‘A Christmas Carol’ by Christina Rossetti is a devotional poem that has been set to music many times, most famously by Gustav Holst in 1906, and remains a choral favourite today. It is centred around the birth of Jesus Christ, as told from the perspective of a speaker who although is excluded from this biblical scene by both time and status, feels deeply connected to it.
An indication of the tone and content of the poem, as well as Rossetti’s aspirations for it, can be found in the title ‘A Christmas Carol’. This is because the title essentially invites readers to view the poem as a potential song, as carols are popular hymns usually sung as a way of providing enjoyment during the holiday season. However, this poem defies the stereotype of a joyous carol by providing a particularly morose and gloomy setting, that can be found in the opening line itself. The reference to the winter as ‘bleak’ is repeated throughout the first and second stanza, and this creates an atmosphere of hopelessness that is typical of Rossetti’s poetry. This experience of desolation is then intensified through Rossetti’s usage of multiple layers of imagery. For example, tactile imagery is present in the phrase ‘Frosty wind’, whereas auditory imagery can be found through Rossetti’s usage of assonance (‘moan’/ ‘stone’; ‘snow’ / ‘ago’), which allows reader to hear the moaning of the wind. Rossetti sustains the semantic field of coldness by repeating the phrase ‘snow on snow’, which could be an enactment of the gradual buildup of snowflakes during the winter, thus creating an image of how the speaker is being enveloped by the cold. Furthermore, the natural elements are depicted as frigid and immovable (‘Earth stood hard as iron, / Water like a stone;’), which paints the environment to be a hostile and unforgiving one.
By setting the poem in an unforgiving environment, Rossetti effectively illustrates how Christians perceive the state of the world before the birth of Jesus Christ, as they believe that without him there would be no hope of salvation or eternal life. The phrase ‘Our God’ not only serves to draw the reader’s attention to the main theme of the poem, it universalizes the condition of Christian suffering as well. Rossetti has a tendency to create a sense of grandeur in her devotional poems, and this is seen in ‘A Christmas Carol’ through the grand images of God that can be found (‘Heaven cannot hold Him / Nor earth sustain’). This is further sustained by the usage of hyperbole (‘Heaven and earth shall flee away’), and the antithesis in the line clearly indicates that the birth of Jesus Christ is a large-scale event. Yet God, despite his infinite power, is presented as a humble being in the poem. For example, it is repeatedly stated that the least of material needs is sufficient for Him, through phrases such as ‘A stable-place sufficed’ and ‘Enough for Him’. The mention of the stable place reminds the reader of the harsh conditions in which Jesus Christ was born, and the allusion to the nativity scene continues throughout the poem. Rossetti constantly mingles both God’s humility with His grandness, which creates an effect of augmenting both of these contrasting aspects. For example, the ‘angels’ are mentioned in close proximity with the ‘ox and ass and camel’ in the third stanza, thus presenting the idea of how God is willing to stoop down for the good of mankind. Interestingly, the angels Cherubim and Seraphim are present in many of Rossetti’s devotional poems, such as The Convent Threshold. In this poem, they are depicted as worshipping God ‘night and day’, and the internal rhyme depicts an image of God being surrounded by a heavenly choir, which serves to again cement the idea of God as an almighty being.
Naturally, a reader would expect the persona to emulate God by also practicing humility, yet the final stanza paints a rather ambiguous picture as to the true attitude of the persona. The persona can be read as a humble person, as he or she acknowledges that he or she is poor, and of a lower status compared to the ‘shepherd’ and the ‘Wise Man’ (a reference to the Magi). Christian humility is a notable quality that is present in the persona of most of Rossetti’s devotional poems, such as in The Lowest Place. Hence, the final stanza can be interpreted as a sincere tribute, and this is evidenced by the usage of a dash (‘I would do my part, – ), as the dash could represent the persona’s heightened emotions. This view is supported by critic Dinah Roe, who notes that Rossetti often uses dashes as a musical device as they visually express a drawing out of emotion, a reaching out, or a ‘something almost being said’. Alternatively, it can be said that through the final stanza, the persona is effectively shifting the spotlight of the poem to him or herself. This is because every line in the last stanza (with the exception of the last line) contains the pronoun ‘I’, thus it can be said that the entire stanza has been pervaded with the persona’s sense of self. Additionally, the cumulative effect in which the gifts are presented invokes anticipation in the nature of the final gift, with readers possibly viewing it as the greatest of them all. It is therefore significant that the final gift presented is the gift from the persona, as it indicates that the persona perceives his or her own gift to be the most superior. This is supported by the use of a trochaic foot followed by a catalectic foot for the final line of the poem, as it draws the reader’s attention to the persona’s gift. Therefore, it can be argued that the persona is spiritually egotistical, which is a quality that is implicit in the persona of many of Rossetti’s devotional poems.
Another feature of Rossetti’s poems is that of the juxtaposition between the roles of men and women. ‘A Christmas Carol’ is permeated with a sense of masculine authority, which is enforced particularly through the usage of male pronouns when referring to God (‘When He comes to reign’). Moreover, the shepherds who proffer lambs in the Bible, as well as the three Wise Men (who offer wisdom and riches) are male, which displays how power lies with the masculine sex in both spiritual and earthly realms. This is an idea that can be obtained through the XAXAXBXB rhyme scheme, as masculine rhymes are used throughout the poem (‘moan’ / ‘stone’; ‘snow’ / ‘ago’; ‘day’ / ‘hay’; ‘there’ / ‘air’; ‘bliss’ / ‘kiss’; ‘am /’ lamb’; ‘part / heart’). Conversely, it can be said that the poem highlights the abilities of women, by detailing the gifts women specifically have to offer through the presentation of the Virgin Mary. Despite being a poor woman and a virgin (‘maiden bliss’), Mary has accomplished accomplished the miraculous task of giving birth to the Saviour of man without any male assistance, whilst providing nourishment and warmth to the baby (and by extension thawing the formerly frozen world), with the exclusively female gifts of milk and a mother’s kiss (‘Worshipped the Beloved / With a kiss’). The persona accurately observes that these gifts are available from ‘only His mother’, and the reference to ‘A breastful of milk’ evokes an image of a suckling child to a mother’s heart. This idea of the exclusivity of female ability is sustained by the preceding lines ‘Angels and archangels / May have gathered there’, as the word ‘May’ shows that even the worship of divine entities is inferior compared to a mother’s love. According to Dinah Roe, the persona realises that the female heart (and by extension, a woman’s love) is a natural as well as a supernatural gift, capable of transcending the material, and here perhaps, time itself.
Overall, Rossetti presents to us her depiction of the Nativity of Jesus through her own distinctive style and voice. The way in which Rossetti inserts her personas directly into the narrative allows a more intimate and unique experience, a method which she has utilised in her other poems such as Good Friday. In conclusion, Christina Rossetti’s devotional poems not only touch upon the subject of divinity but also upon the roles of different genders and worshippers. As such, A Christmas Carol remains a common hymn for the season, for both the spirituality and lyricism found between its lines.