Can poetry provide any consolation for the frigid horrors and endless annoyances of this Polar Vortex? Likely not unless you burn the pages for heat…but it can offer engagement with the peculiar beauty of this benighted season or distraction for those unable to will away the cold. For the most part poets assume two postures towards winter: anger or awe. Winter, on the whole elicits depictions of its ferocity, its ruthless, merciless winds, frozen temperatures, and strange powder, and depictions of its often alien and ethereal beauty, its ability to blanket and cover all of nature and the manmade world in a sustained whiteness.
William Blake does a suitable job as a stand in for this very common dynamic sentiment of anger and awe, this almost basic human experience of winter. Here Blake attempts to calm down winter through speech but:
He hears me not, but o’er the yawning deep
Rides heavy; his storms are unchain’d, sheathed
In ribbed steel; I dare not lift mine eyes;
For he hath rear’d his sceptre o’er the world.
Lo! now the direful monster, whose skin clings
To his strong bones, strides o’er the groaning rocks:
He withers all in silence, and in his hand
Unclothes the earth, and freezes up frail life.
William Blake, in what I know understand to be one of his basic methods, personifies winter as a beefcake, as a terrifying specimen of Man. In a nice twist on this almost clichéd dynamic, Robert Burns, in his Winter: A Dirge takes the classic imagery of the joyless, dreary winter, and turns it into praise:
The joyless winter day
Let others fear, to me more dear
Than all the pride of May:
The tempest’s howl, it soothes my soul,
My griefs it seems to join;
The leafless trees my fancy please,
Their fate resembles mine!
For Burns, the wildness of winter weather mimicked the internal chaos of his soul and winter’s relentless desire to spread its chaos provided a catharsis of sort through winter’s ability to act out where Burns could not.
Consequently, as a symbol, poets tend use winter as a stand-in for death, as hints of our inevitable and untimely demise, or for some aloof regal being that lives by its own rules – i.e. the rebel of the seasons. John Keats, in his Human Seasons, famously uses the seasons as an image for the warp and woof of human life explaining of a human being, “He has his Winter too of pale misfeature,/Or else he would forego his mortal nature.” The death of nature that comes yearly signals the death of man, but Keats sees winter as necessarily to aid humanity in confronting death before death confronts him first. Dickinson took this assertion and, as she does everywhere, gave it a nastier, more realistic slant given the fear and absurdity of death:
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons —
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes —
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us —
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are —
None may teach it — Any —
’Tis the Seal Despair —
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air —
When it comes, the Landscape listens —
Shadows — hold their breath —
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death —
Both of these stances (the descriptive and symbolic) ultimately lead the poet inwards. The dreariness of the cold pushes the poet inside for warmth, which mimics the movement of the mind inward. Forced inside, poets not only take refuge in the fireplace and heated rooms with hot chocolate like the rest of us, but also take refuge in the fires of their souls. Poets use winter as a prompt to turn away from the splendors of the natural world toward the joyful chaos of our selves. While this idea has ancient roots that persisted throughout the tradition, (See Coleridge, Bronte, Manley Hopkins for starters) none ever gave it such eloquent and compelling voice as the legendary Wallace Stevens.
Stevens exhibited an almost strange relationship to winter. It is by far the most prevalent image in his poetry, and served numerous roles and functions. Winter, in its complexity, stood at the center of his poetic philosophy of the mind, knowledge, and the world. Consequently, it must be challenging to give a short explanation of how Stevens views and uses winter. Without getting bogged down in his whole system we can notice the deceptive beauty of this, one of his most famous poems, The Snowman:
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.
I once heard the venerable Helen Vendler describe this poem as perhaps a central poem of Stevens. She opines that it contains the poetic journey of his life, as well as the culmination of his thought and winter imagery. For Vendler, this “mind of winter” is Stevens’s response to the loss of external meaning in the world. After the death of God, after doubt, and religious demise, what is left for a person? In a world shorn of all objective meaning, to what will and can a person cling? These questions of meaning raised epistemological questions for Stevens about the truthiness of the knowledge used and abused in life. But in the end of his questioning Stevens took ultimate comfort and solace from a barren world in the warmth of his imagination.
The winter mind, Vendler explains, is a mind in complete control of itself – its images, metaphors, beliefs, and values, a mind that is both self-created and controlled. Not ascetic per se, or mindful to use the current trendy term, but a person that is clear about what the mind is and capable of. For Stevens, the assertion that nothing exists outside of our mind did not signal the loss of all meaning, but the triumph of the human mind, the winter mind, capable of beholding, “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” The mind of winter isn’t taken in by the endless symbolic beauty of a wild winter, or of winter as misery, but instead sees reality as is, as its constructed, and takes great pride and pleasure in just that ability of construction. The winter mind, as an accomplishment, destroys the ostensible divide between subject and object leaving nothing but pure creation. This idea might not thaw the stubborn frost of winter but it can generate enough heat as the brain attempts to work through this lofty notion.