“In the bleak midwinter, long ago.” – Christina Rossetti

27th December 2019

In our own little Morris & friends world, we are often a little overly excited when we find their names and works being recognised by others in everyday life. We expect it of course, lots of their art and writings and so on were absolute genius. It makes sense we still recognise it. But, when we see a member of the Pre-Raphaelite movements work, we always find the need to excitedly point it out – look! Morris wallpaper! We yell every time as we pass the Cosy Club in Liverpool. In Disney we found Golden Lily wallpaper which was so out of place in a world surrounded by a Mouse and his friends – almost like we were in some sort of Alice in Wonderland movie and we had to go closer to the wall to make sure we were correct with what we were seeing.

This is all to lead up to the fact that when Christmas Eve came around this year (far too quickly if you ask us, we’d absolutely not had enough mince pies) we were very happy to see in the hymn sheet, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ by Christina Rossetti. Que silent and dramatic pointing at her name as if everyone should recognise the significance. Amid bemused smiles and pacifying nods, we thought, maybe our blog readers will give us some more enthusiasm.

Christina Rossetti, sister of well known artist and poet Dante Gabriel and two other siblings, William Michael and Maria who both became writers. She was born in London and educated at home, she was a fan of literature from a young age, especially of Keats, Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis. She was always a writer it appears, having been said to have dictated her first story to her mother before she could herself write.

In her late teen years, Christina became engaged to James Collinson, a painter and the first of three suitors. He was one of the founding members of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, along with her brothers William and Dante. So it’s clear from the beginning of her awareness and influence by those closest to her. The engagement ended in 1850 after he reverted to Catholicism and this religious barrier also saw the ending of another relationship to Charles Cayley whom she refused to marry on religious grounds. Her third suitor, John Brett, a painter, was also refused.

Her religious beliefs were reinforced when she was 14 and suffered a nervous breakdown, leading her to leave school. She suffered depression and related illnesses following this and during this time herself, her mother and sister became invested in the Anglo-Catholic movement (which became the Church of England.) This religious devotion became a huge role in her life following this time. In 1849, she again became seriously ill and suffered heavily from depression – reportedly around 1857, she had a major religious crisis.

You may recognise Christina due to the fact she sat for many of her brother Dante’s most famous paintings as his model. This includes the Virgin Mary in his first oil painting, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin in 1848. This was his first works to be inscribed with ‘PRB’ which meant, Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

She began writing down and dating her poems in 1842, though as we mentioned, she was ‘writing’ before she could write, so it’s clear she was creating from a really young age. Under the pseudonym Ellen Alleyne, she contributed to ‘The Germ’ which we have mentioned in previous blogs, it was a magazine published by the Pre-Raphaelites from January to April 1850 and edited by her brother William Rossetti.

Looping back to our original point – it was her poem, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ which became very well known following her death. It was set as a Christmas carol first by Gustav Holst and then Harold Darke. Her other carol came from her poem, ‘Love Came Down at Christmas’ (1885.) We think these carols are so beautiful.

“In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter,
Long ago.”

– Christina Rossetti

We hope you take a minute to read more about Rossetti’s life, it’s so interesting and her work so beautiful!