Treasures of the snow

Some mornings I like to devote to reading rather than writing, feeling that since reading itself is chief among the acts of the imagination, it cannot be an entirely healthy thing day after day to employ my most creative hours mainly in the production of my own words. The structure and phrasing of the foregoing sentence may already suggest to the subtler reader in which era I have spent my morning. I started for some reason with Andrew Marvell, who writes so engagingly about gardens and the mind:

The Mind, that Ocean where each kind
Does streight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other Worlds, and other Seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green Thought in a green Shade….
(“The Garden”)


Luxurious Man, to bring his Vice in use,
Did after him the World seduce:
And from the Fields the Flow’rs and Plants allure,
Where Nature was most plain and pure.
He first enclos’d within the Gardens square
A dead and standing pool of Air:
And a more luscious Earth for them did knead,
Which stupifi’d them while it fed.
The Pink grew then as double as his Mind;
The nutriment did change the kind….
(“The Mower Against Gardens”)

Then I decided to try and find poems more appropriate to the season. In English poetry of the 16th and 17th centuries, winter is usually portrayed in a negative light, symbolizing either frigidity and lack of feeling –

Shee’s but an honest whore that yields, although
She be as cold as ice, as pure as snow…
(Sir John Suckling, “Against Fruition”)

or the decrepitude associated with advanced age, as in Shakespeare’s famous 73rd sonnet:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang….

Both sets of meanings are at work in the following poem by John Donne, which I remembered too late to share on St. Lucy’s Day. But in fact it is a solstice poem, since before the reform of the calendar the solstice fell on December 13.

A Nocturnall upon S. Lucies Day,
Being the Shortest Day

‘Tis the yeares midnight, and it is the dayes,
Lucies, who scarce seaven houres herself unmaskes,
The Sunne is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rayes;
The worlds whole sap is sunke:
The generall balme th’hydroptique earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the beds-feet, life is shrunke,
Dead and enterr’d; yet all these seeme to laugh,
Compar’d with mee, who am their Epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers bee
At the next world, that is, at the next Spring:
For I am every dead thing,
In whom love wrought new Alchimie.
For his art did expresse
A quintessence even from nothingnesse,
From dull privations, and leane emptinesse:
He ruin’d mee, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darknesse, death; things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,
Life, soule, forme, spirit, whence they beeing have;
I, by loves limbecke, am the grave
Of all, that’s nothing. Oft a flood
Have wee two wept, and so
Drownd the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
To be two Chaosses, when we did show
Care to ought else; and often absences
Withdrew our soules, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death, (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing, the Elixer grown;
Were I a man, that I were one,
I needs must know; I should preferre,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; Yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; All, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light, and body must be here.

But I am None; nor will my Sunne renew.
You lovers, for whose sake, the lesser Sunne
At this time to the Goat is runne
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all;
Since shee enjoyes her long nights festivall,
Let mee prepare towards her, and let mee call
This houre her Vigill, and her Eve, since this
Both the yeares, and the dayes deep midnight is.

The pseudonymous Restoration-era poet Ephelia makes novel use of winter imagery at the beginning of an invitation to Platonic love, which is worth quoting in full for its novel subject matter, I think. (The complete text of Ephelia’s book, Female Poems On several Occasions, is thankfully now online. I found this poem however in Kissing The Rod: an Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Women’s Verse, edited by Germaine Greer, Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1988.)

To Phylocles, inviting him to Friendship

Best of thy Sex! if Sacred Friendship can
Dwell in the Bosom of inconstant Man;
As cold, and clear as Ice, as Snow unstain’d,
With Love’s loose Crimes unsully’d, unprofan’d.

Or you a Woman, with that Name dare trust,
And think to Friendship’s Ties, we can be just;
In a strict League, together we’l combine,
And Friendship’s bright Example shine.

We will forget the Difference of Sex,
Nor shall the World’s rude Censure us Perplex:
Think Me all Man: my Soul is Masculine,
And Capable of as great Things as Thine.

I can be Gen’rous, Just, and Brave,
Secret, and Silent, as the Grave;
And if I cannot yield Relief,
I’l Sympathize in all thy Grief.

I will not have a Thought from thee I’l hide,
In all my Actions, Thou shalt be my Guide;
In every Joy of mine, Thou shalt have share,
And I will bear a part in all thy Care.

Why do I vainly Talk of what we’l do?
We’l mix our Souls, you shall be Me, I You;
And both so one, it shall be hard to say,
Which is Phylocles, which Ephelia.

Our Ties shall be strong as the Chains of Fate,
Conqu’rors, and Kings our Joys shall Emulate;
Forgotten Friendship, held at first Divine,
T’ its native Purity we will refine.

Some of Ephelia’s poems in a more romantic vein were equally unconventional, such as “To one that asked me why I lov’d J.G,” which contains the immortal line, “And yet I love this false, this worthless Man.” Its opening lines contain a brief, neutral reference to winter weather:

Why do I Love? go, ask the Glorious Sun
Why every day it round the world doth Run:
Ask Thames and Tyber, why they ebb and flow:
Ask Damask Roses why in June they blow:
Ask Ice and Hail, the reason, why they’re Cold:
Decaying Beauties, why they will grow Old:
They’l tell thee, Fate, that every thing doth move,
Inforces them to this, and me to Love….

This précis of Nature’s unknowable order may owe something to the monumental achievement of 17th century English literature, the King James Bible – specifically, Job:

Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow?
or hast thou seen the treasures of the hail,
Which I have reserved against the time of trouble,
against the day of battle and war?
By what way is the light parted,
which scattereth the east wind upon the earth?
Who hath divided a watercourse for the overflowing of waters,
or a way for the lightning of thunder;
To cause it to rain on the earth, where no man is;
on the wilderness, wherein there is no man;
To satisfy the desolate and waste ground;
and to cause the bud of the tender herb to spring forth?
Hath the rain a father?
or who hath begotten the drops of dew?
Out of whose womb came the ice?
and the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it?
The waters are hid as with a stone,
and the face of the deep is frozen.
Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades,
or loose the bands of Orion?
(Job 38:22-31)

Of course, if all else fails in the search for positive winter imagery, one can always quote out of context. John Dryden had something entirely different in mind when he wrote the following lines (in “Astraea Redux,” 1660), but they form an apt conclusion for this all-too-brief survey:

And now Time’s whiter Series is begun
Which in soft Centuries shall smoothly run.


For those interested in pursuing the Ephelia enigma, this site purports to identify not merely the poet, but “J.G.” and most of her other subjects. Other scholars dispute this attribution, some even making the case that “she” was a male poet adopting a female persona.

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