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From the Nov/Dec, 2011 issue of Touchstone


In the Bleak Midwinter by Anthony Esolen

In the Bleak Midwinter

Behold a little child, a boy. He has only a few words yet, but within the wondrous dome of his head, tousled with a wisp of wild hair, a whole world is coming into being. Sometimes he regards things with a settled seriousness, as if he were a metaphysical scholar, batting a toy swing back and forth, investigating the principles of motion. Sometimes he crouches down to the earth to make finger-marks in the soil. Sometimes he gazes into the eyes of a stranger, and breaks into a smile, the two teeth on the bottom making him look a little like a rakish old man who has just downed a swig of cider.

If we knew, in advance, that the child would “amount to nothing,” as we say in our ruthlessness—that he would be the first dumped overboard in the surreality television show of modern life, the first sent packing with his half a talent—indeed, if we knew he would die before the age of reason, should that not make him all the more precious in our eyes? The good of the child is beyond quantity; it is like the good of love, and beauty.

Do we understand that? I don’t know. A hedonistic world is, at base, cruel, pitiless. That is because sensual pleasure can be calibrated. It raises the horrible questions, “How much?” and “How many?” Egotistical pleasure, for which many of us, worshiping a Higher Hedonism, sacrifice the sensual, can also be measured. Larry is the youngest partner in Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe. Linda has two Master’s degrees in Personnel Management. In such a world the child may be a “lifestyle accessory,” to use the inhuman patois, but is otherwise an embarrassment to be managed, or an irrelevance.

And yet our Lord says, “Unless you become as little children, you shall not enter the kingdom of God.” The child must receive all things as gifts, because on his own he can do nothing. Yet the child is also in himself a gift of incomparable beauty, a grace that takes the breath away. We come to Jesus, then, with the poverty and the dignity of children, and he meets us, on the feast of Christmas, in the same way. What cheer for the heart! All the gears of the world grind on, the smokestacks belch and the politicians speak, scientists distill medicines and poisons, producers produce and consumers consume, but the true world is here, at the side of the Christ child, in stillness and joy.

That is the insight of Christina Rossetti’s hymn, “In the Bleak Midwinter.” It is nonsense to suggest that the verses are sentimental. The poet sees the emptiness of a world without Christ. The month of his birth does not matter. If it was July, it was winter—man’s winter, the world’s winter:

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.

The childlike irregularity of the meter should not deceive us. Miss Rossetti knows what she is doing. The repetition of “snow on snow,”like the quiet fall of snow on a windless day, suggests the cold of the world, inexorable, deaf to appeal. Nothing changes, nothing can change, until the Word is made flesh, and dwells among us.

This happens because God is too great for greatness; he is the Lord who will come in majesty, and who came, long ago, in the royal flesh of a little child; he is at once beyond the world’s imagining, and beneath the world’s notice:

Our God, heaven cannot hold him,
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall welcome him
When he comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God incarnate,
Jesus Christ.

Never has the name of the Lord been so tenderly and beautifully uttered in a poem. He is the little boy, named Jesus by his mother, and a stable suffices to house him at his birth; and he is the Christ, the Son of God, who rules at the right hand of the Father. His name itself embraces the whole mystery of our faith. It is the truth. The line needs no more.

The next verse, too, brings together the grand and the small, the mighty and the intimate:

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air;
But his mother only,
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the almighty
With a kiss.

Omnipotence, in the limbs of a babe; and the eternal Love submits to the lips of a maiden girl, and her loving kiss. We should not think that there is power on display in the heavens above the stable, and weakness and humility within. For the meaning of true power is to be seen in the kiss between Mary and the child, and the act of worship that was granted to her, and perhaps to her alone, shows us the essence of all our adoration of the Lord.

Thinking, then, of that kiss, Miss Rossetti asks simply, “What do I have to give?” Again, it is no sentimental question. The Lord himself has said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” It is precisely because the child has nothing to give, and knows he has nothing, that he can give the most important gift of all. A wise man, says the poet with a wry vagueness, might do his part, whatever that might be, but what Jesus really wants from us is what the child alone, no matter his age, has to offer:

What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd,
I would give a lamb;
If I were a wise man,
I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him,
Give my heart. •

Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

“In the Bleak Midwinter” first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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