Shadows of Days Past

I didn’t think I’d be returning to writing about poetry quite so soon, but when reading Wives and Daughters (which I’m reading in serial with a group on goodreads), I found a reference to John Gilpin (Cowper’s The Diverting History of John Gilpin), which I was all set to revisit during the week and write about, since it is among the funniest poems I’ve read so far (though yes, I still haven’t read very many poems overall). But anyway with a busy week I never did get down to reading it (I hope to sooner than later and will write about it). But I also ended up remembering Kipling’s The Way Through the Woods which I first read some years ago as part of his book Rewards and Fairies, the sequel to Puck of Pook’s Hill, and also liked very much.

This beautiful (and haunting) poem takes me (or rather my thoughts) to two different things each time I read it. Kipling writes in it of a road that “They shut…Seventy years ago” which has been reclaimed by the woods, the weather, and the rain, where there are now “coppice and heath” and “thin anemones”, so

now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods.

Part of this poem paints this picture of nature becoming “free” again, to grow, to go about life with no fear—the ring-dove brooding, badgers rolling at ease, trout-ringed pools, and the otter, whistling to his mate, for:

“(They fear not men in the woods
Because they see so few)”

Man’s presence and influence more often than not spells trouble for nature, constraining it rather than allowing it to blossom, even to be, destroying it for “development”, or his own greed, or mere entertainment. So of course the description of a place free of man’s influence, his interference, which forms most of the first stanza and part of the second as well, leaves one with a sense of peace, of freedom, rejoicing in her joy, watching the badger roll, or listening to the otter whistle to its mate, none worried that someone might harm them.

The second stanza on the other hand, is rather haunting, for while one mightn’t know that there was once a road through the woods,

“Yet if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late…”

The shadows of the past are still there:

“You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through,
The misty solitudes,
As though they practically knew,
The old lost road through the woods…
But there is no road through the woods!”

One can’t see the road through the woods anymore but one can feel its presence—its memories and shadows remain, and perhaps the wood remembers where the road once was. It feels as through past and present are there at the same time. Yet these shadows, though uncanny, are not really frightening—they bring back memories, make one think of the days past, and perhaps also the thought that where man once was there is always a mark of some kind.

But one also can’t help but wonder when one is lost in this picture, whether it is that this is the only way that the two can coexist? Nature blooming, joyous, thriving, and at peace only in a place where there is no human presence―just shadows of what was―no longer anyone to disturb or destroy…

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Winter in Verse

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.