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NA242612 - HARDYMENT: Poetry for the Winter Season
Poetry for the Winter Season
‘Winter is the time for reading poetry’ John Betjeman points out in his comfortably beslippered way in the essay which prefaces this collection of poems to cheer you through the wild and the wind and the wet of our darkest months. As ‘time stretches out a little more’ we can give up gardening and be snug around fires by candlelight. There are anonymous medieval poems here and thoroughly modern ones, bouncy ballads and graceful eighteenth century pentameters. I have included all Betjeman’s winter favourites: a rousing extract on Christmas feasting from Walter Scott’s Marmion, William Cowper’s famous word portrait of a cosy eighteenth century evening by the fire on the sofa, sipping ‘the cups that cheer but not inebriate’, and some hilarious lines on winter domesticities by an obscure bachelor English curate, James Hurdis. What all these great old poems show is how much a part of life reading aloud used to be. All were written to be declaimed while the family occupied themselves with sewing and making, and this makes them the more suited to a spoken poetry collection.
But the collection would be highly indigestible if these mannered eighteenth century lumps were not leavened with the simplicity of Thomas Hardy and Edward Thomas and the caustic wit of Roger McGough. We also look out beyond the western literary tradition. Some of the most startlingly fresh observations of winter weather appear in ancient Chinese poems: sublime in Lu T’ung’s description of a winter eclipse of the moon, humorous in Shu Hui’s paeon of praise to hot cake when ‘rheum freezes the nose’ and ‘frost hangs about the chin’.
The poems are grouped not by date but by theme. First is The Start of Winter, signalled for Elizabeth Jennings by the ‘acrid incense’ of chysanthemums. We hear Houseman awed by gales on Wenlock Edge and Yeats musing on the wild swans at Coole. William Cowper draws up a sofa beside the fire to sip the cups that cheer but not inebriate’ from the ‘bubbling and loudhissing urn’, and John Clare catalogues all the tiny signs of the changing season. ‘From mossy barn the owl/Bobs hasty out’; ‘The maids in haste / Snatch from the orchard hedge the mizzled clothes / And laughing hurry in to keep them dry.
Next comes Winter Fires, beginning with a traditional rhyme on the best burning woods which is sure to set you off in search of ashwood logs, which ‘wet or dry / A king could warm his slippers by’. Tennyson complacently looks out from his snug fireside to the biting frost outside, Edward Fitzgerald sits by his hearth reading of ‘gallant chivalry’, Robert Louis Stevenson sees armies in the fire and Yeats a pilgrim soul. Thomas Hardy’s memories of a dead sister are recalled by burning a log from an apple tree she once climbed ‘laughing, her young brown hand awave’.
These are followed by poems written for or about Children in Winter, with memories of picture books from Robert Louis Stevenson and John Clare’s rural mother telling spooky stories to her brood as she knits, A.A. Milne’s Father Christmas letter from bad King John begging for a ‘a great big red india-rubber ball’, and Roger McGough’s macabre ‘The Trouble with Snowmen’, in which a father, impatient by the snowman’s brief lifespan, builds his son one of concrete.
Deep Winter is cocooned in snow. It opens with Shakespeare’s famous ‘When icicles hang by the wall’, then cosies up in William Morris’s Old Bed and concludes with Robert Bridge’s ‘London Snow’.
The long story poems of Romancing Winter make superb listening. Thomas Hood’s gluttonous ‘Epicurean reminiscences of a sentimentalist’ fits well with our own food-obsessed times, and Emily Brontë’s unearthly ‘Silent is the house’ prepares us for the ultimate in long-drawn out melancholy and bitter chill, John Keats’ exquisitely atmospheric ‘The Eve of St Agnes’.
Christina Rossetti’s ‘In the bleak midwinter’ opens the Christmastime poems, and Clement Moore’s ‘Twas the night before Christmas’. More contemporary delights include Benjamin Zephaniah’s irreverent ode to jailbirds, ‘Talking Turkeys’ and an anonymous skit ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas…Or Too much of a Good Thing’ (‘On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave a wince, / When he sat down at table and was offered turkey mince’). The New Year poems include John Clare’s nostalgic ‘The Old Year’, Edith Nesbit’s delicate ‘New Year’s Snow’, and all ten verses of Robert Burns’ ‘Auld Lang Syne’.
I made this collection as winter was grudgingly turning into spring, which made me realise that the ending of winter is as much part of it as its beginning. The End of Winter celebrates Candlemas, a traditional ceremony that few of us now observe, although falling as it does on February 2, it is nicely timed to cheer us up at a low time of year. Charles Causley sees it as a weather prophet, Robert Herrick uses its tradition to list the seasonal succession of different tree branches used to deck halls and tables (early flowering box, then yew blossom, then birch catkins). In ‘The Darkling Thrush’ Hardy, with his inimitable knack of noting the tiny, significant incident, sees the ‘full-hearted evensong of joy’ from the aged bird, ‘frail, gaunt and small’, as signalling the end of winter. Finally Roger McGough offers a splendid boxing match between Winter and Spring, its knockout countdown listing all Spring’s coming pleasures—tadpoles and ‘mad march hares’, ‘scallywaggy clouds’ and ‘any amount of lettuce’. For though Cowper is right that winter is ‘king of intimate delights’, there is no doubt that after it has traipsed on for months on end we feel, as Gerard Manley Hopkins famously did, that ‘nothing is so beautiful as spring’.
Gerard Manley Hopkins
Nothing is so beautiful as spring.
Notes by Christina Hardyment
The music on this CD is taken from the NAXOS Catalogue
FIELD Piano Music Volume 1 Nocturne No 6 in F major
FIELD Piano Music Volume 1 Nocturne No 2 in C minor
FIELD Piano Music Volume 2 Sonata in C minor
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