Winter’s Immutable Poetics

by Ed Simon

‘Winter is come, that blows the baleful Breath, /And after Winter cometh timely Death.’
– Edmund Spenser, Shepheardes Calendar XII: December

After New York, Amsterdam, and Venice have been swallowed by the ocean, after a New England winter becomes regularly sweltering and snow ceases to fall south of the 50th parallel, there will still be one unaffected thing – on December 21st 2117 the sun will set in Boston, Massachusetts at 4:01 PM. If, what narrative logic implies with terrifying and uncompromising rigor should come to pass, and those thousands of nuclear missiles scattered across the Badlands and prairies and Siberian silos find themselves discharged, and our great cities are leveled to radioactive ash, another incontrovertible truth will remain – that on December 21st the sun will set in whatever may be remaining of New York City at 4:30 PM. And should our cathedrals, libraries and museums fall to entropy, and with nobody left to espy the dusk, the sun shall still set at 4:24 PM on December 21st in Washington, DC, whether anyone is left to on the Mall, whether the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorial have been ground to dust. Long after the tropical humidity of a Vienna winter has reduced Pieter Brueghel’s The Hunters in the Snow into a pulpy slick of grey and white oil, or the relentless hot dampness of a Parisian December rots the wood on which Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s Winter is painted, hanging as it does upon the walls of the abandoned Louvre, solstice shall still have its sublime exits. That is the solemn promise of dusk; that it waits not for man to witness but only endures the mechanistic oath of our solar system. Humanity’s hubris can allow for the abolition of the seasons, but we have yet to alter the immutable choreography of the planet’s axis, and for that we should be reverential, cowed, and grateful.

A certain slant of light remains at the centre for any poetics of winter. Whatever else literature of those dark months takes as its concern – the crunch of snow underfoot, the strange material effervescence of one’s breath, even the liturgy of Advent – all aesthetics of solstice ultimately is about the half-luminescence of the low winter sun. To sing a song of winter is to sing a dirge. Representations of the season must deal with the expiring embers of daylight, effervescence’s spindly dying glow as the year progresses, the subtle yet sublime awareness of the hazy light of the shortening day. Approaching whatever collapse awaits us, feeling the rising temperatures of a 21st-century December, or perhaps knowing the grey ashen chill of future nuclear winter, what is reassuringly uncontrollable is the predictable tilt of our planet’s axis. And in that regularity let us give thanks to what constitutes winter’s poetics: a memento mori for both our age and ourselves. Let the literary theorists argue of base and superstructure, at its core all expression must be the result of the basest of material sources – not cash, but climate. Our seasons remain a pagan liturgy, enthralled to the motion of the sun and moon, and our poetry is similarly moved. Northrop Frye, whose entire archetypal criticism was indebted to the mutability of the seasons, explained that ‘Nature is inside art as its content, not outside as its model.’ In his essay on his theory of myth, he explains that ‘there are two fundamental movements of narrative: a cyclical movement within the order of nature, and a dialectical movement from that order into the apocalyptic world above.’ For Frye, the ironic mythos of winter was that its poetics simultaneous described both a cyclical regularity, as well as the ruptures of apocalypse, the two nestled within each other. Solstice must forever be the apocalypse which comes every December 21st or 22nd, John Donne’s ‘the year’s midnight.’ For the quod erat demonstrandum of all reflection upon winter is that as leaves fall and water freezes, so too shall I die. The Earth’s tilt and those ever earlier sunsets which pulse through as a steady metronome towards the conclusion of the twelfth month like some kind of annual apocalypse only serve to reiterate the nature of those eternal things upon which the human mind can contemplate but do nothing to alter, regardless of how much carbon dioxide we cruelly pump out. Donne speaks ‘Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not’ – the subjects of winter’s poetry. What Herman Melville called the ‘drizzly November in my soul.’ Of final things.

