Tag Archives: poetry

337. The Year Without a summer

The Little Ice Age (yesterday’s post) was vague and questionable in its outlines and origin. The Year Without a Summer was precisely delineated, and there is no question of how it came about. It was the result of volcanic activity.

There is, however, a smaller mystery. In 1808, a very large eruption took place, but no westerner saw it. It is memorialized in ice samples from Greenland and Antarctica, and scientific detective work places the eruption somewhere between Tonga and Indonesia. It began a period of northern hemispheric cooling.

Then in 1815, the largest and most destructive volcanic eruption in human history took place at Mount Tambora in what is now Indonesia. The explosion was heard 1600 miles away. (Krakatoa, a better known eruption in the same region in 1883, was less intense.) Between the mystery eruption of 1808 and the Mount Tambora eruption of 1815, the second decade of the 1800s became the coldest on record. 1816 became known as The Year Without a Summer.

(As always seems the case with science, nothing is simple. 1816 fell within the Little Ice Age and was also associated with a low in the cycle of sunspots. If you really want to understand, I suggest a Ph.D. and a lifetime of study. That will give you some answers and a cartload of more sophisticated questions.)

The Year Without a Summer was disastrous. Crops, which had already been bad, probably because of the 1808 eruption, failed. Famine was everywhere in Europe, followed by typhus. There were massive storms and floods; an estimated 200,000 died in Europe.

In America, the northeast was hit hardest. Frosts continued through the summer. In August ice floated on Pennsylvania rivers. Snow fell in June in Massachusetts. Food was scarce and in 1816 there was no way to move it from less affected regions to those hardest hit. That year and shortly after, masses of northeasterners moved to the midwest, swelling the populations of Indiana and Illinois.

The event left echoes in literature. In 1816 Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, J. W. Polidori and others were storm bound together in a villa overlooking Lake Geneva. A contest of writing ghost stories ensued. Byron wrote a fragment, which Polidori later turned into the first vampire story (The Vampyre), Mary Shelley began what later evolved into Frankenstein, and Byron also wrote Darkness, a long poem inspired by the lightless days.

Here is a bit of that poem, which brings back memories of those old science fiction stories from my youth when the glaciers moved in to destroy humanity.

The crowd was famish’d by degrees; but two
Of an enormous city did survive,
And they were enemies: they met beside
The dying embers of an altar-place
Where had been heap’d a mass of holy things
For an unholy usage; they rak’d up,
And shivering scrap’d with their cold skeleton hands
The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath
Blew for a little life, and made a flame

326. Dogwood Spring

The California dogwoods are in bloom. Today (March 20) my wife and I took a drive along our favorite semi-secret road to see them. The road isn’t really secret, nor even secluded, but it is off the beaten track. People who don’t live on it, rarely use it. We wound through twists and turns, admiring the green fields and placid cattle, down a steep trail to a hairpin curve at the bottom where a vernal creek rushes through a culvert.

In summer, this is a pool and a trickle, but it has been an exceptionally wet spring and the steep hill behind the pool now provides a double waterfall. We stopped. I admired the bounty of water while my wife took pictures of the dogwoods.

Just at the point where the pool empties into the culvert, there was a clump of grass, rooted in a crack in the rock, partially submerged in the rushing stream. You could see that it had only been growing a few weeks, and shortly the water will fall. When that happens, there will not be soil enough to support the clump, and it will die. But for now, the clump of grass was wiggling and tossing in the water, happy as a hummingbird.

This quatrain occurred to me as I watched.

Though the bee did not come,
And the fruit did not form,
            It does not follow
That the blossom lived in vain.

Like any natural poem, you could apply it to a number of situations. Any un- or under-published author will know what I mean.

277. Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
            Robert Frost

Both Dante’s inferno and a comment to Frost by astronomer Harlow Shapley are given as the inspiration for Frost’s poem. I’m in no position to argue with scholars, but for me it reeks of the North, of Up Helly Aa, of Bifrost and Valkyries, mead halls and winter warfare among Viking people.

