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Featured Poem: New Year’s Morning by Helen Hunt Jackson

Written by Rachael Norris, 6th January 2020

This week's Featured Poem is New Year's Morning by Helen Hunt Jackson, chosen by The Reader's Learning and Quality Coordinator, Lisa Spurgin.

I will be honest, as I write this before both holidays have occurred – I have always preferred Christmas to New Year. Not just for reasons that might be obvious (food, rest, lovely treats and catching up with friends and family), but it seems to be a more inherently celebratory time. Of course there’s the preparations, which can be stressful, but once they’re done you can sit back with a mince pie/chocolate or two and enjoy the festivities. With New Year, there always seems to be an expectation attached. You’ve got to have the best night on New Year’s Eve, the coming year has to be better than the last. It can feel like a lot of pressure to be faced with, especially if you’re not having a particularly good time of it as it is.

Diving into this poem I find myself immediately comforted by the opening lines. It is ‘only a night from old to new’, which is hardly anything in the bigger picture. Jumping a bit further on (something we wouldn’t usually do so quickly in Shared Reading, so please forgive my exception), the lines

‘Never a night such changes brought
The Old Year had its work to do;
No New Year miracles are wrought’

reiterates the feeling for me that there is no real reason for any of us to pin all of our hopes on this one specified date in the calendar – we can choose to make a resolution or change at any time of the year, and they will often take longer to be realised than one single night or day, which is very reassuring. Saying this, it does make me a little sad to think of there being ‘no New Year miracles’, because, even with my reservations about the grand importance of December turning to January, I do feel a certain optimism in the air as a new year dawns and I wouldn’t like to think that this is merely an illusion.

There seems to be an opposition here between the Old Year, who is characterised by negative aspects such as ‘greed’ and ‘selfishness’, and the New Year, who we don’t actually know that much about, other than that it having a ‘generous hand’. Maybe thinking of the old purely in terms of the bad and things that have gone wrong makes it easier to leave it behind? Isn’t that a rather reductive way of looking at it? I find myself wanting to defend the Old Year here, and argue that it has had good within it – more than it was really aware of – and that it tried its best in what seems like a lot of adversity. In keeping with this defence, I really like the lines:

‘The Old Year’s hopes its heart laid down,
As in a grave; but, trusting, said:
“The blossoms of the New Year’s crown
Bloom from the ashes of the dead.’

For me, that solidifies that there will always be something of the old in whatever is new – indeed, we can’t completely overhaul every part of ourselves – and I find that really comforting. While there might be some certain aspects of myself I might want to improve I certainly wouldn’t want to do so beyond all recognition.

The second part of the poem changes tack somewhat, and I love the positivity the whole part encapsulates, with its message that every night with ‘the healing balm of sleep’ and every morning with the sunrise and ‘new gladness in the sunny air’ is a chance to start afresh. For me that like a real antidote to the notion that can feel particularly strong at this time of year – that if you’ve stumbled over your New Year’s resolution already then you might as well write the rest of the year off.

As we go into 2020, I’ll certainly try to bear this poem in mind and remind myself that any time is a good time to begin again, if that’s what’s needed.

 

New Year’s Morning

Only a night from old to new!
Only a night, and so much wrought!
The Old Year's heart all weary grew,
But said: "The New Year rest has brought."
The Old Year's hopes its heart laid down,
As in a grave; but, trusting, said:
"The blossoms of the New Year's crown
Bloom from the ashes of the dead."
The Old Year's heart was full of greed;
With selfishness it longed and ached,
And cried: "I have not half I need.
My thirst is bitter and unslaked.
But to the New Year's generous hand
All gifts in plenty shall return;
True love it shall understand;
By all my failures it shall learn.
I have been reckless; it shall be
Quiet and calm and pure of life.
I was a slave; it shall go free,
And find sweet peace where I leave strife."
Only a night from old to new!
Never a night such changes brought.
The Old Year had its work to do;
No New Year miracles are wrought.

Always a night from old to new!
Night and the healing balm of sleep!
Each morn is New Year's morn come true,
Morn of a festival to keep.
All nights are sacred nights to make
Confession and resolve and prayer;
All days are sacred days to wake
New gladness in the sunny air.
Only a night from old to new;
Only a sleep from night to morn.
The new is but the old come true;
Each sunrise sees a new year born.

Helen Hunt Jackson

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