Poem Sampler

Winter Poetry

Poems to help you get through the rest of the chill, frost, and darkness.

by Annie Finch
Winter Poetry
Photo by DaiRut

Unlike autumn, in whose complex and fertile imagery poets love to linger, winter, that stylized season, is often evoked as a single deft emblem in just a line or two—lines that can be cold and heavy with the press of everything not said. It could be pain at a parent’s stoicism as in these lines from Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays”: “Sundays too my father got up early / and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold.” Or Edna St. Vincent Millay’s bittersweet desire to dwell on lost loves in "What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why”: “Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree.” Or a child’s suppressed loneliness from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Bed in Summer”: “In winter I get up at night / And dress by yellow candlelight.” One brief winter image can infuse an entire poem in a few pen-strokes, bare-branch-black and snowdrift-white.

Human emotions often link poet and nature in this, the season for pathetic fallacy. The “troubled sky” in Longfellow’s classic sketch “Snow-flakes” “reveals / The grief it feels.” The trees in the amazing January section of Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender cry “teares, that from your boughes doe raine.”

Or, as E.A. Robinson put it in his priceless skewering of “New England,”

Here where the wind is always north-north-east . . .
Joy shivers in the corner where she knits
And Conscience always has the rocking chair

Overall, the poems of winter in the English-language tradition can make for a grim gathering—unexpectedly grim for the contemporary reader. Winter poems have often involved death, from Jean Ingelow’s “A Winter Song” and Adelaide Crapsey’s “The Lonely Death” to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “My Sister’s Sleep” and Shelley’s “The Cold Earth Slept Below.”

The subtlest and most profound of winter death poems may be this gem of Emily Dickinson’s:

Snow beneath whose chilly softness
Some that never lay
Make their first Repose this Winter
I admonish Thee

Blanket Wealthier the Neighbor
We so new bestow
Than thine acclimated Creature
Wilt Thou, Austere Snow?

These two short stanzas strike such an ironic tone of tender respect for the season, mixed with grief and humility before the fact of death, that the poem can take a reader’s breath away.

Why are so many winter death poems either by or about women?  Does winter allow normally gentle poets access to a kind of sanctified violence?  Certainly there is a lot of power underlying Edna St. Vincent Millay’s horrifying Christmas parable of the ultimate motherly sacrifice, “The Ballad of the Harp Weaver.” Contemporary poet Lucille Clifton evokes the tradition of winter death poems in “the lost baby poem”:

you would have been born into winter
in the year of the disconnected gas
and no car       we would have made the thin
walk over Genesee hill into the Canada wind
to watch you slip like ice into strangers' hands

As happens at the end of the Clifton poem, by opening the way to tragedy and death, winter also offers a path to truth and contemplation. James Thomson summed it up, in the first lines of the winter section of his “Seasons”: 

    See, Winter comes to rule the varied year,
Sullen and sad, with all his rising train—
Vapours, and clouds, and storms. Be these my theme,
These, that exalt the soul to solemn thought
And heavenly musing. Welcome, kindred glooms!

“Poem 2” of Jimmy Santiago Baca’s Winter along the Rio Grande uses a sudden iambic pentameter ("a crystal shining icicle clear voice") to convey spiritual certitude found on a winter walk:

It’s then I hear a voice,
a crystal shining icicle clear voice,
cold water but made of sound,
tells me, keep my connection to the spirits strong

As Robert Burns put it in his preface to “Winter: A Dirge,” “Winter . . . raises the mind to a serious sublimity favourable to everything great and noble.” Frost’s vignette “Dust of Snow,” which I have discussed on the blog Harriet, evokes the solace of contemplation with great simplicity. Winter can also inspire a more bracing kind of meditation, as in Sylvia Plath’s “Winter Landscape, with Rooks”: “feathered dark in thought, I stalk like a rook, / brooding as the winter night comes on.”

Of course, wintry meditation can take unexpected turns, as it does in some of the most renowned and successful winter poems. In Stevens’s “The Snow Man,” the title character, already snow, dodges the usual wintry emotional tension of alienation and discomfort so that the reader takes part in the season only as an intellectual condition. In Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” the frost’s “secret ministry” lingers in our imagination all the stronger for being kept outside, re-entering the poem for the powerful ending. The same metaphysical contrast drives Louis MacNeice’s “Snow,” a poem distinguished mainly by its unforgettable last line: “There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.”

Unlike autumn, which inspires poets to flout its discomforts, winter offers the lessons of acceptance or distraction. Whittier’s narrative of a storm on his childhood farm, “Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl”, contains some extraordinarily beautiful descriptions of snow and reminds us how peaceful a snowstorm can be when cars and commutes are not a concern, children find shoveling a path a delightful game, and everyone in the house has stories to share. Another way to defy winter, according to the poets, is to inflame passion. Ella Wheeler Wilcox advances this theme with characteristic bravado in “Bleak Weather”:

The old year may die, and a new one be born
That is bleaker and colder;
But it cannot dismay us; we dare it—we scorn,
For love makes us bolder.

