Before I even start, I’d like to say that I’m not so much a poetry person―don’t read much of it, have written just one for school, so any comments or observations of mine are pretty much those of a layperson―and pretty literal. That said though, I have been trying time and again to read a few poems, but don’t end up doing this regularly.
Anyway, now on to what I actually want to write about―winter―or more specifically three poems on winter that I read which paint pictures of very different facets of the season, positive and negative, how it impacts nature and people’s lives. Winter by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, for instance describes the effect frost has on both people and nature. The first stanza suggests it is written sometime at the beginning of the new year since the frost has “bitten the heel of the year gone by”. From people’s point of view it means fires burning, the wood becoming more withered, and fuel dear. And in nature, so many creatures have vanished from sight, the frost having “rolled [them] up away”―the plump dormouse, probably hibernating, the bees being stilled, and flies dying. However while the frost may have bitten into a lot of things, “into the heart of the house”, “into the heart of the earth”, the poet doesn’t allow it to bite into his own heart―not letting the chill affect him, and in the final stanza is optimistic about spring being nearer, even as the woods are “searer”, fuel “dearer”, and fires burn “clearer”. While Tennyson is certainly writing about the cold, dreary atmosphere outside (and indoors as well) causing all “life” to disappear and people to stick closer to their fires, his own attitude is optimistic, his own heart warm and happy for he doesn’t allow it to affect him, and looks optimistically on at the coming spring (this part reflecting perhaps a later time in winter).
Cold and near-isolation outdoors, and warm and welcoming hearths are pictures painted by T.S. Eliot’s “The winter evening settles down”, the first of the preludes (though the book I read it in had it as a separate poem). Here Eliot describes the end of a cold winter day―six o’clock―when most people are presumably back home. He writes not only of sights but of the sounds and smells of a winter evening. He doesn’t really take us into the house but outside in passageways are the smells of steaks, which in itself for me conjured up pictures of people sitting by their firesides, warm, away from the weather outside, enjoying their steaks. Outdoors though (this one is of course in a town/village), is a very different story―withered leaves under one’s feet, perhaps fluttering as a gusty shower throws them up, as it does newspapers lying about, while the showers beat against “broken-blinds and chimney pots” adding to the already dreary and somewhat isolated atmosphere. The only beings that seem to be outdoors braving the weather are the “lonely cab horse” who “steams and stamps”, and perhaps the lamplighter for there is the “lighting of the lamps”.
While Eliot and Tennyson write of the chilly winter atmosphere and frost “biting” into homes and into the earth, the third poem I read “Frost” by L.M. Dufty (interestingly while I have this poem in the book, the poem nor the poet seem to appear in any internet searches―the only result that I got was Silver Bells, the book I read it from) which focuses not on the chill the frost brings with it but the very pretty picture that frost creates when it comes. Frost for Dufty is a “busy sprite” who leaves the meadows all “sparkling and clean” and fashions “fringes of silver” for the grey wintery grasses which so far looked soiled and dim. Frost may make places icy, but for the poet, he has actually changed muddy hollows and cart-ruts into a diamond floor. His final stanza describing what the frost does to windows is the prettiest:
“And windows are studded
With drawings like dreams
Of fragile white forests
And towers and streams.”
So a much more positive and certainly aesthetically appealing picture of the chilling Mr Frost! (I love the accompanying illustration in the book―wish I could have shared it here).
So winter may be chilling and grey, cold and dreary, a time when nature goes to sleep or into hiding (when Persephone goes to Hades), yet one can find comfort in the fact that there are warm firesides to sit by, and hot meals to eat (for those of us lucky enough to have them), and certainly beautiful pictures to see, clean, sparkly surrounds, fringed with white which frost has painted for us. And then again, as Tennyson tells us, even if the frost has chosen to bite into everything, into nature, and our surrounds, our hearts can always remain happy and warm, and choose not to let Mr Frost chill them too.