The frigid, frosty winters, which seem to have frozen all lives merely to our cosy beds, have held different meanings throughout the history of literature. With longer nights, winter has long awoken the writers and poets in many, also birthed phenomenal compositions ever to exist.
It is one of those seasons which have a significant disparity in depiction through art. From Shakespeare’s words to Robert Frost—which we may have read umpteen times in our school curriculums—seasons seemingly played an essential role in many significant literary pieces spanning various languages, countries, and continents. We see unique outlooks of seasons playing roles in poems, books, songs, and even movies even to this day.
Poetry and seasons
The contrast between seasons and passage of time in human life plays a significant role in invoking the reader’s mind for inferring the true meaning behind the words of the author or the poet. Seasonal symbolism can be observed in the core of many infamous literary pieces historically.
The most recurring symbolisms perceived constituting seasons are that spring represents youth, a new beginning, or childhood, whereas summer holds the meaning of being a young adult with heated emotions. The onset of fall defines the middle age of human life, like harvesting what was once sown in childhood—finally, winter, depicting tranquillity, isolation, and death. The freezing weather portrays a picture of nostalgia, bleak and lifelessness, otherwise described as dormancy.
The icy season has a record of delivering agonizing messages through verses of poems, implicating the severity of the season, but this trope doesn’t seem to be consistent for many poets.
Winter, a cold comfort
Winter has always been a theme which seemingly adds a dark undertone to literature in itself. This can be seen in the verses of ‘Midnight Mass for the Dying Year’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Here he defines this season as regretful due to his inability to wash away his sins, which have been weighing him down. He explains how everyone gathers in the churches to mourn the death of that ending year. In ‘Sonnet 97’ by William Shakespeare, the season symbolized the absence of a loved one and his grief of not enjoying happiness. ‘Craving for Spring’ by D.H. Lawrence explains the misery of winter as the craving for the innocence the possibly dying protagonist has long lost.
One of the most melancholy filled themes in Robert Frost’s poem, ‘An Old Man’s Winter’, describes the plight of a man who has now almost forgotten all the memories of his home and has no one to remind him of his previous life. Living a deserted life, surrounded by an empty house, creates an atmosphere filled with fear and anxiety with the growing winter nights.
These poets represented winters in an inherently dark manner, which is intrinsically in contrast to what some poems might depict. It is intriguing how polar opposite the representations are from each other, and a surprising lack of ambivalence.
‘Now winter nights enlarge’ by Thomas Campion is one of those pieces which have a very different idea of this season, wherein some poems winter may represent ending relations, here he looks at it with some optimism. He believes it is a celebration of the warmth of human connections, bringing everyone closer amidst the harsh weather. But there is a darker turn in the later stanza where he describes the increasing concerns amongst the cosy environment. Further, he disregards that thought explaining beauty persisting regardless of the brutal conditions.
Another one of those poems depicting a picture where people gather around fireplaces, creating art and the feeling of togetherness is seen in ‘Fireside Winter’ by William Cowper.
Carl Sandburg compares winter to milk in the poem ‘Winter Milk’, where he explains the necessity of making mistakes to grow and fulfil ambitions.
Winter as a poetic muse
The ever-changing seasonal landscapes have served as inspiration for artists, poets and musicians through various centuries. Be it the Romantics, the Realists, or Modernists, metaphors revolving around nature and its seasonal elements have been used by the writers of almost every Literary movement. As is the case with every other theme in Literature, winter has been perceived through various lenses. Winter brings motifs like wonder, melancholy, introspection, detachment and communal belonging. John Updike and Edith Nesbit wrote poems titled ‘January’, but the undercurrents of motifs fuelled by metaphors are worlds apart in both texts. Where Nesbit’s verses hint at the narrator waiting from a distance for winter to be over; Updike attempts to paint a realistic picture of a typical winter day.
