In the Bleak Midwinter
IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER
Advent and Christmas with Christina Rossetti
Rachel MannThrough Advent and Christmas with Christina Rossetti
Christina Rossetti is often typecast, and her poetry is therefore frequently undervalued and neglected. She is erroneously envisaged as a typical Victorian ‘spinster’, devout but sentimental, prolific but unfashionable, the purveyor of staid and conventional verse. The well-known lyrics of the famous hymn, In the Bleak Midwinter, may not have helped in this regard. Certainly, her status seemed to fade in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century, while her literary reputation was subserviently linked to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, of whom her artist brother Gabriel was a leading light. Christina, the dedicated Anglo-Catholic maiden, seemed perhaps less interesting to the public than her rakish, atheist brother. There is some symbolism of this brother-sister relationship within Gabriel’s famous painting of the Annunciation, Ecce Ancilla Domini, in which Christina was compelled, in some discomfort, to model the Virgin Mary. The painting shocked and offended the Victorian public because Mary - normally demure and obedient - was shown with red hair, scantily clad, hunched defiantly against a wall. Crucially, elements of such defiance, a toughness, may be detected within Rossetti’s subsequent poetry, and certainly her numerous Christian poems do not exactly reflect our conventional and strict image of Victorian religion. There is strong character, richness and a deep understanding of both scripture and human nature within her verse: she is a Christian poet of the first water, ahead of her time.
In this important book, Rachel Mann has captured the essence of Rossetti’s verse and has demonstrated how it can testify to the spirit of the Advent-Christmas season. For Advent, the elements of preparation, contemplation, and reflective prayer can be evoked from several of the poems. There is some serious discipline here, but Christmas joy and the wonder of the Incarnation, are also evident. As the author explains, Rossetti ‘understands the relationship between preparation and receiving the greatest gift of all, Christ himself.’ This takes us to the mysterious heart of the Christian faith.
The introduction to the book is informative and helpful, providing brief biographical details, and the context for Rossetti’s writing. She was prolific in her output, and the selection of just forty poems was tricky, as Rachel Mann explains. But, importantly, the selection works. Readers can take a disciplined and systematic path - a poem a day with its associated scripture or theological reflection; or they can read it in chunks whenever they have time during the season. The former approach is probably better, but you will need to set aside enough time each day, and this may need strong discipline, especially during the days of Christmas.
All this makes for a very fine Advent resource: a book that provides a fresh approach to a relatively neglected poet; adds an unobtrusive yet learned commentary and - most importantly - guides the reader into reflection and prayer as a daily discipline. We must be grateful to Rachel Mann for producing such an imaginative and helpful seasonal book - one that will undoubtedly be of great benefit for Christian devotion, unpacking the mysteries of our faith, year after year.
Reviewed by Peter Clough
Reflection / Meditation / Spirituality
Festivals - Advent & Christmas