Updated – originally posted in 2017
by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
In the Northern Hemisphere, we are just a day away from the longest night of the year, and then the sun will linger moments longer each day until the Summer Solstice. The tides of the seasons never cease their ebb and flow, always lighting long days for those under the Southern Cross when the Northern Lights dance in our dark winter sky.
There are few poets who haven’t written something about the seasons, which mark the passage of time, and have been used for centuries as metaphors for the growing up and growing old of humankind.
Here are poems on this eternal theme from six very different English-language poets. First up, the most famous and admired poet of them all, William Shakespeare (1564-1616), comparing separation from his “Thee” to a winter blight in the midst of summer.
Sonnet 97: How like a winter hath my absence been
How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
What old December’s bareness everywhere!
And yet this time remov’d was summer’s time,
The teeming autumn, big with rich increase,
Bearing the wanton burthen of the prime,
Like widow’d wombs after their lords’ decease:
Yet this abundant issue seem’d to me
But hope of orphans and unfather’d fruit;
For summer and his pleasures wait on thee,
And thou away, the very birds are mute;
Or if they sing, ’tis with so dull a cheer
That leaves look pale, dreading the winter’s near.
Esther Louise Ruble is something of a mystery. Her poem, “First Snow” appeared in the January 1922 issue of Poetry magazine, but there’s no other information on her at the Poetry Foundation, or anywhere else I checked. So her poem will have to speak for itself.
The night was hiding a secret
When it stole
Through the red gates of sunset
Coming so silently.
We heard it whispering
To the bare trees.
And while we wondered,
The white souls of the autumn leaves
Came softly back,
The information on the poet who wrote this next poem is almost as sparse. “Winter Solstice” appeared in the November, 1927, issue of Poetry magazine, but this is all they have on record about her: “Marjorie Meeker (Mrs. Addison B. Gatling), a native of England and graduate of Bryn Mawr College, now lives in New York. She has contributed verse and prose to various magazines.”
I saw the land of winter grow and change
. . From the first lengthening shadow, the first leaf
Fallen, until the perilous and strange
. . Ramparts of dark, the citadel of grief,
Rose bold and bare – an old ironic quiet
Against whose walls in vain the quick hours riot.
The gaiety of spring and opulence
. . Of summer had been swift as any breath
Of fire or song, in chill magnificence
. . Had passed the gold imperious half-death
Of autumn, every tawny leaf defying
Time’s insolence till all in mold were lying.
O breath of winter, keen as kiss of swords
. . Against the little shuddering mortal flesh,
Trivial as time and futile as men’s words
. . Are the gold bright expediencies that mesh
This warm and fluttering life with lovely treason!
Under all change you are, O winter’s season,
Under all seasons, beyond life and breath,
. . Dark beyond men’s dim creeds and dooms you stand.
Past the frail pause in life that men call death,
. . Loved or unloved, you are that native land
The tumult of whose silences is drumming
Even now the welcome of a harsh homecoming . . .
Susan Cooper (1935 – ), better known as an author of children’s books, wrote “The Shortest Day” for The Christmas Revels, an annual celebration in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The Shortest Day
And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) is now remembered for her poem The New Colossus, enshrined in the base of the Statue of Liberty, which contains the lines, so often quoted when immigration is talked about in America: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” She was born in New York City on July 22 in 1849, the year that outgoing U.S. President James K. Polk became the first president to have his photograph taken while in office, incoming President Zachary Taylor refused to take his oath of office on a Sunday, and thousands of ‘49ers’ were joining the California Gold Rush. Lazarus was born into a large Sephardic Jewish family, the fourth of seven children. She became a prolific writer and poet, but also was an outspoken advocate and activist for the thousands of destitute Ashkenazi Jewish refugees who fled to America from the anti-Semitic violence of the Russian pogroms, volunteering at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and helping to establish the Hebrew Technical Institute. Many of her now-forgotten poems were about her religion, including this one, about Hannukah.
