Thanksgiving’s coming up and there’s a definite chill in the air — so we thought we might warm ourselves by sharing ten of our favorite poems to accompany frosty mornings and leaf-shaking nights. Some of these poets’ speakers delight in snow and cold, and some get thoroughly depressed. A wintry mix, as it were. Curl up and read this near your favorite fire!
“My November Guest,” Robert Frost
Honestly, we could do a whole just of Frost’s winter and autumn poems, but this one, in which Frost personifies his seasonal depression, is particularly gorgeous.
My sorrow, when she’s here with me, Thinks these dark days of autumn rain Are beautiful as days can be; She loves the bare, the withered tree; She walks the sodden pasture lane.
Her pleasure will not let me stay. She talks and I am fain to list: She’s glad the birds are gone away, She’s glad her simple worsted gray Is silver now with clinging mist.
The desolate, deserted trees, The faded earth, the heavy sky, The beauties she so truly sees, She thinks I have no eye for these, And vexes me for reason why.
Not yesterday I learned to know The love of bare November days Before the coming of the snow, But it were vain to tell her so, And they are better for her praise.
Sonnet 73, William ShakespeareHow could we not include this classic 14-line ode to the way those bare trees make us contemplate our own inevitable ends?
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. In me thou see’st the twilight of such day As after sunset fadeth in the west, Which by and by black night doth take away, Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest. In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire That on the ashes of his youth doth lie, As the death-bed whereon it must expire, Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by. This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong, To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
“Autumn,” by Grace Paley
Paley’s dissection of traditional fall imagery is poetic perfection.
1 What is sometimes called a tongue of flame or an arm extended burning is only the long red and orange branch of a green maple in early September reaching into the greenest field
“Called into Play,” A. R. Ammons, 1926 – 2001
A meta poem about looking for inspiration after the leaves have fallen.
Fall fell: so that’s it for the leaf poetry: some flurries have whitened the edges of roads
and lawns: time for that, the snow stuff: & turkeys and old St. Nick: where am I going to
find something to write about I haven’t already written away: I will have to stop short, look
“God’s World,” Edna St. Vincent Millay
Millay was in love with the grey world despite its sadness. This poem encapsulates her trademark carpe diem attitude.
O world, I cannot hold thee close enough! Thy winds, thy wide grey skies! Thy mists, that roll and rise! Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff! World, World, I cannot get thee close enough! Long have I known a glory in it all, But never knew I this; Here such a passion is As stretcheth me apart,—Lord, I do fear Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year; My soul is all but out of me,—let fall No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.
“In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” W.H. Auden
The classic modernist elegy is also a description of darkest winter.
He disappeared in the dead of winter: The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted, And snow disfigured the public statues; The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day. What instruments we have agree The day of his death was a dark cold day.
Far from his illness The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests, The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays; By mourning tongues The death of the poet was kept from his poems.
But for him it was his last afternoon as himself, An afternoon of nurses and rumours; The provinces of his body revolted, The squares of his mind were empty, Silence invaded the suburbs, The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.
“Chanson de l’Automne,” Paul Verlaine
Listen to this song in French by Marlène Dietrich for perfection of sound. (Scroll down for translation.)
Les sanglots longs Des violons De l’automne Blessent mon coeur D’une langueur Monotone.
Tout suffocant Et blême, quand Sonne l’heure, Je me souviens Des jours anciens Et je pleure
Et je m’en vais Au vent mauvais Qui m’emporte Deçà, delà, Pareil à la Feuille morte.
When a sighing begins In the violins Of the autumn-song, My heart is drowned In the slow sound Languorous and long Pale as with pain, Breath fails me when The hours toll deep.
My thoughts recover The days that are over, And I weep. And I go Where the winds know, Broken and brief, To and fro, As the winds blow A dead leaf.
“Those Winter Sundays,” Robert Hayden
I have always loved teaching kids this heartbreaking poem about the retroactive wisdom afforded by time.
Sundays too my father got up early and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, then with cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather made banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. When the rooms were warm, he’d call, and slowly I would rise and dress, fearing the chronic angers of that house, Speaking indifferently to him, who had driven out the cold and polished my good shoes as well. What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?
“Ode to the West Wind,” Percy Bysshe Shelley
Shelley hit peak Romantic awesomeness with this wild ride of a poem.
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being, Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red, Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou, Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low, Each like a corpse within its grave, until Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow
Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill (Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air) With living hues and odours plain and hill:
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere; Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!
“Winter Poem,” Nikki Giovanni
A lovely short poem about the initial joy we experience in the face of falling snow (in the traditionof Frost’s “Dust of Snow”).
once a snowflake fell on my brow and i loved it so much and i kissed it and it was happy and called its cousins and brothers and a web of snow engulfed me then i reached to love them all and i squeezed them and they became a spring rain and i stood perfectly still and was a flower