The Hunters in the Snow – painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

One must have a mind of winter

How can one address this, writing about winter and cold and snow in poems whilst the temperature is still mild outside here in the Algarve.

I thought we would take the most famous winter poem of Shakespeare, “When Icicles Hang by the Wall”, and set it beside a couple of winter poems written centuries later. We last met Wallace Stevens this summer, walking the shores of the Florida Keys; I transposed this to Alvor beach in the poem “The Idea of Order at Key West”.

Now we find him in a different season, up north in New England, even beyond, discovering his “mind of winter”. To “have been cold a long time” and seen “the spruces rough in the glitter of the January sun”; not finding “any misery in the sound of the wind”.

My wife and I spend part of our lives in the Algarve each year and the other part in Helsingland in central Sweden. Our joy, with Stevens, is to behold in winter the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”. The snow and ice of the frozen moorland wilderness heightens our awareness and sharpens our perceptions of the beautiful lands we have come to know.

How does Shakespeare go about it? How does Shakespeare make the icicles that hang by the wall, hang also at the end of every line of the song, which comes at the end of “Love’s Labour’s Lost”. How and why do we sense such extreme cold, when the poem makes no use of the word cold, and refrains from any dusting of snow?

The poem is a series of Mediaeval snapshots of working folk surviving the cold. It is as if one took a camera and microphone to interview the characters in a Bruegel snowscape. I have chosen The Hunters in the Snow.

”Dick the shepherd blowing his nail”, “Tom bearing logs into the hall”, “greasy Joan keeling the pot” (she gets an encore), whilst “Marian’s nose looks red and raw” and “roasted crabs hiss in the bowl”.

Your mind is the deep freeze in and out of which he takes his exhibits. Milk freezes, “blood is nipped” and the wind blows. Even the smell of snow is there if the temperature were to rise a little and the flakes begin to fall.

But I want to finish on a warmer note and experience snow as friend rather than foe. Robert Frost’s “Stopping by woods…” depicts a gentler evocation of winter, one where the narrator, an old man, is delivering Christmas presents and travelling by horse drawn sledge in a neighbour’s woods.

He has a moment to spare; he brings his sleigh to a halt “to watch his woods fill up with snow”. The horse gives “his harness bells a shake, to ask if there is some mistake”. The “easy wind” blows and the “downy flakes” deepen. This is a scene of contentment rather than constraint.

The final refrain. Beloved of John Kennedy “and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep” we can all take as lines of encouragement after a wretched and traumatic year. Roll on 2021!

When Icicles Hang by the Wall
When icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipped and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
When all aloud the wind doth blow,
And coughing drowns the parson’s saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marian’s nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

By William Shakespeare (1564 1616)
From Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act V, Scene II

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

By Robert Frost (1874-1963)
Source: Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays (Library of America, 1995)

The Snow Man
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.

By Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)
Source: Poetry magazine (1921)

By Anthony Slingsby