A Winter’s Tale

A Winter’s Tale

As winter closes in around us, it seems an appropriate time to consider poems about the coldest season, having done autumn a few weeks ago.

Thomas Hood introduces a negative note with his no-nonsense “No!”, William Allingham makes us feel a little sorry for his “Robin Redbreast”, and Thomas Hardy speaks of another avian in “The Darkling Thrush”.

Poem 103. No!

No dawn — no dusk — no proper time of day

Thomas Hood (1799—1845)
      No sun — no moon!
      No morn — no noon —
No dawn — no dusk — no proper time of day —
      No sky — no earthly view —
      No distance looking blue —
No road — no street — no 't'other side the way' —
      No end to any Row —
      No indications where the Crescents go —
      No top to any steeple —
No recognitions of familiar people —
      No courtesies for showing 'em —
      No knowing 'em —
No travelling at all — no locomotion,
No inkling of the way — no notion —
      'No go' — by land or ocean —
      No mail — no post —
      No news from any foreign coast —
No Park — no Ring — no afternoon gentility —
      No company — no nobility —
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member —
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds, —

I think this poem is very clever—Hood works up to the single word “November” with a long series of negatives that accurately describe the conditions outside and inside the human experience of winter.

He starts with the grey skies that shut out sun, moon and stars so that it is hard to judge the time of day (the more so as days are short) and progresses through the difficulty of identifying the right thoroughfare when the weather conditions are against you, commenting in passing on the similar difficulty of identifying persons who may be well known to you but are anonymous in their thick wrappings of clothing before returning to the difficulty of travelling in bad weather and the concomitant problems that neither news nor letters can get through.

Towards the end of the poem, Hood touches on themes that are more familiar to us than we’d like this winter—the absence of convivial company and cheer we all feel in the presence of our friends and family. The final lines sum up the things that Hood most seems to miss at this time of year, the insects, birds and blossoms replaced by silence and bare branches.

Poem 104. Robin Redbreast

But Robin’s here, in coat of brown,
With ruddy breast-knot gay.

William Allingham (1824—1889)
Goodbye, goodbye to summer!
      For summer’s nearly done;
The garden smiling faintly,
      Cool breezes in the sun;
Our thrushes now are silent,
      Our swallows flown away, –
But Robin’s here, in coat of brown,
      With ruddy breast-knot gay.
Robin, Robin Redbreast,
      O Robin dear!
Robin singing sweetly
      In the falling of the year.
Bright yellow, red, and orange,
      The leaves come down in hosts;
The trees are Indian Princes,
      But soon they’ll turn to Ghosts;
The scanty pears and apples
      Hang russet on the bough,
It’s autumn, autumn, autumn late,
      ’Twill soon be winter now.
Robin, Robin Redbreast
      O Robin dear!
And welaway! My Robin,
      For pinching times are near.
The fireside for the cricket,
      The wheatsack for the mouse,
When trembling night-winds whistle
      And moan all round the house;
The frosty ways like iron,
      The branches plumed with snow, –
Alas! in winter, dead, and dark,
      Where can poor Robin go?
Robin, Robin Redbreast,
      O Robin dear!
And a crumb of bread for Robin,
      His little heart to cheer.

I knew William Allingham for his poem “The Fairies” which I covered three weeks ago, but I don’t know much of his other poetry. This poem is a kind of lament for the passing of autumn into winter and describes the colours and the sounds very well.

I like the passage in the second stanza where Allingham likens the trees with their autumn colours to the richly dressed rajahs and maharajahs of his day and then in the next line turns them to ghosts—a clever metaphor for the rapidity with which the leaves fall and the trees become mere skeletons. This stanza shows the last warm days of the year, just before the “pinching times” of deep winter, when the wind blows harshly.

To explain a few rather archaic words and phrases: the robin’s “breast-knot gay” is his red breast; “Welaway” is an archaic word meaning “alas” and “pinching times” accurately describes the frozen harshness of an English winter.

The last stanza really captures the idea of mid-winter, I think: small creatures creep inside houses to find warmth by a hearth or in sacks of grain but the robin has no such refuge and must suffer the vicissitudes of the wind and snow, so the poet offers it a crumb of bread instead.

Poem 105. The Darkling Thrush

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited

Thomas Hardy (1840—1928)
I leant upon a coppice gate
      When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
      The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
      Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
      Had sought their household fires.
The land’s sharp features seemed to be
      The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
      The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
      Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
      Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
      The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
      Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
      In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
      Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
      Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
      Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
      His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
      And I was unaware.

This poem tells us that even the bleakness of winter can be pierced by the cheerful song of a bird.

The first stanza tells us about the poet’s surroundings: he is standing by a gate to a wood (a coppice) on a winter’s day and every tree is bare and grey with frost: their stems seem to cut (score) the sky crazily like the string of broken instruments, all tangled. Everyone else has (very sensibly) gone in to warm themselves by their fires.

The second stanza builds on the first, the absence of foliage heightening the jagged look of the landscape, as if the whole of time was an ugly oustretched corpse (The Century’s corpse outleant) lying in a canopy made not by the eaves of the forest but the cold and distant clouds, with the wind keening sadly. The life force is at its lowest ebb, like a bean (the ancient pulse of germ and birth) that is shrivelled and hard with age. Everything seems dull and lacking in spirit (fervourless).

In the third stanza, we meet the subject of the poem who bursts into delightful, joyous (joy illimited, meaning unlimited) song in the branches above the poet. This thrush is old and battered and none too well fed but still raises his voice in song (flings his soul) in the increasing darkness.

The fourth stanza contrasts the ecstasy of the thrush’s song with the sad landscape around the poet, and he wonders why the bird is so happy and gloomily speculates that there is a cause for its song of which the poet knows nothing (it seems like Hardy has something of Eeyore’s perspective). I think that this is the hope that spring will eventually come and break the iron grip of winter.

Darkling is used in this poem and in Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” (which is on my list of poems for Poet’s Day), and it means darkened or darkening.

This poem was apparently written in 1899 when Hardy could have had no idea of the convulsions that would ruin the peaceful idyll of many English country gentlemen like him and destroy a generation of their offspring. It carries the message that no matter how dark the days get, there is always hope of a kind, a moral that bears consideration when we are suffering isolation and darkness of spirit: as the last song of the musical Les Miserables has it:

For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies
Even the darkest night will end
And the sun will rise.

Les Miserables, by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer.