Winter’s Tale

Ice, frost, hibernation, loneliness, Xmas besides an end of the old and beginning of new; winter means many things to many people.

Updated: Dec 07, 2015, 15:01 PM IST

Akrita Reyar

I walk alone in the mists of time, singing soliloquies in my mind. Winter represents stillness, solitude, quietude and also, in some strange way, peace. Under the motionless azure, an amble back home inevitably evokes a hushed melancholy. The weather has a quality of moroseness, as also deep silence. There is beauty in loving that which is not usually beloved. Coventry Patmore says just the same in ‘Winter’:

“I, singularly moved

To love the lovely that are not beloved,

Of all the Seasons, most Love Winter, and to trace

The sense of the Trophonian pallor on her face. It is not death, but plenitude of peace.”

We walk on alone in the cold and hoary night, on abandoned roads, and amidst rolling miasma, puffing chimneys, empty trams, dimly lit streets and faraway homes. As we pierce through the veil of fog, we gaze at the hazy figures of our co-travellers, each heading for a different destination. We make a connection with these strangers, feeling a sense of unrelated support or suppressed foreboding. We pine for the reassurance of familiarity. A warm hearth and a lambent flame. Freshly baked bread and a basin of hot stew. The want of friendly smiles and narration of an old tale.

Robert Louis Stevenson captures the feeling in ‘Picture Books in Winter’

"Summer fading, winter comes--

Frosty mornings, tingling thumbs,

Window robins, winter rooks…..

Happy chimney-corner days, Sitting safe in nursery nooks, Reading picture story-books?"

There is a feeling of serene purity. This is the singular time of the year that the sky and earth meet in a common shade. The roads, forests, lakes, seas and skies are all ashen creating a seamless continuity. Awakening leisurely in the morning, one pulls aside the drapes and gazes at the untainted white cover sparkling under the feeble sunshine. The sun hangs like a pale lemon, shorn of all pride of its blazing days. Icicles softly drip from eaves. Frozen Buds and flowers appear like glistening jewels. John Greenleaf Whittier says in “Flowers in winter’

“How strange to greet, this frosty morn,

In graceful counterfeit of flower,

These children of the meadows, born Of sunshine and of showers!”

Schoolchildren, wrapped under layers looking like little teddy bears, totter along blowing out small wreaths from their mouths. Laughing and roaring, kids thrill in hurling snowballs at each other, and sculpting mounds of soft ice into snowmen and snow-houses. It is those who have lost innocence with time that are less welcoming of the arctic weather. They view winter, an obstructer of chores, to be dark, depressing and dreadful. William Blake makes no bones about his feelings in his address ‘To Winter’.

‘O Winter! bar thine adamantine doors:

The north is thine; there hast thou built thy dark Deep-founded habitation.

Shake not thy roofs, Nor bend thy pillars with thine iron car.`

Even the clinquant glow of sunbeams on iced lakes in wintery afternoons fails to lift Emily Dickinson’s spirits in ‘There`s a Certain Slant of Light’:

“There`s a certain slant of light, On winter afternoons

That oppresses, like the weight Of cathedral tunes.

When it comes, the landscape listens, Shadows hold their breath;

When it goes, `t is like the distance On the look of death.”

The eventide is moonlit, the world asleep, even the cuckoos have fallen silent. Stray dogs and kittens are all curled up in nooks and corners of neighbourhood streets in the freezing open. Samuel Taylor Coleridge in ‘Frost at Midnight’ finds nocturnal times in winters to be eerie and unsettling.

“The Frost performs its secret ministry,

Unhelped by any wind.

The owlet`s cry Came loud, -and hark, again!... `Tis calm indeed!

So calm, that it disturbs

And vexes meditation with its strange

And extreme silentness.”

Winter carries in its quiver plenty of sharp arrows. A lonely night in frigid darkness can cut open old wounds. Sarah Teasdale laments in ‘A Winter Night’.

“My window-pane is starred with frost,

The world is bitter cold to-night,

The moon is cruel, and the wind

Is like a two-edged sword to smite.

My room is like a bit of June,

Warm and close-curtained fold on fold,

But somewhere, like a homeless child,

My heart is crying in the cold.”

What then can be said of the fate of those who are poor and hungry? They crave for little comforts, as they huddle close together in the torrid clime. A low fire from damp wood is their only armour. Particularly touching is the story of the `The Little Match Girl` by Hans Christian Andersen. Unshod and inadequately draped she roams the deserted icy roads on a bitterly glacial night. The book says, “Her little hands were almost frozen with the cold. Ah! perhaps a burning match might be some good…She drew one out. "Scratch!" how it sputtered...And seemed so beautifully warm that the child stretched out her feet as if to warm them, when, lo! the flame of the match went out!” Her tiny fragile frame could bear the extremity no longer and finally she succumbs to the harsh weather, but only to be reunited with the soul of her departed grandmother in all glowing love.

In the jungles, there is a different story unraveling. The woods are dark and deep. Trees look ghastly stark. Bear of their verdant ornaments, they appear gaunt white in the mornings and dark skeletal in the night. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow puts the scene in words in ‘Woods in Winter’:

“O`er the bare upland, and away

Through the long reach of desert woods,

The embracing sunbeams chastely play,

And gladden these deep solitudes.

