Poems for Winter
PostedDecember 21, 2004
"Thy breath be rude," William Shakespeare famously told winter in As You Like It, invoking a common complaint about the season: winter is cold, windy, bleak, awful. Five centuries later, poets have much the same complaints. As Amy Gerstler wryly concluded in "A Severe Lack of Holiday Spirit," winter is a humorless season that can drive one to drinking:
...People hit the sauce in a big way all winter. Amidst blizzards they wrestle unsuccessfully with the dark comedy of their lives, laughter trapped in their frigid gizzards. Meanwhile, the mercury just plummets, like a migrating duck blasted out of the sky by some hunter in a cap with fur earflaps.
Winter's metaphors often include its stillness, its sense of silence and darkness, a season of hibernation, a season where everything dies a little. The falling snow is a "poem of the air," wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, where the "troubled sky reveals the grief it feels." John Updike noted winter's lack of sunlight, writing in "January":
The days are short, The sun a spark Hung thin between The dark and dark.
Although the long, freezing winter nights and the crisp winter days tend to inspire harsh feelings among the people who endure them, not all poets see winter as a bleak and lifeless season. In Robert Frost’s "Dust of Snow," a crow’s movements cause snow to dust the speaker passing under a tree, and this dust "Has given my heart / A change of mood / And saved some part / Of a day I had rued." For other poets, the severe winter weather is a chance to speak in defiance of nature. In "January," William Carlos Williams implores the winter wind:
Play louder. You will not succeed. I am bound more to my sentences the more you batter at me to follow you.
Winter weather also provides many poets with an excuse to turn away from outdoor pastimes and instead to concentrate on renewing and affirming their human relationships. The poem "Now winter nights enlarge" by Thomas Campion, for example, celebrates human warmth amidst chilly weather:
Now winter nights enlarge This number of their hours; And clouds their storms discharge Upon the airy towers. Let now the chimneys blaze And cups o'erflow with wine, Let well-tuned words amaze With harmony divine... This time doth well dispense With lovers' long discourse; Much speech hath some defense, Though beauty no remorse. All do not all things well: Some measures comely tread, Some knotted riddles tell, Some poems smoothly read. The summer hath his joys, And winter his delights; Though love and all his pleasures are but toys They shorten tedious nights.
Finally, many poets see winter as a fact of the landscape they call home, infusing it with nostalgia. For example, winter imagery figures largely in the works of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. She writes about the city of Voronezh:
The city is caught in the grip of ice-- Trees, walls, snow, are as under glass. Over crystals, I and the patterned sleighs Go our separate, unsteady ways.
For other poems about winter, consider the following:
"Voronezh" by Anna Akhmatova
"Winter Scene" by A. R. Ammons
"Spellbound" by Emily Brontë
"Fishing in Winter" by Ralph Burns
"Now Winter Nights Enlarge" by Thomas Campion
"The Sky is low, the Clouds are mean" by Emily Dickinson
"Dust of Snow" by Robert Frost
"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost
"Winter-Time" by Robert Louis Stevenson
"The times are nightfall, look, their light grows less" by Gerard Manley Hopkins
"How like a winter hath my absence been (Sonnet 97)" by William Shakespeare
"The Visionary" by Emily Brontë
"Like brooms of steel (1252)" by Emily Dickinson
"A Severe Lack of Holiday Spirit" by Amy Gerstler
"The Darkling Thrush" by Thomas Hardy
"Winter Song" by William Meredith
"A Winter Without Snow" by J. D. McClatchy
"A City Winter" by Frank O’Hara
"Ancient Music" by Ezra Pound
"Blow, blow, thou winter wind" by William Shakespeare
"When icicles hang on the wall" by William Shakespeare
"The Snow Man" by Wallace Stevens
"January" by William Carlos Williams
"A Winter Day in Ohio" by James Wright
"Winter: He Shapes Up" by William Meredith