A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Literary Winters

I grew up in Canada, a country whose weather regularly kills its citizens, and where between a quarter and a third of a person’s life is spent enduring Winter. For this reason, as a child I couldn’t help wondering why it was that I so seldom saw depictions of Winter on the television shows I watched. Obviously most of the filming was done in Hollywood, which goes a long way towards an explanation. But still, it didn’t stop television producers from depicting Winter in the obligatory Christmas episodes of those same shows. I was amazed at how Beaver Cleaver’s Mayfield seemed to be a place of eternal Summer, except for that one evening in December.

Unfortunately, it is not only popular culture that is prone to ignore Winter. It seems to me that there have been too few — or too few good — depictions of Winter in Western art and literature. There are of course exceptions, and I will devote the rest of this post to three of my favourite literary Winters.


The first comes from Horace’s Odes, 1.9, which for some reason I fell in love with while having to translate it in grade nine Latin class. Rather than subject you to the Latin, I’ll give you John Conington’s translation, which is fairly accurate, while retaining some of the poetic qualities of the original:

See, how it stands, one pile of snow,
Soracte! ‘neath the pressure yield
Its groaning woods; the torrents’ flow
With clear sharp ice is all congeal’d.
Heap high the logs, and melt the cold,
Good Thaliarch; draw the wine we ask,
That mellower vintage, four-year-old,
From out the cellar’d Sabine cask.
The future trust with Jove; when He
Has still’d the warring tempests’ roar
On the vex’d deep, the cypress-tree
And aged ash are rock’d no more.
O, ask not what the morn will bring,
But count as gain each day that chance
May give you; sport in life’s young spring,
Nor scorn sweet love, nor merry dance,
While years are green, while sullen eld
Is distant. Now the walk, the game,
The whisper’d talk at sunset held,
Each in its hour, prefer their claim.
Sweet too the laugh, whose feign’d alarm
The hiding-place of beauty tells,
The token, ravish’d from the arm
Or finger, that but ill rebels.

(Incidentally, to cleanse the palate, I recommend Ode 4.7 as a nice little description of the coming of Spring and the banishing of Winter.)

My next example is Ambrose Philips’ (1675-1749) poem, “Epistle to the Earl of Dorset from Copenhagen, 1709,” in his Pastorals, Epistles, Odes, and Other Original Poems (London: J. and R. Tonson, 1748), pp. 64-66:

From frozen climes, and endless tracts of snow,
From streams which northern winds forbid to flow,
What present shall the Muse to Dorset bring,
Or how, so near the Pole, attempt to sing?
The hoary winter here conceals from sight
All pleasing objects which to verse invite.
The hills and dales, and the delightful woods,
The flow’ry plains, and silver-streaming floods,
By snow disguis’d, in bright confusion lie,
And with one dazzling waste fatigue the eye.

No gentle breathing breeze prepares the spring,
No birds within the desert region sing.
The ships, unmov’d, the boist’rous winds defy,
While rattling chariots o’er the ocean fly.
The vast Leviathan wants room to play,
And spouts his waters in the face of day.
The starving wolves along the main sea prowl,
And to the moon in icy valleys howl.
O’er many a shining league the level main
Here spreads itself into a glassy plain:
There solid billows of enormous size,
Alps of green ice, in wild disorder rise.

And yet but lately have I seen, ev’n here,
The winter in a lovely dress appear.
‘Ere yet the clouds let fall the treasur’d snow,
Or winds begun through hazy skies to blow,
At ev’ning a keen eastern breeze arose,
And the descending rain unsully’d froze.
Soon as the silent shades of night withdrew,
The ruddy morn disclos’d at once to view
The face of nature in a rich disguise,
And brighten’d ev’ry object to my eyes:
For ev’ry shrub, and ev’ry blade of grass,
And ev’ry pointed thorn, seem’d wrought in glass;
In pearls and rubies rich the hawthorns show,
While through the ice the crimson berries glow.
The thick-sprung reeds, which wat’ry marshes yield,
Seem’d polish’d lances in a hostile field.
The stag in limpid currents, with surprise,
Sees crystal branches on his forehead rise;
The spreading oak, the beech, and tow’ring pine,
Glaz’d over, in the freezing aether shine.
The frighted birds the rattling branches shun,
Which wave and glitter in the distant sun.

When if a sudden gust of wind arise,
The brittle forest into atoms flies,
The crackling wood beneath the tempest bends,
And in a spangled show’r the prospect ends:
Or, if a southern gale the region warm,
And by degrees unbind the wintry charm,
The traveller a miry country sees,
And journeys sad beneath the dropping trees:
Like some deluded peasant Merlin leads
Through fragrant bow’rs, and through delicious meads,
While here enchanted gardens to him rise,
And airy fabrics there attract his eyes,
His wand’ring feet the magic paths pursue,
And while he thinks the fair illusion true,
The trackless scenes disperse in fluid air,
And woods, and wilds, and thorny ways appear,
A tedious road the weary wretch returns,
And, as he goes, the transient vision mourns.

The next piece is a passage from Lord Shaftesbury’s Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), Vol. II, p. 383, in which he describes the polar regions in sublime prose. The piece is fanciful, to say the least, as obviously Shaftesbury had never been anywhere near the Arctic. Now, you wouldn’t be wrong in noticing that there are some similarities between Philips’ and Shaftesbury’s imagery, as the two men knew each other, and the latter was probably influenced by the former’s work, which had appeared in 1709 in the Tatler. Here is the passage:

“How oblique and faintly looks the Sun on yonder Climates, far remov’d from him! How tedious are the Winters there! How deep the Horrors of the Night, and how uncomfortable even the Light of Day! The freezing Winds employ their fiercest Breath, yet are not spent with blowing. The Sea, which elsewhere is scarce confin’d within its Limits, lies here immur’d in Walls of Chrystal. The Snow covers the Hills, and almost fills the lowest Valleys. How wide and deep it lies, incumbent o’er the Plains, hiding the sluggish Rivers, the Shrubs, and Trees, the Dens of Beasts, and Mansions of distress’d and feeble Men!—See! where they lie confin’d, hardly secure against the raging Cold, or the Attacks of the wild Beasts, now Masters of the wasted Field, and forc’d by Hunger out of the naked Woods.—Yet not dishearten’d (such is the Force of human Breasts) but thus provided for, by Art and Prudence, the kind compensating Gifts of Heaven, Men and their Herds may wait for a Release. For at length the Sun approaching, melts the Snow, sets longing Men at liberty, and affords them Means and Time to make provision against the next Return of Cold. It breaks the icy Fetters of the Main; where vast Sea-Monsters pierce thro’ floating Islands, with Arms which can withstand the Chrystal Rock: whilst others, who of themselves seem great as Islands, are by their Bulk alone arm’d against all but Man; whose Superiority over Creatures of such stupendous Size and Force, shou’d make him mindful of his Privilege of Reason, and force him humbly to adore the great Composer of these wondrous Frames, and Author of his own superior Wisdom.”

Some may find it strange that none of my examples are Canadian. In truth, I have no explanation for this. The above are simply pieces that struck a chord with me. In any case, I welcome submissions from readers of their own favourite literary winters.

1 comment:

  1. I too used to wonder as a child why it was always summer on TV. It isn't just the California based entertainment business, I learned later, it is hard to film in snowy climes in least because of the billows of actors breath (good or bad, I cannot say).