The Annual “Sic et Non” Christmas Carol Improvement Project

The Annual “Sic et Non” Christmas Carol Improvement Project December 1, 2019

 

The Christmas star
The Star over Bethlehem, from the Christmas 1898 cover of Harper’s Magazine
(Wikimedia Commons public domain image )

 

Tabernacle Choir — “In the Bleak Midwinter”

 

One of my very favorite Christmas carols is a setting by Gustav Holst of “In the bleak midwinter.”  The poem that became the basis of the carol’s lyrics was written by the prominent English poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), sister of the poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882):

 

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 do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

 

I love the poem.  Christina Rossetti was a fine poet.  But there is, in my view, a weakness in the last stanza, and it has always bothered me.

 

The best poetry, in my judgment, works powerfully with very concrete things, using metaphor to make broader points.  To the extent that it waxes abstract, distancing itself from the concrete and specific, it loses much of its impact.  So consider that last stanza:

 

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 I can I give Him: give my heart.

 

It’s the third line that bothers me.  Lambs are concrete and specific.  So, in a sense, are hearts.  But “If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part”?  That’s very vague and quite unsatisfactory.  Disappointing.  Ms. Rossetti’s poetic gift failed her just a bit at that point.

 

Accordingly, I invite everybody out there to consider ways in which to improve the third line.  The trouble is — fortunately or unfortunately — that lines one, two, and four are really quite acceptable.  So, ideally, the “fix” to line three has to involve a word that rhymes with heart and part.

 

I myself have thought of no satisfactory solution yet.  So I can’t really fault Christina Rossetti.

 

Your prize, should you come up with a good replacement for the third line of the final stanza of “In the Bleak Midwinter,” might potentially go beyond the personal satisfaction that you will receive:  You could possibly attain at least passing seasonal fame across the English-speaking world.

 

Posted from Bountiful, Utah

 

 

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