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 


A Meditation on Simple Things

In the past few months things have been drastically stripped back. Where we have come to expect choice, variety and preference, these have been replaced all of a sudden by a narrowing of options: we must rely on what we can get. But in the process I’m sure it’s highlighted how complicated our lives had become, and the lengths to which we were prepared to go to satisfy what we had become accustomed to identifying as our desires or needs.

All this has made me want to connect to something tangible, the consistency of which has survived longer than the inventions of our own generation. I began to look out for those things which have brought humans pleasure, solace and sustenance over the centuries. For tangible things are still vitally important to the human schema. We are not just beings of spirit, but beings who need to be able to reach out and touch the world of which we are a part.

This is my own little list of ‘essentials’. 

I am not so interested in the breath as a placeholder for neutrality. But I do like how it provides a sign of the function of the whole. William Wordsworth writes of ‘the breath and harmony of music’: that which holds it together, and sustains each note and phrase. The breath is the architecture. It is the simplest, most constant and most flexible part of the composition. 

I imagine that bread looks and tastes different depending on where you live or where you come from. This has probably long been the case. But its meaning must be the same: it fills the hole that hunger has left, and it is good for sharing. The dough or the loaf must always be broken into pieces or portioned out so that there is enough for everyone. It is a wonderful gift, keeping us linked to the earth and to the grains which it nourishes into life.  

In Imtiaz Dharker’s poem ‘Blessing’, rain can only be imagined: ‘the small splash, echo / in a tin mug’. The noise is what is missing in the time of drought. The sound of rain must be one of its great pleasures. Sometimes pattering, sometimes drumming down onto the earth. Rain reminds us of all the happenings outside of our own control. It commands the space, before withdrawing again. And the best times, I think, are when we least expect it. 

In Emily Dickinson’s poem the everyday is no less remarkable for being everyday: ‘I have seen the Sun emerge / From His amazing House / And leave a Day at every Door …’ In Greek mythology, the sun god was represented as emerging with the dawn on a horse-drawn chariot to ride across the expanse of the sky. Without this image in mind, we may perhaps be less inclined to look to the body that is doing the bestowing for any sense of company or intention. But Dickinson helps us to feel this bestowing once again, as if on one occasion she was able to observe it all anew: with eyes that could be genuinely amazed.

Candles have become a luxury item now that we no longer need them to see in the dark. They captivate now with the scents and colours that have been added to the wax. But the image of a flame in the darkness has an enduring resonance. A single flame flickers, and wavers. It is alive and moves. It bends, and remains steady.  

Colour lends meaning to what we see, but it is also a gift in that, like music, it does not have to denote a particular meaning. The colour of a flower for example simply shines forth; it is part of its identity. In the same way, colour speaks to me of choice. Its very existence gives us a reason to be creative, while choosing between different dyes, paints, crayons or inks, or picking clothes, flowers or food. To be in possession of colour is to know a kind of richness. 

I am trying to think as widely as possible: the tin bath in front of the fire; the ritual baths that are used for instance in Judaism or Hinduism; public baths; open pools and rivers. Across time, people have found a way somehow to honour the body’s need for relief and immersion in this other element. Surrounded by water, there is not an awful lot that can be done, except to move, to be still, and to be.

It is a detail such as this that brings the literary text of the Bible to life for me. In the preceding verses, the whole cast of Jacob’s future life has been set in motion as a result of the directions of his father Isaac. But then Jacob embarks on a journey to Haran, and because the sun sets while he is on his way, he stops at the place he has come to, ‘took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.’ Who knew that pillows were so important? Clearly we have been needing a place to rest our head for about as long as we can remember. 

Image by klimkin from Pixabay

Words: with and without

“Hope” is the thing with feathers – 
That perches in the soul – 
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all – 
Emily Dickinson

I have a hunch that these lines may not be, as at first they seem, an attempt to define “hope” as something to which one can point as a verifiable and distinct entity. This brings me back instead to the sense that I don’t really know what hope is. Hope in what? For what? Who has it, and why, and how? 

Hope is the “thing” we start off with. Because according to Dickinson, it is what we know even as pre-linguists, in our first and original wordless state. 

Babies go for months without uttering what we can really describe as a word. I find this fascinating. There is a stage during which, as little human beings, we have no need for words, and do not feel the lack of them. 

Children and birds are related, somehow. They are the lovers of song. Small enough not to worry about their place and size in the world. Flexible enough to flit here and there, to move and wobble and balance and not stay put. To sing the tune and follow the notes without needing to know the chords, nor reach a final end point.

And yet, whilst we can’t go back to being children, this ‘thing with feathers’ is the part of us that ‘never stops’. ‘At all.’ It doesn’t sing about anything that can be defined, or pinned down. But it sings. Oh hell, it sings. 


How do I reconcile this then, with The Word? Why bother with language? Why ‘progress’ to books?

I guess purely because it allows us to speak to one another. Whether we’re physically present to one another or not. The Word spoken and written. The Word inscribed on stone and smashed to pieces. The Word that had to be repeated, repeated, repeated, in different voices, in order to stay alive. The Word that was buried, over and over, and encased in wood and board, until someone should find it and bring it once more into the light of day.

Otherwise, books become a burden. The heaviness of them, their weight. The way they sit there, unread. 

And the heaviness, the difficulty, starts early. What on earth is one meant to do with a book?! How bring the book to the child, or indeed the child to the book? How attempt this when books cannot yet mean what they say, when there is no knowing yet that books carry meaning? 

To the parent asking such questions, for whom the advice about reading every day to your baby doesn’t yet feel realistic or practical enough, I would say: don’t panic. I know the advice is ‘it’s never too early’, but really – she will find it in her own time. 

It starts with turning the page. It was when, one day, having been left to her own devices for a moment, we returned to her turning page after page of a board book that we knew something had clicked. You can do something with books; they aren’t just static objects. And you can see something different if you turn the page, something perhaps unexpected or new.

But there is no reason, yet, why the pages should go from left to right. So you may find yourself going backwards for some time. And words and writing don’t yet exist, so there may not be time for any reading, try as you may. 

For now, the books that work have at most one short sentence per page; bold, colourful pictures without too much detail; new characters to be met on each new page; and something to touch or hold onto – but not necessarily flaps as they’re in danger of being yanked out or torn!

And so it begins. The world opens up, and wherever the book has come from, it finds now another reader. 

Image by fokustier from Pixabay