Where, twisted round the barren oak,

The summer vine in beauty clung,

And summer winds the stillness broke,

The crystal icicle is hung."

Many animals go into hibernation. Having laboured hard though the year and stacked food in their dug-in homes, they now mostly spend their time snoozing or making timid attempts to wander around at high noon. Henry David Thoreau, who lived in a forested area for some time, gets philosophical drawing inspiration from Nature in ‘Walden’.

“After a still winter night I awoke with the impression that some question had been put to me, which I had been endeavoring in vain to answer in my sleep, as what- how- when- where? But there was dawning Nature, in whom all creatures live, looking in at my broad windows with serene and satisfied face, and no question on her lips. I awoke to an answered question, to Nature and daylight. The snow lying deep on the earth dotted with young pines, and the very slope of the hill on which my house is placed, seemed to say, Forward! Nature puts no question and answers none which we mortals ask.”

In villages, in the frosty nippiness of a relatively calm morning, a ride in an open carriage is irresistible fun, as Amy Lowell found out on ‘A Winter Ride’:

“Everything mortal has moments immortal,

Swift and God-gifted, immeasurably bright.

So with the stretch of the white road before me,

Shining snowcrystals rainbowed by the sun,

Fields that are white, stained with long, cool, blue shadows,

Strong with the strength of my horse as we run.”

But a relentless haul of flakes can imprison us at home. Heaps of white flurry block our doors, windows and blizzards make roads impassable and innavigable. J G Whittier gives us a glimpse into how it feels to be ‘Snow bound’:

“Shut in from all the world without,

We sat the clean-winged hearth about,

Content to let the north-wind roar

In baffled rage at pane and door,

And ever, when a louder blast

Shook beam and rafter as it passed,

The merrier up its roaring draught

The great throat of the chimney laughed;

The house-dog on his paws outspread

Laid to the fire his drowsy head.”

In eras past, if one was caught unawares on a night as such, nothing was more welcome for a solitary traveler than the sight of a roadside inn. Sipping piping hot cup of tea or ale with perfect strangers would become a warm memory. O Henry has written a similar short story - ‘The Snow Man’:

"Snow is a hell of a thing," said Ross, by way of a foreword. "It ain`t, somehow, it seems to me, salubrious. I can stand water and mud and two inches below zero and a hundred and ten in the shade and medium-sized cyclones, but this here fuzzy white stuff naturally gets me all locoed.”

The search of joy in such gloom comes with Christmas. With colourful presents and decorated trees. Carol singing and church services. The festival itself evokes generosity and charity. Santa Claus is awaited with baited expectation and empty stockings hanging at fireplaces. Christmas lunch is all gaiety, when we break crust together and relish hot pudding with relatives and loved ones. Any bitterness begotten in the year is all forgotten. A favourite holiday season story is ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens, where Xmas spirits thaw the frozen heart of misanthrope Ebenezer Scrooge.

(Read more about Charles Dickens works on Christmas)

Mostly, poets and writers have used winter as an allegory for broken hearts, separations, darkness, loneliness, and sadness. William Shakespeare’s ‘Winter’s Tale’, for example, is about a misunderstanding wrecks the marital bliss of the protagonists and they suffer severance and unhappiness all their lives.

But if there is a piece that is truly mesmerizing it is a song written by Franz Schubert that is considered one of the all-time classics in western classical music. ‘Winterreise’ is haunting, magnificent, smooth, and deep and tells about the wanderings of man in chilly winter, yearning for his lost love. It is presented here with English translations. (Watch Video)

Also enjoy ‘Winter’ from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. (Watch Video)

Meanwhile, a very unique literary attempt is the interesting personification of ‘Winter’ by Robert Southey:

“Wrinkled crabbed man they picture thee,

Old Winter, with a rugged beard as grey

As the long moss upon the apple-tree;

Blue-lipt, an icedrop at thy sharp blue nose,

Close muffled up, and on thy dreary way

Plodding alone through sleet and drifting snows.”

There is a strange equanimity in winters. Like the tranquil comfort experienced in the rest gotten after an exhausting year. One is worn out from the exertions of the flow of events and emotions; change and tedium. As the calendar turns the corner, we want to shut the door on the past and look forward to the future with hope. Alfred Lord Tennyson says in ‘The Death of the Old Year’: 

“Full knee-deep lies the winter snow,

And the winter winds are wearily sighing:

Toll ye the church bell sad and slow,

And tread softly and speak low,

For the old year lies a-dying."

Winter has also a meditative quality. Suddenly pausing from our ever vigourous life, to just stand under the purple sky and grasp the first snowflake of the season… To experience the recess is to find meaning in the joy of small things.

Winter affords us privacy, calm and an introspective setting, where, as someone said, a person can savour belonging to oneself. Winter is like a God’s hymn experienced in absolute aloneness. Metaphorically, it is the time between when the curtain falls on the play of life and when we awake to reality. The sepulchral silence, the all enshrouding darkness and the swathe of white are all indicative of a funeral procession. Life ebbs gently from motion into inertia… …Only to evolve again.

Much like everything around us, there is a relentless process of creation, flourish, destruction and eventual rejuvenation. The scorching summer, the rains and rainbows, the golden autumn, the tale of grey winters and once again the advent of spring.

As the restless arms of the clock tick away, the cycle of season turns on forever…unceasing and unending.