Five classic poems for January
January is, famously, a month of new beginnings, named after the Roman goddess Janus, that literally two-faced (or two-headed) deity who faced both backwards and forwards, recalling the past even while she looked ahead to the future. January is also – at least if you’re in the upper end of the northern hemisphere – pretty cold and wintry. Here are five of the very best poems for the month of January.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘January’. ‘For January I give you vests of skins, / And mighty fires in hall, and torches lit; / Chambers and happy beds with all things fit…’ This is how this sonnet by the Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti – brother of Christina – begins, with its celebration of the month of January. It’s a shamelessly idealistic and idyllic picture of wintry and windy January, but at this time of year it’s nice to be reminded of the upside of the cold weather and the long, dark nights. (Apologies to readers in the southern hemisphere here!)
Hilaire Belloc, ‘January’. Although he’s best-remembered for his cautionary tales for children, such as ‘Matilda’, Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) also wrote lyric poems, such as this sonnet. ‘The governing dark’s begun’, he announces, ominously, in this poem that contemplates January as a month ruled by death, and the shadow of ‘the undefeated enemy’.
William Carlos Williams, ‘January’. This short poem by one of the most famous American modernist poets shows Williams defying the wintry elements outside his window, challenging the January wind to ‘play louder’, as it will not succeed in breaking his spirit.
R.S. Thomas, ‘January’. This seven-line nature poem by one of Wales’s greatest poets focuses on the visceral image of a wounded fox crawling through the white snow, its crimson blood dripping into the pitiless snow. Reminiscent of Ted Hughes in theme but written in Thomas’s own distinctive style, ‘January’ is another dark take on the first month of the year.
Anne Sexton, ‘Letter Written During a January Northeaster’. Wind and snow loom large again in this classic January poem, written by one of twentieth-century American poetry’s most distinctive voices, that of the confessional poet Anne Sexton (1928-74). Taking a form of a letter written to an unidentified beloved during the cold month of January, ‘Letter Written During a January Northeaster’ was first published in the Hudson Review in 1962 and dwells on the struggle to live day by day (pace Morrissey, for Sexton every day is like Monday), as well as the heartbreak of not receiving any letters from Sexton’s ‘dearest’ addressee.
If you enjoyed this pick of the greatest poems for January, you might also like these classic winter poems and our pick of the best poems for New Year. Alternatively, move forward in the year a little with these classic poems for February. If you’re looking for a good anthology of poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse, edited by Sir Christopher Ricks.
Image: Ice-skating illustration from an 1820s print titled ‘January’, via Wikimedia Commons.