The Feast of Lights
Kindle the taper like the steadfast star
Ablaze on evening’s forehead o’er the earth,
And add each night a lustre till afar
An eightfold splendor shine above thy hearth.
Clash, Israel, the cymbals, touch the lyre,
Blow the brass trumpet and the harsh-tongued horn;
Chant psalms of victory till the heart takes fire,
The Maccabean spirit leap new-born.
Remember how from wintry dawn till night,
Such songs were sung in Zion, when again
On the high altar flamed the sacred light,
And, purified from every Syrian stain,
The foam-white walls with golden shields were hung,
With crowns and silken spoils, and at the shrine,
Stood, midst their conqueror-tribe, five chieftains sprung
From one heroic stock, one seed divine.
Five branches grown from Mattathias’ stem,
The Blessed John, the Keen-Eyed Jonathan,
Simon the fair, the Burst-of Spring, the Gem,
Eleazar, Help of-God; o’er all his clan
Judas the Lion-Prince, the Avenging Rod,
Towered in warrior-beauty, uncrowned king,
Armed with the breastplate and the sword of God,
Whose praise is: “He received the perishing.”
They who had camped within the mountain-pass,
Couched on the rock, and tented neath the sky,
Who saw from Mizpah’s heights the tangled grass
Choke the wide Temple-courts, the altar lie
Disfigured and polluted–who had flung
Their faces on the stones, and mourned aloud
And rent their garments, wailing with one tongue,
Crushed as a wind-swept bed of reeds is bowed,
Even they by one voice fired, one heart of flame,
Though broken reeds, had risen, and were men,
They rushed upon the spoiler and o’ercame,
Each arm for freedom had the strength of ten.
Now is their mourning into dancing turned,
Their sackcloth doffed for garments of delight,
Week-long the festive torches shall be burned,
Music and revelry wed day with night.
Still ours the dance, the feast, the glorious Psalm,
The mystic lights of emblem, and the Word.
Where is our Judas? Where our five-branched palm?
Where are the lion-warriors of the Lord?
Clash, Israel, the cymbals, touch the lyre,
Sound the brass trumpet and the harsh-tongued horn,
Chant hymns of victory till the heart take fire,
The Maccabean spirit leap new-born!
Sandra M. Castillo (1962 – ) was born in Havana, Cuba. She came to America with her family in 1970. Her first book of poetry, My Father Sings to My Embarrassment, was published in 2002.
We assemble the silver tree,
our translated lives,
its luminous branches,
numbered to fit into its body.
place its metallic roots
to decorate our first Christmas.
Mother finds herself
opening, closing the Red Cross box
she will carry into 1976
like an unwanted door prize,
a timepiece, a stubborn fact,
an emblem of exile measuring our days,
marked by the moment of our departure,
our lives no longer arranged.
there is a photograph,
a Polaroid Mother cannot remember was ever taken:
I am sitting under Tia Tere’s Christmas tree,
her first apartment in this, our new world:
my sisters by my side,
I wear a white dress, black boots,
an eight-year-old’s resignation;
Mae and Mitzy, age four,
wear red and white snowflake sweaters and identical smiles,
on this, our first Christmas,
away from ourselves.
The future unreal, unmade,
Mother will cry into the new year
with Lidia and Emerito,
our elderly downstairs neighbors,
who realize what we are too young to understand:
Even a map cannot show you
the way back to a place
that no longer exists.
“Christmas, 1970” from My Father Sings, to My Embarrassment, © 2002 by Sandra M. Castillo – White Pine Press
Almost every religion and culture has some kind of celebration or ceremony involving lights or fires to illuminate the longest night, and mark the time around the Winter Solstice. Whatever tradition you follow, or should you choose to follow none at all, I wish you warm hearts, kind thoughts, and much joy.
- Winter trees
- White leaves falling
- Castle of Segovia Spain in winter
- The Yule Log holiday card
- Chanukiah (the Hannukah menorah) with oil lights
- Aluminum Christmas tree
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud