By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Winter is a-coming in, so how about some poetry to reflect the season of cold frosts and snowy landscapes? Whether it’s falling snow or cold evenings, poets have often been drawn to the wintry season.
Here are ten of the best winter poems, from Thomas Hardy’s New Year meditation to Christina Rossetti’s classic Christmas carol. As you might expect, snow features heavily in many of these poems, so wrap up warm before you follow the links provided (on the title of each poem) and start reading. What do you think is the best poem about winter? Any suggestions?
If you like these poems, check out our pick of the best anthologies of English poetry.
1. Thomas Hardy, ‘The Darkling Thrush‘.
I leant upon a coppice gate,
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires…
Composed on the last day of 1900 – and also, therefore, on the final day of the nineteenth century (if you follow the convention that the twentieth century began in 1901, that is) – ‘The Darkling Thrush’ takes a single frost-ridden scene, a moment of wintry wonder, and meditates upon its meaning.
Here, Thomas Hardy sounds his characteristic note of ‘unhope’: the speaker wants to share the hope he detects in the thrush’s ‘full-hearted evensong’, but – much like the speaker of Hardy’s Christmas poem, ‘The Oxen’ – he cannot quite find it in his heart to be optimistic. Follow the link above to read the poem in full and learn more about it.
2. Anonymous, ‘Wynter wakeneth al my care‘.
Wynter wakeneth al my care,
Nou this leves waxeth bare;
Ofte I sike ant mourne sare
When hit cometh in my thoht
Of this worldes joie, hou hit goth al to noht…
This medieval lyric didn’t feature in our pick of ten great medieval English poems, but it easily could have, and it’s certainly one of the earliest classic winter poems written in what is recognisably ‘English’.
It’s a sorrowful lyric about the barrenness of nature during the cold winter months, with the speaker turning to God to save him from the hardships and worrying thoughts that grip him during these hard, cruel months – especially the brevity of all life, including human life. One of the earliest – and, for our money, the finest – of all winter poems in the English language. Follow the link above to read the full poem in its original Middle English, along with a modern English translation.
3. Christina Rossetti, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter‘.
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ …
We also include this in our pick of the best Christmas poems, but it’s also a classic winter poem so it earns its place on this list as well. ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ was actually first published under the title ‘A Christmas Carol’, but it has since become known by its first line, especially after the popularity of several musical settings of the poem.
For more Christmas poems, we recommend this excellent anthology, Christmas Please!: 100 Poems on the Festive Season. (We have a short and interesting biography of Rossetti here.) Follow the link above to read the full poem and learn more about its origins.
4. Emily Dickinson, ‘It sifts from leaden sieves‘.
It reaches to the fence,
It wraps it, rail by rail,
Till it is lost in fleeces;
It flings a crystal veil
On stump and stack and stem, —
The summer’s empty room,
Acres of seams where harvests were,
Recordless, but for them…
A beautiful description of the way snow obscures familiar objects, rendering them strange and ghostly to us. Who but Dickinson would have thought to describe snow as ‘alabaster wool’? But the most remarkable thing about the poem is that it never mentions snow by name. It doesn’t have to.
‘It sifts from leaden sieves’ (like ‘It rains’, that common idiom where the precise meaning of ‘it’ is hard to define) captures the spectral beauty of snow much more effectively. We’ve compiled some of Emily Dickinson’s greatest poems here. (We also discuss Dickinson – and the fact that she was more famous in her lifetime as a gardener than as a poet – in our book of literary trivia, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History.) Follow the link above to read the full poem and learn more about it.
5. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 97.
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!
This sonnet from William Shakespeare uses winter imagery to describe the speaker’s absence from his lover. The poem goes on to bring in other seasons – notably autumn – but in the final line winter returns, so we’d say this qualifies as a great winter poem.
Sonnet 97 might be paraphrased as follows: ‘When I was absent from you, although it was literally summer, it felt like winter, because I was apart from you. I have felt cold, the days have appeared dark, and it feels like December everywhere I look, with everything bare and empty.
