As the new year begins, I present for you a poem by John Keats, inspired by a cold winter’s wind but encompassing so much more.
The image I’ve chosen to accompany the poem is a famous one by Casper David Friedrich called “The Wanderer Above the Mists”, painted around 1817. Obviously the artist is captivated by the misty mountains, but then why place a person in the very center of the image, blocking our view? And we can’t see his face, we can only wonder at who he is and what he is thinking. It’s this kind of mystery, along with the expert composition and technique, that make the painting great. There’s a bigger idea at work here, a puzzle that the viewer must unravel.
The poem is also open to interpretation, but I won’t even try to analyze it. I’ll let the poet speak for himself.
* * *
O thou whose face hath felt the Winter’s wind,
Whose eye has seen the snow-clouds hung in mist,
And the black elm tops ‘mong the freezing stars!
To thee the spring will be a harvest time.
O thou whose only book has been the light
Of supreme darkness, which thou feddest on
Night after night, when Phœbus was away!
To thee the spring shall be a triple morn.
O fret not after knowledge. I have none,
And yet my song comes native with the warmth.
O fret not after knowledge! I have none.
And yet the evening listens. He who saddens
At thought of idleness cannot be idle,
And he’s awake who thinks himself asleep.
As a gardener and nature-lover, spring is my favorite season. But I’m in no hurry to shake off winter just yet. True, it’s got snow, and ice, and freezing temperatures (at least up north), and everything seems dead and bare. But it also provides a nice break, a time for thinking and looking inward.
In many ways, I find it the most inspiring season of all because of its minimalism. It doesn’t overwhelm the senses with color, it’s not splashy or teeming with distractions. In the winter, a twisting tree branch or a peach sunset can be a small masterpiece. A single red cardinal is like a miracle.
And knowing that nature is only sleeping, that life is still there hidden beneath the bark and under the ground ready to sprout again, can give you a feeling of hope that anything is possible, that any difficulty or situation can be overcome.
So while I’ll be happy when spring arrives, I will still savor the end of winter while I can. For I know that it’s only a temporary situation, and spring is just around the corner.
To kick off this wintry new year, here is a poem by Emily Dickinson, who was no stranger to the outdoors. Throughout her roughly 1,700 poems, she described nature in her own singular way, as someone who has quietly observed it all her life. This particular poem is written as a riddle, never explicitly stating the subject, though I think you’ll guess.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
It sifts from leaden sieves,
It powders all the wood,
It fills with alabaster wool
The wrinkles of the road.
It makes an even face
Of mountain and of plain —
Unbroken forehead from the east
Unto the east again.
It reaches to the fence,
It wraps it, rail by rail,
Till it is lost in fleeces;
It flings a crystal veil
On stump and stack and stem —
The summer’s empty room,
Acres of seams where harvests were,
Recordless, but for them.
It ruffles wrists of posts,
As ankles of a queen —
Then stills its artisans like ghosts,
Denying they have been.
It has been exactly three months since I started this blog, and I want to thank all my readers for their feedback and support. I have lots of ideas for the new year, and here’s just a peek at what’s coming up.
January will be “snow month” at The Untended Garden — all the posts will involve snow and winter. Snow has always inspired art and writing, not just for its visual beauty, but how it changes the way we see nature, making everything seem new. It has also been used as a metaphor in countless ways, as something that both hides and reveals, that protects and threatens.
Another theme that I will delve into next year is the ocean, which is a huge part of our planet (two thirds of it!) and also has inspired writers and artists for centuries.
I will also feature a wide variety of media, including novels, poetry, picture books, drawings, paintings and films that deal with nature. I hope you can join the conversation, as we continue on our voyage of discovery!
Few artists have been more in tune with nature than Tasha Tudor. Not only did she paint the natural world around her, she lived her life as in olden days, growing her own food, raising livestock, and spinning and weaving cloth for her family’s clothing. Her persona and her work now seem so quaint and old fashioned, many people forget what a great artist she was.
This is one of her most famous works, commonly known as “Laura in the Snow.” It’s a beautiful composition that first draws your attention to the girl’s face, then down her arm to the cat, then across the lines of her snowshoes to the other cat, and finally back to her face again. There is also drama in the picture — do the cats belong to the girl? Is she trying to befriend them? And the beautiful spareness of the open snow is a model of restraint. A perfect painting, from someone who has undoubtedly been on snowshoes herself.
Tasha Tudor died last year at the age of 92, and her art will be missed.