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    Sunday, April 21, 2024

    Book Notes: Winter poetry that you read and ‘the soul’s sap quivers.’

    “A Nocturnall Upon St. Lucie’s Day, Being the shortest day,” John Donne’s cry from the heart on the death of a beloved, a cry mirrored in the darkness of the year’s shortest day:

    “T’is the yeares midnight, and it is the dayes,

    Lucies, who scarece seaven houres herself unmaskes,

    The Sunne is spent, and now his flasks

    Send forth light squibs, no constant rayes;

    …. …. …. … …

    I, by loves limbecke, am the grave

    of all, that’s nothing. …..

    … … … … … …. …

    If I an ordinary nothing were,

    As shadow, a light, and body must be here.

    But I am None, nor will my Sunne renew.”

    But our poems will carry us past that shortest day and our sun will renew as December becomes January. In contrast to his contemporary, John Donne, George Herbert in his poem”The Flower” speaks, in his inimitable way, to the “whole world’s sap is sunk,” and instead offers a promise of life renewed.

    Anthony Hecht, whose Collected Poems edited by Philip Hoy has just been published by Knopf, found this promise of renewal in George Herbert’s poem. He sent a copy to a friend who, like him, was also struggling with clinical depression.

    He writes “I know of nothing more irrelevant than glib advice to cheer up…” and, later in the letter, he continues “There’s a beautiful poem by George Herbert, called “The Flower,” which bears directly and persuasively on the kinds of fluctuation you and I are both subject to.” (The Selected Letters edited by Jonathan F. S. Post p.342)

    Here is the George Herbert poem in part - one that will be familiar to readers of these Notes:

    “How fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean

    Are thy returns! ev’n as the flowers in spring;

    …. …. …. ….

    Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart

    Could have recover’d greenness? It was gone

    Quite underground; as flowers depart

    To see their mother-root, when they have blown

    Where they together

    All the hard weather,

    Dead to the world, keep house unknown.

    …. …. … …. …

    And now in age I bud again,

    After so many deaths I live and write;

    I once more smell the dew and rain,

    And relish versing:”

    Continuing with our theme of winter, we find a different kind of return in the “Four Quartets,” T. S. Eliot’s poem of spiritual exploration of time and place. The first line of the second movement, “East Coker,” is “In my beginning is my end” and the last, “In my end is my beginning”,just one instance of the deeply satisfying circularity that informs the poem’s 190 lines.

    Here are the opening lines of “Little Gidding,” the final movement of the Quartets, with their promise of “Midwinter spring,” lines that echo from the 17th century both Donne’s “The world’s whole sap is sunke,” and Herbert’s “How fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean/ Are thy returns!”, while making a 20th Century poetry that is miraculously new:

    “Midwinter spring is its own season

    Sempiternal though sodden toward sundown,

    Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.

    When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,

    The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,

    In windless cold that is the heart’s heat,

    Reflecting in a watery mirror

    A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.

    And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,

    Stirs the dumb spirit; no wind, but pentecostal fire

    In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing

    The soul’s sap quivers. This is the spring time

    But not in time’s covenant.”

    Reading these lines, each one so beautifully crafted, the “soul’s sap” does indeed quiver. We began with“midwinter spring” and we arrive at “This is the spring time/ But not in time’s covenant.”

    But perhaps the ultimate January poem is“The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens. Like Four Quartets, it is a poem of pattern and repetition created by words and the sound of words.

    The entire poem is an astonishing single sentence, with each of the five tercets at once complete in itself, but linked by enjambments to the following stanza, achieving an energy of forward movement while, at the same time, creating a deep well of stillness. The poem begins with “to regard” and “to behold”:

    “One must have the mind of winter

    To regard the frost and the boughs

    Of the pine-trees crusted with snow

    “To behold the junipers shagged with ice

    The spruces rough in the distant glitter

    Of the January sun; …..”

    And then moves to “the sound” and “the listener” who, in the final lines, again “beholds”, but also now hears

    “….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.”

    Again the mystery of “nothing” to make us pause. But this “nothing himself” would seem to be at peace, not the lost soul of Donne’s poem, “the grave of all, that’s nothing.”

    “Poems” as the late poet and critic James Longenbach wrote, “are works of art that people make out of words” and “a poem creates the moment as we enter it.” (The Lyric Now: 2020 U.Chicago Press).

    Such a moment and such a work of art is “The Snow Man” - the title itself a surprise, two words, not the single one we expect. In the snow man we have a mysterious presence that haunts the whole poem, though never mentioned again.

    But how can we think of winter without Shakespeare and singing along with Amiens in “As You Like It”? The Duke’s attendant who is always ready to take on the the world with a song:

    “Blow, blow, thou winter wind,

    Thou art not so unkind

    As man’s ingratitude;

    Thy tooth is not so keen,

    Because thou art not seen,

    Although thy breath be rude.

    Heigh-ho! sing heigh-ho! unto the green holly:

    Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:

    Then, heigh-ho the holly!

    This life is most jolly.

    Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,

    Thou dost not bite so nigh

    As benefits forgot:

    Though the waters warp,

    Thy sting is not so sharp

    As friend remember’d not.

    Heigh-ho! sing etc.”

    (Act II scene 7 ll.174-190)

    As always, Shakespeare brings the human to center stage. Stevens’ snow man is there too, center stage, “the listener who listens” and “beholds.”

    In this “Midwinter spring” we can look forward to many new events at Stonington Free Library. In October we will be celebrating the publication of James Longenbach’s book of poems that he completed shortly before his death in July 2022, with a memorial reading in his honor by Joanna Scott. Earlier in the season, in May, there will be a tribute on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of James Baldwin’s birth by his friend and biographer, David Leeming.

    I hope you have enjoyed, as I have, this sampling of winter poems, with their promise of new beginnings, as we all step out into a New Year.

    Belinda de Kay is director emeritus of Stonington Free Library.

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