Any season has its poets, and as any month may act as muse to the individual creative soul, winter has her own wary wordsmiths, her own genuflecting penitents. Literature of spring is that of rebirth and renewal, the cool breeze of restored light; summer sings of sweaty youthfulness and potential; those of autumn are expressions of melancholic maturity. But winter alone cries out from the catacomb, a literature of the sepulchre, and as with all poetry of the individual seasons what is of priority is the celestial play of light. Few ever described that particular shade of grey which so permeates a New England winter like our 19th-century bard Emily Dickinson, from whom my piece gets its title. From her Amherst window Dickinson could watch the changing textures of the seasons. Her entire corpus is a massive tone poem about the seasons as mirrored in the changes of the human mind. A circumscribed existence, and though she was not as reclusive as has sometimes been romantically represented, Dickinson was able to stare out on that beloved garden at her father’s house, watching her ‘Lilacs – bending many a year,’ and the roses, lilies, and poppies sprout anew in the spring, lust through the summer, and then wilt and die as autumn chill turned to winter freeze. Her niece Martha wrote of the ‘succession of daffodils, crocuses and hyacinths in spring’ which transition to the ‘hardy chrysanthemums that smelled of Thanksgiving, savory and chill’ and then finally the sparse, bare-ruined choir of a herbarium left behind upon the sun’s descent, when, as Dickinson wrote, ‘The Leaves unhooked themselves from the Trees.’

She was a poet for whom seasonal verse was first and foremost about the eternal rotation of epicycles and the deft interplay of shadow and light. Of summer, ‘Whose Sun constructs a perpetual Noon.’ Or when ‘A light exists in spring’ which reflects as a ‘Color stands abroad’ and whose passing is a ‘quality of loss/Affecting our content, /As trade had suddenly encroached/Upon a sacrament.’ And autumn, waking underneath her Shaker quilt to find that the ‘morns are meeker than they were.’ Dickinson is many things – a romantic, a poet of the American Renaissance, perhaps an uneasy transcendentalist, or more properly a guilt-exonerated Puritan – but aesthetically she is an impressionist. Like her contemporary, the French artist Claude Monet, Dickinson’s seasonal poetics recorded the way that light can be filtered through an atmosphere hazily, the shifts of shade from blue to grey to black. And, if one were to look at Monet’s series of haystacks, mundane objects examined by the painter across the seasons, one can get a similar sense of that which is prosaic elevated in grandeur to the sublime by virtue of the very cyclical regularity which dictates its narrative. His 1890 Grainstacks, Snow Effect perfectly captures the sense of that gentle melting strawberry sherbet color of a December at dusk, of that certain slant of light, a hue that the sky will still exhibit even after the Edinburgh museum that houses Monet’s painting has turned to ruin.

The only artist who ever painted that certain slant of winter light with such immaculate verisimilitude as Monet was Brueghel. His 1565 Netherlandish painting The Hunters in the Snow encapsulates the very feel of winter, when fingers grow numb and lungs are pained from the cold. Were the Arctic to grow palm fronds future generations would still be able to understand the essence of that season when it froze once. Painted amidst that last, miniature ice age that dominated from the high Medieval through the early modern era and which was only extinguished by those furnaces of Manchester and Birmingham and Pittsburgh. Breughel’s painting harkens back to when the Thames would freeze and winter market stalls sold mincemeat pies, roasted walnuts, and lager from the City of London to Southwark. There is a palpable chill, the trudging, bundled, earthen coloured hunters and their lean dogs approaching out of the southwest corner of the painting, underneath that canopy of exquisitely rendered bare branched, gnarled trees, looking down into some Flemish valley where the ponds have given over to festive skaters, and the hill is lined with snow covered, steepled Dutch homes. A few winter birds, ravens or hawks, circle about, while beyond cragged peaks strike upward. Brueghel’s tableau hints at that dichotomy of winter, the season of frigidity and warm hearths, of weather beaten landscapes and cozy interiors. One envisions these tired hunters crawling back from their day’s task, with fowl for stew, offal for pies. Of a day spent in the cold task of the winter scavenger but evenings planted by the warm embers of the fireside, cheeks grown flush with ale and bellies filled by giant wedges of Gouda and slices of cinnamon dusted Appelsneeuwberg. A season which in his veritably Virgilian calendar of husbandry the British author Tom Hodgkinson, who is an advocate for a certain anarchic neo-medievalism, described as given over to ‘fireside loafing and late-night feasting, for candles, the warmth of the wood-burning stove and the delicious sweet smell of woodsmoke.’