Cold northern winds carry hushed whispers from around the world and bury them under layers and layers of snow. The Romantics drew strength, resilience and beauty from nature and spilt all of it into a plethora of poetic verses. John Keats condensed many emotions ranging from misery, hope, melancholy and despair into his poem, ‘The winter’s Wind.’ Keats packs so much in his verses; it is difficult to unpack all of it in this article’s space. Keats’ winter brings an uncanny ignorance cued by the loss of the warm light of knowledge; he uses winter to hint at the transient nature of human knowledge. The realisation of this bitter truth comes with the reassuring pat of self-awareness and Keats uses this hopeful note to end his poem.
‘…….he who saddens
at the thought of idleness cannot be idle
and he’s awake who thinks himself asleep.’
Moving away from this sombre tone; Steven Wallace takes us on a beautiful journey of glittery snow, tall pines and the soothing sounds of winter winds. Wallace’s poem, ‘The Snow Man’ brings forth the concept of the seasonal psyche—
‘One must have a mind of winter
to regard the frost and the boughs
of the pine-tress crusted with snow;’
One can go as far as saying that Wallace’s poem is a reaction to Keats’ verses about winter winds. Wallace brings an interesting thought to the table— to appreciate winter’s beauty and feel the snow-covered landscape’s tranquillity; one must have a mind of winter. The mystery of winter lies in the fact that it was lack of knowledge for Keats and a kind of escapism for Wallace.
Cold seeping through the folds of time
Writers are known to play with time; add few nail-biting winds with heavy cloud cover, and you are all set to experience complete detachment from the outside world while losing all sense of chronological time zones! Moments after the snow begins to settle, time cease to move. With this eternal limbo, comes loneliness, and a sense of melancholy that envelopes every nook and corner of our being. Robert frost captures this complex mix of emotions in almost all of his poems. The most striking example is ‘Desert Places’; Frost describes snow as empty and unable to reflect any human emotions. Vast winter landscapes, covered with snow emit peculiar loneliness to him—
‘And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less–
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.’
T.S.Elliot talks about a sudden urge to focus on the smallest objects down a street, an erratic loss of memory, and blurring of lines in his poem, ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night.’
‘And through the spaces of the dark
Midnight shakes the memory
As a madman shakes a dead geranium.’
Both Elliot and Frost bring out a darker side of winter, filled with an unusual mix of unpredictable and monotonous events.
The several faces of snow
Images of snowflakes falling in a perfect rhythm, covering every nook and corner with snow fill up our minds as soon as we hear winter. Winter’s essence lies in chilly winds, bringing trinkets of snow, distracting everything from their ordinary course. Emily Dickinson captures the playful innocence as well as the disastrous strength of snow in her poem ‘311.’ Dickinson talks of an ‘it,’ she goes on describing the presence of this unknown entity on treetops, roads, fences, rails and fields. Every verse of the poem tells a snowflake’s journey from the clouds to the ground. Dickinson’s snowfall symbolises Earth’s healing process; it very ironically preserves summer’s monuments.
Contrary to Dickinson’s reassuring imagery, William Butler Yeats puts snow and mist in a grey zone. Yeats’ poem ‘Mad as the Mist and Snow’ paints a picture of acute danger and one of wonder juxtaposed in the winter landscape. Although something is frightening about the mist that blinds us every morning and the cold snow that makes performing everyday tasks challenging; they also set up a sense of belonging among people who experience the harsh weather.
‘Horace there by Homer stands,
Plato stands below,
And here is Tully’s open page.
How many years ago
Were you and I unlettered lads
Mad as the mist and snow?’
In the mystifying silences of winter days, lies the floodgates of creativity. These layers and layers of snow are packed with stories of artists, philosophers, and past writers. Olaf taught us that water has memories and Yeats describes every snowflake as a messenger from the past, urging the contemporary artists to unleash their imaginations.
Written by Lavya Joshi and Anwesha Bhattacharjee for MTTN
Edited by Tanya Jain for MTTN
Featured image: Snow Scene at Argenteuil by Claude Monet