By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
February is a month of transitions, as the cold weather and short days begin to give way to the nascent signs of spring, that season that is yet powerless to be born. (Here we must apologise to our readers in the southern hemisphere, and hope you’ll forgive our northern hemispherical bias.) Below are five of the best poems for the month of February.
Edward Ward, ‘February’.
This four-line pithy epigram by the satirical writer ‘Ned’ Ward (1667-1731), a contemporary of Jonathan Swift, advises us to wrap up warm (in ‘Drab-de-berry’, a woollen cloth from Berry in France), and drink plenty of sherry as a way of getting through February. Who are we to argue with him? The poem is included below.
He who would, in this Month, be warm within,
And when abroad, from Wet defend his Skin,
His Morning’s draught should be of Sack or Sherry,
And his Great Coat be made of Drab-de-berry.
John Clare, ‘February’.
‘The snow is gone from cottage tops / The thatch moss glows in brighter green / And eves in quick succession drops / Where grinning ides once hath been.’ So begins this longer poem by one of Romanticism’s most distinctive poets and one of the finest nature poets in English literature.
Michael Field, ‘February’.
‘Michael Field’ was actually not one poet, but two – neither of whom was male (or called Michael): the name was the pseudonym used by Katharine Harris Bradley (1846–1914) and her niece Edith Emma Cooper (1862–1913). (They intended to keep their identities secret, but it came out not long after they had told Robert Browning about it.)
This short poem begins by referring to ‘Gay lucidity, / Not yet sunshine, in the air’, neatly capturing the transitional nature of the month of February. We included the whole of ‘February’ (1893) below:
Not yet sunshine, in the air;
Tingling secrets hidden everywhere,
Each at watch for each;
Sap within the hillside beech,
Not a leaf to see.
Ezra Pound, ‘1915: February’.
Pound (1885-1972) sent this poem to H. L. Mencken for publication, but in fact it remained unpublished until after Pound’s death. In his letter to Mencken which enclosed the poem, Pound wrote that he thought ‘1915: February’ had ‘some guts’, but he confessed that he may have been ‘blinded by the fury in which I wrote it’.
It’s certainly an angry poem, about the manufacturing of weapons for the First World War, weaving in monstrous imagery from the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf and early medieval sagas.
Ted Hughes, ‘February 17th’.
‘The setting here is a high slope looking south towards Dartmoor on a very nasty February morning’: this is how Ted Hughes introduced this classic February poem before reading it once. The poem describes the hardships of working on a farm, specifically focusing on the difficult birth of a lamb.
This is a long way from the witticisms of Ward or the altogether more idyllic description in John Clare’s classic February poem, but Hughes’s poem contains a similar eye for detail and doesn’t shrink away from the nastier side of nature.