Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Less Pleased you than the Stars?

The Ancient Celts had some strange ideas. However, strange is not necessarily bad, and value does not usually depreciate with age, so perhaps we should look at and evaluate one of the more important of their beliefs. For you, and maybe for me as well, time is linear. After all, you get up in the morning, have some food, go to work, come home and go to bed... that’s pretty linear. So is it that you are born, you get old and then you die. 

However, some things seem to be more circular; this December 14th was cold, wet and it got dark early. I’m not a great one for telling the future, but I fully expect next December 14th to be pretty similar. Years and days do have this circular, repeatable function. To the ancient Celts, time did not move in straight lines at all, rather in circular coils; December 14th (not that they would have called it by that name) was a point that was revisited once every 365 days. It’s a bit like a roundabout in a park. If you sit on the roundabout and it starts to move, you begin to see the same things come round each time; trees and buildings will come up every time you go by. Of course, seeing a tree from a roundabout once and then once again, does not indicate that the tree has changed position at all. Obviously the tree is changing too; moving in the wind, shedding leaves, growing and eventually dying ~ remember you are on a coil, not just a circle ~ you move around as well as along.

You can see how the Celts came to this idea of thinking that life is just a big roundabout, and you get on as a baby and fall off when you die. If you are lucky, you get to pass the same points many times before leaving the fairground, and for some of the time, others come and sit beside you for the ride.

We can easily embrace the idea of a coil of time by just thinking of it in the same way that we think about place. If the house where you were brought up still exists and you were to visit it, you would not expect things to be the same; d├ęcor, gardens, people and sounds might have changed, but you would still think of it as being essentially the same place. Is it much harder to think of the current year as being the same as the one just gone? This Christmas might be different from last Christmas but are you sure they are not just the same in essentials, with different weather, events, people and sounds? Some Christmases may seem very different; that person riding on the roundabout is no longer there next to you; we never know what is waiting for us with the next rotation.

It is the winter of 1871. On December the 14th, many things are happening. The house in which I am now writing is still new and its first family of inhabitants is getting ready to celebrate Christmas. But my mind is not here; that's to say, it is here in time, but not in place. I am in London and it is, as you might guess, a cold and damp evening. A gust of wind blows dozens of wet and browning leaves past me and I suddenly feel a chill and want to be out of this wet and windy weather. I turn to find myself in a room lit by two oil lamps. Yes – this is who I wanted to see ~ step with me for a while...

To suffer from SAD is a good start to understanding Christina Rossetti. And here and now, Christina sits at a small writing desk lit by one of the lamps. Despite being of Italian descent, she looks very pale, almost anaemic, and her eyes are red ~ either from crying or from working too late by this poor light. She seems to be about forty years old and is instantly recognisable from her brother’s paintings. She looks thin, wan and fragile. I look over her shoulder at what she is writing. I try to be quiet, but I doubt that she has any awareness of me; Oh yes! I have got the precise moment that I had hoped for; I squint my eyes as I read her delicate, beautiful handwriting in the yellow flickering light;

In the bleak mid-winter 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 mid-winter long ago..

I look up into her face and try and understand her; sad eyes, mouth tightly closed, cheeks drawn in. Oh Christina, is it so bad? Is life always going to be as bleak for you as that midwinter you wrote of? I have a great need to comfort her, to run back to my own years and bring her my light box and a handful of St. John’s Wort tablets, I want to give her a comforting hug and tell her that she is not alone and that tens of thousands will love her for her work, but I can’t do these things. It doesn't work like that. I am no time traveller, just a wistful winter wanderer. I watch her for a while and eventually she leaves her little writing desk and takes herself to an armchair. I am trying to stay with her...

Christina, you have lost your lovers before, and you will lose those to come, very soon you will be diagnosed with Graves Disease. Later your depression will deepen and you will die, lonely and broken hearted, of breast cancer, having undergone some awful and vicious Victorian surgical technique; yours is to be a life of pain and loss. We never know what is waiting for us on the next turn of the roundabout or perhaps you had a better idea than many. The room, and Christina with it, fade into the dark and damp night..I have lost her.

I still remember singing her words at school in those long dark days leading up to Christmas. ‘In the bleak midwinter’; then I did not fully realise the meaning of the word 'bleak' but now I am fully aware of its accuracy when placed before the word midwinter.

We are about to break up for the holidays. I stand praying ~ it is the end of the day. Miss Maskell has told us to put our chairs up on tables for the cleaners and we now stand by them. To pray, as a six year old, is to hold your hands flat together, fingers close to one another ~ I press so hard that my hands are beginning to turn white while I try I think of Jesus. Miss Maskell has told us that Jesus said that the meek shall inherit the Earth. I was not sure what being meek meant exactly, (nor what inherit was) but I was sure that I was meek and that Jesus was on my side against the bullies, the thugs and the cruel adults that seemed to fill my life. My eyes were tight closed but I opened them in that way children do, looking through my eyelashes and believing that no adult could tell that I was looking out at the world. At once I saw a star, cut out of green metallic paper and stuck to a window pane by Miss Maskell ~ that star is still with me in my mind. Is it the star of David or the star that guided the Magi? Is it that star that still catches my eye occasionally when life takes a sudden and unexpected pause, when the roundabout stops just for a brief moment? At such times it is curious that her handmade attempt to brighten a tawdry dark classroom with a small piece of green metallic paper and a pair of scissors should fill my mind, but it does, often.

