Emily Dickinson: Winter Poems

Happy winter to you, readers, in what must surely be the strangest, and for some, the darkest holiday season we have ever experienced. It’s hard to believe it has been almost a year since those first scattered reports about a new virus loose in the world. Here in California, we’ve been locked down with a curfew since early November. Somehow, it is easier to bear in this cooler season when the siren call of the outdoors is more muted. Confinement is easier, also, knowing that vaccines are coming, that there is an end date. So far, I’ve been holding loneliness and cabin fever at bay by scheduling regular Zoom meetings, taking socially distanced walks with friends, and doing online community events like the nationwide collective reading of War and Peace (#tolstoytogether), sponsored by A Public Space.

All of that works, some of the time. What has mostly sustained me these last nine months, however, is my work and its quietly relentless deadlines, including writing these columns. Another source of solace has been poetry; reading, studying, and writing it has been the heartbeat of my days. With that in mind, this week’s column will present some poetry for you: a selection of winter poems by Emily Dickinson, plus links to other holiday poetry collections online.

Born in 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts, Emily Dickinson attended the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for one year then returned home to live in near seclusion, maintaining active correspondences with other writers but spending most of her time with her family. Her poetry, written in her room or on scraps of paper kept in her apron pockets, was prolific but mostly unknown during her lifetime. It was influenced by Dickinson’s reading of the 17th-century Metaphysical poets, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and John Keats, as well as by her upbringing in a conservative Puritan New England town. Dickinson published only a few poems while she was alive, and some of her work reflects a love/hate posture towards fame and recognition.

Dickinson’s first book came out after she died in 1886, when her sister-in-law discovered forty handstitched and ribbon-tied volumes in a trunk in her room. These “fascicles,” as they were called, included nearly 1,800 poems, handwritten and characterized by unusual capitalizations and dash-like marks. In the first printing, editors sometimes regularized stanza structure, punctuation, and syntax in the poems or changed their sequence, in many cases altering meaning. The current standard version, The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson (Belknap Press 1981), attempts to re-create Dickinson’s intent, restoring her dashes and her original order of poems. [poets.org].

It seems that Dickinson was not encouraged to read the work of her contemporary, Walt Whitman, but many critics today connect these two poets as the original authors of a uniquely American voice in poetry. Their styles are quite different—Dickinson’s abstractions, her spare, slant musicality, and her introversion contrast dramatically with Whitman’s expansive lines, concrete subjects, and grandiose tendencies. Dickinson’s subjects are humble, drawn from her local physical world and the rich landscape of her own psyche, and her unique genius is the way she uses them to explore universal ideas and themes. Known for her compression, creative syntax, and brilliant and unusual diction, Dickinson coined the adage “tell it slant,” a phrase that describes her own work and has come to define what the best poetry aims to do. [source: poets.org]

Here’s a lighter-than-usual Dickinson poem about the feeling of effervescence and joy occasioned by seeing a snow flurry:


Snowflakes (45)

I counted till they danced so
Their slippers leaped the town –
And then I took a pencil
To note the rebels down –
And then they grew so jolly
I did resign the prig –
And ten of my once stately toes
Are marshalled for a jig!

Most of Dickinson’s poems are in ballad or hymn meter alternating iambic lines of four beats with lines of three beats, but this short lyric uses iambic trimeter, with three strong beats in every line: “I counted till they danced so.” The rhyme pattern is ABAB with several slant rhymes (for example, “danced so” / “pencil”) subbing in for full rhymes at the ends of lines. In the plot of this poem, a speaker begins her observations soberly, attempting to capture and classify, first by counting the snowflakes. Even at this stage, though, she is already seduced, as we know from verbs like “danced so” and “leaped.” Who can read those lines without feeling a jolt of joy?

Fighting the urge to succumb to delight, the speaker rebukes the snowflakes for being “rebels” and tries to subdue their insurgence by getting them down on paper (drawing or writing) with a pencil. In the middle of the poem (line 5) comes a turn signaled by the word “and,” the point where delight begins to win. Finally cajoled to stop being a stick-in-the-mud (“resign the prig”),the speaker is not, in the end, quite yet dancing herself. However, she clearly wants to, and is flexing her toes in readiness.

This next winter poem is more serious, subtle, and profound, and like many of Dickinson’s poems, death is its subtext.



Snow beneath whose chilly softness
Some that never lay
Make their first Repose this Winter
I admonish Thee

Blanket Wealthier the Neighbor
We so new bestow
Than thine acclimated Creature
Wilt Thou, Austere Snow?


Here, hymn meter alternates iambic tetrameter with iambic trimeter lines. The rhyme scheme (ABCA CDCD) is looser than in the poem above, but it also relies on slant (“Neighbor” / “Creature”) as well as full rhymes (“bestow” / “Snow”) at the ends of lines. Its two short stanzas convey tenderness mixed with grief and humility before the fact of death.

