Winter in the Wilderness: Poems to Light the Way

It has been difficult recently to find our way through the days in this strange elongated time of not much happening or changing, even while the world keeps on spinning and making demands of us. I think that is what has brought the idea of the wilderness to mind. But of course 2020 is not the only time we have been there, and in putting this little collection of poems together I have been thinking about what I might myself have needed when I have got lost or stuck in other ways. I am hoping this is a collection I can return to in future, not because it enables me finally to make sense of everything, but because it might give me some thoughts I can work with when I’m not sure where to look next.

I am aware, too, that this month is the season of Advent. This is something I have never fully celebrated in the traditional way, though I often find myself at this time of year wanting to be able to dip into its attitude of waiting and hoping, or wondering and inwardly preparing. As a concept it can feel closer to where I am at than what we get at Christmas, which is the glorious fulfilment of a story that you either have to enter into as a complete vision of the world reborn, or somewhat ignore as a narrative that in its very completeness might feel like just too much to take in. A few of the poems below, then, do speak to the place that such a season can bring me to, although I have steered away from making this a collection about Advent and tried to widen it out further, beyond the themes of faith and belief. 

In the rest of this post I have made a start on thinking about each of the poems, but I will also be sharing some readings of them over the next twelve days, so do follow along with me either on Twitter (@sanityandgrace) or Facebook if you’d like to hear them read aloud. 

1) Among All Lovely Things My Love Had Been, William Wordsworth 

There is excitement to be had at this time of year, as we play the game of spotting the best Christmas lights that we can see as we travel around town at night. But I love how in this poem our attention is drawn to the more humble glow-worm, though Wordsworth’s joy in discovering it does not seem to be any less. The scene, too, is not picture-perfect; it is a stormy night that brings out the earth-bound creature, and yet the storm does not hold any real power to dampen spirits here. 

2) Let my first Knowing, Emily Dickinson

This feels like another love poem, though I am not certain what kind of being is being referred to as ‘thee’. I like the poem better for this openness.

3) Abide with me, Henry Francis Lyte

Henry Francis Lyte wrote both hymns and poems, and though for us these lines now come coupled with the tune by which we know it, the words do hold a particular resonance when taken more slowly or allowed to stand on the page. I like the combination in the five different verses of a deep sense of need, along with a confidence in the one who can meet that need. There is also proportion and an idea of scale: everyday realities are exchanged here for a larger reality in which the threat of darkness, temptation, ills and death can only by met by trusting in someone who is more constant and who survives beyond all of these things.

4) In Memoriam A. H. H., 67 – Alfred Tennyson

Though Tennyson is here addressing the friend he has lost, it is as if the poem finds a way for him to still feel connected in the present to one who in more than one sense now resides far away. What I find hopeful here is that Tennyson is able to experience at least for one night a settled peace, allowing him to sleep, and that this keeps him in time for once with the natural order of things, which in itself is a mercy: as the night precedes the dawn.

5) To my small Hearth, Emily Dickinson

Light here is in itself a kind of salvation, and it seems to arrive unbidden, bringing with it a change that could almost be permanent. 

6) The Old Woman, Joseph Campbell

This is a poem in which stillness has its value. Instead of winter being a time when things are simply dead, here it becomes instead a time to shine. What has been done in the past is sufficient, and there is now no need to “do” any more. 

7) Shadows, D.H. Lawrence

In this poem God is both known and unknown, and the way in which he is known and experienced is continually in flux. But unusually, here, God is in the shadow as opposed to the light: it is as if he participates in the same seasons of shadow that Lawrence goes through, and to which the earth itself is subject. While life itself moves through phases of pain and trouble, the shadowy element brings a kind of cushioning that is able to preserve body, soul and spirit until ‘new morning’ comes. 

8) In Memoriam A. H. H., 124 – Alfred Tennyson

These lines tell a story that can feel almost impossible to tell or to identify for oneself: of what it can feel like to come up against the threat of losing one’s faith, or whatever it is that gives a person that sense of the world holding together. But the lines also give ear to something that only poetry seems to have the right kind of space for. The voice of the heart speaks up, and for a time, within these little stanzas, what the heart says is enough.

