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Last Friday, I was rushing, irritated. Plans had gone awry, appointment times had spilled over, and the day’s agenda chafed and constricted, a too-tight sweater. I hate the feeling of being rushed, but I am now so conscious of and allergic to the glorification of busyness that I doubly despise the sensation.
In my car, by unprogrammed happenstance, Siri played “In the Bleak Midwinter,” a choral hymn performed by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge. I’d never heard it before, but would later learn that many consider this “the world’s greatest carol.”
Time stalled, then stretched out like taffy. The arrangement alone left a lump in my throat. The piercing staccato notes, the exquisite dynamics, the artful syncopation plucked at my heart strings. What you are worrying about at this moment does not matter, the piano seemed to say. And then, too, the lyrics, which I later learned were adapted from an 1872 poem of the same name by Christina Rossetti, who was described by her brother as “replete with the spirit of self-postponement.” (More on that later, but fellow English majors may remember Rossetti even without her brother’s portraiture as the author of “Goblin Market,” a text we all probably hated at one point, but is well worth re-visiting. It is weird and rich and surprisingly modern?)
The opening quatrain is fascinating:
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 lines are catchy and well-paced — almost singsong — with a crisp AABB rhyme scheme, but they also have a strange scansion pattern: 11 feet (line 1), 11 feet (line 2), 10 feet (line 3), 9 feet (line 4), and seem to alternate erratically between patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. Perhaps there is a poetry student who can share the full scan for trochees and dactyls, but even without that apparatus: if we read the stanza, we will find ourselves unsure at certain points of how to pace and emphasize the lines, especially in “snow on snow, snow on snow.” But this metrical dissonance echoes the broader themes of the poem: this is the story of Christmas, and the shocking imbalance between a birth in a humble manger and the salvation it heralded.
The modern, dynamic piano instrumentation presents a parallel gloss: its halting simplicity strains against the fullness and tradition of the vocals. This is a sung poem of contrast. The rich against the bare; the choir beside the single-struck piano note; the king amidst the hay.
I was, of course, Gretel on her breadcrumb trail, following the scattered path home. I thought immediately of how badly I’d misjudged the weight of my own day. I re-scaled the matters on my mind, the hymn a badly-needed solvent, both in the context of the day and in the broader lead-up to Advent. “Let’s get this straight,” I found myself thinking, adjusting. Later, I thought of Rossetti, and of her “spirit of self-postponement,” and of the way she was perfectly poised to write about the quiet wait of Advent. How badly I had needed to hear her vanitas mundi rejoinder.
+In praise of a normal day.
+I have been resisting this admission for a long time, but I have to say — True & Co’s seamless triangle bra is, after all, the best bra in the world. I wish it were a tad sexier/prettier but it is so comfortable, looks great under everything, and works with tons of necklines. I reach for it every single day. This was a Magpie reader rec and you did not steer me wrong. They released a less expensive version with Target, but I’ve not tried it. (Has anyone else? Is it as good as the real thing?)
+My favorite running shoes are $30 off with code NIKE30. (Run!)
+Very tempted by this reversible jacket. Love the ultra-textured side!
+Doen launches its holiday collection today at 9 AM EST. I will be lined up and waiting. They sent me a preview and I’m already obsessed with the red velvet Celestine, the embellished Pamelina, and the slightly quirky Meltia. If you’re long and lean, the tartan Rosabelle is fabulous, too.
+My girlfriend Inslee designs the most beautiful desk calendars each year. You can buy here! I’ve given these as Christmas gifts to my mom and MIL in years past.
+This sequin maxi skirt is currently on sale for $114. So fab.
+This is the CUTEST fair isle sweater.
+Toying with the idea of buying my son a Banwood skateboard for Christmas. I recently noticed, while he was taking his first skating lesson, that he has a great temperament for athletics. He is not easily discouraged or frustrated, and takes feedback on the chin, without embarrassment or grimace. I think we might try to get him into more sports programs now that he’s heading into K.
+And a gift idea on my mind for my girl: this karaoke set. She loves singing SO much.
+Great winter base layer for athleisure days.
+How adorable is this snowman sweatshirt for your little one?
+I’ve read a few Lauren Groff pieces over the years and somehow missed the release of this one about a month ago. On my reading list…
+Ski bunnies: how cute are these ski-print jammies/thermals from Polkadot London?