Here, a speaker directly addresses “Snow,” personified as a creature with the agency and power to cover gravesites. The syntax is complex, but it unravels into a request asking Snow this year to take more than its usual care with this task. The speaker wants the Snow to take extra steps to “blanket” new graves of the recently dead, the ones who “Make their first Repose this Winter.” In the first stanza, the speaker’s tone scolds (“I admonish thee”), and in the second it pleads (“Wilt thou?”). Note how her form of address also changes, from simply “Snow” to the more formal “Austere Snow,” with the latter showing more humility and respect.

I have loved this deceptively simple poem for a long time, but this year—with COVID causing more than a million deaths worldwide—the idea of all those new graves covered for the first time by snow has a newly profound and moving significance. We are all too familiar now with those burned-into-the-brain images of refrigerator-truck mortuaries, mass graves, and coffins stacked in Italian churches. What can one do or say in the face of such massive suffering and loss? This poem finds a way and does it with a tenderness that fills my eyes every time I read it.


Winter under cultivation (1707)

Winter under cultivation
Is as arable as Spring.


This poem, even shorter than a haiku, makes me think of my winter garden here in California where it is possible to pick cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and kale in January, and other vegetables year-round. The winter garden can seem not worth the effort as growth is slow and yields are low, but when I bother to put a winter crop in, it yields. It occurs to me that the same idea could apply to confinement. In the last few months, I’ve learned to appreciate a travel-free and social-commitment-free schedule that affords more hours for solitude, reading, and thinking. Now that the pandemic apparently has an end date, I’ve been trying to recast these remaining months of lockdown as an opportunity to accomplish something, maybe a writing project. It’s also the last chance to experience and fully feel a solitude I could not, before COVID, even have imagined. Solitude is not always a bad thing, especially for creative work.

Anyway, I like the idea that winter’s bleak austerity can be offset by creative industry (“cultivation”) and is itself “arable”—that is, the source and raw material of generation of new life.


Winter is good — his Hoar Delights (1316)

Winter is good — his Hoar Delights
Italic flavor yield
To Intellects inebriate
With Summer, or the World —

Generic as a Quarry
And hearty — as a Rose —
Invited with Asperity
But welcome when he goes.


This poem is classic Dickinson, rendered in hymn meter with a few polysyllabic words (“italic,” “Intellects,” “inebriate,” “Generic,” and “Asperity”) spicing up the otherwise markedly plain diction. Like other Dickinson poems, its syntax is complex and often inverted (“Intellectuals inebriate”), and it features an ABAB rhyme pattern varied by the use of slant rhyme (“yield” / “world”). The basic idea is that Winter is a good, stringent (“italic”) antidote to a soul or mind gone soft (“inebriate”) with the delights and luxuries of easy living, whether in a softer season (“Summer”) or more generally in “the World.” The essential conflict is between work and play, and the poem’s view is that work provides its own source of joy and a corrective tonic to the overindulgence of the warmer seasons.

Metaphorically speaking, the hard times are what make the easier times sweet, and perhaps even what makes them possible because it is easier to work in the winter when there are fewer distractions. The qualities of Winter (or more generally, of privation) are its implacable erasures of individuality (“Generic as a Quarry”) and its healthiness—it is good for you, like medicine. After times of excess, we need a kind of spiritual digestif, and so we “invite” winter in quite readily (“with asperity”). However, as anyone who has endured “mud season” in New England will tell you, winter is the guest who is most welcome “when he goes.”



The next Poetry Sunday column comes after New Year’s Day, but here are two columns previously written for that day: Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Burning the Old Year” on 12/31/17 and Kathryn Stripling Byer’s “New Year’s Eve” on 12/30/18.

In the meantime, we at Poetry Sunday wish you all a Happy New Year. My resolution is to never again take for granted the ability to see friends and family—especially my children—in person. I also resolve never to take for granted things that seemed like “givens” before, like having food and shelter and being able to move freely in the world.

Here’s to hoping 2021 will at least be an improvement on 2020. Here’s to hoping we can learn to live and work together under a new president. Here’s to getting the vaccine and things returning to normal, or something closer to normal than this. Here’s to the poll workers and judges, Republicans and Democrats alike, who braved COVID to ensure a fair election. And finally, here’s to the frontline workers, medical and otherwise, who have risked their very lives to safeguard Americans this past year. Happy Holidays, readers, and see you in 2021!


Poetry Sunday Columns featuring holiday or winter poems, including two more by Emily Dickinson:

Susan Spear, “Turning” and “December
Emily Dickinson, “As Imperceptibly as Grief
Emily Dickinson, “Dear March – Come in
Catherine Staples, “Earth and Sky
Mary Jo Salter, “Advent
Barbara Crooker, “Solstice
Annie Kim, “More Words for Snow
Natasha Trethewey, “Incident
Therese Halscheid, “The Yukon Quest
Kathryn Stripling Byer, “Solstice
Toi Derricotte, “Christmas Eve: My Mother Dressing
Christina Rossetti, “In the Bleak Midwinter
Margaret Hasse, “Radiance


Poem Collections about winter or the holidays:


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