Did you ever marry and have children Miss Maskell, or did you spend your life looking after the children of others? Miss Maskell, are you still here, on the roundabout, do you still live with us or were you carried away like Christina, broken down, depressed and ill? I hope not ~ you were one of the few adults of my childhood that I look back on with fondness. It would be wrong to say that you treated me with kindness. That was not the way in those days ~ but you did treat me, all of us, with fairness and consideration ~ that was important. You listened. It was you that first read me ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. I remember you for your huge pleated skirts, for your unflattering glasses, your pale and blotchy face and your star making ~ you made the star that gave me the first religious experience of my life and I love you for it. God bless you wherever you are.

And what did you think of me, that skinny sickly looking boy who asked you silly questions like ‘what does meek mean?' Within a few months of that day, the day of the star, I was in hospital ~ for the next six years I was in hospital more often than I was at home ~ my education, and my childhood, was put on ice. Miss Maskell went on to teach other children, for a teacher's life is never linear ~ for them, the coil is made up of new terms, new faces, new exercise books and fresh pages on the register, but it's still the same school year ~ every Christmas a new star on the window. For me, the future was hospital, medication and meekness; I would never see Miss Maskell again after my illness ~ we can’t tell, we never know what is waiting for us on the next turn of the roundabout.

Am I moved by paper stars today? Sometimes perhaps. Am I moved by renaissance religious paintings that hang in the galleries of the worlds greatest cities? Not often ~ religious art does little for me, not all the crucifixions and nativities... except for one painting. A painting not on canvass or on some majestic ceiling, rather on wood. Not an icon, but iconic in its way.

Christina, and Christina’s brother, Dante Gabriel, had a good friend called Holman Hunt and on one cold and damp December day, he, sitting in his workshop, finished cutting the stars in the hood of a lamp that he had been working on.

The lamp was in the ‘arts and crafts’ tradition and the stars were designed to cast star shaped light onto the ceiling. It does not look to me to be the world’s most practical lamp, but it does seem the most beautiful. Just a few years later, Holman painted his lamp as held in the hand of Jesus, in his painting ‘The Light of the World’. The original of this painting is on wood and it hangs in Oxford, with a copy to be seen in Manchester. Some years later, in ill health and with some help, he painted a third copy for St. Paul's Cathedral in London. The lamp, complete with stars, is in the hand of Jesus as he knocks upon the door ~ or, as I think, is about to knock on the door as we have come across him in the woods.

The scenery is not the Middle East. It is not Jerusalem. It is Britain and by the look of the dying vegetation and the fallen apples and weedy brambles, it must be December, and a damp and chilly night when the wind has taken the last remaining fruits from the trees. A very British looking squirrel cheekily reaches for one of the fallen apples in the right hand corner of the painting. Jesus himself looks nothing like the Jewish man that we know him to be, but like a Celt! Look at the redness in the beard and the hair. Jesus looks like King Arthur or perhaps a druid. Was Holman familiar with the words of Columba “I do not hold to the voice of birds, or any luck on the earthly world, or chance or a son or a woman. Christ the Son of God is my druid”. . It is the door that is the key to the painting. We don’t know what is behind the door any more than we know what waits for us on the next turn of the roundabout. Whatever was in Holman’s mind when he painted this picture, he encapsulates what the roundabout ride is all about ~ however many times we go around, however many times we pass the same thing, some things are always there for us; the light of the world leading us to the true maker of stars and lanterns, doors and squirrels.

Have you forgotten how you praised both light
And darkness; not embarrassed yet not quite
At ease? And how you said the glare of noon
Less pleased you than the stars? but very soon
You blushed, and seemed to doubt if you were right

Christina Rosetti

(c) Ray Lovegrove 2011


'In the Bleak Midwinter' Poem

'In the Bleak Midwinter' Song Video (perhaps not the tune you know best, but the one I sang at school.)

More about Christina Rossetti;

Large copy of  'The Light of the World' on which you can enlage sections (find the squirel)

More about Holman Hunt;

More about Columba;


  1. A bit of melancholy thoughtfulness at Christmas - how lovely. The midwinter has been a time of fear for so long - the promise of the Christ Child is one we should hope for rather than expect . Light and Blessings to you.

  2. Thank you 'Word in Hand' and a New Year of peace and joy to you!

  3. I shivered as I read this extraordinary and lovely piece. Thank you.
    I also believe that your compassion for Christina and your former teacher will have reached them for time is not linear and nor is love.
    May your Midwinter be truly blessed.

  4. I see time as a coil or spiral :)

    A beautiful and moving blogpost, thank you.

  5. Thanks to all for kindness. Happy New Year!