Nothing stirs the poetic imagination like a winter landscape. Boundless fields of snow become blank canvases for the mind to paint on. Brisk winds enliven the senses. The sight of trees, branches laid bare by death’s touch, quickens the heart. As December deepens and January looms, let’s celebrate the coldest season of the year with a quartet of wintertime poems from across the centuries: John Keats’s “The Winter’s Wind,” Emily Dickinson’s “311,” Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man,” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Colder the Air.” To quote Stevens’s classic, “one must have a mind of winter” to approach these poems. So, grab your warmest coat, don your mittens, and fill your thermos — a season of poetry awaits.
The Winter’s Wind
by John Keats
O thou whose face hath felt the Winter’s wind,
Whose eye has seen the snow-clouds hung in mist,
And the black elm tops, ’mong the freezing stars,
To thee the spring will be a harvest time.
O thou, whose only book has been the light,
Of supreme darkness, which thou feddest on
Night after night, when Phoebus was away!
To thee the Spring shall be a triple morn.
O fret not after knowledge. I have none,
And yet my song comes native with the warmth.
O fret not after knowledge! I have none,
And yet the Evening listens. He who saddens
At thought of idleness cannot be idle,
And he’s awake who thinks himself asleep.
“The Winter’s Wind” features Keats in his natural mode. Emotional immediacy, rhetorical power, and sensuous imagery drive this sonnet. The apostrophic pulse of “O” gives the poem its structure and portions out the stanzas. In the octave — the first eight lines — the sonnet explores the psychological dynamics of the seasons. The trope is simple: winter is so cold and dark that, by comparison, “spring will be a harvest time” and “a triple morn.” The trope is freshened by Keats’s rich imagery of “the snow-clouds hung in mist, / And the black elm tops, ’mong the freezing stars.”
In the sonnet’s concluding sestet, the speaker twice pleads, “O fret not after knowledge!” There is a sense that giving into the sway of the seasons is wiser than trying to surmount or sidestep them with the right kind of knowledge. “Fret not,” writes Keats. “I have none, / And yet the Evening listens.” The poem reinforces one of Keats’s great lessons: the importance of refraining from “irritable reaching after fact & reason.” To experience the world in its whirling seasons is enough.
by Emily Dickinson
It sifts from Leaden Sieves —
It powders all the Wood.
It fills with Alabaster Wool
The Wrinkles of the Road —
It makes an Even Face
Of Mountain, and of Plain —
Unbroken Forehead from the East
Unto the East again —
It reaches to the Fence —
It wraps it Rail by Rail
Till it is lost in Fleeces —
It deals Celestial Vail
To Stump, and Stack — and Stem —
A Summer’s empty Room —
Acres of Joints, where Harvests were,
Recordless, but for them —
It Ruffles Wrists of Posts
As Ankles of a Queen
Then stills its Artisans — like Ghosts —
Denying they have been —
Emily Dickinson’s “311” is a playful portrait of winter. Like her strongest poems, “311” is built around vivid imagery, mind-bending metaphor, and a jaunty, songlike meter. If Dickinson had titled her poems — which she never did — she may well have titled this poem “Snow.” After all, snow is the unnamed “it,” the subject of all the poem’s verbs. Snow is what “sifts from Leaden Sieves,” “powders all the Wood,” and “fills with Alabaster Wool / The Wrinkles of the Road — .”
This poem is full of remarkable metaphors, but a few are especially worthy of our attention, beginning with the very first. The “Leaden Sieves” from which the snow sifts and falls like flour perfectly evokes both the vehicle and the tenor of the metaphor. There is the actual sieve, the baking implement made of metal, and there is the stormcloud it stands for, which is also “Leaden” for its heavy, gray qualities. Later, the snow’s “Celestial Vail” over “Stump, and Stack — and Stem — ” results in “A Summer’s empty room.” To compare a snow-blanketed landscape to an empty room filled with bright summer sunlight is as counterintuitive as it is accurate. Considering Dickinson’s bedroom-bound life, one can’t help but wonder whether she composed “311” on a July afternoon as light poured across her floorboards. In the final stanza, Dickinson writes that snow “Ruffles Wrists of Posts / As Ankles of a Queen,” a silly but unforgettable metaphor. As for the poem’s final pair of lines, which turn from playfulness to subtle menace, we’ll leave their riddle unexplained.
The Snow Man
by Wallace Stevens
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.
“The Snow Man” is one of Wallace Stevens’s sparest and loveliest poems. Stevens, whose tone ranges from dramatic seriousness to absurd jollity, favors a light yet haunting touch in this short lyric. In some ways, “The Snow Man” seems to be an answer to Keats’s “The Winter Wind.” It explores Keats’s notion of the seasonal psyche, speaking from the perspective of one with “a mind of winter.” Part of the challenge presented by the poem is to understand what kind of mind might be “of winter.” By the poem’s end it becomes clear that Stevens’s “mind of winter” is markedly different from Keats’s.
Where Keats’s speaker “felt the Winter’s wind” and “feddest on… supreme darkness,” in general deepening the emotional ravages of winter, Stevens’s speaker moves in the opposite direction. His goal is precisely “not to think / Of any misery in the sound of the wind.” It is a poem of self-negation and takes the conceit of “cold objectivity” as an undergirding metaphor. The all-consuming snow and wind reveals to the speaker “nothing” in its threefold form: “nothing himself, [he] beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Part of the poem’s magic is the emotional punch it delivers, despite the speaker’s stare into that sub-zero waste.
The Colder the Air
by Elizabeth Bishop
We must admire her perfect aim,
this huntress of the winter air
whose level weapon needs no sight,
if it were not that everywhere
her game is sure, her shot is right.
The least of us could do the same.
The chalky birds or boats stand still,
reducing her conditions of chance;
air’s gallery marks identically
the narrow gallery of her glance.
The target-center in her eye
is equally her aim and will.
Time’s in her pocket, ticking loud
on one stalled second. She’ll consult
not time nor circumstance. She calls
on atmosphere for her result.
(It is this clock that later falls
in wheels and chimes of leaf and cloud.)
Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Colder the Air” poses an elaborate riddle to readers, who must figure out who — or what — “this huntress of the winter air” is. Bishop brings her characteristically sharp eye and ear to this lyric, which achieves the rare balance of both intense cleverness and genuine beauty. For fear of spoiling the riddle, we’ll leave the discussion there. The answer to the riddle can be found at the end of the article.
Winter is here, and, despite the coldness and darkness of the season, it is a creatively invigorating time. Winter has drawn out some of the best poems by some of our best poets. Traversing the wind and snow, you may find yourself thinking of Keats’s looming “triple morn,” Dickinson’s “Alabaster wool,” Stevens’s “junipers shagged with ice,” or Bishop’s “wheels and chimes of leaf and cloud.” As these poets show us, winter is a season of imagination and possibility.
Answer to Bishop’s riddle, spelled backwards: retemomreht.