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 knitsAnd 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 softnessSome that never layMake their first Repose this WinterI admonish TheeBlanket Wealthier the NeighborWe so new bestowThan thine acclimated CreatureWilt 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 winterin the year of the disconnected gasand no car we would have made the thinwalk over Genesee hill into the Canada windto 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 thoughtAnd 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 bornThat 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 seaand 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.”
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), Spells: New and Selected Poems (2013), and Poetry Witch Book of Spells (2019), as well as the long poems The Encyclopedia of...