Short Days: Winter Prose and Poems

Claude Monet, The Magpie

Winter is upon us, the season that never fails to bring mixed feelings. To some, it is a shining white world of enigmatic beauty; to others, the short days and lingering cold are metaphors of something darker. Here are writings that voice these ambivalent feelings, each an attempt to distill the essence of what winter means to the writer.

‘Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening’ – Robert Frost

“Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” is a well-known Robert Frost poem that has become a mainstay in poetry classes in the U.S. and beyond. First published in 1923, it quickly became a popular poem to commit to memory and recite due to its short length and mysteriously impactful content. Readers often find Frost’s poem somewhat dark, and many assume that it has something to do with departure or death. Others think the poem is just a dream-like tale of a simple winter scene, of someone passing through and saying a last goodbye. In many ways, it’s a poem that is enjoyed by all for its lyrical beauty.

The poem’s narrative sets up a tension between the timeless beauty of the lovely woods and the pressing obligations of the present moment, leaving readers with an ambilvalent feelinh that is mysteriously beautiful.

Winter Hours – Mary Oliver

The house is hard cold. Winter walks up and down the town swinging his censer, but no smoke or sweetness comes from it, only the sour, metallic frankness of salt and snow. I dress in the dark and hurry out. The sleepy dogs walk with me a few strides, then they disappear. The water slaps crisply upon the cold-firmed sand. I listen intently, as though it is a language the ocean is speaking. There are no stars, nor a moon. Still, I can tell that the tide is rising, as it speaks singingly, and I can see a little from the streetlamps and from the amber lights along the wharf. The water tosses its black laces and flaunts, streaked with the finest rain. Now and again the dogs come back, their happy feet dashing the sand. Before we reach the seawall again, and cross the yard, it is no longer night. We stand by the door of the house. We stand upon the thin blue peninsula that leads to the sharp white day. A small black cat bounds from under the rosebushes; the dogs bark joyfully. This is the beginning of every day.

~ From Upstream by Mary Oliver (1935-2019). Mary Oliver is known for her mastery of words and lyrical poems extolling the quiet of occurrences of nature. Oliver’s poetry won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and a Lannan Literary Award for lifetime achievement. Reviewing Dream Work (1986) for the Nation, critic Alicia Ostriker numbered Oliver among America’s finest poets, as “visionary as [Ralph Waldo] Emerson.”

Winter Woods – Dorothy Wordsworth

A deep snow upon the ground … We walked through the wood into the Coombe to fetch some eggs. The sun shone bright and clear. A deep stillness in the thickest part of the wood, undisturbed except by the occasional dropping of the snow from the holly boughs; no other sound but that of the water, and the slender notes of a redbreast, which sang at intervals on the outskirts of the southern side of the wood. There, the bright green moss was bare at the roots of the trees, and the little birds were upon it …each tree taken singly as beautiful.

~ From a journal entry by Dorothy Wordsworth. Wordsworth (1771 – 1855) is the sister of his more famous brother, the English romantic poet, William Wordsworth. An avid naturalist, Dorothy enjoyed daily nature walks with her brother, and images from the notes she took of these walks often recur in her brother’s poems. Most of her writing also explores the natural world, and shows that she, too, is unsurpassed as a lyrical recorder of nature.

White World – Wallace Fong

Twenty below zero.
Outside, a stiff white world
still shrouded in fog.
It will be dark again
from four o’clock on.
It is beautiful to see
candle lights twinkle
from the windows of homes.
It is beautiful to have
spring flowers in the house.

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