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Featured Poem: The Winter Evening by William Cowper

Written by Rachael Norris, 21st December 2020

This week's Featured Poem, The Winter Evening by William Cowper, is brought to us by The Reader's Head of Publications, Grace Frame. To see what else we have coming up for the rest of this month, our December readings calendar can be downloaded here. 

 

 

The Winter Evening

 

This little passage is found in Book IV of The Task, a poem that is made up of six ‘books’ in total. It is a poem that gives itself time to explore a whole range of subjects, and here that space is opened up to depict the nature of our daily lives during the season of winter.

 

Oh Winter! ruler of th’ inverted year,

Thy scatter’d hair with sleet like ashes fill’d,

Thy breath congeal’d upon thy lips, thy cheeks

Fring’d with a beard made white with other snows

Than those of age; thy forehead wrapt in clouds,

A leafless branch thy sceptre, and thy throne

A sliding car, indebted to no wheels,

But urg’d by storms along its slipp’ry way;

I love thee, all unlovely as thou seem’st,

And dreaded as thou art!  Thou hold’st the sun

A pris’ner in the yet undawning East,

Short’ning his journey between morn and noon,

And hurrying him, impatient of his stay,

Down to the rosy West; but kindly still

Compensating his loss with added hours

Of social converse and instructive ease,

And gathering at short notice, in one group,

The family dispers’d, and fixing thought,

Not less dispers’d by day-light and its cares.

I crown thee King of intimate delights,

Fire-side enjoyments, home-born happiness,

And all the comforts that the lowly roof

Of undisturb’d retirement, and the hours

Of long uninterrupted evening, know.

 

by William Cowper

In more ordinary times, we might have a tendency to fill our winter days and nights with special seasonal activities, and festivities. It might almost be a way of distracting ourselves from the harshness of the season. But this year, there is less opportunity to do that, and because of this it feels helpful to be able to read about a Winter that in the natural world brings with it its own restrictions. It is not just that the days are shorter, but ‘Thou hold’st the sun / A pris’ner’ in the mornings". It is a wonderful description of this time of day, when it feels as though the sun should be there to accompany us in our early rituals, and yet it isn’t - it is being held back somehow. When the sun finally does arrive, it doesn’t stay out for long, and I feel very aware this year of the feeling of days starting to die away when they have only recently begun. Although the poem cleverly reminds us that this is not the fault of the sun, but of Winter itself: ‘hurrying’ and ‘impatient’.

Having noticed this, it does seem interesting to look at the kind of ‘ruler’ that we have during Winter. He is ‘dreaded’ but also ‘kindly’. He seems ‘unlovely’, and yet the poet is happy to say ‘I love thee’. I wonder if this helps to capture the different feelings we can have when faced with these particular months. There really is a sense in which we are subject to the conditions that Winter creates for us: the often uncomfortable weather, the reduction in daylight, and the lack of colour in the scenes that we see around us, which can be dominated by white and grey. But while this impression of the unpleasant aspects of Winter comes first, it also feels as though the poet chooses to see what these conditions enable for human beings who might not otherwise be inclined to stop, slow down and pause.

In the last few lines of the passage, it is in being contained that we experience a different kind of richness: ‘intimate’, ‘fire-side’ and ‘home-born’ each indicate a quality of life that can’t be experienced elsewhere. Perhaps we could also say that this is a time of consolidation, even if we are unable to enjoy the kind of ‘gathering’ that Cowper celebrates here. There are so many things that might otherwise rob us of this: ‘day-light and its cares’ can leave thought ‘dispers’d’, and to be ‘undisturb’d’ and ‘uninterrupted’ is somewhat rare. But this is where Winter can bring a kind of blessing that is unlooked for, so that in some ways instead of having to deal with having less, we are mercifully granted more.

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