Winter passion is rather rare, but captivating in such poems as Claude McKay’s “The Snow Fairy,” Louise Glück’s “Early December in Croton-on-Hudson,” and H.D.’s “Winter Love” from Hermetic Definition, in which Helen of Troy exults in an imagined and paradoxically austere sensuality: “I would be bathed with stars / [ . . . ] my forehead ringed / with icy frost, a crown.”

Then there are the outdoor passions, such as those of the icicle-hung Anglo-Saxon “Seafarer” who, in this most intense of poems, seems to be almost bragging about what he’s endured (translation mine):

. . . They do not know,
whom fair things            befall on land,
how, care-worn wretch, I stayed at sea
and wintered an exile’s icy tracks,
shorn of kin,
hung with icicles.

Winter also has its peaceful gifts for poets: Marianne Moore’s bemused joy, in “Rigorists,” at Lapland reindeer with their feet that “act as snow-shoes”; “One looked at us / with its firm face part brown, part white—a queen / of alpine flowers.”:  Williams’s appreciation of Brueghel’s “The Hunter in the Snow”, Sara Teasdale’s awe at “Winter Stars,” conveyed in a heavily spondaic last stanza that relents suddenly into heartbreakingly delicate iambs in the concluding line.

Winter provides a powerful setting for more painful messages. In Langston Hughes's haiku-like “Winter Moon,” winter’s moon conveys disturbing connotations of whiteness. And one of the most sobering of all poems set in winter is Anna Akhmatova’s epic-lyric cycle “Requiem,” memorializing the suffering under Stalin. The season returns to winter at the end of the cycle, with a theme of survival after unspeakable suffering as the ice thaws.

Winter is at core the season of renewal, and the best holiday poems tend to draw on this theme, as do E.E. Cummings’s charming take on the season, “little tree,” and, more wryly, Thomas Hardy’s “The Oxen” (included by Robert Pinsky as part of his fine series of poetry discussions on Slate). In different ways, so do Henry Livingston’s (not Clement Moore’s!) “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas”—that peerlessly anapestic read-aloud poem—and Christina Rosetti’s brilliant “In the bleak midwinter.”

The overall theme of hope and rebirth also informs the poetry of other holidays, such as Charles Reznikoff’s moving prayer “Hanukkah” prayers and “To Juan at the Winter Solstice,” Robert Graves’s classic solstice poem based on the mythology of the White Goddess.

New Year’s poems, also, tend to jibe with the larger concerns of the season: the sometimes painful descent into truth, some version of illumination, and rebirth. Thomas Hardy’s magnificent “The Darkling Thrush” and Naomi Shihab Nye’s striking “Burning the Old Year,” in their different ways, take on the challenge with subtlety and power. D.H. Lawrence understood, when he used the “Almond Blossom” in December as a symbol of hope for the human soul in the modern age: “Something must be reassuring to the almond, in the evening star, and the snow-wind, and the long, long, nights.”

After all, winter poems are most concerned with making one point: “The poetry of earth is ceasing never.”

Originally Published: December 22, 2009

COMMENTS (14)

On January 21, 2010 at 6:57pm Bean wrote:
Thank you, Annie, for the great poets and their poems of winter mentioning... Here is one enjoyed from a time ago--

The Visionary
by Emily Brontë

Silent is the house: all are laid asleep:
One alone looks out o'er the snow-wreaths deep,
Watching every cloud, dreading every breeze
That whirls the wildering drift, and bends the groaning trees.

Cheerful is the hearth, soft the matted floor;
Not one shivering gust creeps through pane or door;
The little lamp burns straight, its rays shoot strong and far:
I trim it well, to be the wanderer's guiding-star.

Frown, my haughty sire! chide, my angry dame!
Set your slaves to spy; threaten me with shame:
But neither sire nor dame nor prying serf shall know,
What angel nightly tracks that waste of frozen snow.

What I love shall come like visitant of air,
Safe in secret power from lurking human snare;
What loves me, no word of mine shall e'er betray,
Though for faith unstained my life must forfeit pay.

Burn, then, little lamp; glimmer straight and clear—
Hush! a rustling wing stirs, methinks, the air:
He for whom I wait, thus ever comes to me;
Strange Power! I trust thy might; trust thou my constancy.

On January 22, 2010 at 11:20am Annie Finch wrote:
wow, thank you! This is a chiller.

On January 22, 2010 at 10:35pm Jack Frost wrote:
Just what the doctor ordered! I was just thinking how much I could use some winter solace after solstice.