9) The Birds begun at Four o’clock, Emily Dickinson

This is not strictly a winter poem, since dawn begins much later at this time of year, but I have included it nonetheless because of what it has to tell us about things of wonder and beauty going on without our awareness, even when many of us may still be ‘asleep’. It is a poem that carries a reminder that there are tremendous forces of life at play, even within the spaces that we physically occupy in the world, and that human life is not the sum total of all that there is. 

10) Light Shining Out of Darkness, William Cowper

These lines might risk feeling too easy, and it could be tempting to gloss over them. But I do, personally, want to retain the possibility that there might be a natural law or pattern at play that is higher than my own understanding can reach. ‘God is his own interpreter, / And he will make it plain.’ 

11) Winter Rain, Christina Rossetti 

I can often associate the rain with dreariness, especially when it is so frequently cold and dark at the same time. But there is none of that here, and as the lines of Rossetti’s poem run on, they compel me to feel that in fact, the more rain the better.

12) The Oxen, Thomas Hardy

This is a poem to come to when the old traditions feel worn out and spent. It revolves around an ‘if’, allowing that the hopeful bit may never be realised, and yet in that ‘if’ there is still always the chance that as the year rolls round again, old feelings might once more be revived. 

Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay 


Patterns of feeling and what lies beneath

Rage is the one I have struggled with the most this past year. And I hesitate to write this because it would be better if the feeling were never there, and more comfortable for us all if we could get on without it. But this ballooning pressure has had a big enough presence for me to want to do something about it now, if anything can be done; at least to attempt to find a way of understanding or coming to terms with it. And so I have sat with these thoughts for about a month, noticing how the feeling waxes and wanes, and how time is starting to take effect.

I suppose the first thing to say is that it is hard to manage by virtue of it being so very private. We are familiar with rage being demonstrated in public, but this is usually of a particular kind: many people have great reason to be angry, and are expending large amounts of energy protesting their cause. But the kind of rage I am thinking of is not socially acceptable, and it is hard to find a safe place to express it. 

In the thick of it, in months past, I started off by googling ‘rage and motherhood’, and had to do this several times just to keep myself from going mad inside my own head. The articles I found went some way towards helping me feel that there might be some cause why I was feeling this way; that the various factors at play and the conditions of this new life had led others to find themselves in a similar place. (To name but a few, from my own perspective: think hormones, the ‘mental load’, the immediacy of a baby’s demands, and the changes in role as one’s family takes on a completely new shape). But it has taken me most of the year to register that there had been someone whose writing I’d read in the past, who had a unique ability to get underneath the intensity of it all. It was the perhaps unlikely and much-maligned figure of D.H. Lawrence. 

What I’ve written so far doesn’t fit easily with the image we would like to have of ourselves, nor of mothers – but this is where I need Lawrence, who was so vehement in his call for conventions to be put aside where he believed that they hindered rather than helped the expression of the human spirit. He simply wouldn’t be bound or constrained by the opinions that others held of him and his work. 

And so as I returned to his novel The Rainbow, I found myself recalling a kind of understanding that the rage, and the conflict, starts further back. Although I don’t necessarily mean back in time, even if it does manifest in that way, but rather the sense that certain feelings on this level could have come up before, in another stage of one’s development. In the book, Anna and Will, a young couple, are still only on their honeymoon when the difference between them – as individual minds and beings – begins to show. It is not that there is anything wrong with what they both want, but that they are geared almost to different frequencies. She is ready to think about holding a tea party, when he is not yet ready to relinquish the intimacy that he has newly found with her, in isolation from everything and everyone else. It is not just a difference of opinion about what they should do with their time, but a symptom of a different orientation towards the world.

