In the Bleak Mid-Winter

The words to this famous Christmas carol were written by Christina Rossetti in 1872 in re­sponse to a re­quest from the mag­a­zine Scrib­ner’s Month­ly for a Christ­mas po­em, but were only published posthumously in The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti  (1904).

The poem depicts the pictorial and human attributes of the Incarnation. The imagery of winter follows the example of Milton’s ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ (‘It was the Winter Wilde’). It also follows the tradition, used by Milton, that at Christ’s birth, the earth was covered with pure white snow.

Gustav Holst (1874-1934) set the words to music for inclusion in the first edition (1906) of The English Hymnal, edited by his life-long friend, Ralph Vaughan Williams. He had just been appointed Director of Music at St Paul's School for Girls in Hammersmith, London, and this was a period in his life when he was shaking off youthful influence of Wagner and discovering the simple beauty of English folk-song, an influence which had a significant impact on his writing.

He gave the carol tune the name Cranham, referring to his birthplace near Cheltenham, in the west of England. (Incidentally, his other famous hymn tune Thaxted – I vow to thee, my country – was named after the village in Essex where he went at weekends to compose).