In the Bleak Midwinter

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Christina Rossetti, portrait by her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Christina Rossetti 3.jpg
Christina Rossetti, portrait by her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

"In the Bleak Midwinter" is a poem by the English poet Christina Rossetti, commonly performed as a Christmas carol. The poem was published, under the title "A Christmas Carol", in the January 1872 issue of Scribner's Monthly, [1] [2] and was first collected in book form in Goblin Market, The Prince's Progress and Other Poems (Macmillan, 1875).


In 1906, the composer Gustav Holst composed a setting of Rossetti's words (titled "Cranham") in The English Hymnal which is sung throughout the world. [3] An anthem setting by Harold Darke composed in 1909 is also widely performed by choirs, and was named the best Christmas carol in a poll of some of the world's leading choirmasters and choral experts in 2008. [4]


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.

Our God, heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain,
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
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 down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and Archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air;
But only His Mother
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.

As first published in Scribner's Monthly (January 1872) In the bleak midwinter 1872.png
As first published in Scribner's Monthly (January 1872)


In verse one, Rossetti describes the physical circumstances of the Incarnation in Bethlehem. In verse two, Rossetti contrasts Christ's first and second coming. The third verse dwells on Christ's birth and describes the simple surroundings, in a humble stable and watched by beasts of burden. Rossetti achieves another contrast in the fourth verse, this time between the incorporeal angels attendant at Christ's birth with Mary's ability to render Jesus physical affection. The final verse shifts the description to a more introspective thought process.

Hymnologist and theologian Ian Bradley has questioned 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?" [5]


The text of this Christmas poem has been set to music many times. Two of the most famous settings were composed by Gustav Holst and Harold Darke in the early 20th century.


"Cranham", by Gustav Holst Cranham Holst.png
"Cranham", by Gustav Holst
In the Bleak Midwinter

Holst's setting, Cranham, is a hymn tune setting suitable for congregational singing, since the poem is irregular in metre and any setting of it requires a skilful and adaptable tune. The hymn is titled after Cranham, Gloucestershire and was written for the English Hymnal of 1906. [6] [3]


In the Bleak Midwinter

The Darke setting, was written in 1909 while he was a student at the Royal College of Music. Although melodically similar, it is more advanced; each verse is treated slightly differently, with solos for soprano and tenor (or a group of sopranos and tenors) and a delicate organ accompaniment. [5] This version is favoured by cathedral choirs and is the one usually heard performed on the radio broadcasts of Nine Lessons and Carols by the King's College Choir. Darke served as conductor of the choir during World War II. [7] Darke omits verse four of Rossetti's original, and bowdlerizes Rossetti's "a breastful of milk" to "a heart full of mirth", [8] although later editions reversed this change. Darke also repeats the last line of the final verse. Darke would complain, however, that the popularity of this tune prevented people from performing his other compositions, and rarely performed it outside of Christmas services. [9]

The Darke setting was used in Jacob Collier's rearrangement of the song, [10] which was released on YouTube on 14 December 2016. The rearrangement by Collier features contemporary compositional techniques such as microtonality.

Other settings

Benjamin Britten includes an elaborate five-part setting of the first verse for high voices (combined with the medieval Corpus Christi Carol ) in his work A Boy was Born .

Other settings include those by Robert C L Watson, Bruce Montgomery, Bob Chilcott, Michael John Trotta, [11] Robert Walker, [12] Eric Thiman, who wrote a setting for solo voice and piano, and Leonard Lehrman. [13]

It is quoted throughout the Peaky Blinders TV series. [14] [15] It makes an appearance in The Crown season 1 premiere. [16] [17] Most of the main characters sing the first verse in the Christmas episode of the BBC TV series Ghosts . [18] [19]

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  1. Petersen, Randy (2014). Be Still, My Soul: The Inspiring Stories behind 175 of the Most-Loved Hymns. Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. p. 145. ISBN   9781414388427 . Retrieved 4 October 2019.
  2. Rossetti, Christina G. (January 1872). "A Christmas Carol". Scribner's Monthly. New York: Scribner & Co. iii (3): 278.
  3. 1 2 "Shnugget: Carols at Cranham". BBC News. 6 January 2009. Retrieved 26 November 2014.
  4. "Bleak Midwinter named best carol". BBC News. 27 November 2008. Retrieved 26 November 2014.
  5. 1 2 Christiansen, Rupert (14 December 2007). "The story behind the carol: In the bleak midwinter". The Daily Telegraph . London. Retrieved 26 November 2014.
  6. The English Hymnal. Oxford University Press. 1916. p. 44.
  7. "In The Bleak Midwinter". Retrieved 28 December 2015.
  8. Wooton, Janet (7 January 2013). This Is Our Song: Women's Hymn-Writing. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock. p. 143. ISBN   9781620321294.
  9. Galaxy Music Corporation: In the Bleak Midwinter by Harold Darke arr. Ronald Arnatt
  10. "In The Bleak Midwinter - Jacob Collier" . Retrieved 9 December 2020.
  11. "Michael John Trotta's setting", YouTube
  12. Archived 24 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  13. "In the bleak midwinter (Rossetti, set by Harold Edwin Darke, Gustav Holst, Bruce Montgomery, Leonard J[ordan] Lehrman, Michael John Trotta, Mick Swithinbank, Stephen Wilkinson, Benjamin Britten)". 16 June 2014. Retrieved 28 December 2015.
  14. "What are the lyrics to 'In The Bleak Midwinter' – and which version is better?". Classic FM.
  15. Mitchell, Molli (15 March 2020). "Peaky Blinders: 'In the Bleak Midwinter' secret meaning revealed - why do they say it?".
  16. "'The Crown' Series Premiere Recap: Wolferton Splash". 4 November 2016. Retrieved 9 December 2020.
  17. "The curious comforts of "In the Bleak Midwinter"". 21 December 2016. Retrieved 9 December 2020 via The Economist.
  18. "Ghosts Series 3: The Beautiful Message of This Adorably Daft Comedy". 12 August 2021. Retrieved 9 September 2021.
  19. "Ghosts: 'The Ghost of Christmas' on BBC". 23 December 2020. Retrieved 9 September 2021.