Driven by fear of her departure into a state of helplessness, almost of imbecility, he wandered about the house.
And she, with her skirts kilted up, flew round at her work, absorbed.
“Shake the rug then, if you must hang round,” she said.
And fretting with resentment, he went to shake the rug. She was blithely unconscious of him. He came back, hanging near to her.
“Can’t you do anything?” she said, as if to a child, impatiently. “Can’t you do your wood-work?”
“Where shall I do it?” he asked, harsh with pain.
How furious that made him.
“Or go for a walk,” she continued. “Go down to the Marsh. Don’t hang about as if you were only half there.”
He winced and hated it. He went away to read. Never had his soul felt so flayed and uncreated.

It seems so petty, and yet the emotion runs deep. She thinks she is the one who has cause to be irritated, and yet the feelings that are described are all on his side: ‘resentment’ turns to ‘pain’ and then fury. And yet still, the moment feels rather ordinary, until we come to the last line and read of the impact on his soul: ‘never’ had it felt ‘so flayed’. Is that whipped? Does the sting of her words feel that bad? I get a sudden reminder here that the soul cannot be the rarefied part of a human being; it is intimately engaged in everything that we see and touch. It is the vehicle by which we know we are alive, in the most individual of ways.

When these feelings are new – ‘never’ had his soul felt like this before – it can be difficult to know what on earth to do with them. Will goes away to read, leaving behind little indication of the raw intensity of what he feels following Anna’s chiding. But how could he verbalise it? What would there be to say? 

Though he couldn’t know it at the time, this scene will form part of an unfolding process between Anna and Will, one that will be marked by recurring conflict and dissatisfaction on both sides. It often seems during this time as if it could all be over between them, or as if what they had together could all be lost and thrown away, though they are still only a matter of days in. How can something that was meant to be so wonderful feel so wrong? How can you make any sense of the two extremes? 

Lawrence’s comments in his essay, ‘Love’, do help I think in making sense of it. The essay also makes me think that without having a concept or an idea of love – one that is flexible and grounded, as well as aspirational – it is so easy to come unstuck. Lawrence’s theory might not work for everyone; some might disagree with it. But I like the idea that it is there to be tested: 

Love is a coming together. But there can be no coming together without an equivalent going asunder. In love, all things unite in a oneness of joy and praise. But they could not unite unless they were previously apart. And, having united in a whole circle of unity, they can go no further in love. The motion of love, like a tide, is fulfilled in this instance; there must be an ebb. So that the coming together depends on the going apart; the systole depends on the diastole; the flow depends upon the ebb.

How painful that ‘going asunder’ can be! And yet viewed as part of that larger picture, it almost seems as though the pain might not be necessary to the whole thing. The flow and the ebb back and forth is what makes the motion timeless, what sustains it, and lends it beauty.

But it takes time for this new pattern to establish itself, and to become apparent. Until the point when you can accept that this is the way it is, the raw feelings can often be overpowering.

What makes it hardest, I’ve noticed, is when the reaction that gets released in you seems beyond your control, when it starts first in your body or blood, and explodes from there. 

Then he came home at night, and she knitted her brows because of some endless contest between them. As he stood in the doorway her heart changed. It steeled itself.

The reaction has become automatic, embedded; it doesn’t seem to be about just one thing any more, or to come from one particular thought. Something changes between ‘she knitted her brows’ and ‘it steeled itself’. It’s that short circuit that often worries me, the sense that you’re back in a loop that you hadn’t chosen to be in. The moment that should have offered a new start, one of my favourite moments in the day – getting back home after time apart – is here suddenly closed down.

For Lawrence, though, these inner disturbances aren’t discrete, one-off events, as perhaps we might expect them to be. It is not as though there are simply good and bad days that can be summed up in this way. Rather, there is a constant flow of feeling that is never stagnant. It is perhaps hard for us to connect with the deep foundations of this idea, given how we are now so reliant on devices that can be switched on and off, and are trained almost as much in tuning out noises and voices as in tuning in. Often it is easier to turn to distraction than to admit to the strongest of our feelings. And I do believe distraction can help, in the short term, when we need an out. But ultimately, we have to allow ourselves to own what is going on in this individual flow of feeling. It is there to teach us, one way or another. 

Image by Public Co from Pixabay