Imagine yourself there, in your stave hall before the fire. Surrounded by your kinfolk, safe from the howling wind and deep frost outside your walls. Feasting on meat and mead.

Midwinter has come and gone. You have celebrated with bonfires. Now begins the long wait for spring, for the return of the absent sun.

It is a time for feasting, and for the telling of tales. Tales of Frost Giants and the Fenris Wolf. Tales of Odin sacrificing his eye for wisdom. In the great north, even the Gods live a harsh life. See him there in the corner, in the shadows near the roofbeam, just an image carved in swirling smoke, with Huginn and Muninn on either shoulder.

Old tales and new.

Agnar is speaking now. A third mead has loosened a tongue normally silent. He tells of last summer, of the fogs and waves and heaving seas, of cliffs towering black and high, wet with spume and crowned by the massed nests of fulmars. And of the soft coast, the green coast, the coast of Ireland where soft monks in black robes keep food and drink in quantity and spend their days illuminating manuscripts.

Look at the manuscript there, leaning against the wall at Dagmar’s elbow. Drawings of strange men tangled with curling letters that no one in the hall can read. Tales, no doubt, but of what value? Soft tales, by soft monks, without blood or fire.

The monks had no fire, no courage, but they had blood. Agnar and his men set that blood free to wet down the stones of their chapel. A short fight, and much treasure. Not much battle for a Viking’s tale, but sometimes it is good to tackle an easy foe.

Then Fannar raised his hand and hissed, and all fell silent. Fannar’s ears were legendary. He could hear a sword whispering from an oiled sheath, or a fur clad foot falling in a snowdrift.

They all heard, now, what Fannar had already heard. A thump and hiss, followed by another, and then a third. Soft. Almost like a clump of snow falling from a pine.

Or like torches falling on thatch.

There were no windows in the hall and only one door. They had told their tales and drunk their mead in darkness, lighted only by the hearthfire, but now it began to grow light as the thatch above began to glow, and to stare down at them with a hundred crimson eyes.

Then came the shout. Fifty voices if there was one; fifty strong male voices. In Agnar’s hall were nine men, and their women, and their children. The men leaped to their feet together and went weaving and staggering to take up their swords and axes. Hanne, Agnar’s younger wife bent double, placing her body between the child she was nursing and the burning thatch that now began to fall like rain.

Even if nine could win against fifty, the hall was burning. There would be no more shelter and no more food. It took the heart out of a man, and they screamed out their hatred to bring fire back to their blood, so they would not die soft, like the monks of summer.

Agnar threw open the door, axe in hand. Hanne crouched on the floor, protecting her infant a few seconds more, though her hair and clothing were afire.

Agnar plunged out into the frigid night. Hanne curled tighter around her daughter.

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

Take your choice.

274. Solstice: a poem

DSCN4794This is the day that the sun has turned it face furthest away from our northern lands. The veil between the worlds is thin today. Among pagans, there is expectation of visitation from those who have gone on before, and among all men there is an understanding that individuals, like the years they inhabit, have ends as well as beginnings.

Solstice

It hardly seems an hour
since the sun rose up
into the crystal sky.

Now it sinks westward into clouds
like a crimson bird, descending
slowly into gray.

A bitter wind cuts deep.

I was young this morning
and worried already
about the end.

Now that I’ve known
both youth and age . . .
They are no different

Tonight I am cold,
        but I’ve been cold before.
I’ll sleep well under blankets
        that trap what little warmth remains.

Good evening, sun.
I thank you for the day you gave me.
Now the long night begins.


I will see you in the morning
           And if not
That will be all right, too.

272. The Hard and the Soft

DSCN1841Welcome to winter. For northern folk, and that’s what we all are in Europe and America, the coming of winter is an inevitability that rounds out our lives and prefigures the end of our lives.

The poem which follows is not full of summer graces, nor flowers, nor joy. I wrote it in August, when the temperature outside was above a hundred, but it is still a winter poem. I would say I don’t know where it came from, but that would only mean that it came unbidden when I was working on other things. It was committed to paper in five minutes, in its first form, and polished in twenty. That is rare for me.

