By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Previously, we selected ten poems about fire, but what about fire’s elemental opposite? What are the best poems about ice and icy things, whether the poem deals in literal ice and icy landscapes, or in ice as a metaphor for extreme coldness of some kind?
Below, we select and introduce ten of the greatest icy poems, ranging from the Renaissance to the present day.
Edmund Spenser, Amoretti 30.
My Love is like to ice, and I to fire:
How comes it then that this her cold so great
Is not dissolved through my so hot desire,
But harder grows the more I her entreat?
Or how comes it that my exceeding heat
Is not allayed by her heart-frozen cold,
But that I burn much more in boiling sweat,
And feel my flames augmented manifold …
Taken from Edmund Spenser’s 1590s sonnet sequence Amoretti, this poem opens with a paradox: how come the poet’s fiery desire for his ice-cold beloved doesn’t thaw her coldness, but actually makes her even icier and more standoffish? Similarly, how come her coldness doesn’t cool his fire?
William Wordsworth, ‘Skating’.
—In the frosty season, when the sun
Was set, and, visible for many a mile,
The cottage windows through the twilight blazed,
I heeded not the summons: happy time
It was indeed for all of us; for me
It was a time of rapture. Clear and loud
The village clock tolled six. I wheel’d about,
Proud and exulting, like an untired horse
That cares not for its home. All shod with steel,
We hiss’d along the polish’d ice in games
Confederate, imitative of the chase
And woodland pleasures …
Was Wordsworth (1770-1850) the very first person to write a poem about ice skating?
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Frost at Midnight’.
The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully …
One of the great poems about frost, but also about a myriad other things, ‘Frost at Midnight’ is one of the most anthologised poems by the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834).
Written in 1798, the same year that Coleridge’s landmark volume of poems co-authored with Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads, appeared, ‘Frost at Midnight’ is a night-time meditation on childhood and raising children, offered in a conversational manner and focusing on several key themes of Romantic poetry: the formative importance of childhood and the way it shapes who we become, and the role nature can play in our lives.
Emily Dickinson, ‘Before the Ice is in the Pools’.
Before the ice is in the pools—
Before the skaters go,
Or any check at nightfall
Is tarnished by the snow—
Before the fields have finished,
Before the Christmas tree,
Wonder upon wonder
Will arrive to me …
This poem, from the prolific nineteenth-century recluse and poet Emily Dickinson (1830-86), is about what occurs before the ice comes. As is so often the case with Dickinson’s poetry, precisely what this event is remains only hinted, rather than stated, but she summons the pre-winter season beautifully here.
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 …
‘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.
Christina Rossetti (1830-94), one of the finest poets of the Victorian age, masterfully uses repetition (‘snow on snow’) and icy images (‘frosty wind made moan’) to summon the cold weather of the winter season.
Robert Frost, ‘Fire and Ice’.
This is one of the best-known and most widely anthologised poems by the American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963). The poem has a symbolic, even allegorical quality to it, which makes more sense when it is analysed in its literary and historical context. Frost wrote ‘Fire and Ice’ in 1920, and it was published in Harper’s Magazine in December of that year.
It’s one of the great poems envisioning the end of the world, so might be categorised as an apocalypse poem. How will the world end: will it burn up in flames or will it freeze over?
Wallace Stevens, ‘The Snow Man’.
This poem was first published in 1921 in Poetry magazine, before being reprinted in Stevens’s first collection Harmonium in 1923. It is one of Stevens’s most popular short poems, but also one of his most mysterious.
One interpretation of this poem is that Stevens is urging the listener and observer of nature to be a ‘man of snow’: we must possess the qualities of snow (cold, detached, objective, but also ego-free).
Gillian Clarke, ‘Glacier’.
The contemporary Welsh poet Gillian Clarke (born 1937) has written a great deal about ice: she even wrote a whole collection with the title Ice (2012), inspired by the winters of 2009 and 2010.
However, this poem, ‘Glacier’, was published in 2008 and is about a glacier melting in Greenland, which then inspires the poet to think about other changes to the natural world that have occurred (largely due to climate change). She calls for science to find a solution to these problems so that the polar bear and Arctic fox can be saved.
Andrew Motion, ‘Ice’.
Here’s a cryptic and hauntingly beautiful short poem on the theme of ice, from the English poet Andrew Motion (born 1952), who was UK Poet Laureate between 1999 and 2009.
Oliver Tearle, ‘Breaking the Ice’.
To break through nature’s glass door was the one.
That first hit, as the cold embraced your skin
and made a warm cocoon, was like a sun
forged from the iciest glaciers …
Let’s conclude this pick of ice poems with one from our founder-editor, published over on his poetry blog Calenture. The poem is about cold-water swimming at night, breaking through the icy surface of the water and swimming among the bioluminescent fish of the rivers and lakes.