What we most associate with the winter, what Brueghel most expertly captures, is that sky. Has anyone ever so perfectly painted how the sky appears on a late-afternoon December as Peter Brueghel the Elder in The Hunters in the Snow? I am typing this very article at 4:12 on December 3rd a few miles north of Boston, and the view from my office window, lined by similarly skeletal tree as those imagined from five centuries ago, is a slate-grey sky which looks exactly like that depicted by that long dead Renaissance master. Long from now that vista which Brueghel painted (where exactly in the Low Countries are the peaks quite as jagged as those?) will be given over as if to a desert, the snows unfallen and a dull heat pulsing throughout the year, and that sky will still look at it does here, as it does out my window. As it did when Dickinson looked through her Massachusetts shutter at ‘winter afternoons’ that oppress ‘like the weight/Of cathedral tunes.’ For she noted that ‘certain slant of light’ that when ‘it comes, the landscape listens, /Shadows hold their breath; /When it goes, ’t is like the distance/On the look of death.’

Dickinson’s equivalent in crafting perfect first lines is John Donne, and the 17th-century metaphysical was not surprisingly as enmeshed in the paradoxically cyclical and entirely devastating rhythms of death, writing ‘’Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,/Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks.’ In his ‘A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day’ he writes of that liturgical feast day honouring the strange girl who carried her eyes on a plate, and yet was not blind, and who by candlelight brought succour to the Christians who suffered under Diocletian. The solstice, which when Donne wrote under the Julian calendar (the English having not yet succumbed to the perfidies of the Pope’s mathematically superior Gregorian calendar) fell on December 13th, described with the ‘sun is spent’. Donne is a lyricist who understands that to sing a poetics of winter is to always sing a poetics of light – or the lack thereof. He explains how the sun’s ‘flasks/Send forth light squibs, no constant rays,’ so that the ‘world’s whole sap is sunk.’ But as winter’s poetics must always be an apocalyptic one, or perhaps even more specifically a poetics of death (both ours and that of the world) Donne speaks of how ‘life is shrunk,/Dead and interr’d.’ Recalling Walt Whitman’s eternal first person, Donne declares that ‘I am every dead thing,’ the song primordial of the winter muse, a ‘quintessence even from nothingness.’

Donne’s winter is one of ‘dull privations and lean emptiness,’ as centuries hence Robert Frost would describe a ‘blanker whiteness of benighted snow,’ of ‘empty spaces’ and internal ‘desert places.’ Frost, whose very name seems to typologically prefigure him, was privy to the textures of a New England winter, of dull light filtered through barren tree branches and of incapacitating cold hitting your lungs with that knowing strike of compression. San Franciscan by birth if New Hampshirite by choice, his verse charts that strange metaphorical alchemy of how the seasons seem to knowingly reflect our inner weather back towards us. Where the immaculate, perfected, and terrifying blank whiteness of a field of freshly fallen snow is pregnant with that meaning of no meaning, of ‘no expression, nothing to express.’ But as much as we associate Frost with explicitly winter poems, with those dark Christmas card scenes of him stopped by the woods on a snowy evening, he was also adept at presenting the internal winter, reminding us in halcyon days of warm breezes that this too shall pass. Like the Cavalier poets who shared his conservative aesthetics and the finely attuned sense of Thanatos, Frost often wrote in the tone of a mournful carpe diem fit for Herrick, Suckling, or Lovelace. ‘Nature’s first green is gold, /Her hardest hue to hold’ he observes in Edenic rhyming couplets. Summer, which exists ‘only so an hour’ before ‘Eden sank to grief,/So dawn goes down to day./Nothing gold can stay.’

A wisdom as old as Ecclesiastes and as current as the latest reports on climate change, a memento mori for our seasons, our planet, ourselves. A poem about the loss of summer, and thus about eternal winter, that annual eschaton, that apocalypse of our years. But as summer must turn into autumn, autumn turns into winter, the drama of that pagan calendar indebted to the rhythms of the Earth’s ever present wobble is that winter must turn into spring, must turn back into summer. There is no genesis without revelation; there is no revelation without genesis. That old cyclical drama of the resurrected Lord. And as Frost’s summer must have winter’s chill peeking through, so too must Donne’s winter call forth the possibility that we shall once again ‘Enjoy your summer all’ despite this now being ‘the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight,’ the coming period of rebirth’s ‘vigil, and her eve.’ As the statue of martyred Hermione in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale must miraculously awaken, dispatched from this Earth and returned from her frozen stasis. Solstice’s narrative must ever be thus – as the days shorten and the nights lengthen one eventually reaches that celestial midnight, the darkness before the dawn breaks, and the light must return. That old pagan wisdom. This too shall pass, for no apocalypse must ever be final – the hope implicit at the centre of winter’s poetics. And so we light a candle to both illuminate and to stay warm.