Christmas Eve, by R.S Thomas
Erect capital’s arch;
decorate it with the gilt edge
of the moon. Pave the way to it
with cheques and with credit —
it is still not high enough
for the child to pass under
who comes to us this midnight
invisible as radiation.
from No Truce with the Furies,1995
Thomas Hardy’s The Oxen’ was published on Christmas Eve 1915 in The Times. A ‘barton’ is a farm building, and a ‘coomb’, as I’m sure you know, is a small valley.
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
‘Now they are all on their knees,’
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
‘Come; see the oxen kneel,
‘In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,’
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
‘ The Oxen’ can either be thought of as a poem in which hope and willingness to believe can be revived, or as one shot through with a sense of disillusionment and the loss of innocence.
When Hardy wrote this poem, the First World War was in the process of cruelly stripping away the illusions and long held beliefs of so many.
T.S Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi’ was written in the nineteen twenties, and it is possible to interpret parts of it as something that might be spoken or thought by a soldier returning to a society that cannot conceive of the horror he has experienced in the First World War. Here are the last lines.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
The hardship and suffering of war are made even harder by extremes of climate. I’m thinking of winter in the trenches of the first war and also of the mountain warfare
on the Austrian-Hungarian border where my grandfather, a Sargent in the Italian Alpini, was wounded in 1916.
Then there is Keith Douglas, perhaps the greatest war poet, writing of his world war two experience in his devastating poem ‘Russians’.
For a different perspective, here is a poem by Joyce Kilmer, written in 1918.
Led by a star, a golden star,
The youngest star, an olden star,
Here the kings and the shepherds are,
Akneeling on the ground.
What did they come to the inn to see?
God in the Highest, and this is He,
A baby asleep on His mother’s knee
And with her kisses crowned.
Now is the earth a dreary place,
A troubled place, a weary place.
Peace has hidden her lovely face
And turned in tears away.
Yet the sun, through the war-cloud, sees
Babies asleep on their mother’s knees.
While there are love and home—and these—
There shall be Christmas Day.
Another Christmas poem, this time from UA Fanthorpe
who wrote many of them, successfully re-working familiar
imagery in her own inimitable style.
What the Donkey Saw
No room in the inn, of course,
And not that much in the stable
What with the shepherds, Magi, Mary,
Joseph, the heavenly host –
Not to mention the baby
Using our manger as a cot.
You couldn’t have squeezed another cherub in
For love or money.
Still, in spite of the overcrowding,
I did my best to make them feel wanted.
I could see the baby and I
Would be going places together.
And here is R.S Thomas again.
The moon is born
and a child is born,
lying among white clothes
as the moon among clouds.
They both shine, but
the light from the one
is abroad in the universe
as among broken glass.
from ‘Experimenting with an Amen‘ (1986)
Here are some horses near my house.
I wrote a poem called ‘Horses’ and decided to open my latest book with it. In this evening’s search for ‘winter’ poems I discovered Neruda’s wonderful poem ‘Horses’.
His, unlike mine, are in a city.
Horses by Pablo Neruda
From the window I saw the horses.
I was in Berlin, in winter. The light
was without light, the sky without sky.
The air white like wet bread.
And from my window a vacant arena,
bitten by the teeth of winter.
Suddenly led by a man,
ten horses stepped out into the mist.
Hardly had they surged forth, like flame,
than to my eyes they filled the whole world,
empty till then. Perfect, ablaze,
they were like ten gods with pure white hoofs,
with manes like a dream of salt.
Their rumps were worlds and oranges.
Their colour was honey, amber, fire.
Their necks were towers
cut from the stone of pride,
and behind their transparent eyes
energy raged, like a prisoner.
And there, in the silence, in the middle
of the day, of the dark, slovenly winter,
the intense horses were the blood
and rhythm, the animating treasure of life.
I looked. I looked and was reborn: without knowing it,
there, was the fountain, the dance of gold, the sky,
the fire that revived in beauty.
I have forgotten that dark Berlin winter.
I will not forget the light of the horses.
From Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon
Translated by Stephen Mitchell (HarperPerennial, 1998)
Then there’s Ted Hughes poem ‘The Horses’ also a winter poem. It begins
I climbed through woods in the hour-before-dawn dark.
Evil air, a frost-making stillness,
Not a leaf, not a bird—
A world cast in frost.
And Roberta Hill’s ‘Horses in Snow’
And of course there is Edwin Morgan’s ‘The Horses ‘ but that is not a winter poem.
I’d like to recommend the poem ‘Christmas Come – An- Gorn’ which you can read by clicking the link which will take you to the Poetry Archive. It is by Trinidad and Tobago born poet and painter John Lyons.
I remember reading recently how trees support one another via their root systems, donating nutrients to those members of their community that for whatever reason are struggling to survive.
The ‘wise trees’ of William Carlos Williams poem have ‘prepared’ themselves for winter.
By William Carlos Williams
All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.
Let’s get up to date now with a poem about difficult gatherings and truthfulness,
from Zayneb Allak’s 2017 pamphlet ‘Keine Angst’ published by New Walk editions.
I implored the ceiling
like Topol in Fiddler on the Roof, only vicious:
Would just one person in this fucking house ever say it as it is?
Later, I bargained with the dark: Help me.
I need one person to say one true thing.
You met me in the morning.
I was bearing punchlines to give you
about the day, the glittering lie.
You said, I’ve started dating guys,
as the café clattered and steamed.
I drew a speech bubble around your words,
gilded it, while I drank my coffee,
listening to you and adoring
your honest mouth.
There was quite a lot of snow last week and my walks brought out a small poem.
I tweeted it for fun and people seemed to like it so here it is again with a painting to accompany it.
The Magpie, by Claude Monet
A crow in snow is more crow
A gull in snow is almost
A magpie in snow is neither
here nor there.