‘Yet when I was removed from you it was summer – or late summer, early autumn – with the fruitfulness of nature one associates with that time of year. It’s a bit like a lord’s widow, who fell pregnant with her husband’s child but who was made a widow before the child was born.
‘Yet all this abundance seemed to me to be like an fatherless child; because you are free to enjoy summer with all its pleasures, while I – because away from you – have to dwell in winter, when no birds sing. Or, if they do sing, it’s such a sad song that it makes all the leaves on the trees pale, because they dread the approach of winter.’
Of course, the Bard puts it better than that; see the link above to read Shakespeare’s sonnet in full.
6. Louis MacNeice, ‘Snow‘.
This short poem from one of the Thirties poets takes an altogether more traditional subject: the snow falling outside. Worth reading for the astonishing language-use in the fourth line alone: ‘World is suddener than we fancy it.’ We select more great MacNeice poems here.
7. Philip Larkin, ‘First Sight‘.
This short lyric from Britain’s best-loved lugubrious poet is about lambs taking their first steps in the snow, unaware of the ‘immeasurable surprise’ that nature has in store for them – such as the bright brilliance, sunshine, and flowering of spring. Unusually for Larkin, it is a rather upbeat poem, a beautiful lyric about the natural world.
‘First Sight’ describes lambs taking their first steps in the snow, meditating upon the fact that the animals can have no grasp of the world without snow, of the grass and flowers beneath the white wintry canopy that is awaiting them when spring comes. The poem might also, by extension, be said to be about innocence more generally, given that it fuses a number of common tropes associated with innocence: lambs, snow, the new-born.
8. T. S. Eliot, ‘Journey of the Magi‘.
This 1927 poem was originally commissioned to be included in a Christmas card (or pamphlet). T. S. Eliot wrote the poem – about the Magi’s journey to visit the infant Christ – at the request of his publisher, Faber and Faber, who wanted a poem to go inside a series of shilling greeting-cards. Unlike many of his poems, Eliot wrote ‘Journey of the Magi’ quickly.
The poem is about the journey of the ‘Three Wise Men’ to visit the baby Jesus. Told as a dramatic monologue, the poem cleverly includes details that will later have significance in the life of Jesus Christ – the ‘pieces of silver’ Judas received for betraying Jesus, for instance – whose significance the speaker cannot recognise at the time. Listen to Alec Guinness reading Eliot’s poem here.
9. Robert Frost, ‘Desert Places‘.
In this poem you can see why Robert Frost and Edward Thomas got on so well: ‘Desert Places’ shows how much of Frost’s influence Thomas absorbed. Although he’s better known for his much-misinterpreted poem ‘The Road Not Taken’, this is a gem of a winter poem from the aptly named Frost.
10. Sylvia Plath, ‘Waking in Winter‘.
A slightly different kind of ‘winter’, this: a nuclear winter. Written in 1960 and infused with Cold War and environmentalist elements, ‘Waking in Winter’ offers a bleak vision of a post-nuclear winter where the sky doesn’t just look like tin – the whole atmosphere tastes metallic, too. ‘Waking in Winter’ examines the bleakness of a winter created by man rather than nature – of ‘destructions, annihilations’.
If you’re looking for more great poems, the best anthology of English poetry out there, in our opinion is the superb The Oxford Book of English Verse, edited by Christopher Ricks.
Continue your wintry poetic odyssey with these classic poems for January, our pick of 10 beautifully evocative rain poems, our best morning poems, and the ten Robert Burns poems everyone should read. For a change of season, check out our pick of some (altogether hotter) classic summer poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
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I do like the Emily Dickinson, especially that wonderful alliteration in the penultimate verse:
‘On stump and stack and stem.’
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The more and more I read Emily Dickinson, the more I love her. All of these poems are going on my reading list. Thanks!
I love the Louis MacNeice poem!