On January 22, 2010 at 11:08pm Karanam R Rao wrote:
This is a beautifully written piece of writing that deserves all the kudos.I still don't see why most of the poets cited above consider winter as cold as death.Why can't there be poems of celebration of the season that spreads all its opulence of imaginative power everywhere.The flurry of snow, and the white radiance that morphs the whole landscape into a surrealistic phenomenon could have been explored by the poets.
The present write-up is an excellent attempt at highlighting the poetic excellence that spilled through most of the poems cited above.

On January 25, 2010 at 9:46am Don Barsema wrote:
Thank you Anne for giving me poetic sustenance for this bleak and frigid time of the year. West Michigan has been particularly dreary since the Solstice, as it always is.

On January 25, 2010 at 6:47pm Geneva Lorrain wrote:
I read this wonderful article out loud as I glanced out my window at the winter outside. Winter can seem like the season of death but also a time to huddle around the stove with a nice blanket and a hot cup of coffee or hot chocolate and think of what had happened before and what might happen in spring.

I fall in love constantly with authors and poets and I am in love with D.H. Lawrence right now.

Because of the silent snow, we are all hushed
Into awe.
No sound of guns nor overhead no rushed
Vibration to draw
Our attention out of the void wherein we are crushed.

from Winter-Lull

That is one of my favorite things about winter. It is quiet especially when the snow falls and the cars and trucks stop. The highway is closed, at least for a while. People stay inside.

Thank you for making my winter day even more pleasurable.

On January 26, 2010 at 8:15pm Annie Finch wrote:
What wonderful comments! Thank you
Geneva for sharing your winter day
with us--and your passion for D H
Lawrence, one of my own favorite
read-aloud poets also.

Karanam, I think you will find that
many of the poets in this piece--starting
in the section with James Thomson--do
enjoy the imaginative brilliance of
winter that you invoke so well.

And what an honor that Jack Frost
himself took the time to stop by... ( - :

On January 29, 2010 at 9:12am Hank Barton wrote:
Frost's "The Wood Pile" is a meditation on
the man's suspension between nature at
its most inhospitable and what his art can
make of it. And so is the almost grimly
pessimistic "An Old Man's Winter Night."
And in Emerson's "The Snow Storm" the
winter Art of Nature triumphs.

On February 1, 2010 at 8:03pm Rome wrote:
Kudos on quoting Plath, but in this context why not Plath's Winter Trees, her 1970s collection--whose title poem opens with one of the most beautiful lines in our language:

"The wet dawn inks are doing their blue dissolve."

On February 11, 2010 at 8:23am Annie Finch wrote:
A beautiful line indeed! I lingered over
"Winter Trees" while writing this article,
but finally decided there was a more
wintry feeling to the passage from "Winter
Landscape, With Rooks"—and couldn't
resist the image of Plath stalking and
brooding through the season.

On February 17, 2010 at 2:14pm Mike wrote:
Winter fascinates me...

You gleamed and glistened as the trace of your white breath blanketed the sinking depths of her bosom.
Where words and thoughts are buried beneath the crystals of elegance where she has revealed
The cold/warm hearts that rise in the morning and taste the freezing air as pillows of frost rise/fall.
In the hour of the longest day the raising sighs spill into dark night and casts the frost to dream
Of eyes that listen, hearts that hear, ears that speak, scents that touch and tongues that taste the gleaming, glistening frost and discover they are not the same…all of them…not the same as the other but the same in frost… reminded that we are not the same… as another…but the same in love.

On February 17, 2010 at 8:49pm Don Stahl wrote:
Among poems of the cold season I've
always liked "Oda al Doble Otono" by
Neruda. An excerpt:

Always occult were
the
works
of autumn
on the earth;
immobile
roots, seeds
submerged
in time
and above
only
a corolla of cold,
a vague
odor of leaves
dissolving
in
gold:
nothing.
An ax
in the woods
splits
a trunk of crystals,
afterwards
falls
the twilight
and the earth
puts to its face
a mask
of blackness.

On February 24, 2010 at 4:14pm Connie Voisine wrote:
thanks. as a native Mainer, i have always
felt a kinship with Transtromer, his mind
of winter.

On December 5, 2014 at 4:10pm dwight.homer@gmail.com wrote:
I submit that among the greatest modern winter poems
is Stevens' The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

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 Annie  Finch

Biography

Annie Finch is the author or editor of more than twenty books of poetry, plays, translation, literary essays, textbooks, and anthologies, including the poetry collections Eve (1997), Calendars (2003), and Spells: New and Selected Poems (2012), and the long poems The Encyclopedia of Scotland (1982) and Among the Goddesses: An Epic Libretto in Seven Dreams (2009). Calendars was shortlisted for the Foreword Poetry Book of the Year . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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