November 28, 2005

R is for Christina Rossetti

My holiday mood has officially begun. I even listened to the Medieval Baebes' holiday album, this morning on the way into work.

Therefore, is for CHristina Rossetti.

The connection may be more obvious if you've heard Pierce Pettis' gorgeous rendition of her "In the Bleak Midwinter", which is on Windham Hill's Winter SOlstice III. I don't know whether Pettis wrote the setting himself; when I first heard it, I thought it was a medieval carol. This is a clear case of my not having listened closely enough to the words, but the melody does sound like something from the fourteenth century (I think it's Holst's melody). However, even though on closer reading they don't quite sound medieval, the words themselves are gorgeous:

In the Bleak Midwinter 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,
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

It's the echo of Old English kennings in the "Earth lilke iron, water like stone" line that makes it sound old to me, and for some odd reason, the repetition of "snow on snow" that makes it sound later. (The somewhat lame line that seems stuck in just for the rhyme, "If I were a Wise Man I would do my part" isn't particularly unusual for old folk songs, though.) At any rate, it's not surprising that the poem did first sound medieval; Rossetti, like her brother Dante Gabriel, was a member of the Pre-Raphaelites, whose goal was to recapture the beauty and simplicity of the medieval world. I'm not entirely sure why they thought medival art was simple, but they may just have meant unfussy - this was the early part of Victoria's reign. At any rate, the medieval influence shines like light through a stained glass window in her work, such as the fairy tale elements in The Goblin Market or the folk-song ones in some of her shorter poems:

A birthday My heart is like a singing bird Whose heart is in a watered shoot: My heart is like an apple-tree Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit; My heart is like a rainbow shell That Paddles in a halcyon sea; My heart is gladder than all these Because my love is come to me. Raise me dais of silk and down; Hang it with vair and purple dyes; Carve it in doves and pomegranates, And peacocks with a hundred eyes; Work it in gold and silver grapes, In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys; Because the birthday of my life Is come, my love is come to me.
Posted by dichroic at November 28, 2005 03:51 PM
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