In truth, I know where it came from, and so will you.

The Hard and the Soft

There is a soft season and a hard season,
And now the hard season has come.

Through the springtime and the summer,
When green was the color of the world,
Fruits of the earth abounded.
Children were conceived in joy
And brought forth in fullness.

Now is the hard season,
The color of the earth is stone gray,
The water is hard and the ground is stony hard.
Children of this season come out hungry
Crying with harsh voices that give no joy,
Troubled by deep hungers that allow no rest.

She was born of summer,
He was born of winter.

They joined together, and she made him whole,
     for a space,
          for a little space.
But now it is the season of cold
And he has turned back
     to his true nature.

271. Here Comes Santa Claus

This is the last of three posts based on The Battle for Christmas, a book by Stephen Nissenbaum. You should read them in order.

Now we are on the verge of Christmas as we know it. Good old Santa Claus is about to take the stage. His midwife will be a group of stodgy old men who hated the rise of the common man, and longed for good old days that never were. Washington Irving was their leader, but a one-poem wonder named Clement Moore would be the one to change the world.

St. Nicholas and his companion delivered presents or coal to the children of Holland, but he never crossed the Atlantic to New Amsterdam. The notion that he did is a common myth, reading subsequent events backward.

John Pintard, founder of the New York Historical Society, played a role in establishing the Fourth of July and several other events as national holidays. He also brought St. Nicholas to the attention of America when he tried to make him the patron saint of New York City. In 1810, he published a broadside that showed a picture and accompanying poem with St. Nicholas delivering presents to children on St, Nicholas Day, Dec. 6.

Washington Irving’s Sketch Book came along a decade later. Everyone knows that Rip van Winkle, from that book, fell asleep and woke to a different era. Not many people remember that he hated the new America he found upon waking. So did Washington Irving and his cohorts, who called themselves the Knickerbockers, and patterned themselves after the old Dutch burghers they imagined to have inhabited New Amsterdam — all based on Irving’s fanciful Knickerbocker’s History of New York.

In the Sketch Book, Irving portrayed Old Christmas in England as a joyful celebration between good masters and their servants. In Knickerbocker’s History, he related a dream which included:

. . . and, lo! the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children. . . .  And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe he twisted it in his hatband, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look, then mounting his wagon, he returned over the treetops and disappeared.

St. Nicholas, giver of presents to children, had won over a group of grumpy old men, but the rest of America did not know him yet. He was still confined to the Knickerbockers who, despite their fantasies, were of British heritage, not Dutch, and were High Church Episcopalians, not post-Puritan religious conservatives.

Clement Moore changed that, not overnight, but over about a decade. He was not the first poet of St. Nicholas. You will find the text of an earlier poem near the bottom of one of last year’s posts. If you check it out, you will agree that it would never have taken the world by storm.

If you read A Visit from St. Nicholas (which I have tacked onto the bottom of this post in case you don’t have it handy), you will see that almost the whole modern Santa is there, repackaged from the Knickerbocker mold, and made charming and familly friendly. It would be wrong to say Moore invented Santa, given St. Nick’s Dutch origins and his twenty year history with the other Knickerbockers, but it would be hard to imagine Santa conquering the world without Moore’s poem.

The only major thing missing is his red suit. We can thank Thomas Nast and Coca-Cola for that.

Could even so charming a poem have so changed the world by itself? It is doubtful. It is more reasonable to see it as a perfect summing up of forces already at work. Wassailing had turned to riot, tinged with felonious assault. Peasants wandering from door to door had become masses of overcrowded urban poor spilling wildly into the streets. A few tipsy peasants had, by sheer population growth, turned into a dangerous mob.

The middle class was rising. Respectability had become something to strive for. Falling from middle class respectablity had become something to fear. Children were no longer just a source of free labor, but were quickly becoming the center of the family. Clement Moore’s poem rode that wave of change into the hearts of America.

Bacchus was still God of the street, but Santa was becoming God of the hearthside. Frankly, I like it better that way.

