Advent Reading: In the Bleak Midwinter by Rachel Mann & More

Today marks 189 years since poet Christina Rossetti’s birth in 1830. You could hardly find better reading for Advent than poet–priest Rachel Mann’s new seasonal devotional, In the Bleak Midwinter, which journeys through Advent and the 12 days of Christmas via short essays on about 40 Rossetti poems.

If your mental picture of Rossetti’s work is, like mine was, limited to twee repetition (“Snow had fallen, snow on snow, / Snow on snow,” as the title carol from 1872 goes), you’ll gain a new appreciation after reading this. Yes, Rossetti’s poetry may strike today’s readers as sentimental, with a bit too much rhyming and overt religion, but it is important to understand it as a product of the Victorian era.

Mann gives equal focus to Rossetti’s techniques and themes. Repetition is indeed one of her main tools, used “to build intensity and rhythm,” and some of her poems are psalm-like in their diction and emotion. I had no idea that Rossetti had written so much – and so much that’s specific to the Christmas season. She has multiple poems entitled “Advent” and “A Christmas Carol” (the technical title of “In the Bleak Midwinter”) or variations thereon.

The book’s commentary spins out the many potential metaphorical connotations of Advent: anticipation, hope, suffering, beginnings versus endings. Mann notes that Rossetti often linked Advent and apocalypse as times of change and preparation. Even as Christians await the birth of Christ, the poet seems to say, they should keep the end of all things in mind. Thus, some of the poems include surprisingly dark or premonitory language:

The days are evil looking back,

The coming days are dim;

Yet count we not His promise slack,

But watch and wait for Him. (from “Advent,” 1858)


Death is better far than birth,

You shall turn again to earth. (from “For Advent”)

Along with that note of memento mori, Mann suggests other hidden elements of Rossetti’s poetry, like desire (as in the sensual vocabulary of “Goblin Market”) and teasing mystery (“Winter: My Secret,” which reminded me of Emily Dickinson). Not all of her work is devotional or sweet; those who feel overwhelmed or depressed at Christmastime will also find lines that resonate for them here.

Mann helped me to notice Rossetti’s sense of “divine time” that moves in cycles. She also makes a strong case for reading Rossetti to understand how we envision Christmas even now: “In some ways, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ offers the acme of our European cultural representations of this season.”

My rating:

With thanks to Canterbury Press for the free copy for review.

(I also reviewed Mann’s poetry collection, A Kingdom of Love, earlier in the year.)


For December I’m reading Do Nothing, the Advent booklet Stephen Cottrell (now the Bishop of Chelmsford; formerly Bishop of Reading) wrote in 2008 about a minimalist, low-stress approach to the holidays. I have to say, it’s inspiring me to cut way back on card-sending and gift-giving this year.


A few seasonal snippets spotted in my recent reading:

“December darkens and darkens, and the streets sprout forth their Christmas tinsel, and the Salvation Army brass band sings hymns and jingles its bells and stirs up its cauldron of money, and loneliness blows in the snowflurries”

(from The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood)


“Fine old Christmas, with the snowy hair and ruddy face, had done his duty that year in the noblest fashion, and had set off his rich gifts of warmth and colour with all the heightening contrast of frost and snow.”

(from The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot)


A week to Christmas, cards of snow and holly,

Gimcracks in the shops,

Wishes and memories wrapped in tissue paper,

Trinkets, gadgets and lollipops

And as if through coloured glasses

We remember our childhood’s thrill

… And the feeling that Christmas Day

Was a coral island in time where we land and eat our lotus

But where we can never stay.

(from Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice)


I’m always on the lookout for books that seem to fit the season. Here are the piles I’ve amassed for winter (Early Riser imagines a human hibernation system for the winters), Christmas and snow. I’ll dip into these over the next couple of months. I plan to get more “winter,” “snow” and “ice” titles out from the library. Plus I have this review book (at left), newly in paperback, to start soon.


Have you read any Advent or wintry books recently?

13 responses

  1. I could do with some of your N. Hemisphere ice & snow; today is 33 degrees C. Way too hot.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow! I’ve always wondered what it must be like to have a hot Christmas and yet be hearing all these songs like “Let it Snow” on the radio. My husband has family in New Zealand and the holidays are beach barbie type time for them. I guess you get used to it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Remember, for me, this is the norm. I was born in Africa. Yet I grew up in a British culture, so it was trad frosty Christmas scenes on the cards we received from relatives in Britain. You could say I’m culturally conflicted!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. We’ve cut back Christmas considerably over the years. A decade in bookselling took the shine off it for me and we each have small families so that makes it easier.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Last year we took to giving either an experience gift (e.g. theatre tokens) or a charity gift (e.g. a donation to help a Middle Eastern refugee family). We will probably continue that tradition this year. It’s more difficult with nieces and nephews, though, as they expect, and can only truly appreciate, a physical gift. Still, we’ll try to keep it small.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Does this mean that we’re not all getting cards this year? 😀

    That’s a gorgeous cover: love it.


    1. I haven’t decided yet, but given that it’s already the 6th and I haven’t posted anything to America, I may be running out of time for this year. The Bishop does say you could just be green and do all e-cards! Mostly, I wouldn’t want for family and friends to assume that I’m not thinking of them, because that wouldn’t be true.

      I do love the painting on the cover. It’s Tending the Flock by Vanessa Bowman. I hadn’t heard of her before, but when I sought out her website I realized I like all her stuff. Folk art meets pastoral, with lots of still lifes.


  4. I’ve just ordered both of these. Thank you! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Shawn Colvin does a lovely cover of “In the Bleak Midwinter” – you should check it out!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. […] year I dipped into Mann’s poetry (A Kingdom of Love) and literary criticism/devotional writing (In the Bleak Midwinter); this year I was delighted to be offered an early copy of her debut novel. The press materials are […]


  7. […] discovering Rev. Rachel Mann’s work: poetry collection A Kingdom of Love, Advent devotional In the Bleak Midwinter, and novel The Gospel of Eve. This is a revised edition of her memoir, which is less an […]


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