          Earth grown old.

Christina Rossetti, Verses (1893).

As I have mentioned on other occasions, a significant amount of Rossetti's poetry consists of devotional verse.  "Advent" falls within that category. Who are the "millions" who "lie hid between/Inner swathings of her fold"? I presume that they may be those who (to quote from another Rossetti poem) are "sleeping at last, the trouble and tumult over."  Beyond that, I am not qualified to opine on the "meaning" of the poem.  Rossetti has a mystical strain that gives much of her religious verse a riddling quality. And one often senses that her non-theological world lies somewhere between the lines as well.

                             Harald Sohlberg, "A View of Vestfold" (1909)


Acornmoon said...

I always wanted to illustrate "In the bleak midwinter", maybe one day.

Stephen Pentz said...

acornmoon: I am not an artist, but I can see why the poem would be a tempting candidate for illustration. "Snow on snow . . ."

Thank you very much for visiting again, and for your thoughts.

Jeff said...

What can I say? Thanks, as always, Stephen, for a bit of stillness and contemplation in a cacophonous season.

Stephen Pentz said...

Thank you, Jeff. It is always good to hear from you. Merry Christmas!

EMarsh said...

Dear Stephen,

A lovely post, and more stunning images. The non-light in these pictures is extraordinary! Thank you.

Also an opportunity for me to alert you to a truly astounding setting of the Rossetti, by Benjamin Britten, in his Op. 3 "A Boy Was Born". It is a set of variations on a theme, and Variation 5 is the Rossetti. Go here to get a taster of this music (this is the recording I would recommend) - I swear, if you shut your eyes and listen to the whole variation, you can see snow falling ...

It was written when he was in his teens, and is dedicated to his father.

We had our week of iron hard ground last week - today it is pouring with rain and warmer - so glum here in London.

All the best


Stephen Pentz said...

Eamonn: it's nice to hear from you again.

"Non-light"! That's a perfect way to describe Sohlberg's paintings. Having spent my childhood in a place of dark and snowy winters (though not as dark and snowy as Sohlberg's Norway), the description "non-light" resonates a great deal for me. Thank you.

And thank you as well for the reference to Britten's version of Rossetti -- I wasn't aware of it. In his teens! I found a version on the Internet: lovely.

Merry Christmas. Please stop by again soon.

Bovey Belle said...

How wonderful to start a new week with this absolutely inspiring piece of music - how different from the carol we would pipe out on doorsteps as children . . . I too thought, and he wrote this in his TEENS?!

Wonderfully atmospheric paintings (I love the slate skies of snow to come) and a new-to-me poem of Christina Rossetti's too - she truly captures the iron-bound winter lands and the bodies gripped beneath the soil, but I wonder why those still living has to be "quickly told" about those who have gone before? Yet there is hope in this poem too.

It is good to start the week with an expansion of knowledge and a flight of the soul in music.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: I'm glad that you liked the paintings and the poem. Your description of "the slate skies of snow to come" is perfect: he has captured that time perfectly, hasn't he?

Rossetti is like Hardy: she wrote so many poems that one constantly comes across new poems or poems that one has once read, but forgotten about. It is fun just to open one of her volumes and see what one finds.

As always, thank you for stopping by.