Postscript: They do it differently in Shetland. I’ll tell you that story on December 26th.

A Visit from St. Nicholas (AKA The Night Before Christmas)
by Clement Moore

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,
Gave a lustre of midday to objects below,
When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the housetop the coursers they flew
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too—
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

photo by By Sander van der Wel from Netherlands (Intocht van Sinterklaas in Schiedam 2009) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

270. Colonial Christmas

puritanchristmasbanThis is the second of three posts based on The Battle for Christmas, a book by Stephen Nissenbaum. You should read yesterday’s post first.

The Battle for Christmas is not about the worldwide history of Christmas, but about American Christmas. The origin of the cult of St. Nicholas, the Christkindl, the black companion to Holland’s Sinterklass, Germanic Christmas trees and the rest are outside its view.

The Puritans of New England disliked Christmas. In fact, they outlawed it. The birth of Christ was of no particular interest to them. They were focused on his death and resurrection, and what that meant for sinners.

That was also the attitude of my childhood church. We had no Christmas services; if Sunday fell on Christmas, the sermon would begin with the story of Jesus’ birth, but would quickly turn our attention to his death and resurrection, with a full complement of fire and brimstone, and Hell to come for any who did not believe.

In point of fact, however, what the Puritans focused on was not their real problem with Christmas. They didn’t like it because it was a drunken party, with sex besides.

It comes back to leisure, full larders, and full kegs, and to the fact that the food and drink did not belong to the poor. It was the larders of the rich which were full. It was the poor who wanted some.

In agricultural times in Europe, it could be said that they wanted their share, because they had traditional rights to handouts during the season. There may have been a time when it was all respectful and friendly, as Washington Irving tried to portray it in Old Christmas (an excerpt from his Sketch Book), but the exchange was always tinged with threat, as in:

Come butler, come fill us a bowl of the best
Then we hope that your soul in heaven may rest
But if you do draw us a bowl of the small
Then down shall go butler, bowl and all

This, of course is wassailing, but it reeked of uppity servants, harrassment of their masters, and a general overturning of authority. Which was part of the point.

In Puritan days in New England, nobody was celebrating the nativity. The Puritans were going about their work, soberly and solemnly, with no acknowledgement of the day. The lower orders, especially the sailors down by the harbor, were making merry. Very, very merry, and the Puritans didn’t like that. They made the celebration of Christmas against the law, and you never make a law unless someone is already doing what you want to forbid.

The Puritans didn’t last, but the raucous celebrations they hated did. Newer, more liberal churches began holding religoius services on Christmas day. That didn’t last long either, the first time around.

A good, old fashioned Christmas is what a lot of people think they want today, but the real old fashioned Christmas looked a lot like what we now do on New Year’s Eve.

It got worse. As society moved from an agricultural base to an industrial one, the distance between the classes increased. The upper classes were less inclined to provide the handouts that the lower class demanded. What had looked like harmless, low level intimidation — not unlike today’s trick-or-treaters — began to look like a social revolution, especially in New York City shortly after the founding of the United States.

The rich stayed home on Christmas and feasted with their friends. It was an adult celebration; children were not yet the center of Christmas. The poor took to the streets. Where else would they have to go? Their all night, loud, drunken partying brought fear to the respectable upper crust. Gentlemen spoke of riots when they referred to the raucous Christmas season celebrations by the poor.

Riot is actually not a bad description of the state of affairs.

These poor were the mob that sometimes worried the staid burghers who wrote the Consititution. They were good at killing the British during the Revolution, but they weren’t respectable. By the late 1820s, the backwoods unwashed would put Andrew Jackson into the White House, and change the future of America. Decades earlier, their urban counterparts were already making life rough for respectable rich folks in New York City and elsewhere.

These rampaging mobs frequently broke into respectable homes, harassed the homeowners, and demanded food and, especially, drink. Wassailing, yes, but carried to a new level. One old wassailing song said:

We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door;
But we are neighbours’ children,
Whom you have seen before.

These new urban mobs could not say that. the story continues tomorrow