The best poems about winter from Shakespeare to Sylvia Plath
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 click on 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.
Thomas Hardy, ‘The Darkling Thrush‘. 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.
Anonymous, ‘Wynter wakeneth al my care‘. This medieval lyric didn’t feature in our pick of ten great medieval English poems, but it easily could have. 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.
Christina Rossetti, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter‘. 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.)
Emily Dickinson, ‘It sifts from leaden sieves‘. 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’? 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.)
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 97. 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.
Louis MacNeice, ‘Snow‘. This short poem from one of the ‘pylon 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.’ MacNeice also features in our pick of great London poems.
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. (We’ve picked ten classic poems about spring here.)
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.
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.
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. You might also enjoy our pick of the best cat poems. For a change of season, check out our pick of some (altogether hotter) classic summer poems.
Our new book, Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape, is out now, published by John Murray. More about the book can be found here.