Friday, 29 January 2016

The Poets On Winter- George Mackay Brown

Looking through some books, there was a bookmark on this little piece by the late Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown, from 1987:

The Poets On Winter:
'As the the day lengthens the caald strengthens', the old folk used to say, drawing on a great hoard of folk memory. It's true enough. Looking back over many years, January seems always to be the month to be feared, with claws and teeth of ice. It is the month when Robert Burns was born- "Twas then a blast o' Janwar' win' .../ Blew hansel in on Robin'... There is a dark rich magic in this time of year that Burns loved and exploited to the full. It's impossible to imagine his greatest poem, 'Tam o' Shanter', in a summer setting: a storm, with darkness, was essential.
His cantata, 'The Jolly Beggars', is a winter-time extravaganza. He weaves his magic about a winter-evicted mouse. 'The Cottar's Saturday Night'-that pious pastoral- falls in winter-time, when hearts and hearth-stone burn more brightly. Many of his lyrics too, are stoked to winter ardour- 'Oh, wert thou in the cold blast...' Does not the whole world sing 'Auld Lang Syne' at New Year? - though nearly always they get the words wrong.

It may be that high summer is too obviously 'practical' -with abundance of flowers, birdsong, fleeces, honey, sunshine - and poets like a thin soil to work in, so that the beauties of art can vie with the overflowing riches of nature.
The coldness and cruelty of nature is in one of Keats's greatest poems, 'The Eve of Saint Agnes'. He makes a marvellous distillation from the bitter wind, the shivering sheep, the frozen breath of the bedesman that was 'like pious incense from a censer old'.
Possibly the joy of winter for artists is the knowledge that the seed is lying under the snow, with all of summer's abundance locked in it. The waiting and the longing are more wonderful that the consumation.
'Twelfth Night'- that is, January the sixth- Shakespeare called one of the happiest of his plays. Another he titled 'The Winter's Tale': a title to enchant any audience, because it is at the time of darkness and snow that people draw in to the fireside to listen to the old men's stories. Even nowadays, I suppose, TV has more viewers than on lingering rose-scented evenings.
George Mackay Brown.

Paintings one and three by John Arthur Malcolm Aldridge; middle painting by James McIntosh Patrick, 'Winter In Angus'.


  1. What a fascinating piece! I'm not sure I agree with him, but I do think that winter is the season for readers, if not writers. And I love the paintings, especially the Aldridges. I'd never heard of either artists before. You're so good at finding interesting pictures.

    1. Hello, Helen, yes, GMB seemed to have been a summer-loving person and didn't quite get the appeal of Winter for others. I don't think that lies in the promise of Spring, but that it has it's own charms which are not appreciated by everyone. Thank you, I think those are fine paintings too, and by artists I wasn't familiar with before either.