An Advent Poem by Christina Rosetti


This Advent moon shines cold and clear,
These Advent nights are long;
Our lamps have burned year after year,
And still their flame is strong.
“Watchman, what of the night?” we cry,
Heart-sick with hope deferred:
“No speaking signs are in the sky,”
Is still the watchman’s word.

The Porter watches at the gate,
The servants watch within;
The watch is long betimes and late,
The prize is slow to win.
“Watchman, what of the night?” but still
His answer sounds the same:
“No daybreak tops the utmost hill,
Nor pale our lamps of flame.”

One to another hear them speak,
The patient virgins wise:
“Surely He is not far to seek,”–
“All night we watch and rise.”
“The days are evil looking back,
The coming days are dim;
Yet count we not His promise slack,
But watch and wait for Him.”

One with another, soul with soul,
They kindle fire from fire:
“Friends watch us who have touched the goal.”
“They urge us, come up higher.”
“With them shall rest our waysore feet,
With them is built our home,
With Christ.” “They sweet, but He most sweet,
Sweeter than honeycomb.”

There no more parting, no more pain,
The distant ones brought near,
The lost so long are found again,
Long lost but longer dear:
Eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard,
Nor heart conceived that rest,
With them our good things long deferred,
With Jesus Christ our Best.

We weep because the night is long,
We laugh, for day shall rise,
We sing a slow contented song
And knock at Paradise.
Weeping we hold Him fast Who wept
For us,–we hold Him fast;
And will not let Him go except
He bless us first or last.

Weeping we hold Him fast to-night;
We will not let Him go
Till daybreak smite our wearied sight,
And summer smite the snow:
Then figs shall bud, and dove with dove
Shall coo the livelong day;
Then He shall say, “Arise, My love,
My fair one, come away.”

Why this poem belongs in Advent

There’s no obscure message here. Christina Rosetti takes her readers on the Advent journey from arduous nights of watching and waiting into the joyful dawn of Christ’s arrival. The character of Christ’s arrival imagined at the end of the poem is a second coming of sorts. An end-of-the-world coming is not imagined here, but that homecoming of the weary pilgrim who enters eternal life following death. In a way, Rosetti incorporates the three comings of Christ in Advent that St. Thomas Aquinas noted: the coming of Christ in his Incarnation; the coming of Christ in the human heart; the coming of Christ at the end of time. The Church celebrates the third Sunday of Advent, Rose Sunday, when the character of joy increases as we near Christmas Day; Rosetti’s poem helps us enter the full Advent journey from night to daybreak.

Meditation and some probable poetic misinterpretation

Few writers or homilies explore the experience of suffering in Advent because there is so much forward momentum leading to Christmas. But the Advent themes of waiting and waiting-in-exile should give one pause to move too quickly to the Bethlehem manger. In so doing, we may be leaving behind those who Rosetti describes as ‘Heart-sick with hope deferred’ with ‘waysore feet.’ Rosetti is always aware of the weary pilgrim. Read her poem ‘Up-Hill‘ when you are exhausted in heart and mind and you will know you are not alone.

In the same spirit, Rosetti reminds us that the saints who have received their reward in Heaven are present to urge those on who keep watch in the longest nights. The psalmist comforts us in our pain saying, ‘how long, oh Lord?’ So also Rosetti in this verse: The watch is long betimes and late,/
The prize is slow to win. Yet the greatest comfort of all may be found in the human experience of our Incarnate Lord: Weeping we hold Him fast Who wept/ For us.

Undergirding the weary, tear-filled watches of the night is this sojourner’s belief in the promise of eternal joy in Heaven. Departed saints converse with the poem’s sojourner and it is their inherited reward that inspires faith through her dark night. Eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard,/ Nor heart conceived that rest,/ With them our good things long deferred,/ With Jesus Christ our Best.

Soon the sojourner glimpses the dawn of her reward. Sorrows that froze her heart through years of bitter loss now thaw in the warmth of her Saviour’s appearing. Hope never extinguished through the nights of her longsuffering. Lamps are a central image throughout the poem: ‘Our lamps have burned year after year,/ And still their flame is strong.’ So the poem concludes with a final flourish, her persevering faith rewarded: though this sojourner has suffered long, her life has only begun. For the ending of the poem is a glorious beginning, the Lover summons his Beloved into everlasting life.


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6 Responses to An Advent Poem by Christina Rosetti

  1. Pingback: An Advent Poem by Christina Rosetti | I Can Fly

  2. JabbaPapa says:

    I like this poem.

    By chance or Design these particular words are quite apt for me this evening :

    “Friends watch us who have touched the goal.”
    “They urge us, come up higher.”
    “With them shall rest our waysore feet,
    With them is built our home,
    With Christ.” “They sweet, but He most sweet,
    Sweeter than honeycomb.”

    I chanced to meet a fellow Compostela Pilgrim this evening, not on his Way but in-between, as I am, and we chanced to share this very pilgrim’s prayer in both its joy and pain.

    And dear toad knows very well what this all means, for he and his lovely wife provide the very same grant from sweet honeycomb to very many weary travellers on the Way, and countless Pilgrim Friends of our Christ that otherwise they may not know whence to ask it from.

    That toad can be at the same time such a mystery of doubt and tool of Providence is surely strange, but then were we to look in honesty to ourselves we should see that our lot varies but little from his.

    That the Truth and the Faith are One does remain.

  3. johnhenrycn says:

    Very nice, Jabba.

  4. Toad says:

    Too kind, Jabba. But I have to say genuine pilgrims, like yourself, are as rare as intelligent Trump supporters on the Camino these days. Most are ‘tourigrinos,’ after a cheap (free is even better) holiday. I’m getting sick of them.
    As to my doubts, I must invoke our mutual friend, Voltaire , again, ”Uncertainty is uncomfortable, but certainty is absurd.”

  5. JabbaPapa says:

    As regards doubt, dear toad, I recently rendered a quote from Descartes’ Discours de la méthode into English (with some help from an earlier translation) as follows, attacking :

    those who, thinking themselves more capable than they are, cannot refrain from precipitate judgments and lack the patience needed for an orderly conduct of their thinking; whence it happens, that if men of this sort should once take the liberty to doubt of the principles they have received, and should quit the beaten highway, they will never be able to keep to this road that would lead them by the straighter path, and they would lose themselves in the wrongful paths forever.

    A regards doubt itself, well, I am an ex-agnostic and so I do understand the difficulty that you allude to, but as regards Voltaire he is a very, VERY over-rated writer !!

  6. kathleen says:

    There is another Advent/Christmas poem by this talented woman that we all know well as a popular Carol, In the Bleak Midwinter – the Birth of the Christ Child when earth was “hard as iron, water like a stone”. I love the evocative way Rosetti perceives our burning desire to give something back to He Who has given His All to us, yet recognising our poverty in having nothing of worth to offer… nothing, that is, except our “heart”. And that is all He asks for!
    Here it is, sung beautifully by the Kings College Choir:


    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.

    Our God, heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
    Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
    In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
    The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

    Enough for Him, Whom cherubim, worship night and day,
    Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
    Enough for Him, Whom angels fall before,
    The ox and ass and camel which adore.

    Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
    Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
    But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
    Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

    What can I give Him, poor as I am?
    If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
    If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
    Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

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